Notes from Fergus Connolly: Performance Optimisation in Elite Team Sport – The Art of Science


Dr Fergus Connolly is a Sports Performance Consultant who has worked in elite team sports from Premiership football and International Rugby, to the NFL and NBA. He has a PhD in Computer Optimisation and specialises in the development of unique effective monitoring, training and regeneration approaches to improving results in team sport.

He gave this lecture at the UK Sport and Exercise Medicine Conference (now the British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine) in 2011. This was one of the best conferences I have attended with a huge amount of high quality speakers on a wide range of topics. My notes from Fergus’ lecture are below in bullet point format.

  • I’m only interested in winning. I work in applied sport science – using sport science to win.
  • Team sports are becoming more like stock market trading than coaching. Coaches are dealing in numbers not people.
  • If every sport scientist were sacked for a season would it actually make a difference to league tables?
  • Rumsfeld was right about “Unknown Unknowns” – there are many things we don’t know yet about human performance.
  • The current ability to measure almost everything leads to the misconception that we know more or less everything we need to about performance.
  • Moneyball or Sabermetrics may partially explain the relatively simple game of Baseball (1 vs 1, Batter vs Pitcher) but Soccer is too complex and variable to apply Soccermetrics with 11 vs 11 and a referee.
  • Sporting Directors claim to have applied Soccermetrics but it is doubtful in practice – just look at many of their purchases – the exceptions don’t prove the rule.
  • Fitness testing and periodisation are extinct – Its now about monitoring and evaluation.
  • There are so many players, playing so often that it changes the way we operate.
  • The challenge now is to stress/train the athlete when they are biologically ready to adapt not just because the schedule says so.
  • Data isn’t answers it just allows you to ask better questions.
  • Data only compares individuals to themselves.
  • Players should have a file listing all injury history and training loads that move with them from club to club.
  • Once you know what a player does in a game the last thing you should do is replicate it in training. Do less or more.
  • In elite sport decision making is the most important regular event on the field.
  • How good the decisions are is determined by the quality of information available and the experience people draw on.
  • The experts are the coaches not the data collectors so information needs to be relayed quickly and in a manner they can understand.
  • Recommended that a European Football Club stop using GPS as they weren’t using the information properly. Will come back to it when they are able to use it effectively.
  • Many of the best coaches were originally teachers (John Wooden, Graham Henry, Vince Lombardi) this is important as many athletes are just well paid children!
  • Coaching is teaching and the skills built up in teaching are incredibly relevant as it is about the manner in which information is conveyed or sometimes not conveyed.
  • The best psychologist in a team is often an experienced Head Coach not a consultant psychologist brought in once a week.
  • Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean its important.
  • You can measure the heart but you can’t measure Heart.
  • The field is now the lab – you need to monitor and track what is relevant for your team – it doesn’t cross over to other teams or sports.
  • Bigger support teams = poorer communication – Follow Bill Sweetenham’s advice, stope sending emails and just cross the room.
  • Sports Scientists start from theory, academic papers and work towards the field where they should start at the activity and work back to science.
  • Coaching is like driving a car – steering, changing gear etc are the automatic functions and art of coaching and you check the dials on the dashboard (sport science) intermittently. You can’t drive just looking at the dashboard.
  • Information isn’t about how much you can produce its how much the relevant expert can absorb. It should be:


  • Everyone is looking for a magic hammer when all they need to do is clean and tidy the tools that are already in their toolbox.
  • Strength & Conditioning Coaches rarely watch the game or sit in reviews but they should in order to develop movement and injury prevention strategies.
  • Da Vinci should be the role model for sport scientists as he was the perfect blend of artist and scientist.
  • Do your apprenticeship in many domains just as he did.

This was a very good lecture as it reinforced the human element to sport science which is often in danger of being glossed over these days as data becomes more and more of a focus. A common theme from the conference was not to collect data for the sake of it and if its not having an impact then don’t be afraid to drop it out of the program as Fergus suggested with the European Football Club and GPS.

Henry Ford said “If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got”. Fergus has a richly varied background that is vastly different from the vast majority of Sport Scientists and this came across loud and clear in a thought provoking and entertaining lecture.


Simon Nainby is an Accredited Strength & Conditioning Coach and Tutor, Sports Massage Therapist, RFU Level II coach and an Assistant Athletics Coach. He has worked for a number of professional and semi-professional teams and he currently acts as a coaching consultant through Underground Athletics to a wide range of athletes from rugby players to Olympic Lifters. He provides physical preparation training and support in order to maximise sports performance. This consists of strength, speed and power training combined with recovery support to create a periodised programme which is essential for athletes to perform to their potential.

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