Darcy: Hi and welcome to the Game Changer Podcast. My name is Darcy Norman. Today, I’m joined by a special guest and somebody I’ve known for a long time and very much respect, Jack Nayler, who’s Head of Sports Science for Celtic FC. In his role, Jack manages all aspects of Sports Science provision at the club from the first team all the way through the academy.
In the first team, it involves overseeing the monitoring, training, and game loads of the players, as well as helping and coaching physical medical staff to collaborate and periodise training correctly, seeing all the development of club-wide philosophies in sports science, physical development, and managing nutrition delivery.
And prior to this task, he’s had a ton of great experience, I think we’ve shared similar parallel paths, he has worked at Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea FC. Along with his current role at Celtic, Jack also works as a faculty staff for the Football Science Institute alongside some phenomenal practitioners, such as Martin Bucheit, former colleague of mine at the German National Team; Tim Meyer, Dave Joyce, Yann Le Meur, Aaron Coutts, as well as a variety of others.
Jack, thanks very much for joining us today. Before we get started though, can you tell us a little bit about your journey and how you came to be where you’re at today?
Jack: Thanks, Darcy. Thanks for having me. So, I started 11 years ago now as an intern at Chelsea, working there during my undergraduate degree for a year. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I went back and worked there for a few months. At that time, there was a wholesale change at Chelsea in terms of a lot of the backroom staff, including head of the medical team, the sports science room all moved on and I was a part of that process the club went through.
I then started a master’s degree at Edith Cowan University. The coach from Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti, later took a job at Paris Saint-Germain and asked Nick Broad, who was the Head of Sports Science at Chelsea, to go with him. Nick asked me to come over for a month to help set up and get everything underway and I ended up staying for the next 18 months. At the end of that period, Carlo was offered the job at Real Madrid and asked me to go with him. I stayed there for two years and then left Real Madrid. And a year later the job at Celtic came up, so I’ve been here for near to three years now.
Darcy: I know we chatted a little bit after your Real Madrid time, it was a very interesting time for you and you’d gone through a lot of volatility in different clubs. So, what are some of your big takeaways from all that time with those clubs?
Jack: Celtic is my fourth club in just over 10 years. I’ve done the whole vetting in process a few times at different places. The first big take away is people come first; you will build relationships with people when you get through the door, find the commonalities, find your common ground and work on those. That’s hugely important and will stand you in good state as you then go forward and look to change things if you’ve got people on your side. If you have the things you want to change, then they’ll help you do that. There will also be a lot of things already in place that are probably good and don’t require adaptation, input or interference from yourself. So, take the time to embrace and learn about those.
I also think just embrace some of the complexity that goes around. This kind of rules the environment that we work in and there are a number of moving parts that are easy to get bogged down in when you try to control everything. Sometimes you just have to take a little step back and realise there’s a lot of things we don’t control and we can’t control. So just embrace that side of it a little bit and understand that.
Success comes from everyone pulling together in the same direction and having a clear vision. But, at the same time, there’s probably a healthy dose of luck in there as well, so just keep that at the back of your head. At the end of the day, we work in sport, which is a game. I don’t think we should try and move too far away from that. It should be a fun environment and we shouldn’t take it too seriously all of the time. The outcomes and consequences of our work aren’t the same as people working in hospitals, or on battlefields, or in a high-stakes politics. It’s not quite the same as that, yet sometimes it can feel like it.
Darcy: Right. What were some of the big positives that you got from each circumstance? I know one of your superpowers or qualities is self-reflection, which we’ll get into a little bit. Do you have themes that you learnt in each circumstance that got you to where you’re at today?
Jack: Yeah, definitely. Being in different cultures helps with that. You learn there are different ways of doing things, different ways of working that exist in different parts of the world and you gain understanding of that and understand that there’s no right or wrong. There’s a lot made in the modern world with social media of echo chambers and things like that. If you’re an English speaking professional sports practitioner and you’re on Twitter, then the majority of the people you follow will probably be also English speaking.
So, it will come from North America, or Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the U.K., and these people probably influence us a lot – Where I worked with guys who just spoke French or just spoke Spanish. So, the things that they were learning and reading were very different from the things I’d learnt and read. There’s a lot of different practices and things that go on out there that you might not have experienced before or seen, but it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong in any way, shape, or form.
Darcy: I know we hadn’t seen each other or talked to each other for a while just due to the various circumstances. Then when I was in Rome, we reconnected and got chatting. You’d put together a piece– Crafting the Performance Around the Centre of Football Organisation for Long-Term Success– which talked about the evolutionary process for developing long-term persistent, sustainable performance in sporting organisations. Was this because of what different things you’ve seen in different clubs, different countries? What was your motivation to put that together?
Jack: Well, I left Madrid in 2015 and I was out of work for just over a year, quite a long time. The document started as part of my own recruitment process — which didn’t materialise in the end — but it set me on the path to writing this document. Once I started, it just kept flowing and going, and actually just having the time and the headspace at that point in my life to put those thoughts down. It was really useful. All the things that I’ve experienced, all the things I’ve read, all the people that influenced me, living abroad, moving abroad, experiencing different cultures and environments like you say, but then also in that time when I wasn’t working, having opportunities to visit really cool environments in the U.K. but also abroad in Australia, New Zealand, North America and various places in Europe.
Having those experiences just fed into my thought process. It was a big period of self-reflection, and became an opportunity to get those ideas down. What I’ll say is it was a distillation of my thoughts at that time, and my aim is for it to become a working document as I move forward through my career. There are definitely things I want to add for sure if I have the time and the headspace. I have a daughter now who’s nearly two, all that happened in the last few years, so it’s filled my time a bit but there are definitely things I want to add. I definitely want to go back through it because there are, given my experiences now, potentially things that I might change or even look to take out.
Darcy: I’d be interested in knowing those, because when you had passed it along to me, it was very serendipitous in where I was also at Rome and working in different groups and organisations and going through very similar thoughts and experiences. When I read it, I was like, “God, it seemed like I just chatted about it and you summarised it already.” So, it’s a phenomenal piece and tons of great knowledge in there. I’m not sure if you have any intention in putting it out there, a lot of people could benefit from it for sure. What’s that?
Jack: It’s kind of you to say that. It was just something that I was sort of at home typing away in a room, not really thinking too much other than getting the thoughts out of my head and onto paper, so yeah. Thanks.
Darcy: One of the things I’ve experienced with working with Ed Lippie, who talked about it in the last podcast is about short-termism and short-term thinking and just the nature of sport, how it’s quick and the short turnarounds on staff, players, executive groups, and so forth. Do you see that trend continuing, or do you feel like clubs and organisations are learning from it and seeing the bigger picture there?
Jack: There are moves towards having more stability and clubs understanding that, particularly in the U.K., the rise of the sporting or technical director role and then perhaps employing a head coach. You then don’t end up with the wholesale changes that have perhaps happened in the last 10 to 15 years with managers coming and going in clubs. So, there are moves away from it and when you look at any organisation that’s had sustained periods of success, they’ve all had stability. I think that’s probably really key.
Darcy: Yeah. You talked about creating a strong vision and values for an organisation being a very important factor, using that Simon Sinek Golden Circle model. How do you think that can be effectively done? Is it a top-down approach from the organisation? Does it come from the head coach, manager? How do the players get into that staff? What are your thoughts around that?
Jack: Trying to do it bottom-up is very difficult and if you want it to be organisation-wide, then it needs to come from the top-down. The head coach is an integral part of that, look at coaches like Gregg Popovich of San Antonio. They lived and embodied the values of their organisation, but they’ve also helped to create that. It’s very difficult for a sports scientist or a physio to really try and set the values of the organisation. You, obviously, have your own personal values that you work to, but for that to spread across a whole organisation, it becomes very difficult from the bottom. You need that kind of top-down leadership inversion.
Darcy: I don’t know if you’ve come across, say when a manager maybe doesn’t have a strong vision. I think intuitively, everybody does, it’s just whether or not it’s open for public viewing, so to speak. How can that be overcome if you feel like the manager or executive group maybe doesn’t promote it as strongly as they should or doesn’t have a clear vision that the staff or people within the organisation can see?
Jack: If you work in that kind of organisation, have your own values and things you want to work towards. Like you said, most people, probably most coaches do have their values and their vision that they maybe don’t articulate so well. There’s a responsibility for us then to try and understand, to go out and search and find out what they are, and help to work towards those.
Inherently, everyone has their own values and creed by which they live their life and the sort of person they are, and that you have to be true to those and authentic to yourself. Authenticity is a huge thing obviously when you’re dealing with people and people actually understanding that you’re genuine in what you’re trying to do. You have your own things that when times get tough, you always pull back on, but then you need to go out and understand what it is the coaches want to do and where they’re coming from and try work your way to get those values out of them if it’s not so forthcoming.
Darcy: That’s great. You also mentioned about the other piece of countering short-termism is through building strong processes within an organisation. You find that there’s a relationship between the first piece of mission, vision, values, and having strong processes that frame and support the organisation’s overall vision?
Jack: I think so, yeah. If an organisation has got strong processes that it stands by, that it feels are conducive towards supporting the team and they’ll feed into the mission, vision, and values. Both processes should inherently look to drive your organisation towards whatever stated aims are and should become stable processes for the organisation that you would stand by and stand up and say, “This is the way we do things here.”
Darcy: The other interesting thing about reading your piece is it was very timely because I was also reading a lot about complex systems and complex systems thinking. I’d be curious how you got into reading about it, how it started influencing how you were thinking and how you applied it to your environments to frame up what you were experiencing, thinking, all those kind of things.
Jack: A lot of people read a lot of books and read around particular subject matter, a lot of management books for example, it probably started with these books. In terms of complex thinking systems, books by Nassim Taleb on “Fooled by Randomness and Antifragile.” They set me on a path to thinking right. The more you try and control things, to use his terminology, the more fragile things and then they mentioned complex systems.
So, that set me on a path to exploring and reading more into complex systems thinking and how much or how little areas we can control, the interconnectedness of everything, and how small changes can end up having big effects. That led me into thinking about that model within a sporting environment and the way that we don’t understand exactly what’s going to happen. In a game of football, all we know is that the referee is going to blow his whistle to start the game. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen from that point on. I don’t even know exactly how many minutes before the final whistle until halftime. You don’t know anything about the game, and that game will be completely self-organising. It will be determined by the 22 guys, plus subs, plus the referees on the field. So, that’s the environment we find ourselves in. The complex systems thinking just seems to fit really nicely together with sport.
Darcy: Totally. For me, it was an older book published in the ’90s. It was called “The Fifth Discipline”. That got me going and then all the same titles you mentioned. You read something then you notice it more and more in different places. And then, I was starting to see it in a lot of Portuguese soccer methodology, which I always go by the piece. If you see that same theme over and over again, there’s probably something to it and you should pay attention to it.
Darcy: You talked framing and managing failure, for example, if you talk about injuries as a failure or a difficult situation as ways to handle complex systems. Can you provide examples from your experiences how you correctly framed failure in a situation and how you’ve learnt from it, moved on from it, reflected, and kept going?
Jack: Yeah. I’m not sure if what I do is correct because I’ve probably found it to be a bit of a double-edged sword, although -inherently, I’m quite self-critical. Like everybody says, an injury can happen –but my immediate thought is still what I potentially could have done differently. And, before looking at other people or anything else, I then frame the injury within the complexity of what’s happened so you can look at what your actions were, how that potentially affected the system and the outcomes. That can allow me to learn and develop, but at the same time, I can probably get pretty harsh with myself and get pretty down on myself a few times. You constantly have to remember that complexity and go through effects.
So you take what you’ve done or you analyse the decisions you made and try to frame those in the complexity of the system and everything else that was going on around it and think right “If we hadn’t done that, the outcome would be inherently very different”. Ultimately you have to own your piece but also remember that there are forces outside of your control as well. And if we can just learn from those pieces under our control and develop better practices going forward, then we’ve done the start of our job. You then place that into the complex system and understand that the decision you made may still have been right or wrong, but what happened has happened and you learn from it and move forward.
Darcy: Yeah. You obviously don’t have to mention names, but how common do you find it in your experience where groups or organisations take that approach to see and reflect on those circumstances? They’re a little more informed when they move forward. Is there anybody that is doing it well? I know it’s hard to look into different organisations when you’re not a part of them and to really get the true story, but from either inside, being inside, or an outsider looking in is any examples of stuff like that happening elsewhere?
Jack: I’ve spent a few days with the guys and with the GB women’s hockey team leading into the 2016 Rio Olympics where they ended up winning gold, and that was probably one of the most open and reflective environments that I saw. Just in general, and in terms of wanting to learn from each other, everyone was feeding into the process. That’s the other thing is where you have a multidisciplinary team of various different experts, individuals, but not everyone knows.
I’m not a physio and I’m not a nutritionist by trade. They’re not my areas of expertise but the best places will probably be open and involve everyone in the process of reflection, and then that helps people to understand the complexities. Everyone will frame things from their own point of view but by including everyone in that process, it helps to bridge those gaps. The guys at the GB women’s hockey team were very good at that. The guys at the England Rugby Sevens in a similar period were also very good at openness and self-reflection as a group of staff.
Darcy: Do you have a certain framework you use for learning from those examples that you go through with your staff at Celtic, or you’ve used in the past with other groups?
Jack: When we’ve had those issues, we’ve tended to sit down and try and be as open and honest with everyone as we can as a science and medicine team We try and have as frank and open discussions as we can about why we think things have happened. Given my last three years as a leader in the department, one of the things I’ve learnt about a bit is the importance of psychological safety and creating that so that people are open and feel safe enough to raise their voice and say things and do things. If there’s an environment where people are afraid to speak up, there might be crucial piece of information that gets missed or doesn’t get said, but could potentially have effects in the outcomes.
Darcy: You also mentioned as one of the ways of getting around that, there’s the processes and then there’s the interactions between the points. You talked about teams trying to apply technology or tools as a quick fix rather than focusing on the development, as you just mentioned, of that interaction to learn from failure. Where’s the balance between the two? Because obviously, we always say data can help or it can certainly be a weapon depending on how you frame it as well. So, how do you put those two and balance those pieces?
Jack: The first thing is that your staff learn in an evolving the environment because they are the ones that are there on the ground day to day working and the best place to understand the different interactions that are going on. I think it was General Stanley McChrystal who wrote in his book, “Team of Teams,” where they took a different approach in Iraq from this top-down central command view to putting a lot more power into the guys on the frontline and they start to see bigger benefits.
It’s a similar thing here where you guys, who are your massage physios, your assistant coaches, those guys who are working day in/day out with the players and coaches, they probably got the most information and best understanding of what’s going on. So making sure that they understand the processes that they go through, the decisions that they make, and then how that affects the outcome is really important.
In terms of balancing that up with technology, in every club I’ve been to, there are cupboards probably somewhere with pieces of technology that are now obsolete, that are gathering dust or in the corner of a gym. They have that piece of equipment or that piece of electro-medical therapy or something that’s covered in dust somewhere that has for a while been utilized and the environments moved on and is no longer using it. It’s just obsolete.
The primary thing as I said, is focusing on your staff because they’re the ones that move with you as long as you’re good at retaining your staff and they buy into it, then they’re the guys that will have the most power. If you can then use the technology and the data that you collect to help them feed into that process and inform that decision-making process, then you’re probably onto a good thing.
Darcy: So, how would you go through the process of–you mentioned the mission, vision, values and tying the data in with what we want to collect. First, deciding what you want to collect, how does that coordinate with the mission, vision, values, where you’re trying to go and how you move that forward into institutional knowledge.
Jack: Like most teams, probably our biggest data collection components focus on the biggest parts of our week. So, we look at training and not just GPS tracking but physical testing, screening, plyometrics, that kind of thing and we keep it all stored and recorded accurately, so it’s easy to recall. The number of things that we actually use on a daily basis is probably much smaller than the total number of what we collect. I know there’s this prevailing thought that you don’t usually collect what you don’t use each day, that it’s obsolete, and why bother collecting it in the first place.
But for much of the stuff I talk about here, it’s the parameters that are provided for us out of the GPS that are the same series of stuff we look at. The same systems that we’re using are giving us these extra numbers, so it doesn’t take much more effort to store those in the same place. As we move forward, there might be things in the future that might become important and we don’t know that yet. We’re foolish just to discard or store them, and record at least the numbers that we use on a day-to-day basis. Obviously, some of those will be not very useful to us going forward and that’s part of the risk, but it’s not much more work to store and keep those extra bits with the potential that in the future, given the rise of data scientists in our industry and the way that the industry moved with larger-scale data analysis that there might be things in there that we hadn’t picked up on yet and weren’t aware of.
So, we look to collect data on the things that we think affect our players the most, and we’ll look at those things that we consider most important in our environment.
Darcy: What about teams that are challenged in that short-termism situation, which can lead to volatile environments, which as we all know, create poor platforms for people to share their knowledge with each other? Unfortunately, it goes hand-in-hand or one is a reaction of another. The volatile environments then lead to nobody really taking ownership or datasets changing, how it’s collected changing, etc. How do you suggest working through those types of volatile environments so you get some consistency?
Jack: Getting the balance right between your immediate priorities and the larger goals of your department, and the organisation is something that’s a big challenge. In fact it’s probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve found in my current role. The cliché of taking one game at a time holds true. It’s an approach that we’ve taken over the last three years and has worked well for us. There’s always an immediate concern on the next game and it’s a cliché because it’s true — that’s what clichés are.
So, getting that balance right between the immediate focus and the larger goals of department, like I said, has been the biggest challenge. However when we’re talking about macro scale volatility where there are potential wholesale changes in staffing or in the leaders in the organisation or anything else, that’s a different thing. It’s the processes and what you put in place and having those things that you believe in even if you’re a small physio department, it’s the things that you believe in that you stand and going to keep using.
Those guys in the frontline who know the players as well as anyone, they’re the guys who know what works and what doesn’t work. You look to build on those and when times get tough, those are things you’ll always fall back on. Again this where that psychological safety bit comes in because people have got to feel secure in their environment. You’ve got to do your best to create that and you do that by basically owning your own errors and making use of them for everyone to learn, letting everyone see that you’re comfortable doing that, and then that allows all of us to create a secure environment.
Hopefully people then feel secure enough and you can start to build those longer-term stable processes and transition data to organisational knowledge, and that comes through constant reflection. Reflecting individually on what you know and on new information that you get is key, but also having an environment where you can reflect on that as a group. So, whether that’s to see coaches together, or it’s the whole size of medical team, or it’s the first team football staff, or it’s the whole of the organisation –you can start small and try to build those processes in place.
Darcy: Today you have to be a phenomenal historian because just so much of the day-to-day decision-making in the short-term decisions is so laced with heavy bias, which is a natural occurring thing. Obviously, it’s human nature. It’s what’s got us to today. But being a great historian too when somebody brings up a situation to know exactly what happened and why the decisions were made to get you there.
Jack: That’s actually a really great point. Being the historian is so essential. Again we’re constantly focusing on the next game you play and we play every three days. When you play this many games it becomes difficult to remember at times exactly what happened in certain situations. You’ll naturally have different people in your organisation who are perhaps better at remembering different aspects.
Your physio might remember exactly the conversations that they had with the player and exactly what they reported in terms of their pain level or whatever it was on a certain assessment. Whereas your coaching staff can probably tell you exactly what minute the second goal against this was scored against this opposition three years ago. See again, involving all of those people in your organisation and utilising all those skills and historical knowledge you can put together a good picture.
Darcy: You talked about organisational knowledge, and then you also briefly mentioned about involving the players in some of that stuff as well. Obviously their part of the complex system, how do you get to be able to manage the situation out on the pitch every day or every three days that they’re playing? How are some of the things or what are some of the strategies you guys used to get those guys in the mix and bought into the process?
Jack: Footballers are often held up as not the most intelligent players, but they’re not stupid by a long way, and they inherently know their own bodies and probably have a better understanding of how a training session or match feels and then whatever we’re going to get through studying data. But that doesn’t always mean they’re going to make the right choices. You need to try and tap in to that awareness and through conversation link it into the rationale behind what you’ve done. So, kind of like, “How are you feeling today?” “Actually, I feel really good.” “Okay. Well, look what we’ve done over the last couple of days. These are the reasons why we’ve done it. That’s why you’re feeling like you do.”
Players probably more so than the rest of us, like routine. So, if you have some consistency in your processes and the external things you put in place and how you prepare and recover, then they will intrinsically get to know how they feel in relation to that. So, they’ll start to become a bit of a rhythm to the week and what happens around games, and they’ll know and be able to use that as a touchstone. So, then if you can layer on top some narrative, some data, some information, provide your rationale, then you’re probably on the right track.
Darcy: I guess data isn’t always technology, and technology isn’t always data. But where do you think–if you hold one in the same, where do you think technology is turning data into organisational knowledge to support those guys in those circumstances?
Jack: Things like WhatsApp nowadays make sharing information so easy. Your ability to share information across your organisation is easier than it ever has been. People potentially might feel safer and more able to speak up if it’s in a messaging format when they’re sat at home as opposed to sat in a room in front of all their colleagues and peers. They might actually end up with better conversations that way and that’s probably where technology is really helping that process.
Darcy: Are there any areas where you see it’s failing us? There’s always positives and negatives to either side. Is there a negative side to the WhatsApp scenario in that circumstance or any others?
Jack: There are pitfalls there for sure. Essentially, you might send out a report and if you haven’t got your explanation right, you haven’t got the context right in that report, then it perhaps could be misconstrued, misinterpreted, forwarded on or shared to the wrong people.
The key when you’re sharing information is just to get the format rights for the individual you’re sending it to, and it should probably be bespoke to that individual. Then you layer on context, maybe using some stats to illustrate magnitude change or whatever else. I’ve been in environments where the head coach has actually had a background studying law and loves to receive five-page written reports on the states of the team, and then other environments where the coach just wants to see a graph that are all telling the story, or a couple of graphs. It’s most valuable when it’s bespoke to that individual.
Another issue that holds us back is the time downloading, processing, and getting our hands on the data. We should be getting to a point where the coaches have walked in from the training pitch and get back to their desk, the report should theoretically be there waiting for them. That’s something that I want to improve on for us as an organisation and improve that speed of reporting. We train at 10:30, we’ll train for 90 minutes, the staff will come in, then head for lunch. We’ll have lunch together and reflect on the session just gone. As part of that process, we will then feed into the session that’s coming the next day. So it’s about trying to tap into that window of opportunity where you’ve got the chance to get a message across and help feed into that decision-making process.
Darcy: It is really interesting just where technology has come to date and with the advent of APIs and the ability to move data where you don’t have to do a bunch of heavy copying, pasting, and technology is working for you rather than you for it in some regards.
Jack: Yeah, exactly.
Darcy: That’s a great piece to have. Well, thanks, Jack. I love these conversations. I’m not sure if it’s the headspace I’m in or where I’m at in my career and life but I feel like we’ve had a lot of similar paths and experiences to reach similar outcomes. You’re certainly a game-changer. Your experiences through all this stuff has been phenomenal. I look forward to staying in touch and continuing to have these conversations because there’s a ton of learning that new folks in the industry coming in, executive groups that are trying to wrap their arms around those experiences that maybe don’t have the experiences of being on the field in the scenarios. When you start putting yourself in other people’s shoes around an organisation, you definitely get a better sense of what all the moving pieces are, which help that end scenario. And I feel like you’ve done that in a lot of different ways and it’s great to see you leading a group and creating some stability around what you’re doing and how you guys are doing it. I wish you guys nothing but the best and look forward to watching you this season.
Jack: Yeah. Thanks very much, Darcy. Thanks for the opportunity. Everything I’ve probably learnt has been informed by those I’ve worked with and had conversations with and the things I’ve seen people have been gracious enough to open up their doors to let me come in for a day or two or have a conversation. Yeah. I always like to mention Nick Broad as well because I definitely wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had without him, his advice, and vision at the start, and obviously, huge loss to the industry several years back. But yes, I honestly wouldn’t be here without him and countless others.
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