In a bit of incredibly exciting news, I have managed to secure my first interview for the blog. Indeed, I was lucky enough to sit down and talk to Ross Bennett, Head of Academy Performance and Coach at QPR. The interview began with asking Ross to flesh out his journey into coaching.
Into the world of Strength and Conditioning
Like many professionals in the world of football, Ross’ journey began as a young player. Spending his years developing at Millwall and then Brentford, Ross had to make a decision about what step to take next. After his first year as an ‘extended schoolboy’ (Academic qualifications alongside playing football), Bennett took something of a brave move. For the first time, St Mary’s were offering a degree in Strength and Conditioning, an offer both local to and in line with Bennett’s interests.
It was that decision that proved formative, leading Bennett into a career in S&C. Opportunity came calling in his second year, taking on an internship at Chelsea FC. After a successful year with some of their youngest players, Ross ended up staying at Chelsea well beyond his internship. It was only after a brief stint working in Qatar that Bennett made the move over to Queen’s Park Rangers, where he has since risen up to the rank of Head of Academy Performance.
It was within this that Ross began to answer my next question, whether his future rested with sports science or in the world of coaching.
During his time at Chelsea, Bennett crossed paths with Michael Beale and the u14s team. Beale, now at Aston Villa with Steven Gerrard, had many future stars at his disposal. Bennett told me that seeing players like ‘Mason Mount, Declan Rice, Tammy Abraham, Fikayo Tomori, Dominic Solanke, and Reece James really whetted his [my] appetite’.
The lure is obvious. Seeing players go on and achieve great things is enough to tempt anyone.
But Bennett’s interest obviously comes from more than just one experience. Indeed, he stated that he feels well equipped to coach given his background as a young player, having been on the other side of the dynamic certainly helps to add perspective. This belief has been reinforced in his coaching at QPR, explaining that if Chris Ramsey saw something in him worth giving a chance to, then why not push on and try and progress up the ladder of coaching.
Next, I wanted to pick Ross’ brains about a few arguments and hot topics in the world of sport science.
First on the agenda was to ask about his view on the debate between focusing training on match-like settings versus using more general training away from the sport.
Immediately, Bennett framed the topic in an interesting way, explaining that one should view the conversation ‘as a continuum’. The best training will have a mixture of the two. You cannot get everything from the sport, but equally there are many benefits to training players in specific scenarios.
The examples given were aerobic capacity and muscle hypertrophy. If you identify that a player needs to improve the former, you ‘pick the best modality’ to target that, so potentially some form of running. If a player needs to improve the latter, maybe some extra gym work. The idea should always be think about what athletes can do away from the pitch that can reap benefits on it.
Conversation soon shifted to the differences between the levels of specificity in training for younger and older players.
Bennett explained that the younger the players are, the more the focus will be on general skills and attributes. It is ‘higher up the pyramid’ that things start to get more position specific. Kids need to diversify their skills, but when positions are set, training will naturally focus on more specific skills. The examples Bennett gave were of the different requirements for centre halves, full backs, and midfielders. Centre halves need to be specifically quick on the turn, full backs need to be able to sprint longer distances, and midfielders need to be agile and quick to respond to duels.
It was on this topic that I really got an insight into the trade offs that performance coaches have to make in their job. When training 22 players, individualisation can be practically difficult. There is not the time or manpower to give everyone a specifically tailored plan. Thus, the answer is to focus on training in match scenarios where any potential weaknesses should be revealed.
Furthermore, Bennett finished off his answer with a very interesting conundrum. If you’re running speed training, it might be tempting to try and cater it to every position, for example making full backs run further than centre backs. But you have to consider the worst-case scenario. If your centre back in a match has to sprint further than he has be trained to do so, you cannot expect a good outcome. There may be some merit on guarding against this.
It was on the topic of children that Bennett tackled another debate within the sporting world, this being whether a child is better off specialising or generalising in a sport.
The answer I got was a very nuanced one, that acknowledged the differences between different sports. Bennett focused on the differing ‘technical levels’ of the sport in question, using rugby and football as contrast. There are many success stories in rugby of kids who grew up focusing on athletics or gymnastics, but not so many in football. This is because of the different ‘technical level’ of the two sports.
The specific skills required in football are difficult to catch up with if not nurtured early on. Kids who started elsewhere may have a head start in terms of movement, but might struggle with the less transferrable elements.
Finally, we spoke about the role of technology in sports science. Ross’ first remark was to highlight how quickly GPS tracking has become the norm at several levels of the game. It is easier than ever to track distances covered and speeds hit, Bennett stated that ‘the industry is in a much better place’ now in respect to the use of technology.
The most interesting insight came in what Bennett identified as something of a generational gap in how managers view sports science. I was told that younger managers and coaches are on the whole more receptive to what their sports science teams are telling them, and avoid some of the difficulty caused by older ones.
Bennett acknowledged that no manager wants to be told to rest a star player, but that as years go on this is a more even conversation than it was before. Technology is fast developing to the point that highly reliable models can be made to predict injuries. Whilst there will never be a silver bullet, we are at the point where this data can be seriously relied upon. Technology and the attitudes towards it have only improved over the last decade, and will surely continue to do so after the next.
Once again, I want to thank Ross for his time. It was truly fascinating to hear from someone with so much knowledge and experience within the game.