In the latest in a series of pieces looking at the 5 key roles in High Performing Teams, David Slemen, discusses the position of Director of High Performance.

Clubs with Directors of High Performance (or equivalent)

  • Arsenal: Darren Burgess (Head of Elite Performance)
  • Everton: Bruno Mendes (Head of Performance)
  • Liverpool: Philipp Jacobsen (Performance Manager)
  • Manchester City: Sam Erith (Head of Human Performance)
  • Manchester United: Richard Hawkins (Head of Human Performance)
  • Southampton: Mark Jarvis (High Performance Manager)

The Director of High Performance is a relatively new role in English football and few of the Premier League clubs have one, as you can see from the list above.

As with the Sporting Director, this job has many different titles – Performance Manager, Head of Human Performance, Head of Elite Performance and so on – and different job descriptions too.

But, at its essence, this role is about overseeing the different performance departments at a club – sports science, medical, strength and conditioning, nutrition and analytics – and ensuring that as many players are fit and able to deal with the demands of the game as possible.

Being able to interpret what the Head Coach wants and then translating it for your performance staff – and vice versa – is essential.

As Adam Beard, Director of High Performance for the Chicago Cubs, has told Training Ground Guru: “It’s about getting all your experts together and saying, ‘look, this is what the head coach wants and we need to pull together and see how we’re going to do that.’”

Aligning your performance department around a coaching philosophy may sound simple, but it’s rarely done. Why is that? In my opinion, it’s because doing this means taking the time to figure out the demands of the sport, asking the right performance questions and articulating solutions that your team can buy into and execute. That isn’t easy.

As Brene Brown, the acclaimed author and Research Professor at the University of Houston said, “you can’t get to courage without walking through vulnerability”.

Leading areas as diverse as analytics and medicine obviously requires expertise and understanding. While the Director of High Performance may not have a sports science or analytics background themselves, they will know the right questions to ask of their practitioners and understand the answers that are given.

They will also create the right conditions for a team of robust athletes who are at the height of performance physically and mentally. Crucially, they will be able to couple scientific understanding with an awareness that a team (both of staff and of players) is comprised of individual human beings who need to be motivated to perform.

After all, there are some things you can’t put a number on – namely belonging, identity and culture. Yes, you need technical knowledge and understanding, intelligence and expertise, but none of this is of any use if you can’t create an environment in which people can flourish.

The Director of High Performance will create the right environment for people to feel empowered, to be able to make their own decisions and to thrive, not just survive. They will combine art and science, bringing technical capability, analytics and evidence-based thinking alongside human insight and understanding.

Changing from ‘the way it has always been done’ to becoming an outlier is tough. It requires change and difficult conversations. But the ability to navigate hard times is what all leaders need.

The Director of High Performance role is perhaps more easily carved out in Olympic sports or by governing bodies, because of the absence of the player recruitment circus and agent requirements which, while perhaps necessary, can be distracting in club football.

UK Sport has successfully developed and applied a strategic planning and performance framework that includes the What It Takes To Win (WITTW) model. Originally developed for Olympics sports, these principles have cascaded into other arenas with positive results.

Each sport has its own unique challenges and nuances but the performance planning process is the same for all of them. Dave Reddin, the Head of Team Strategy and Performance, has shown this at the Football Association.

He has applied WITTW thinking with courage and conviction, helping to set the conditions for the successes that have followed for the England teams in recent years. Reddin brings resilience, ability to challenge the status quo and the bravery to make difficult decisions.

Unlike English club football, Australian sport has a history and culture of the Director of High Performance role. David Joyce, Head of Athletic Performance at the Greater West Sydney Giants, has great experience as a practitioner and has maintained his energy and passion for performance via a hands-on approach in his leadership role.

With time spent in football (at Blackburn Rovers and Galatasaray) he possesses the skills and an approach to add real value to the game here.

Another Australian, Darren Burgess, is an excellent example of how a Director of High Performance can operate in English football.

He has ridden out a change of manager and cultural shift at Arsenal while still implementing his philosophy.

He has done this by working between his team and the manager and owning, curating, and (importantly) interpreting the scientific knowledge, knowing his players and imparting this information in a consistent and understandable way.

Paul Devlin, the English Director of Performance at the Brisbane Broncos, is another person who has refused to accept standard limits given by data, instead overlaying an understanding of what makes players perform to the limits of their ability.

Darcy Norman now of US Soccer and previously of AS Roma and the German national team, and Southampton’s Mark Jarvis are two examples of Directors of Performance who are innovative leaders.

In short, I am convinced that the talent and conditions exist for the Director of High Performance to become an established part of our football culture.