How are Premier League players staying fit during the coronavirus pandemic?
From Zoom team workouts to Jose Mourinho apologizing for putting Tanguy Ndombele through his paces at a local park, all 20 Premier League clubs have their own way of keeping players sharp during the current suspension. It’s a two-way street as players themselves have to resist the urge we all have right now of reaching for the candy and chips three times an hour.
It’s tough staying in top shape from home. But hey, of course, there’s got to be an app for that. And now there is: Apollo V2.
It has become the go-to tool for multiple Premier League clubs as it collects data from players and feeds it back to clubs immediately, while coaches and medical staff can send video messages, make notes and design specific sessions for players remotely.
From assigning a tactical video session to be watched by the entire squad to telling one player to ease off the weights and another to step up his squats, the creator behind this system has seen a huge surge in interest in recent weeks.
Dave Hancock, the former head physiotherapist at Leeds United and Chelsea in England who most recently worked for the New York Knicks in the NBA, has created a tool which seems perfectly suited for the current situation PL clubs and players find themselves in. Hancock and Tony Strudwick (the former head of performance for Manchester United who is now at Sheffield Wednesday) have taken their experience working at the club and international level with the England national team to design an app which has been endorsed by Liverpool’s James Milner and ex-Chelsea star Joe Cole. It is designed with players, coaches and medical staff at its core.
It has taken three years and close to $4 million of investment for Hancock and his team to develop version 2 of the Apollo app, as they wanted something which could do it all. There are other apps which can track strength and conditioning and medical recoveries but none that do that as well as giving coaches a platform to speak to their players and stats being reported back in one place to track players progress. That is why Apollo is so important right now.
“We work with all of the major teams in the major leagues, the Premier League and Championship in England, the NBA, NFL, MLB, MLS, so we’ve got clients in all of those leagues and obviously we’ve had a lot of interest because of our ability to use our app that is associated with our system,” Hancock, who has worked individually with Kevin Durant and Odell Beckham Jr. during their recent injury rehabs, explained. “The beauty of our system is that you can completely customize what you want it to do. In these circumstances a team can deliver whatever they want to the individual player, whether that is rehab scheduling, strength and conditioning, questionnaires, specific reports, game video to analyze or any other video to analyze.”
The longer the suspension has gone on, the more Premier League players are now preparing themselves mentally and physically for a gruelling mini-preseason in the coming weeks before they can even think about getting back on the pitch. That’s the reality.
Having a system which can keep players in shape before returning to preseason is key. Hancock has seen his app used by the Washington Nationals of the MLB during their offseason and have a huge impact in players buying into it to stay in touch, and in shape, wherever they are in the world.
“I know with some of our other clients, the Washington Nationals, they have a massive offseason. They normally have four or five months off and they have no control on their athletes and what they are doing,” Hancock explained. “What the Nationals were able to do is deliver content to players and also able to see when the players logged in. They are able to track whether they are following the regime or give them advice. It is a two-way thing. I know in this situation that the system can become very useful for clients in delivering what they want to deliver to the athlete on their phone. The phone is the key.”
Southampton’s Shane Long, widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the Premier League, told ProSoccerTalk that players are adapting however they can.
“It’s obviously been different and taken some getting used to but it is about dealing with the situation as best as we can,” Long said. “We’re in regular contact with all the sports science guys who are making sure we keep at it, so there’s been no problem from that perspective. I’ve been quite lucky that I’ve got a decent amount of equipment at home so I’ve just been getting my head down. The club also dropped me round a Wattbike to add to what I already had. That has allowed me to mix things up and keep training fresh.”
That mental aspect and staying connected is a huge part of this, too. Chelsea and USMNT star Christian Pulisic has revealed that he is training but “that doesn’t take up the whole day” and is trying new things and trying to stay energized.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp confirmed something a lot of us can relate with right now: being away from coaches, teammates and friends you are used to seeing every day is tough.
“Everything is different in the moment and we do all different stuff. When we have these training sessions, I could have never imagined I would enjoy it that much but it’s just the moment when I see the boys again and that changes everything – for a minute, for an hour, for two hours, however long the sessions are. The boys are all in good spirits; you feel immediately why you miss them so much, because it’s just an exceptional group.
“You want to be together with them, you want to have them around, you want to be closer to them than you can be. These are the closest moments, apart from exchanging messages with them and asking, ‘How are you?’ and stuff like this. So I enjoy these sessions really a lot. It’s getting worse, the longer it takes. I accept the situation 100 per cent like it is but the longer you don’t see somebody you like, the more it hurts. That’s the situation we are in at the moment.”
Right now players are keeping themselves in shape without knowing when they will next be able to kick a ball around in a competitive 11-v-11 situation. Certain teams are even entering a period of regeneration after pushing their players hard over the last four weeks. They are scaling training down ahead of an expected heavy preseason campaign coming up.
Shane Long’s teammate at Southampton, Jannik Vestergaard, is the tallest player in the Premier League (6-foot 6-inches tall) and his training methods and needs are a lot different to most.
“We’re all getting used to it now. It is what it is,” Vestergaard told ProSoccerTalk. “We just have to get our heads down and work hard. I’ve been training hard at home, pushing myself and making sure I do everything to keep my fitness levels high.”
This is why these tracking systems are so important. Who decides if the fitness levels are high? How can the fitness of 25 players at each PL club currently in 25 separate locations be measured?
Chelsea legend Joe Cole is involved with Apollo V2 and told ProSoccerTalk exactly how it works on a daily basis and how much of an impact it is having.
“It sends out relevant exercises to the players and they send back whether they have done it, they can video themselves doing it so you can keep an eye on them, and also there’s the tactical element of it where players can brush up on their games and have an appraisal, it really brings everything under one blanket. Any club which has this tool now will be two, three, four steps ahead of the game when the season recommences. It is going to be so important during this time,” Cole said.
Asked if this system will be key in prepping players for a new preseason the three-time Premier League winner, who also played for England at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, was in no doubt how much of advantage this would be.
“100 percent. This situation is obviously unprecedented and unusual for players and managers to deal with. Using the Apollo app will give teams an extra percentage when it comes to preparing,” Cole said. “You will be able to see exactly whether it is through heart rate monitors, any testing kit you are sending out to get results, the boys will send it back and you know exactly what has be done. When you come back for preseason you then know exactly how hard you can push certain players. You could be doing tactical stuff with the team, sending out videos and clips of the game to report on what they did well and get players thinking about the game. It is something I will be using when I eventually step back into the game full time into coaching.”
Even though teams are using this app to help keep their players ticking over, there is a real concern that many will pull up injured if and when the season resumes in the coming weeks and months.
Kevin de Bruyne and others have voiced their concerns about picking up injuries as players at the top level are used to maybe having a few weeks of low-level training a year.
Not a few months then being asked to fight for trophies, promotion and relegation.
“If I was back at Chelsea in the Premier League as the head of that department, the worry would be the injury rates when we come back,” Hancock explained as he talked through past meetings with Jose Mourinho at a coffee shop to discuss the health of players. “Normally, you are looking at six weeks to de-train, scientifically. Most of these guys are so fit that when you have three weeks off in the summer, they don’t really de-train. Most of these athletes now are doing something in the offseason. It is not like in the 90s when they’d go on the drink for three weeks and then literally wouldn’t do anything. That has all gone. This is a very high-end athlete now who are constantly watching what they eat and drink. They realize for the longevity of their careers and contracts, they have to do all of this.
“The problem now is that three weeks of holiday has now been extended for six to eight weeks plus. Possibly. Therefore when they come back they have x-period of time to do a mini preseason. That is then dependent on what the leagues want to do. The quicker they can get these games done and the leagues finished, the better it is for everyone involved. Clubs are in financial situations they have never been in before. The players are the pawns in this because they have got to go and play. If you say to a team you’re going to have two weeks of preseason then play twice a week for six weeks to finish the season, that is a hell of a lot of load you’re putting on these players that are not necessarily going to be in the condition that you want them to be in because you haven’t been able to control it.”
Some of this may sound a little too ‘big brothery’ for most, with Premier League players having their sleep patterns, food consumption and everything in-between fed back to clubs, but that’s where we are at right now.
And that is where Apollo comes in and fills the void to track where each player is at so you can plan for their return to the training ground accordingly.
“It is absolutely paramount that this is being tracked and the exercises and data. The problem the players have got is that they can ride bikes and lift weights and go on runs and do sprints, but it is not the same as playing 11-v-11 for 90 minutes. That is very difficult to mimic,” Hancock added. “This is very, very, very important for the clubs and the coaching staff because that is the difference between winning and losing, promotion and relegation. This window that the leagues are going to give them, for me is very important. From a clubs point of view it is paramount they continue to communicate, continue to deliver, continue to be able to monitor what each of the players are doing. Heart rate and GPS, all of that stuff that is being used, can be uploaded into our system instantly. Therefore, people can do this all remotely.”
Most people agree that this sort of data analysis and collection will now become the new normal across the soccer world.
Analytics and sports science already plays a much bigger role than it did 10 years ago but this current situation should mean that if they haven’t been already, Premier League players and clubs will now stay in constant contact throughout the summer months and offseason.
“Every player sees themselves as a brand and a company within themselves now. They want to look after themselves and do the best for their bodies. They are very professional. This system enables the clubs to know what they are doing,” Cole explained. “There are a lot of players who go away in the summer who go with specific personal trainers and they might be good ones or might not be. It doesn’t matter if they are the best or the worst in the world, if there’s no cohesion between what you’re doing with them and what you’re doing with the club, it all falls down. It is like a symphony. You can’t just go away and beast yourself and then come off it. There needs to be communication. When the players report back what they’ve done and the clubs get their hands on them, they can then pick it up. It is like fine-tuning a Formula One car now, these guys. They need this level of care.”
With so much focus on when and if leagues will return to action, not a lot of attention has been placed on exactly when the players will actually be ready to return to action.
“The sports scientists and all of the knowledge they bring, having a good one of those is going to be vital,” Cole said. “The more data you have and the better person you can have to read that data, whoever does that the best will have a better chance to win games. It’s as simple as that. With Apollo you can see how your players have slept, what they’re eating, psychologically how they’re doing. That is without the nuts and bolts of the training. It is vital you’re all singing off the same hymn sheet. If I was a manager I’d be very comfortable if my club had this tool because I’d have full control on what’s been going on. It is massively important.”
Just as important as when the Premier League returns to action is what Premier League players and clubs are doing right now to make sure that return is a successful, and healthy, one.
Personally, I’m intrigued to see if there’s a huge difference between which teams have a storming finish to the season and others who finish sluggishly and if that can be put down to training methods and tracking during this lengthy suspension.