Is sport science good for the beautiful game?

By Peter Kennedy & David Kennedy

The arrival of sports science into professional football has sanctioned dramatic changes for the professional footballer. Players are constantly under the gaze of sport science, to prune, nurture and fine-tune their bodies as economic and cultural assets. The arrival of ‘big data’ and GPS technology is transforming the statistician’s long held aspiration to quantify, measure and record every facet of individual, team play and spatial movement of the modern game. In this new environment the modern elite player is more likely to be attracted to the latest team performance pie charts than the proverbial pre-match pork pie and chips. Especially as football statisticians now have at their fingertips a plethora of algorithmic information on, for example, number of sprints per team in a Premier League match, in-play ‘recovery time between high intensity sprints’ etc, all of which is dedicated to identify, monitor and nurture ‘talent’, which enable the use of research methods and analysis drawn from anthropometry, physiology, psychology and sociology (Duch et al., 2010).

No longer does the modern football club lag behind other sports in applying the accumulated wealth of scientific knowledge aimed at achieving peak body performance for their playing squad: sport science – from big data, dietetics to vitamin D beds – has firmly embedded itself in the professional lives of elite footballers. Since the 1980s the appliance of science to football has accelerated rapidly. As Reilly and Williams note:

In the 1980s, it became apparent that the football industry and professionals in the game could no longer rely on the traditional methods of previous decades. Coaches and trainers were more open to contemporary scientific approaches to preparing for competition. Methods of science were applied to organizing the big football clubs and the training of players could be formulated on a systematic basis. In general the clubs that moved with the times were rewarded with success by gaining advantage over those that did not change (Reilly and Williams)

The rapid development of the elective affinity between sport science and football, inferred by Reilly and Williams, is a consequence of both becoming embedded in a wider network, bringing together clubs, academics, policy makers and professional scientists. The manifestation of this wider network is the ‘World Congress of Science in Football’, which meets every four years to discuss the latest ways to apply biomechanics, psychology, computer-aided design, scientific management, specialist nutrition, sports physiology, etc., in the attempt to maximize performance.

So what are the likely consequences of this rapidly developing elective affinity between science and football? Is the ‘beautiful game’ slipping into mechanical art? Answers depend on reason and context.


Sport Science: aiding the football body beautiful?

Modern football managers come armed with their own ‘philosophies’ on how the game is to be played; and coaching and sport science staff are assembled and tasked with training and engineering a squad of players with a blend of skills and natural attributes that are best suited to putting management philosophies into practice. Perhaps such a context might hold out positive grounds for making the game even more ‘beautiful’?

Sport science can underpin the more consistent execution of iconic football artistry, completed in the blink of an eye, such as the ‘Cryuff Turn’ – facing one way with the ball taking it with the inside of your foot through your legs and back the other way; or the ‘step-over’ – running at speed while stepping over the ball in a counter clockwise motion with one foot or alternating both feet, etc. As footballing bodies submit to the appliance of sport science, such moves have a platform to become perfected and become the new aesthetic norm open to emulation.

The dynamics of control

Arguments such as the above suggest it is not all doom and gloom. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for suggesting that the use of sport science does pose a threat to the aesthetics of ‘the beautiful game’. And as above, context is everything.

One such context is the relationship between the popularity of sport science in football and dramatic changes to the market and work situation of elite footballers. The mobility of elite players and the vast amounts of money they receive in salaries points to lack of control over the market situation of elite players. Gone are the days when players were subject to wage controls and semi-feudal contracts: gradually eroded then blown away post-Bosman. It is now reasonable to suggest that elite club owners, having ceded relative control over the market situation of elite players, are making use of sport science to exact more control over the elite players’ work situation. Beginning with the market situation: football clubs face a number of problems in curbing the market power of elite players, three of which are listed below.

Firstly, any potential solution for club owners has to be UEFA-wide rather than club level; no single club will choose to place formal wage caps if other clubs do not follow because they may lose ground to their competitors. Secondly, placing highly paid football players in the same bracket as globally recognized actors and performers in the entertainment and music industries makes football and the players as brands more attractive to corporate and media sponsors and perhaps makes any fundamental rebalancing of the market situation of players that much less appealing for club owners to tackle, given the all round financial rewards. Thirdly, at the aggregate level club owners have failed to develop sustainable transfer dealings, finding it difficult to exert much control over the year on year market value of their players: net losses on transfer dealings have almost doubled between 2004-14, from £279 to £466 million.

Having ceded a degree of power to players in the elite labour market, to what extent might sport science be embroiled in tightening control over the use of elite player power in the ‘workplace’? Sport science techniques, increase player peak performance, lessen injuries, extend careers, etc., hence the greater surveillance mechanisms afforded by sport science can only benefit clubs. Even when intruding into player lifestyle, they may be more or less tolerated, more or less embraced, by elite players due to the benefits sport science has for sustain the market situation of players. Football clubs, individually and collectively, benefit from establishing sport science departments because it raises productivity, the asset value of players and internalizes health, training and dietary discipline.

The results of the above may be that football clubs tighten their control over the work situation of elite players. If this is the case then one might assume that sport science is fast becoming a crucial player in driving forward football as a business enterprise, in which elite players have unwittingly signed up to a full blown Faustian pact of high salaries and luxurious lifestyles for the limited autonomy of a ‘charmed cage’ constructed out of a concoction of prescriptions, admonitions and beliefs about the necessity to sustain competitive elite ‘sporting bodies’, emanating from a range of sciences (sports nutrition and exercise physiology, Fitness Coach, Performance Analysts, Consultant in Osteopathy, Development Coach, Sports Medics + sport Science Managers), driven to maximize performance.


Sports Science: helping to crack the whip?

The message has so far been that context is everything when deliberating on the extent to which sport science can raise the aesthetics of the game to standardize and control the workplace of elite players, or achieve some workable harmony between science and art. It might be said that modern footballers have simply followed the path of other athletes and become an appendage to technic and science; a biological ‘tool to be honed, tailored and specialized to produce optimal human performance’ (Maguire, 2004). And modern football as a whole has succumbed to the ‘performance principle’, which overrides innate sporting virtues to render the athlete a ‘precision instrument driven to become bigger, better, faster, stronger’ as ends in themselves (Beamish and Ritchie, 2006); and subdues the modern athlete’s struggle to adhere to their sport’s own internal moral foundations and ‘gratuitous logic’ (Kew, 1997). Even if we accept that sport science is embroiled in the club’s struggle to exert more control over the work situation of elite players, partly in response to the lack of control club’s experience over the player’s market situation, the consequence is neither the iron cage nor the velvet glove but somewhere in between. However, as Reilly and Williams remind us:

The coach and trainer may use scientific information to avoid errors and to maximize the chances of preparing the team well…That football is an art rather than a science is exemplified by the craft of great players like Zinadine Zidane, or Brazil’s Rivaldo, the erstwhile guile of Maradona, the precision of David Beckham or the speed of Michael Owen. The game is aleatory and is partly determined by chance or strokes of individual genius…A scientific approach towards preparation for play can nevertheless enhance the enjoyment of both players and spectators. It can achieve this goal by enabling the team to play to its potential (Reilly and Williams, 2004).

Therefore, perhaps a more sensible conclusion would be that the dynamic between the market and work situation experienced by elite footballers and club owners places sport science in a contradictory position: on the one hand it facilitates the commodification of football as an abstract performance imperative and thwarts the esthetic experience of football; on the other hand it assists in developing the body and mind required of performance art at the highest levels, displacing the cash nexus to foreground the aesthetic experience.

Peter Kennedy lectures in the Sociology of Sport at the Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University.  David Kennedy is a freelance writer.  The authors have published widely on football.

Article to cite:

Kennedy, P. & Kennedy, D. (2016) “The role of Sport Science in the elite football Labour Process”, Sport, Business and Management: An International Journal, Vol. 6 Iss: 3

Their latest book:

Kennedy, D. & Kennedy, P. (2016) Football in Neo-Liberal Times: A Marxist Perspective on the European Football Industry, Routledge, found here.

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