⭐Sports Performance Roles & Best Practices (Head of Performance, Head Athletic Trainer..)

With recommendations from top sports performance execs in the MLS, Laliga, Premier League..NBA.

Over the past 10 years we have worked with many sports performance professionals of professional teams and leagues (NBA, MLS, NHL, MLB, NFL, European soccer, Olympic teams..). Within a sports performance department there are key roles (Director of high performance, Head Athletic Trainer, Director of Sports Medicine, Head of R&D, Director of Sports Science, Sports Scientist..) and not many people understand the nuances between those various roles and respective responsibilities. Roles and responsibilities can also vary depending on the club level, and the sports which adds up to the complexity and the confusion. In the analysis we will provide an overview of those key job functions with some recommendations from top sports performance executives from the MLS, NBA, Premier League, Laliga, and so on.

The number of Performance Director Roles in clubs has grown exponentially over the years.  “Performance” has become one of the most used “words” in the world of elite sports.

Over the past few years we have seen an explosive growth in terms of the number of sports performance roles. In parallel, the term “performance'' has become one of the most used words in the world of elite sports. Martin Buchheit, the head of performance intelligence research at Kitman Labs and cofounder of HIIT Science, who conducted a study on sports performance roles back in 2019, further explained in his study: “Strength coaches are now called “performance coaches”, analysts, “Performance analysts” and nutritionists have become “performance nutritionists”. “Performance: ultimately refers to the verb “to perform”, which has two meanings: 1) the act of doing something (irrelevant in the present context) and 2) how well something is made or how successful it is, with the term “high performance” referring to even higher levels of accomplishment. The second aspect of the definition is likely more related to the topic of the present manuscript and can be, in turn, translated into winning games and trophies. But in this case, shouldn’t be the coaches, and even the players also considered/renamed as performance coaches and performance players?! It all becomes very confusing as to who is responsible for what, and even their accountability to the result. In fact, we need to think further than the end results (e.g. winning games and trophies) and also consider the overall processes around training and planning. The common problems in structures with a high number of staff and departments are the tendency to work in silos, unclear communication lines and hierarchy between staff and the lack of a common and shared vision. Heads of Performance, High-Performance Managers, Director of Sports Medicine & Athletic performance types of roles have in fact been created to eliminate the segregated configuration of the different departments, and improve between staff communications. 

Martin Buchheit, as part of his study, created the chart below, which classifies the various sports performance roles: 

Source:  The Noble Ranks of Performance roles, 2019. “Classification of sports performance roles”.

Mr Buchheit classified the various sports performance roles based on various levels:

  • Level 1: This includes roles such as Physios, Masseurs. 

  • Level 2: This includes roles such as the head of physio, the head of Strength & Conditioning (S&C), the head of sports science and the head of R&D. 

  • Level 3: This includes roles such as the head of medical and the head of performance. 

  • Level 4: This includes roles such as the high performance manager, director of sports medicine & athletic performance. 

According to Mr Buchheit, there are extremely large variations in job titles for similar roles and conversely. For example performance managers (Level 3 and 4) have an important role to eliminate the segregated configuration of the different departments, improve between-staff communication, long term club operations and procedures and in turn  players and team results. Overall, most of the decisions are shared by all and especially with the technical staff, with level 4 high performance managers being the role where practitioners tend to make the greatest proportion of the final decisions on their own (50% of them making >70% of the final decisions), according to Mr Buchheit’s study.   

In his study, Mr Buchheit also represented in the chart below a typical club’s structure and level of intervention of the different job roles from the CEO, head coach & staff, head of performance all of the way to the players. 

Source:  The Noble Ranks of Performance roles, 2019.

The level of stability typically varies between the roles. In the chart below, created by Mr Buchheit, inside a club, there is typically a central “player” module, surrounded by the “transitional coach/staff module, further surrounded by the “club core staff” module and then the “strategic module” on the outside. The “club core staff” is typically comprised of the PhDs, interns, nutritionists, sports scientists, head of sports science, head of strengths and conditioning and the head of performance. On the other end, the strategic staff is usually made of the head of R&D/innovation, CEO, COO, Board, and high performance managers.

We see that when the Manager leaves, the “transitional Module” is replaced but to maintain consistency for club practice, culture and data the “Club core module” provides a bridge and a transition to the new “transitional staff module”.

Source:  The Noble Ranks of Performance roles, 2019.

Sports performance roles are often self-given. No correlation between Sports performance roles and the level of education

Interestingly enough there seems to be no correlation between the level of education and the sports performance roles. In fact, according to Mr Buchheit’s study, there were incredibly large variations in roles for a given title, and conversely. Mr Buchheit believes that “This may be related to the fact that there is still no consensus on how those practitioners should be named, and more importantly, that many of these job titles are often self-given. In other terms, everyone wants to be unique, so nobody is”.    In his study Mr Buchheit also pointed out that there is no correlation at all between education and job levels, which suggests that recruitment processes may be more related to people network and experience than education per se. Lastly in his study he also noted the very large variation in the number of staff managed among the same positions (e.g. the average SD of the number of staff managed was n=9) and the lack of a consistent relationship between job levels and the number of staff managed (e.g. Level 3 Head of Performance and level 2 Head of Sport Science showing both an average of 6 staff managed). 

The larger the club the greater the staff number and the greater the specificity of roles. In smaller clubs sports performance roles are more generalist

Not surprisingly, according to Mr Buchheit’s study, the higher the level of the club, the greater the staff number, and the greater the specificity in terms of roles and job description. On the contrary, for teams with less staff, roles were more generalist. For example, while in large structures, the Head of Strength and Conditioning, the Head of Sport Science and the Nutritionist can be found to be working alongside (high level of specialization). The Head of Strength and Conditioning may be doing a bit of Sport Science and Nutrition himself in smaller structure (more generalist type of role). While more staff with high levels of specialization likely increases the overall knowledge at disposal for players, “more” does not always equal “better” (performance) when things are not properly organized. Specialists may lose the ability to see the overall picture, and this is where Performance Manager Roles become essential, according to Mr Buchheit.

Key differences between sports performance & R&D roles

A. Director of high performance

According to the UF program, high performance directors can be distinguished from regular coaches by their approach to training. As shown in the chart below, these coaches use an integrated approach that includes a combination of physical, mental, and psychological training. The conception is that these coaches only work with elite athletes, but that isn’t the case. High performance coaches work with different levels of athletes, helping them play at their best, both individually and (when applicable) with a team.

Key differences between sports performance & R&D roles

Source: Upside Global, November 2021.

High performance coaches combine physiology, kinesiology, and psychology in their training and often serve as role models, mentors, teachers and community leaders. They also work with a team of specialists that include physiotherapists and nutritionists. In addition, high performance coaches make sure their athletes have access to the best resources and equipment available.

Coaches have a diverse list of responsibilities when it comes to taking care of their athletes, including communication, injury prevention, risk management, goal setting, athlete development and nutrition.

B. Head Athletic Trainer

The six domains of athletic training are injury prevention, clinical evaluation and diagnosis, immediate care, treatment, rehabilitation and reconditioning, organization and administration, and professional responsibility.

Here are examples of responsibilities from the head athletic trainer that represent typical tasks they are likely to perform in their roles.

  • Manage and perform isokinetic rehab services and Biodex testing services.

  • Coordinate communications with outside health care providers including orthopedic surgeons, emergency room physicians, and physical therapists.

  • Maintain accurate records of injuries and illnesses, treatment and rehabilitation progress, medical history information, and emergency medical data.

  • Develop sports performance programs for various sports.

  • Care for and rehabilitate players.

  • Coordinate all medical services for the team.

  • Manage and perform isokinetic rehab services.

C. Director of Sports Medicine

The director of sports medicine oversees the work of the sports medicine doctors and ensures the athletes are treated correctly. They also work with musculoskeletal system disorders. If diagnostic imaging or laboratory testing is required, they oversee that as well.

D. Director of Sports Science

Here are examples of responsibilities from the director of sports Science that represent typical tasks they are likely to perform in their roles.

  • Leverages data sciences and predictive analytics to identify opportunities for future growth.

  • Collaborate with the VP, IT to manage all data that is collected daily into a centralized data structure (database, server, or AMS platform); 

  • Manage all data visualization software including: all physical/tracking data, technical data, and recruitment data. Such visualizations may be created through the use of such tools (e.g. Tableau, Power-BI, or R/Python code).

  • Manage all tracking data and technology (GPS..).

  • Manage on-field delivery of all tracking and loading data to the high performance director and head coach to optimize decision making.

  • Responsible for all data visualizations created daily, and shared with the high performance, medical, and technical staff.

  • Lead discussions with the high performance director and sporting director regarding future sports science technologies that should be acquired by the organization.

  • Work with high performance director to create visualizations and reports assessing athlete readiness and fatigue monitoring of all athletes; and

  • Create a comprehensive way to store and visualize all physical testing performed by first team players and academy players.

  • Liaise with the medical staff to create reporting during the rehab process to help the decision-making process to transition athletes from rehab to reconditioning.

  • Drive innovation and research initiatives within the sports club and represent the organization at sports science and research conferences.

E. Sports Scientist

A sports scientist provides expert advice and support to athletes and coaches to help them understand and enhance sports performance; They also typically adopt evidence-based, quality-assured practice to evaluate and develop effective strategies or interventions in training and/or competition. More specifically they can:

  • Provide performance support as requested by the director of sports performance and coaching staff, including developing and supporting performance monitoring systems and data.

  • Provide, maintain and monitor reports as needed, specifically regarding players training.

  • Manage and develop the physical and wellness database utilizing the latest technology. Also, will be required to travel and conduct performance testing and educational workshops for the organization.

  • Ensure the highest standards of data and player information is collected in line with the requirements of the director of sports performance and coaching staff.

  • Assist in the delivery of educational workshops including ongoing webinars and dissemination of relevant research topics. Develop resources and provide support in relation to ongoing prehab, injury prevention, recovery, nutrition, travel, environment and conditioning strategies.

  • Help support the department with research on performance and medicine. 

  • Support the development of internal resources required within the sports performance department. 

  • Support, manage and develop high performance associates.

F. Head of R&D

The head of Research and Development (R&D) is typically responsible for:

  • Overseeing the various research and studies inside a sports organization.

  • Interacting with the director of performance, sports medicine, sports science to understand their needs in terms of technologies, and research.

  • Sourcing and interacting with a large variety of sports companies in areas such as sports performance, injury prevention, sleep tech, AMS, and so on.

  • Leading incubation program and tech hub inside the club.

Best Practices to become a successful Sports Performance Professional

Here are some recommendations from top sports performance executives on the best practices:

  • Having multiple background in all components of Performance (S&C, A.T, etc…) coupled with a knowledge of coaching as well coupled with a knowledge of coaching as well as (Coaches and players’) psychology should be part of an ideal profile to become an high performance director:

Pierre Barrieu, Director of High Performance for Toronto FC (MLS) & FIFA High Performance Expert, further explained during an interview with The Upside: “Anyone who has the ambition of becoming a Director of HP must have a holistic approach for a multitude of areas. Experience is a must but multiple background in all components of Performance (S&C, A.T, etc…) coupled with a knowledge of coaching as well as (Coaches and players’) psychology should be part of an ideal profile”.

  • High performance sports need a very well coordinated and integrated action between the main professionals responsible for the team's physical performance: athletic trainer - director of sports science - director sports medicine:

    This is what Manoel Coutinho, Physiologist for Botafogo FC, a leading Brazilian soccer team, explained during an interview with The Upside: “High performance sports need a very well coordinated and integrated action between the main professionals responsible for the team's physical performance: athletic trainer - director of sports science - director sports medicine. The athletic trainer must focus the work on choosing the best techniques for the physical development of the team, always based on the information provided by the director of sport science, in addition to leading his team of assistant physical coaches. The director of sports sciences is responsible for controlling the health condition and performance of the team, through periodic physical tests and control of training loads. In addition, this professional coordinates the planning and execution of the recovery processes, essential for the perfect recovery of athletes between matches. The sports medicine director controls the recovery and treatment of injured athletes, aiming to enable athletes to return to training as quickly as possible. Each of these professionals is responsible for planning investments in their respective areas”.

    • A director of performance has to have the confidence and ability to lead and communicate with colleagues from each discipline to create a unified department:

      Derek Lawrance, Director of Health & Performance for the SJ Earthquakes (MLS), further explained during an interview with The Upside: “I think it’s important to understand that having a role as a Director of Performance takes a multi-faceted approach to the daily operations of a performance department.  This means it’s imperative to understand many areas related to performance (medical, strength, nutrition, data, etc.) even though most come from one specific background. Acquiring knowledge in your weaker areas derive from time and experience as you explore and understand each specific area during your professional development. More importantly, you have to have the confidence and ability to lead and communicate with colleagues from each discipline to create a unified department.”

    • A head Athletic Trainers without high-performance directors or director of sports med must ensure the proper communication and coordination of processes between clinical, gym and on field rehab as well as the people responsible for each part:

    Karam Al-Hamdani, the Head Athletic Therapist for the Impact Montreal FC (MLS), further explained during an interview with The Upside: “As the Head Athletic Trainer of a team without a High-Performance Director or a Director of Sports Med, it becomes critical to ensure the proper communication and coordination of processes between clinical, gym and on field rehab as well as the people responsible for each part. You sort of assume these roles as part of your duties. You quickly realize that your job is not just to treat an ailment but more of a global approach, looking at the athlete from the moment he wakes up till the moment he leaves your facility and sometimes even beyond that. Our athletes are our assets, and the more you take care of your asset the less money you leave on the table due to injury”.

  • A Head Athletic Trainer needs to be very knowledgeable in all these areas (nutritionist,  strength and conditioning specialist, mental health specialist, biometrics specialist, and analysts): 

Marco Nunez, the former Head Athletic Trainer for the LA Lakers (NBA) further explained during an interview with The Upside: “The role of a Head Athletic Trainer in the Sports medicine area has evolved in the last 20 to 30 years. Traditionally, most team’s sports medicine staff comprised of an athletic trainer and an assistant athletic trainer. With the demands of maintaining and improving the health of an athlete, teams have realized that they need to address and attend to the WHOLE athlete. As a result, sports medicine staff now include, nutritionist,  strength and conditioning specialist, mental health specialist, biometrics specialist, and analysts, just to name a few. Therefore, the Head Athletic Trainer or Director needs to be very knowledgeable in all these areas. No, they don’t need to be an expert in one specific area, rather they need to know and understand how to integrate integrate and implement all these areas into practice in order to help their athletes reach peak performance."

  • A head of fitness should have a solid knowledge across various scientific areas (Anatomy and physiology of exercises, biomechanics, sports nutrition, psychology and didactics) and show his/her passion in her/his work:

Juan Gómez, Fitness coach and load management for the Atletico Madrid (Laliga), further explained during an interview with The Upside, “A fitness coach in today's world of elite sports should have a solid knowledge across various scientific areas (Anatomy and Exercise physiology , biomechanics, sports nutrition, psychology and didactics). He/she should also master different methods of planning, periodization, and exercise programming. He/she should also manage various recovery methods, as well as injury prevention, morpho-functional evaluations, training load control and various methods used to optimize players’ physical and technical skills to enhance performance; He/she should also have solid leadership and motivational skills, effective communication and team management skills, as well as a strong sports-specific technical-tactical knowledge. Being resilient and able to solve problems and adapt to various situations are also important qualities to have. Providing constant updates, while staying focused on learning from her/his own experiences, will also be critical. And above all, he/she must convey passion for his/her job”.

  • A sports scientist should focus on the basics, and strategic projects, and should not forget about the scientific principles (validity, reliability):

Cedric Leduc, First Team Sports Scientist at Crystal Palace FC (Premier League) further explained during an interview with The Upside: “As a sport Scientist, three things have been important for me so far. First, managing well the basic. Before doing or chasing any sort of marginal gains in your process ensure the basics of your job are done really well. Second don't forget the scientific principles such as validity and reliability. This is an important part of our job and ensure we are integrating the appropriate technology for our athletes. Finally: avoid non critical projects and focus on strategic projects instead. In other words, with the amount of data collected on daily basis in sport, it is pretty easy to end up in traps and tackling the wrong project due to a lack of organization”.

Bottom line: Ultimately sports performance executives are very important members of sports organizations. They are responsible for taking care of the players’ health, recovery, physical and mental training, managing players’ load, which is a hot topic these days. Now their responsibilities can also vary depending on the club and type of sports. Some of those individuals also play a critical part of the technology sourcing aspect. They are the ultimate decision makers when it comes to buying technologies such as wearables, injury prevention tools, sleep technologies, GPS and HR/HRV systems, hydration measurement tools. Moving forward we expect these trends to continue and the sports performance roles to continue to evolve over time.

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