From Cristiano Ronaldo to Odion Ighalo - Footballers depend on personal trainers to be their best

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  • Football has never been more competitive and raw talent can only take you so far.

    At the highest level, elite clubs incorporate sports science and statistical analysis.

    They employ specialised coaches, psychologists, physiotherapists and nutritionists among an army of staff working towards a common goal – the betterment of their team.

    And even all of that can only take a player, as an individual, so far.

    For a footballer to make the most of his talent he must push himself beyond his limits and aspire to a higher standard. That’s why many today, including those among the very best like Cristiano Ronaldo, are turning to personal trainers to help them excel.

    Wayne Richardson, founder of Richardson Sport, is a renowned performance coach in Manchester and has plenty of experience working one-on-one with top professionals.

    He served as a fitness coach for numerous Premier League and lower league clubs before setting up his own company where he continues to work closely with players and their teams.

    Richardson’s performance centre is frequented by 100-150 professional and academy players every week.

    He’s worked with Premier League forwards Saido Berahino, Sheyi Ojo and, most recently, Manchester United’s new signing Odion Ighalo.

    Having arrived on loan from Shanghai Shenhua in China – where the coronavirus broke out – late in the January transfer window, protocol dictated that Ighalo train away from the squad for a period of two weeks. With three years elapsed since his Premier League spell at Watford, it was an opportunity for the Nigerian to ensure he was at his best for England’s top flight once again.

    “He’s a very dedicated athlete,” Richardson says. “The deal was done at 10.59pm [on January 31]. He was on a plane overnight on Saturday [February 1], arriving in Manchester Sunday morning. I was asked to set up a training camp for the next two weeks at the GB Taekwondo performance centre doing double sessions [mornings and evenings]. His training and attitude was impeccable.”

    Ighalo has hit the ground running at United, silencing critics with four goals in three starts. Richardson was immediately impressed by the striker’s ability to hold off defenders with his upper body strength and his movement off the ball. But in order to be truly effective in and around the box, sharpness was key. The Premier League is played at a high tempo and Ighalo needed to be prepared.

    “We worked on change of direction, speed with and without the ball, holding off defenders and reaction drills – reacting quickly to loose balls.”

    Working with players in the short-term is not uncommon for Richardson, especially when they’re returning from injury. But his performance centre caters to clients year-round as well.

    Today, personal trainers are a big part of the support system of professionals that players rely on outside their respective clubs.

    At 35, Ronaldo is still remarkably quick and that doesn’t just happen. The Portuguese has worked with Olympic sprinters like Francis Obikwelu and Samantha Clayton.

    Kevin De Bruyne on the other hand, along with Manchester City team-mate Ilkay Gundogan, avail the services of Jonny Marsh, a Michelin-starred chef entrusted with their nutrition.

    In fact, players are growing increasingly reliant on their entourage and sometimes, that can create a conflict with their clubs.

    Paul Pogba underwent ankle surgery in January that extended his time on the sidelines. He did so under the advice of “his people” according to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, rather than that of the club doctors.

    Richardson’s role is not to compete with the player’s club or challenge their authority. Instead, he strives to give his clients the attention and individual focus that isn’t feasible for the coaching staff at their clubs whose priority is the performance of the team as a whole.

    It’s all about communicating and working closely with the player and his employers.

    “We have to be mindful not to fight against the clubs,” Richardson explains.

    “There are a lot who we work well with. We have a good network and communication. We’ll send them the program, we’ll tell them what we’re doing.”

    Of course, outside help isn’t always welcome with the staff at the club sometimes insisting that any training program for a given player can be conducted in-house.

    “I’ve had some cases where an academy director has sanctioned [the training] but the sports scientist says it can be done at the club.”

    The key in that situation according to Richardson is to distance himself from that debate.

    “We let the player and the agent talk to the club. But we do not fight with the club. When a player wants our service, we then have to try and find out what he’s been doing at the club.”

    Naturally, that’s only possible if there’s total transparency and an exchange of information between the club and personal trainer. That’s why the training Richardson provides is often an extension of what the player would receive with his team.

    “It mirrors what a player would get if they were at their respective clubs,” he says.

    Richardson’s experience with Berahino is a fine example of a positive working relationship.

    “The agent spoke to the Director of Football who then spoke to us. I was able to go into Stoke’s training facility and also spoke to the head of medical and sports science. He told me the work we’re doing is fantastic and asked to keep them aware of what he [Berahino] is doing outside. So it becomes a good relationship.”

    With players competing in over 50 games a season at the highest level, the obvious concern is their huge workload. So in terms of additional training, there’s a balance to be struck and a level of diligence to be observed.

    “You have to look at fixtures, where the players travel from. We have to be mindful of the amount of workload and intensity, the issues that they possibly have, [and other] game-related things. It’s always great to communicate with the sports scientists or the coaches or the player himself so we know what we then do.”

    Despite the physical strain on the modern footballer, the reality is that they are full-time athletes. Staying at the top of their game involves sacrifice and a mindset that’s fixated on the pursuit of perfection.

    So even when players go away for the summer, many of them will spend time working with a conditioning coach to do some warm weather training. That’s why Dubai is such a popular destination for football stars.

    Daniel James made headlines last summer for his gruelling training program in Dubai before pre-season. Following his move to United, the Welsh winger enlisted the services of fitness team Kaizen 3 Performance to ensure he arrived at Old Trafford in excellent shape.

    It wasn’t just about fitness either. James took the initiative to work on certain aspects of his game including mobility, finishing and strengthening his ability with his weaker left foot.

    “Players like to feel like they’ve started the season right,” Richardson says. “It’s a great mentality. Gone are the days where you could walk in for pre-season and be overweight. Players are taking more care of themselves.”

    Everything stems from a single-minded desire to perform at optimum levels as an athlete and continuously progress as a footballer.

    Richardson urges his clients to speak to the backroom team, take all the information they can on board and figure out what areas they need to improve in.

    “It’s a cut throat business. What can separate you from the others? Can you then go the extra mile? Can you look at doing extra work behind the scenes?”

    Given the nature of the modern game, it’s no surprise that most players zero in on one key attribute they’re all desperate to develop – speed.

    “Players want to improve on their five or ten metre starts, changes of direction and running mechanics. We work on ankle stiffness, hamstring flexibility. Flexibility and mobility. Players in the Premier League are so quick and direct.”

    And that’s just the sort of thing players often struggle to develop at their clubs. It can require 30-40 minute sessions of individual training, time that simply does not exist when the head coach needs to work with the entire group on different tactics, set-piece routines and patterns of play.

    “Clubs are very limited because the manager has a structure, the sports scientist has a structure. They can’t work with players on an individual basis.”

    So players need to work on a few things themselves if they’re dedicated to improving the finer aspects of their game. Personal trainers like Richardson and those at his performance centre, step in and facilitate that process.

    Richardson began this venture nearly a decade ago while working at Manchester City. Jim Cassell, the Youth Academy Director at the time, was responsible for the development of players like Shaun Wright-Phillips, Joey Barton, Stephen Ireland, Daniel Sturridge and Micah Richards.

    He noticed the individual work Richardson was doing with players and told him that in the next 10 years it’s going to become very sought after because a lot of players are going to demand extra work behind the scenes.

    Cassell, now the International Academy Director, knew what he was talking about.

    More footballers are working with personal trainers every season. Sometimes they seek help themselves, on other occasions clubs send them out to reputed trainers to undergo specific programs.

    They’re getting fitter, improving their skills and raising standards. As a result, football in general is being elevated to new heights, both as a sport and a spectacle.