'Fresh pair of eyes' - meet the latest addition to Mark Robins' backroom at Coventry City

One of Doug King’s first undertakings when he took over Coventry City was to make sure that the club got things right on the pitch, that Mark Robins got the right support and investment to ensure the team continued to grow and evolve.

Allied to that was a lot of work behind the scenes, including significant investment in new training pitches and providing the manager and his players with the right resources and very best support staff to take the Sky Blues to the next level. The owner’s early audit threw up one significant gap in Robins’ Ryton back room.

Meet Dr Claire-Marie Roberts, the club’s relatively new Performance Director – a “fresh pair of eyes” with a fascinating backstory that saw her “sabotage” her own elite swimming career, train as a civil engineer and play football for Aston Villa!

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Having worked for the Premier League for the previous eight years, the former Olympic standard swimmer arrived in February with vast experience after taking the lead on football development and looking at the strategic investment for all of the academies in the men’s professional game, working on a project to professionalise coaching and, more latterly, being responsible for match official development and improving standards of those officiating the game through an Elite Referee Development Plan, with a lot of focus on VAR. We’ll come to that in another article!

Here, in the first of two in-depth features, Sky Blues reporter Andy Turner sat down with Dr Roberts to find out exactly what her wide ranging remit involves and how she intends to help Coventry City become the very best it can with the resources it has got.

Asked what the work of Performance Director looks like on a day-to-day basis, the 46-year-old said: “I think the first thing to say – and this is something that I learned and was drummed into me when I was working for the British Olympic Association through Olympic cycles – is that almost everything is a performance issue. There are so many critical facets that need to be in place for someone to perform at their best, and it can be something as seemingly innocuous as a player transitioning into a team. So we’re in the summer transfer window now and what we are looking at is a number of things.

“In the wider remit, there’s the medical department, the sports science department, strength and conditioning, nutrition, psychology, player care and liaison, performance and data analysis. It’s really wide ranging.

“In the last couple of months we have been trying to maximise the performance opportunities we have in the pre-season, so a lot of the arrangements for pre-season matches have fallen to me because we are looking to utilise that time in the most intelligent way to prepare us in the best possible way for the new season. So it’s a wide ranging job and absolutely fascinating, and I am doing it at an incredible club and in a brilliant environment. I have walked into a fantastically supportive team of people who are all aligned to the same goals, which is fantastic. It’s the best challenge ever.”

Before we get into the finer details of the job, Claire-Marie has taken an interesting route to where she is today. A quick look at her Linked-In page reveals that she studied civil engineering. So how did she make the jump from the construction industry to sport science?

“It was my first undergraduate degree and a bit impulsive,” she explained. “I was due to do sport and exercise science at Loughborough and the fact that I was an international swimmer meant that I had an unconditional place to study there because they just wanted people to populate their elite sports teams.

“And then I had an accident which ended my swimming career and they took my place away from me and I had to choose something else very quickly, so it was a bit of an impulsive decision. I didn’t know much about building and civil engineering but thoroughly enjoyed my study and my time in the construction industry, where I was always completely out of my depth and completely challenged. But it built a high degree of resilience in me and I found every day very rewarding but always had a bit of unfinished business because I knew I needed to get back into sport.”

As for her promising swimming career, she explained the devastating results of one regrettable decision on a ski slope.

“I had a qualification time for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in 100 metres breaststroke but unfortunately I sabotaged my own career,” she said.

“I went skiing off-piste and had a nasty accident, fell into a crevasse and ruptured all the ligaments in my left knee. And in terms of breaststroke, it was a bit of a terminal injury to have for my sport. I tried to get back but, biomechanically, just couldn’t get back to the level that I had been swimming at and, for me, nothing short of that was acceptable, so I had to retire.

“So I went into football, which is something I’d had to give up when I was swimming because they make you sacrifice everything for the sport. I’d always played football as a child. My dad and granddad both played professionally so I think it was inevitable that I’d at least get the bug as an avid supporter. I played for Swindon and then latterly Aston Villa, as a central midfielder.”

She added: “I achieved absolutely nothing but if you think about where the women’s game was in the late 1990s/early 2000s... I do feel a bit of a fraud talking about it because it was so far away from where it is now. At certain times it resembled more of a rugby union match than a game of football, so skill levels were incredibly variable and the facilities and pitches we used to play on were almost criminal.

“The acknowledgement of certain teams by the FA and the league structures was so primitive, so what you see now in the WSL or the women’s championship is a world away from the standards when I was playing.”

Breaking into a chuckle, she said: “So apart from scoring seven goals in three matches for Aston Villa, I think that was my biggest accolade. But interpret that with caution, is what I’m saying.”

Now for the most shocking revelation and something for which we’ll have to forgive her, for the time being.

“I grew up a Villa supporter so it’s a bit of an elephant in the room here,” she said with a smile and, perhaps, a tiny hint of trepidation. “If I go to the Academy they have got me an Aston Villa mug, which I drink my tea from. The cleaners at Ryton have bought me a plant with a claret flower on it, which is a little nod to my affiliation, so it’s known but nobody really mentions it.”

In terms of her footballing credentials, she comes from good stock.

“My granddad, Fred Roberts, was probably the better player out of the three of us. He played for Birmingham City and then Luton Town in the 1930s. My dad, Clyde Roberts, played for Luton, starting as an apprentice in the 1960s and then retired professionally due to injury and played non-league for a while at Hitchin Town and Devizes Town.”

Back to the nitty-gritty of her job in hand, Claire-Marie explained that, alongside the club’s Head of Sports Science, Adam Hearn, and Head of Medical, Liam Stanley, that injury prevention takes up a major part of her work.

“It’s our absolute priority,” said the highly qualified professional with a doctorate in psychology.

“I say this to Doug all the time, that we need to make sure that our players are the best conditioned, the best prepared, physically and mentally, for the season ahead. And then when we do sustain injuries that those individuals get the best medical care, the most evidenced based approach to their rehabilitation and can come back fitter and more robust than they were before. So that unfortunate down time is an opportunity for them to get fitter and faster, and to make sure they are not damaged long-term by the process of injury.

“A lot of that is out of your hands but the things we can control are making sure those players are as robust as possible, and this is the core focus of what me and my colleagues do in the performance department.

“We support Mark Robins to make sure he has the most players available to him. A lot of the controllable stuff is an exact science but when you are in the dynamic nature of a football game in the Championship, which is so physical and physically relentless, things like impact injuries are difficult to prevent. So we can just make sure our players are the strongest to sustain some of that load and to mitigate some of that risk.”

Her influence has already brought about more improvements at the training ground.

“I said to Doug quite early on that we needed to upgrade our gym facilities at Ryton to help me achieve those objectives,” she explained, “and to be fair to him he’s backed that enthusiastically. So we have got new state-of-the-art gym facilities being built which will be ready for pre-season, just to make sure the players have access to the right equipment and can spend the optimal amount of time doing the strength and conditioning exercises.

“We have moved one of our sports scientists (Abbie Forman) into a dedicated strength and conditioning role, which is the fundamental foundation of what we want to do from a physical performance perspective for next season. Even in the four months that I have been here everyone has had a really open mind to the changes I have wanted to make, and it’s not a case of a criticism of what was there before. The journey that the club has been on, we have to catch up and put those sustainable foundations in place that allow us to operate and exceed the level that we’re at now.

“So a fresh pair of eyes, I think, has probably helped things a little bit and my relationship with Doug has allowed us to get some of those things we have probably needed for a while at the club but haven’t quite been able to get because of a lack of resources.”

Delving a bit deeper into the science and how the club go about preventing injuries, particularly muscle strains that are more controllable, to a degree, in terms of making sure players are not too fatigued and overloaded with work, she said: “Our ability to collect and utilise data is absolutely critical to what we want to achieve, so we monitor pretty much everything because we need to understand what variables contribute to the ability to sustain the physical load in the Championship. But also, more importantly, our ability to rest and recover. So we have a renewed focus on us being able to understand and answer some of our performance questions.

“A lot of it is, how do we maximise the amount of rest and recovery that the players are getting and enable them to be able to play a game, loosely, every four days? Obviously you get times when there is a bit of fixture congestion, which we saw towards the end of the season after the FA Cup semi-final, which negatively impacted our performances in the remaining league games of the season. And that was primarily, in my opinion, borne out of the fact that we didn’t have sufficient rest and recovery from our massive physical effort for 130 minutes at Wembley.”

She added: “At the same time as running our standard processes, we are engaging in some research where we are looking at how we can maximise that time for rest and recovery by using the most up-to-date methods. There are a lot of myths, a lot of voodoo and a lot of placebo around rest and recovery, so we are trying to be as evidence-based as we can.

“We know that there’s an onus on us to collect data and use that in the right way, so there’s a renewed focus on research for next season and beyond, where we can answer our own performance questions. But that culture of being able to say, ‘I wonder if,’ and putting it into an idea that’s going to have an impact; we have to have the confidence to say that we understand where we are from an evidence perspective but if we do something slightly different do we generate a bigger performance outcome.

“We are having those conversations and, again, we have a fantastic team of individuals in the sports science and medical departments and we have really good open debates about it. And, collaboratively, we come up with solutions that we then investigate to determine whether they have the right impact or not. So we have some exciting projects for next season where we are looking to supercharge the work that we are doing in that regard.”

Mark Robins revealed after City’s FA Cup semi-final against Manchester United that Callum O’Hare covered 17 kilometres during the course of the game, leaving him dead on his feet for the week ahead when the players had to pick themselves up and go again against Hull a few days later.

Measuring the amount of ground covered by a player is just one indicator of fatigue levels which, Dr Roberts explained, is far from an exact science.

“Fatigue is multi-faceted and you are never going to get one objective measure of it,” she said. “You can collect variables, things like lactic acid levels. You can get a self-reported level of perceived effort, you can look at physical output, heart-rate levels and GPS data in terms of distance covered etc.

“We measure the hardness of the pitches we play on to generate data because the softer the pitch the more fatigued you become because it is harder to run on softer surfaces. We monitor and collect data on pitch hardness as well to add that in, but there is no one objective measure of fatigue. That’s like the Holy Grail, so we use a variety of different measures.”

She added: “Adam (Hearn) and I are trialling wearable technology to see whether there’s any merit in using a more objective measure of recovery, for example, to help us understand how players are individually recovering from their physical effort. You and I could engage in the same physical endeavour but I might not be as fatigued as you for a number of reasons; I might have more muscle mass, be more fit from a cardiovascular perspective or might be more able to sustain the perceived effects of pain and discomfort.

“From our perspective, we are looking at it across a number of different variables and we combine all of those things to understand how to properly utilise our players. One thing I have been really impressed with, is Mark’s ability to understand when players need to be rested, and actually honour that in practice.

“It’s never a negative judgement on a player, it’s acknowledging that different people recover at different rates and some people will have put in an immense physical effort, so if you think back to Callum’s (O’Hare) physical output in the FA Cup semi-final, there was no question that he needed to be rested after that game.

“It wasn’t just the fact that he covered 17k, it was the intensity in which he covered that 17k and for his own health and welfare, he needed to rest. Mark’s ability to understand and interpret the data and make decisions on the basis of that is something I have been really impressed with. I know there are Premier League managers, trust me, who wouldn’t respect the data just because they might need a player to be available for selection on a given day. Mark’s ability to respect that has certainly made my job a bit easier.”

As for the sports psychology aspect of her role, the Bath born and bred performance director said: “I am a sport psychologist by profession and the first thing to say is that sports psychology is everywhere. For me, I am trying to make sure that the culture we have at the club is in the best place. When you have a great culture then everything else that falls out of that becomes a little bit easier. I want to create a culture where people feel welcomed and where their individual characteristics are respected.

“We all want to create an environment where people want to come to work; that’s fair and that the club is a great place to be. There’s an element of psychology in the setting of the culture of the first team, but also across the club in the Academy.

“On a one-to-one level, does psychology help my work with individual players? Without a doubt. Some players will come and see me to talk about things in general, and those conversations are confidential. I think it probably helps to break the ice because as a psychologist you can see and hear things like people’s darkest moments and most private worries and concerns. That background really helps me with the one-to-one dealings with the players.”

She added: “We have just appointed Dr Joe Dixon as our performance psychologist to work with the first team, building confidence, increasing focus and their attention capacity, dealing with performance anxiety, enhancing team dynamics and things like that.

“Whether my background in psychology has helped me with my work here, you’d have to ask my colleagues,” she said, breaking into a chuckle. “But it’s everywhere and understanding psychology is absolutely critical for us all.”

An obvious example of how sports psychology can work is the Sky Blues players’ mentality when going up against Premier League opposition in the FA Cup when they beat Wolves in the quarter-final and went toe-to-toe with Manchester United in the semis.

“We spent a lot of time with Mark (Robins) talking about how we’d collectively approach those games and we decided that we would try to maintain as much normality as possible,” she said. “We wanted it to appear like just another game and didn’t want to create too much of a big deal about it because then you can change people’s mindsets and how they prepare for it.

“For some of those individuals it’s inevitable that when you take them to Wembley that they are going to think slightly differently, but everything around that, we wanted to make sure we were being pretty stable in how we were approaching it. We didn’t want them to think, ‘oh my god, we’re doing something different here.’ We wanted to keep everyone on an even keel, so mindset is absolutely critical.”

Asked whether she has any role on a matchday or whether it’s a case of all the work being done in the days building up to it, she said: “I always say to do something on matchday is too late, in my view. Psychological preparation happens most effectively in a way that is engaged with on a continual basis and as frequently as physical preparation, and is part of a normal approach to any performance preparation. And as soon as you start to bolt it on to a matchday you have almost lost your opportunity.

“And the only people the players want to hear from on a match day are the coaching team, as they are the people who are there to give game instruction. So the psychology work happens way before game day.”

* In tomorrow’s second part of our in-depth interview with Dr Roberts, she explains how her expertise in psychology is helping the club recruit the right new signings.

What do you make of this relatively new appointment at the club? Tell us what you think in the comments section HERE.