Over the past number of weeks, I have been away on training camps with the Northern Ireland U17s and U18s squad.
This was another fantastic opportunity for me to develop my skills in the field of strength and conditioning and sports science, but it was an even better environment for me to progress. I learnt so much over the two camps from the players, coaching staff and even from myself.
Firstly, what I learnt from the players was both good and bad. Football is a harsh environment for these young men.
Some of them are on big contracts while others may still be waiting for their chance. Even when you secure a contract there is no guarantee that you have made it.
The percentage of young men coming home after their first professional contact or not even finishing it is very high. Furthermore the amount of talented players who come home and don’t kick a ball for another club is also very high.
‘HOW BAD DO YOU WANT IT?’
There are a number of reasons why these players come home and lack of talent is just one of them. Falling short on the ability to work hard, finding the demands it takes to be a footballer too much, missing home or physically and mental not developed to cope with the life of being a footballer are just some of the reasons.
It can all come down to one simple question; how bad do you want it? One example was a player in the squad who has a contract with Arsenal. Before we got on the bus to make the trip to training he was in the gym doing his pre-training mobility routine.
The same player flew back home to London on the Thursday night and on his day off on the Friday was back in the gym preparing for his next training session.
Other players have had knock backs but are still determined.
Another player signed for Liverpool at 14 but was released, now he plays for Rochdale and is in the first team squad of a Championship side. Even talking to this player and the questions he asks, you know he wants to make it as a footballer.
The knowledge, experience and friendships I gained with the coaching staff was priceless. Firstly, the manager who played with Hearts but had to retire because of injury.
Following this he had a short stint as manager of Hearts. From there he went on to become development coach at Celtic and was involved in a lot of the youth success stories at the club.
The level of professionalism he brought to the NI squads was fantastic. He was setting the players up with the best opportunity to become a better professional and person.
Simple things as to what the players and coaching staff wore to dinner, training and matches mattered. All players had to meet 10 minutes before their scheduled time and even had to wait until everyone was finished eating before leaving the table.
His coaching style and the environment he set up on the pitch was one in which the players could make mistakes but needed to learn from them.
He added GPS data, video footage and even had us go over the player’s fitness scores with each individual player to see how they could improve. He knows what it takes to be the best and he knows how to coach the best.
His assistant manager, Joe Dudgeon, played in the youth and reserve teams at Manchester United and played in the Premiership with Hull until his career was cut short by injury.
Joe’s experience that he brought to the squad was fantastic. On the training pitch he was able to demonstrate at a high level, and his coaching ability was very good.
At the moment he is also a youth team coach at Manchester City. Joe talked about the likes of Ronaldo, Scholes and even Pogba when he was at Man United as a kid.
He always said that for sheer effort and determination no one wanted it more than Ronaldo. One story he told was that Ronaldo would stand in front of the mirror in the gym with no top on and shorts rolled up.
This wasn’t to pose but it was to see which muscles on which side of his body he needed to develop more.
He also said players like Scholes and Rooney never wanted to lose. It didn’t matter if it was a simple game of head tennis he said they always wanted to win.
In addition to our coaching staff was our goalkeeping coach who was a Dundee legend (his words not mine) with a few Scotland international call-ups.
Even though he was great craic what he demanded off his keepers was fantastic. He pushed them, questioned them, let them talk about what they thought and they seemed to respond well.
Even the medical team of our doctor and physio took so much pride in their work and left no stone unturned in making sure these players are fit to play. I also learnt a lot from them in terms of rehab and injures. We would have nightly meetings discussing the players we needed to work with and what was the best approach short and long term for them.
What I learnt from myself is that I love what I do, which makes me want to be the best at it.
Working with these squads is not all about knowledge, it’s understanding and helping these players become the best version of themselves and helping them in any way I can to make it as a professional footballer.
You can apply all of these principles to your own health and fitness goals, even your own life ambitions. All the staff and players who have worked and continue to work at a high level got there by working hard and doing the simple things well.
So when it comes to nutrition don’t be slack and reach for that extra bit of chocolate have the discipline to say “no I want to be the best version of myself”.
Or when you slack off in the gym say “no I’m going to work as hard as I can to reach my goals”.
These are all things top players and any athlete have to do every day. Yes, the financial reward for them is fantastic but if you ask each and every one of them you’ll find they all love what they do.