Ask the Expert – Des Ryan (Arsenal FC Academy)

Athletic Evolution
Des Ryan (Arsenal Head of Youth Medical). Arsenal Youth Team Photocall. Arsenal Training Ground. London Colney, Herts, 23/7/15. Credit : Arsenal Football Club / David Price.

Des Ryan is the Head of Sport Medicine and Athletic Development at Arsenal FC Academy. He has a wealth of experience in developing youth athletes for the rigours of senior level elite sport in both football and rugby.

We are sure this interview will prove valuable for anyone involved in coaching young athletes.

1)What has led you into youth sport (background etc)?

My first role was with Connacht Rugby Development Squads in 1998. I really enjoyed that and we had some success with players progressing and winning competitions. Probably too early, I was promoted to the Connacht Rugby Senior squad in 1999/2000 season. I enjoyed working with the full time professionals and getting mentored by Dr. Liam Hennessy. In 2003, I progressed to work with the Ireland A squad and also help with the Irish Senior team. However around 2007, I needed a new challenge as I found professional rugby very repetitive and low variation to the role. My manager/mentor pointed me towards a newly created  Fitness Education Manager position in the IRFU in 2008. This was a very enjoyable position with a lot of variation were I could manage S&C coaches, educate coaches, develop an approach to physically developing player in IRFU academies

I really found my vocation in that role. In 2012, I moved to Arsenal Academy where I am the Head of Sport Medicine and Athletic Development. In the Academy we have meaningful access to develop players from U9 to U23. This is really enjoyable and fulfilling. I am also a head of department that contains S&C’s, Physio’s, Nutritionist and Doctor with the mission of developing the most caring and challenging youth development environment in the world. 

2) What has been the biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

My mentor Dr. Liam Hennessy is the biggest influence on my practice. Every conversation I have with him I learn something new. He is a great mentor in that every time I have a question he never tells me the answer, but guides me towards the information that helps me make an informed decision. The other influencers are the players themselves. Firstly the child players who helped me understand that chaos is good. Secondly the youth athletes that helped me understand they need structure and respectful discipline and finally the young adults who thought me they need to be gradually treated like adults. 

3) What is your philosophy when it comes to developing young athletes?

Great question and it is something I wanted to share with the community and so we published our philosophy in the NSCA Strength and Conditioning Journal. “Developing World Class Soccer Players. An Example of the Academy Physical Development Programme from an EPL Team” Ryan et al. SCJ 2017. There are many models and frameworks published that guide us on how we should develop a player of the long term. We wanted to share a practical example and I would recommend people in the youth develop community to read and article and publish their own philosophy. In summary, our approach is the arrow approach where we get the player to the next level as quickly and efficiently as possible. There are four pillars to the arrow, Functional Competence (Make sure the player has good mobility and stability before moving on to more advance strength type exercises), Movement Skills (Make sure the player has good movement skills before moving onto more advance speed type exercise), Integrated Conditioning (Because we are a highly technical club we want to complete the majority of our fitness work through the game) and Planning and Periodisation (Making sure the player doesn’t do to much or to little). Our approach also puts huge important in the physio/nutritionist/S&C having a good relationship with the player like a big brother or favourite uncle.  

Arsenal framework.png

4) Do you have a particular area of interest and how do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

I have a great interest in movement and especially during the pubertal growth spurt. I think this is an under researched area due to the complexities of measuring movement. It is something we are putting a lot of time and resources into as I feel focusing on that early can help further development latter in the players career. We published our initial work on the Sport Performance & Science Reports website. We showed signs of arrested development for movement during the youth players development and linear development for speed and power during the young players development. I think this gives us a big clue for our programming. Please see the link to the paper: “The influence of maturity status on movement quality among English Premier League academy soccer players.”

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

You should treat victory and defeat the same. You also stick to the long term plan and a victory or defeat only change the course ever so slightly, especially in youth development. Sometimes S&C coaches can get to caught up in the results on a Saturday. There are many variables to go towards a result and this shouldn’t dramatically change the physical development programme, or the mood of the player and coach. Work / Life balance is hugely important also, if you achieve a good balance it will increase your ability to energise players, be creative and have a positive effect on people. It also reduces the chances of conflict. Also enjoy the successes. If you worked with a player in their youth, make it your business to go watch them perform as an adult. In the past I worked with the Irish U20 team from 2008, it contained 9 senior internationals and many other club/provincial professionals. I really enjoy watching them perform currently. That is the success of a youth development specialist not under age trophies. 

des ireland
Irish U20 team 2008 with Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahoney as well as many others.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes? 

Three rules: be polite, be objective and be mannerly when dealing with coaches, parents and players. It is up to me to educate the coach, not confuse the coach in my area. It’s also up to the coach to educate me and not confuse me in their area. Invest time learning the coaches philosophy. This will help create a strong S&C/coach relationship. If this is strong that will prevent a high percentage of problems S&C coaches face. I also have an Irish saying that I live by –  Mol on oigie agus tiociagh si” (Praise youth and they will flourish). Surround yourself with good people, we have an excellent SS&M department at Arsenal and I end up learning and been challenged every day. 

(Picture of the SS&M department and them accepting the UKSCA award for S&C employer of the year 2017)

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

Detrich Hare – “Principles of sport training” (1969) the original youth development text. Most answers are in the past. Carmelo Bosco –  Stretch-Shortening Cycle in Skeletal Muscle Function the original velocity based training text. Again most answers are in the past. I would also highly recommend Setanta College on line strength and conditioning courses that were developed by my mentor Dr. Liam Hennessy.  

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

I try to keep away from social media apart from closed group discussions on facebook and actual friends on facebook. For me personally it wasted a lot of my time so I pulled back from twitter etc. I am on linkedin if people need to make contact. I am also happy to talk to anyone face to face at conferences as I love discussing youth development. 

We are very grateful for Des giving his time as well as his in depth and valuable contributions.

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2 thoughts on “Ask the Expert – Des Ryan (Arsenal FC Academy)

  1. A great insight from Des & would suggest a great read for any practitioner wanting to work in youth development. Grant

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