Ask the Expert – Ben Bradley (AFC Bournemouth)

Ben Bradley is the Head of Academy Sport Science & Medicine at AFC Bournemouth. His role encompasses overseeing the Sport Science, Strength & Conditioning, Nutrition, Medical, Analysis and Psychology provision. He has amassed 7 seasons working in Professional football, including 6 seasons at AFC Bournemouth. Ben holds a BSc in Sport and Exercise Science from Kingston University, an MSc in Applied Sport Science from Worcester University and is an Accredited S&C Coach through the NSCA.

1)What has led you into youth sport?

My passion for Youth sport kicked in when I was thrown in at the deep end in my first full time position at AFC Bournemouth in 2013. I had only recently completed my BSc in Sport & Exercise Science at Kingston University and a season working as an intern with the first team at Crawley Town FC, and found myself moving to a new town to pursue a career. I was the first Sport Scientist employed in the clubs’ academy and was therefore in a role that allowed me to shape and develop a Sport Science & Medicine culture and framework that had previously been non-existent. Being relatively inexperienced, I thrived on the challenge to learn and build a department that would have a meaningful impact on the academy and its ability to develop players. I started working mainly with the U18 squad but quickly began to develop a passion for long term player development encompassing growth and maturation; movement competency and all-round holistic development of academy players throughout the system.

During my time at the club the academy has developed hugely, which has included the addition of some excellent staff to the Sport Science & Medicine department with my current role now being Head of Academy Sport Science & Medicine. I am therefore the strategic lead overseeing the Sport Science, S&C, Nutrition, Medical, Performance Analysis and Psychology areas of the academy. Our aim is to provide a world class Elite Performance service to the academy players at AFC Bournemouth, in line with the clubs’ overall strategy for developing elite players.    

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

The youth sport environment has been and continues to have the biggest influence on my practice. We need to be strategic in the way we apply scientific principles to practice to get the desired outcomes for player development. We cannot blindly implement what we think will work or what looks nice in a text book or on paper; we need to know the environment, how youth athletes learn and how they respond to different situations or stimuli. Working in the environment you very quickly learn there is no magic one size fits all programme, individualisation is key. The environment teaches us to adapt and modify our methods to suit the needs of the players.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

I try to learn and develop myself in as many areas as possible, but I enjoy being on the field and in the gym with players and influencing the programme to ensure they can develop and compete from a physical perspective. We are lucky here that the culture at the club allows Elite Performance staff and coaching to integrate nicely to ensure we can achieve the desired training outcomes from a technical, tactical, physical and psychological perspective through tailored periodisation and planning.

Our movement competency framework that is a staple of each individual players development programme; and our use of growth and maturation to identify key times in their development are also key areas of interest for me. The work we have done at AFC Bournemouth surrounding growth and maturation and bio-banding seems to have had some interest and there is some very good work being done at a lot of clubs around the subject which is great for player development. I recently did a short presentation at the end of season Premier League Youth Development Conference, looking into the potential development of an integrated growth and maturation strategy in youth development.  

“An Academy wide, integrated approach to the design and implementation of a Growth and Maturation strategy is essential to maximise its effectiveness and sustainability”.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?

If we take growth and maturation this is naturally a youth athlete subject area and has huge importance on the timing of player development. Having maturation data for players allows us to potentially identify key stages whereby players may be at a higher injury risk (adolescent growth spurt) and times where we may need to slow or even accelerate certain aspects of their programme. This coincides with our movement competency framework, whereby players may need to be regressed if the growth spurt is affecting their co-ordination or balance for example. Conversely players may need to be progressed post growth spurt if their movement competency is good and we can look to load them further due to increases in physiological capacity.

Another view is the player review/evaluation standpoint. Providing maturation data to coaching and recruitment departments allows all staff to put the development of each player into perspective. The idea is to look at the potential of a player and not always how they perform today. We know there is a huge disparity between growth rates in adolescents and therefore comparing players in the same age group is not always the best way to paint a picture. Giving biological data can help with this; and bio-banding could be a key tool to allow players to perform in more physically matched scenarios (training, matches, fitness testing) and give the coaches and recruitment staff a different perspective on individual player development. 

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

Immerse yourself in the environment. Get out there and work with players as much as you can. I go back to question 2 and the biggest influence on me and my practice being the environment you are working in. Let the players teach you how they develop best. This will only come with spending time working with them and your programmes will only be effective if you have player buy in. Furthermore, I would say don’t be afraid to make mistakes; there is no reason to obsess over putting on the perfect session as it doesn’t exist.

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

I would recommend any work from Dr Jon Oliver and Dr Rhodri Lloyd from Cardiff Metropolitan University. Those guys and their research group seem to produce a consistent stream of quality youth development research including their Youth Physical Development model. Similarly, I would recommend the work of Dr Sean Cumming from Bath University surrounding Growth & Maturation and bio-banding. We are hopeful that one of our recent studies in collaboration with Sean and Bath University will be published soon looking at player perceptions of bio-banding.

I would also encourage youth sport coaches to get to as many conferences as possible. They are not always cheap, but you can usually guarantee some top speakers and some great conversation and networking opportunities with other scientists/coaches. Additionally, podcasts are a free and easy way to hear some quality information from top practitioners. Pacey Performance and Football Fitness Federation for example.  

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

I am quite active on twitter at times so anyone can find me on there; @benbradley_ssci I retweet a lot but also tweet my thoughts occasionally and sometimes snippets of sessions that I do. I’m on LinkedIn too here and generally happy to discuss all things Sport Science with anyone who is interested.

We’d like to thank Ben for his time and expertise!

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.