Competitive Edge: A Better Formula

August 24, 2016

This article first appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Athletic Management.

Duncan French is a foreign man in a new land, which is appropriate since he faces uncharted waters in his new position as Director of Performance Science at the University of Notre Dame. A veteran European strength and conditioning coach who has a PhD in exercise physiology, French was brought to Notre Dame in January to help improve the athletic department’s performance enhancement services.

What makes his role different is its focus on applying the latest science to improving performance across the board. French does not oversee Notre Dame’s Sports Performance Division. Nor does he serve as a strength coach for any particular team.

Instead he is charged with keeping up with the latest research and its applications, then figuring out how to use them with specific teams and athletes. “The modern world of sports performance is driven by scientific insights,” says French, who was previously Head of Strength and Conditioning for the Newcastle United Football Club in the English Premier League, as well as Great Britain’s Olympic taekwondo and basketball programs. “That’s been the norm in Australia and Europe for a while, and it’s coming to North America now. We want to be at the front of that change.”

French reports to Mike Harrity, Notre Dame’s Senior Associate Athletics Director for Student-Athlete Services, and communicates regularly with the sport coaches to figure out their needs. He also works closely with what the school calls its service providers—strength coaches, athletic trainers, nutrition staff, and psychologists.

“My role is to bridge the gap between the providers doing the day-to-day work and the coaching staff and senior administrators who have the big-picture ideas on what we need to do to be successful,” French says. “We want to make sure our operational processes and performance structures are aligned to answer the ‘what it takes to win’ questions.”

Since Notre Dame does not have an exercise science program or medical school to tap for research or expertise, its partnership with Under Armour is proving key. “We work very closely with them on sports science,” says French, whose position is funded by donors and Under Armour. “We’re really engaged in a powerful think tank, for want of a better term, sharing innovation and new ideas.”

One way French hopes to utilize science is by personalizing training plans for each and every athlete at Notre Dame. “Look at our wide receivers, for example. They all have very different body shapes and skill sets, and each of them should be given the best opportunity to develop and excel,” he says. “Regardless of the sport or position, we have to assess our student-athletes and determine what’s required to meet their discrete needs.

“We’re planning to do that through a rigorous screening process that captures detailed objective assessments of functional movements, biomechanics, and nutrition,” French continues. “That information will then be used to create a personalized strength and conditioning program, injury prevention protocol, and fueling plan.”

Currently, French is using GPS technology to obtain metrics for football players and doing sleep research with the women’s soccer team. Future plans include expanding the school’s use of 3-D motion capture and exploring how multi-cortex stimulation can be applied to strength training.

While these efforts to make the most out of science will be judged largely by the results on the field of competition, French hopes they have a broader benefit as well. “Along the way, I’d like to see if we can promote student-athlete development in a holistic fashion,” he says. “If we can be aware of physiological responses to the demands on student-athletes, we can be much more proactive. We can keep things from going wrong instead of relying on a reactive approach to fatigue or stress.”

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Throughout the course of a season, a team will often go through a number of stages before, hopefully, fully meshing into a strong, high-performing unit. In order to help guide your team to this ultimate goal, it’s important to know how to recognize the different stages of development.
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