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  • Working with head coach Jim Harbaugh, University of Michigan football performance and operations director Fergus Connolly is challenging the misconceptions about sports science.
By Ian McMahan
September 15, 2017

Fergus Connolly and Jim Harbaugh can agree on this: they aren’t interested in sports science, only winning science. While that may be one of the made-for-TV recruiting statements we are accustomed to in college sports, Connolly—a performance expert who formerly worked with the San Francisco 49ers—actually focuses his scientific philosophies on earning victories.

“We work from the field to the weight room, not the weight room to the field,” says Connolly, who works with head coach Harbaugh as the University of Michigan football program’s performance and operations director. What does this mean? Connolly believes in working backwards from the game, isolating the factors that intertwine to influence performance.

“What is a win? A primary goal of any coach, player, and team is obviously to win as many games as possible. But coming out ahead on the scoreboard is only one validation of the game model and its execution,” writes Connolly in his new book Game Changer.

It’s these beliefs, not the philosophical and financial investment in sports science, that sets Connolly—and Michigan—apart. The other difference may come from Connolly's unique background—he's a native of Ireland with a PhD in computer integration optimization—and straightforward perspective on sports science.

Connolly hopes to establish the adolescent field of sports science as real science, not just a mishmash collection of strength and conditioning, nutrition, kinesiology and biomechanics. More than just a how-to manual, the book presents a comprehensive, holistic view of team sport performance. 

“I wrote the book that I would like to read,” says Connolly. “It combines all the information that I’ve gathered, both from experience and from those that taught me.”

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Connolly also wanted to tackle the misconceptions about sports science. Namely, that the proliferation of data, analytics and technology will automatically transform athletes and teams into faster, stronger, and less injured versions of themselves. More simply: Does sports science actually work?

To some extent it has, as the rapidly evolving field of sports science continues to change the way athletes and teams train and compete. Collegiate and professional teams have hired sports scientists, like Connolly, to pay more attention to things like sleep and recuperation. But has doubling down on sports science—something we have seen the Browns and 76ers do—resulted in more wins?

Connolly believes that there is a gap between what people want sports science and technology to do and what it actually does. Many teams have the technology but haven't yet figured out how to win with it.

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He believes that an organization can't simply "plug and play" technology and expect it to make a difference. In fact, Game Changer contends that sports science, analytics and technology have not yet delivered on their promises. Connolly believes this is true because we fail to comprehend the game at its most basic level, in that there is a great deal of measurement and data collection without true understanding of how those numbers relate to wins and losses.

To illustrate this Connolly likes to use the example of car’s navigation system. “The information from the GPS unit in your car is useful, but you don’t let it steer the car,” he says. Too often, he says, sports scientists are letting the information and data collected from biometric devices and tests drive decisions in absence of context.  

Connolly’s book is to be both GPS and steering wheel, giving readers both a framework for understanding the fundamentals of performance and the tools to apply them to all levels of sport. Though it’s primarily aimed at coaches and those in team sports, it also contains valuable insight for performance in a variety of settings, including the military and business world.

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There are four major sections Connolly outlines: "The Game," "The Player," "The Preparation," and "The Coach"—the major interlinking areas that determine how teams win. Of course, it’s no accident that Connolly uses winning as the metric, establishing the theoretical and practical basis for earning victories. 

The most technical section is "The Game," which has a language and system to explain team sports games of all types, structure, player movement and principles of offense and defense. And then, of course, how all of those factors relate to winning. It draws deeply on Connolly’s background in advanced mathematic and computers, as he drops knowledge on how fractals, chaos and systems theory relates to sports.

In the second section, "The Player," Connolly focuses on how to develop the player, but not solely from the standpoint of 40-times and vertical jump. Other aspects of performance—tactical, technical, and psychological—need to be integrated with the physical component in order to execute properly. “My message is that we need to look at the complete picture, the whole person,” says Connolly. “The fundamental basis of the chapter and book is to look at the person before the athlete.”

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For elite athletes, Connolly identifies two main objectives: maintain and maximize basic functional health, and reduce limiting performance by identifying and improving them.

Connolly warns that the third section, The Preparation, might be difficult to swallow for many because he dispels some of the myths about training. “We need to blow-up what we think we know about training and discover a more holistic, all-encompassing model,” he says. Connolly’s solution is to “look at how players truly learn and, as a result, how coaches can create experiences that enable them to discover their own solutions to a problem.” Those ideas are manifested in the “chaos drills” used by special teams coach Jay Harbaugh.

Game Changer finishes with a section dedicated to developing a winning culture: “Success is also about establishing a sustainable culture that attracts, retains and rewards the best people.” One of the more interesting sections details how to manage player psychology in the tribal atmosphere of a team.

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So how does a Gaelic footballer from Ireland end up working with one of the best coaches in college football? Connolly says that he has been fortunate to find matching attributes in coach Harbaugh.

“We both share the discipline of hard work,” Connolly says. “But also brutal honesty.”

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