14 May 2015

THE TEAM BEHIND THE TEAM: HOW A UNIFIED PHILOSOPHY ENSURES SUCCESS

Daniel Gallan

Every coach and manager has to implement innovative and creative strategies in order to stay ahead of the field. Most elite teams have scores of advisers, specialists, coaches, and opinion makers; all of whom need to be focussed towards a single vision. It is no different for those responsible for the athletes’ fitness and well-being. Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director for the Miami Dolphins, discusses why managing the philosophy within the medical team is vital to success on the field.

Miami Dolphins cornerback, Brent Grimes, celebrates with the crowd. The physical demands of the NFL are unique and as such Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director for the Miami franchise has to adapt and draw on all his experience to ensure his medical team provide the best treatment for their players. Image supplied by Jason Jenkins/ Senior Vice-President, Communications and Community Affairs, Miami Dolphins.. 

Miami Dolphins cornerback, Brent Grimes, celebrates with the crowd. The physical demands of the NFL are unique and as such Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director for the Miami franchise has to adapt and draw on all his experience to ensure his medical team provide the best treatment for their players. Image supplied by Jason Jenkins/ Senior Vice-President, Communications and Community Affairs, Miami Dolphins.. 

Since Louis van Gaal became Manchester United’s 23rd manager in July last year, one word has become synonymous with the Dutchman: “philosophy”. To this day, not an interview or article concerning the Red Devils, or their gregarious manager, would be complete without mentioning the p-word.

Essentially, what van Gaal is speaking about is an approach to football that encompasses particular tactics, formations, training methods, fitness regimes, communication avenues, and an ethos within the football club that requires every member involved to be on the same page. When introducing his new backroom staff, van Gaal stressed the importance of each coach, trainer, and player buying into the new philosophy of the club. After all, cohesion is vital to success in any sport.

“What you don’t want is someone within the system fragmenting the culture of the team because he is driven by ego,” says Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director at the Miami Dolphins. “In any sport, you need a collective philosophy.”

Diesel is not a coach or tactician. He is in charge of the medical and sports science department at the Florida franchise, but like Louis van Gaal or any elite coach, he understands that a unified ethos is paramount to success.

“In that sense, the coaching and medical departments are the same,” he says. “The same way coaches like to coach and train their players a certain way, we like to treat and condition our athletes a certain way, and everyone who works with me has to be on board with the same beliefs.”

Certain teams have unique strategies and styles that they implement on the field. To use Manchester United as a continuing example, van Gaal has now settled on a 4-3-3 formation with quick midfield passes and high possession a priority. If Ryan Giggs and Albert Stuivenberg, his two deputies, favoured different styles of play, and their coaching methods contradicted van Gaal’s, it would cause confusion and contradictions for the players which would lead to disjointed play. The same applies for the medical team.

“There is more than one way to coach a player and there is more than one way to treat an injured athlete,” explains Diesel. “I favour a hands-on approach that is more exercised based in terms of treatments and rehabilitation, but that doesn’t mean my method is the only one.” An Italian approach favours electrotherapy, paralleling Italian football’s unique Catenaccio tactics, indicating that different cultures favour different models on and off the field.

Diesel explains that each variable in training, like how an athlete lifts weights or how much emphasis is placed on cardio work, differs from trainer to trainer. Much like different coaches work out coaching methods that work for them, each trainer develops a unique philosophy that is shaped over years of experience.

Diesel has worked in many different sports across multiple continents. He began his career as the head physiotherapist for the South African Gymnastics Federation in 1991 before working with South Africa’s national hockey, swimming, and rugby union teams. He has experience in a number of international events including the 1996 Olympic Games, the 1998 African Cup of Nations, and the 1999 Rugby World Cup. In 2002, Diesel moved to England and spent a year with Gloucester Rugby as the Head of Medical Services. He then held the same position with Charlton Athletic FC from 2003 to 2007 and then Tottenham Hotspur from 2003 to 2015.

Now with the Dolphins in the NFL, Diesel is one of the few sports practitioners with experience in different codes. Legendary coaches like Jose Mourinho and Gregg Popovich will never win a championship outside of their chosen sport. Code hopping is much easier within the medical and science fields in sport because constraints like tactics are not an issue. An injured hamstring at the Miami Dolphins is the same as an injured hamstring at Tottenham Hotspur. While the cause of the injury may be different and the targets for recovery may vary, the human body is the one variable that all sports have in common.

Wayne Diesel (right) with Benoit Assou-Ekotta (middle) during his spell with Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.

Wayne Diesel (right) with Benoit Assou-Ekotta (middle) during his spell with Tottenham Hotspur in the English Premier League.

What differs in sports medicine is the culture and strategy within each team. When Diesel first started in the early 1990s, there was one doctor or physiotherapist who handled all medical and injury concerns. Now, the medical team can comprise up to 20 specialists including massage therapists, chiropractors, reflexologists, nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts, physiotherapists, and acupuncturists. Add in the fact that each member of the medical team will have a plethora of consultants and you get a lot of opinions and egos with conflicting ideas and theories.

“You have to know how to manage all the individuals on the team and make sure that they have the same philosophy,” says Diesel. “Ultimately, as Director, it’s my job to manage those ideas into a single vision. I have to listen and learn from everyone around me but we all have to be on the same page or else you run the risk of losing the players’ and coaches’ buy-in.”

The medical team also have to be mindful of the fact that the players themselves will have certain expectations and theories regarding their training and rehabilitation. As a South African, Diesel developed an understanding and open-mindedness for different cultures and languages early in his career. When he moved to the English Premier League, he was exposed to athletes from all over the world and had to adapt to their philosophies.

“Many East Asian players really buy into acupuncture while many African players have unique traditional approaches to healing. It is well documented how important cultural beliefs are to medical treatment. If you dismiss traditional approaches you run the risk of the player not trusting you and that has a tremendous effect on treatment. This concept is fundamental to all medicine throughout history.”

The two way street between the players and the coaches on one side, and the medical team on the other, has to be an open highway. Ego is a massive force in elite sport. “When a player or coach has been immersed in his particular sport all his life, he can be reluctant having someone outside of his sport telling him what to do,” admits Diesel. “You have to win their trust before you can start exerting your influence and opinions on them.”

But that trust needs to start within the medical team. Every specialist needs to feel that their opinions matter and will be taken as seriously as anyone else’s because they share the same goal.

“There is no such thing as a magic pill or one method of treatment that will solve all problems,” says Diesel. “You need to be able to vary it up and allow those working with you to feel confident to put their hands up and say “I think my approach is the best one to go with; what do you guys think?” Dialogue is important and that stems from trust.”

Everyone in the medical team needs to yearn for knowledge and growth. Different opinions and beliefs test an individual’s existing notions. Most practitioners in the medical team are scientists and doctors who have made a career challenging their understanding of the world. By accepting that you may be wrong, and that someone from a completely different view point may have the answer, is how you grow. Ultimately though, a final decision has to be made and Diesel has found himself making those decisions.

“It’s my job to take all the different thoughts under consideration and make the big decisions,” he says. “That’s what I get paid to do. The longer it takes for a decision to be made, the harder it is to move on. Players and coaches are competitive by nature and can sniff out indecision and they see it as weakness. I have to be a strong leader for my team.”

When the stadium lights are at their brightest, and the world’s cameras are turned towards the stars on the field, it’s easy to forget the hard work and dedication that went on behind the scenes. The unified philosophy of the team behind the team culminates in a cohesive unit striving for the same goal. In sport, winning is everything, and the teams who share an identity are the ones who share success. 

Wayne Diesel, the Sports Performance Director for the Miami Dolphins, has over 25 years’ experience in elite sport as a medical practitioner.

He will be presenting the Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on the 2nd and 3rd of September. He will be discussing how elite athletes maintain fitness minimise risk in an ever demanding industry.

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