Insight into Darren Burgess’ role as the high performance coach at Port Adelaide AFL Club
Darren Burgess is one of Australia’s most influential high performance coaches, being involved in many different types of sporting team around the world, including Liverpool FC, Football Australia and AFL. Darren is now the High Performance Manager at Port Adelaide AFL Club. We wanted to find out how Darren trains his athletes and the methods that he is currently applying at Port Adelaide AFL Club.
1. Darren, prior to your role at Port Adelaide Football Club, you were Head of Fitness and Conditioning at Liverpool Football Club for over 2 years. During your time with the club, player injury rates were lower compared to when you departed the club. What were the key processes you implemented in order to achieve the reduced injury rates at Liverpool?
When we were going to Liverpool, really the thing that we implemented was just do the basics really well. We introduced GPS which they hadn’t used before, so we monitored their training loads. I had three managers in my time there, and each of them I can say were really receptive to what we were trying to do as a department, and they were ok with us taking players out from time to time if their loads were too high. So, some pretty good monitoring, we had great physiotherapy and medical staff and excellent sport science staff and we just kept it really simple and did the basics well, so good nutrition, good recovery, individualised the player loads so that if game times got too high we gave them rests rather than just continually flogging them, so nothing really special, we just did the basics really really well.
2. Can you please share with us why you made the decision to leave Liverpool and to take the position as Head of High Performance at Port Adelaide Football Club?
I left Liverpool, I’ve been away for four years prior to Liverpool with the Australian soccer team then went straight from the world cup in South Africa over to Liverpool and I had 2 years and 6 or 7 months there, had a fantastic time but it was just time to come home, I’ld been travelling for close to 7 years. We had two kids over in Liverpool, so I wanted my kids to grow up in Australia or at least get back to Australia where they could grow and be around family, and so I wanted to go home and Port Adelaide was a club that I wanted to go back to and they happened to have a job opening so that’s why I left Liverpool.
3. Prior to working with Port Adelaide, It is rumoured you also had the option of taking up a position with the Adelaide Crows. If this is true, can you share with us why you opted for Port Adelaide?
I opted for Port over the Crows, a few different reasons. The main one was I’m a Port fan from my first time at the club but also the club were down on its knees really and it was a real challenge that I wanted to take to help the club get better. It was really sad watching the club over the previous couple of years. When I was overseas watching it on ESPN and things like that it was just really sad to watch, I really wanted to come in an help and that’s why I chose Port Adelaide.
4. Have you encountered any challenges at Port Adelaide in implementing your training processes and philosophies?
I haven’t really encountered too many challenges because AFL is fantastic with allowing fitness coaches, and by that I mean sport scientists, strength and conditioning coaches, to do their job. It really is a premier sport in the world in my opinion, for implementing sport science principles. I haven’t really had too many challenges, other than probably compared to Liverpool, the resources that you have at a club like Port Adelaide aren’t as great. I couldn’t want for anything, it’s got absolutely everything within the facility at Alberton, but compared to Liverpool where you could have any technology, any piece of equipment you like, Port Adelaide certainly doesn’t have that.
5. You bring a plethora of experience and knowledge to the Port Adelaide Football Club, what specific processes or tools that you have implemented can be attributed to your success and reputation in high performance?
I certainly have been around for a while, I was only commenting the other day to someone that it’s been just over 20 years that I’ve been involved in at least national level sport but really the first thing that I did when I came to Port was get some good people around me. Fortunately the staff that were originally there were fantastic and so I kept most of those on and then added a couple of new faces and just made sure that I got really smart people and good characters around me, so I think the success of the team in those first couple of years and our proof of injury rate over the four years that I’ve been there came down to a really well functioning sports, science and sports medicine team, rather than to any one individual.
6. As an expert in your field, what key high performance training elements do you believe are missing from AFL teams that have difficulty in producing consistent results on the field?
What do i think is missing from AFL teams? I think one of the areas that probably we could do better is the mental side of things. I think that’s probably not done particularly well in a lot of AFL clubs. I think it’s gaining a lot more exposure now but as far as, in the high performance area specifically, there’s nothing really that’s missing. As I said before AFL teams I think are at the forefront of high performance sport and so I think everything that they do and the difference between the best and the worst teams are pretty minor in AFL, whereas they can be major in other sports, so I don’t think there’s too much missing.
7. What is your role in identifying talent (both physiological and on-field decision making skills) in potential players for the Port Adelaide roster?
In identifying talent, basically we have a list management and draft and recruiting team that’s outstanding, and what they do is they pass on physical and medical information from players when they get it and just ask me to have a look over anything from their GPS numbers to their injury history to speaking to surgeons and physiotherapists who have treated players and potential players and things like that. So my role is a fairly generic one. We have an outstanding sport scientist working on our recruiting team full time as well. He takes the brunt of that work, but they ask me to do things from time to time, like looking over their fitness testing results and things like that.
8. You are renowned for the monitoring of players, including GPS and heart rate. In what way are you using this data (i.e. to quantify load, interpret player fitness, etc.) and why is it important?
Basically use the GPS and heart rate to, as you say in the question there, to quantify load. Look we use a bunch of monitoring tools, I won’t go through all of them here, most clubs are on a pretty similar path in terms of the monitoring, and what we are trying to do is identify outliers there, we’re trying to identify players who are responding either really poorly to the loads or in some cases really well to the loads, but unless you measure it you don’t really know. Having said that, in our department we rely heavily on speaking to the players and player feedback, so you can’t measure everything, but certainly GPS heart rates, sleep monitoring, wellness scores, movement capabilities, they’re all monitored, if not daily then weekly, and from that we can get some pretty good information on players and where they sit, how they’re responding to load and what their risk of injury might be.
9. Can you please share with us other key variables that you track or monitor and why are they important?
I’ve gone through some of the other monitoring variables, certainly looking at sleep at the moment. That’s obviously very important because the more you sleep the better you’ll perform and the better you’ll feel, and even from an illness point of view, the movement screens, fortunate to having Ian McKeown on staff and he’s developed his own movement screen and that’s quite good in terms of predicting resilience and even injury in players, so they are the main monitoring variables that we look at really closely.
10. Lastly, what advice can you give young developing AFL players with aspirations of playing professionally in the future?
Finally, developing AFL players, the best piece of advice I can give you is work on your body. Obviously you need to work on your skills as well, but the amount of players that come into the AFL system now that have significant injury is quite frightening. One of the things that we look for, and all AFL clubs look for, is people who, young players who are resilient and can withstand the rigours of AFL load, so getting an edge on other people looking to be drafted would give you a significant advanntage, so that would be the main piece of advice that I’ld give.