Barcelona continue to lead the way in medicine and innovation
Dr. Jordi Mones has either one of the best or one ofthe worst jobs in sport. Sometimes, it can be both within the same 10-second period. As FC Barcelona head of sport science, he's responsible for the health and well-being of international superstars like Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. It's a fun gig - he spends his daily life fighting blindness and calls his work at FCB his "hobby" - until one of the players goes down with an injury. But even then, the good doctor takes it all in stride. Injuries, of course, are an inevitable part of the game, even when it comes to the world's best.
"This could happen anytime," Mones told ESPNFC during an interview at FC Barcelona's New York headquarters on Thursday afternoon. "Messi is like anyone. He has no magic shield to protect him. We have to be grateful that he hasn't been injured more seriously but it could happen any game. We need to be ready. We need to accept it. We can't get mad."
Instead of getting angry, Mones and his team get to helping the player recover as quickly as possible. But sport science today is as much about injury prevention as it is about getting better from those random muscle strains, tweaks, and pulls. It's a world of data, everything from a player's GPS positioning in training and the load on his body to his diet and daily weight.
FCB tracks it all, and informs the player of his metrics through a personalized app. The app, which has been in use for about a year, includes things like a calendar, a training schedule, the player's agenda, any press conferences he has to attend, along with information on what they should eat and how much they should sleep. It has data from past training sessions so they can see if they are improving as well as some gamification elements so the players can compete against each other.
Getting superstars like Messi to buy into the technology requires a smart message. "Anything we implement with the players has to be very progressive," Mones said. "You have to convince them by facts that it's good for them because we are dealing with the top players. Of course, if you go to the sub-20 players, you can tell them what they have to do. But if you go to Messi, Suarez, or Neymar, you need to demonstrate through facts that it will be useful for them. They need to be sure that it's good for them. And that we will never share their data."
For Mones, data is a way to refine the Barcelona philosophy and to ensure they are getting maximum performance from their players. "We train by playing," he said. "We needed a way to quantify it. We had genius founders who developed our system but you can't rely on always having a genius coach. You need to be able to put those things in numbers. You can't rely on the intuition of the genius. We are trying to optimize what we were doing intuitively."
He cites training in sand as an example. In the past, the medical team believed that playing in sand could have training benefits with less impact on the skeletal system. The sensors and data that Mones and his team use allowed them to show that the idea was correct, that a player who is recovering from injury can train on sand and get the full cardiovascular workout while only putting half the stress on his body. In other words, they have the numbers to prove the theory.
In a sporting world that's increasingly competitive, small innovations can be the difference between winning and losing. "You need to optimize a lot to make a little improvement," Mones said. "Minimal advances require a lot of effort."
Those small improvements come from customization in training programs. Mones showed two video clips: one in which Messi beat four defenders then scored, and the second where a center back sprinted to a long ball and booted it out of bounds milliseconds before the attacker could get there. Both moments are typical of a soccer game, but each requires specific training programs to maximally prepare the player to succeed. By looking at data, Mones and his team can determine how best to train a specific player for the specific skills he'll need in a match.
Mones, who's been with the club since 2003, earned a fellowship from Harvard, and has an excellent head of curly hair, was in New York to announce the launch of FCB Universitas, a sport innovation hub designed to help promote advances in R&D, innovation, and technology. The club will hold the Future of Football Medicine conference on May 13-15, 2017 at Camp Nou, where 180 speakers will give talks on all things sport science.
Barcelona is currently involved with five international collaborative projects and 26 national collaborative projects, and there are 14 PhD theses begin conducted at FCB. The plan for Universitas is to make sport science at the club better but also to share knowledge across the world. "Any improvement we do in the health of players will eventually benefit people and the population," Mones said. "If we can cure Messi's knee faster, eventually we can cure the population's knees faster."
He continued: "In science, you never go alone if you want to go far. Everything is collaboration." Come to think of it, that sounds very much like why Barcelona succeeds on the field, too.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.