Life after the Socceroos
As the dust settled on Australia’s World Cup campaign, one of the nation’s premier performance scientists set his sights on new challenges.
In the world of sports science, working with your national team at the FIFA World Cup is like standing at the foot of Mt Everest.
It was a dream come true for Dr Craig Duncan, the chief architect of the Socceroos’ performance strategy in Russia and for the four years leading up to the tournament. But having clambered up that hill, he now turns his focus to greater challenges that lie ahead.
“I’ve been a Socceroos fan since I was a child and that will never change, and it’s been a great honour to work with the team over the past four years,” Dr Duncan told Impact.
“But the world of sports science is vast. There’s so much more to achieve and I want to continue building on the systems I’ve created and make an impact on the performance science discipline all over the world.”
Dr Duncan has had his share of successes with the Socceroos. In 2015, he overhauled the team’s fitness regime ahead of the nation’s first-ever Asian Cup victory. More recently, he expertly managed player fatigue and kept the Socceroos in top physical condition in the longest and hardest qualifying campaign in World Cup history.
But on his return to Sydney in July after the Socceroos’ early exit from the World Cup, Dr Duncan announced he would retire from his position as Football Federation Australia’s Head of Sports Science.
By then, the dust had begun to settle on the national team’s performance in Russia, which resulted in two narrow losses, against France and Peru, and one heartbreaking draw against Denmark.
Duncan with ACU graduate and sports science assistant Fabian Ehrmann.
Answering the critics
“They did everything I asked. We played football very well. We got a lot of chances, only we cannot score.”
With those 20 words, coach Bert Van Marwijk succinctly summed up Australia’s World Cup campaign, which saw the national side booted out after three brave performances but no goals in open play.
The more sober analysts acknowledged that the coach got the team playing as a cohesive unit in a very short amount of time, implementing a simple but shrewd game plan. Others were quick to heap criticism on the Dutchman, questioning his tactics.
The players, however, unanimously backed their coach. And Dr Duncan said many of the pundits who attacked Van Marwijk had “thrown the baby out with the bathwater”.
“Some of the rhetoric in the media in the post mortem has just been over the top. The coaches were outstanding in respect to what they did tactically and how they worked with the players, and I think there were a lot of positives to take out of our performances,” he said.
“It was just that when it came to the final pass, the final attack on goal, we found it difficult to score. That stuff is outside my control as a performance scientist, and in many cases it’s out of the coach’s control, so it didn’t go our way and that’s just how it is.”
Many fans and commentators were also critical of Van Marwijk’s decision to not use Australia’s all-time leading goal scorer Tim Cahill against Denmark.
Dr Duncan, who has worked very closely with Cahill and has been a long-time supporter, said the veteran striker “was in fantastic shape psychologically and physiologically”. But he refused to question the coach’s judgment.
“It's not my place to think about or comment on decisions that coaches make but I will say again that Bert and his coaching team were very impressive and I have total confidence in any decision they would make."
Using performance science to get an edge
As footballing minnows, the Socceroos were always considered rank outsiders of progressing beyond the group stage of the World Cup.
To quote veteran journalist and football tragic George Negus, “It’s a big ask for Australia whenever we turn up for the World Cup … we’re football Third World playing against football royalty”.
This arguably makes the job of the team’s sports scientists even more important, as was pointed out in this CNN article in June: “Australia isn't a nation blessed with an array of world-class footballing talent … so Dr Craig Duncan has turned to technology in an attempt to level the playing field.”
So from a performance science perspective, was the World Cup a success for the Socceroos?
“Physically we were better than each of the three teams we played, we dominated in that sense, and so from a performance science perspective, that’s successful,” Dr Duncan said. “But overall, the disappointment is still there because, after such a long and arduous qualifying campaign, a change of coach, and then getting the team to where it was just before the tournament, you can’t help but get the feeling of 'so close but yet so far'.”
This is where Dr Duncan’s oft-repeated phrase “sports science is not rocket science” applies. While he is a strong believer of the discipline’s importance in maximising the performance of elite athletes, he says it’s vital that practitioners stay within their remit.
“If performance scientists start thinking we can control the result then our ego has gotten a little bit out of control,” he said.
“We need to stay focused on making sure the players are in peak physical condition, performing to their best, and on minimising injuries both in preparation and during the tournament.
“We did that, and in this World Cup, our sports science has had international recognition and we were able to achieve the lowest injury rates in Socceroos history for a tournament. I think that's a pretty good legacy and I'm proud of what we've been able to achieve.”
Dr Duncan’s departure from the Socceroos has signalled a changing of the guard in the backrooms of the FFA, with long-time physiotherapist Les Gelis also leaving to take a job with NBA team Brooklyn Nets.
The challenges ahead
Since recovering from a stress-induced heart attack in early 2013, Dr Duncan has sidestepped the grind of football season pressure, combining the Socceroos gig with his role as ACU’s Senior Lecturer in Exercise Science.
Leaving the FFA will allow him to spend more time mentoring students and focusing on the Performance Intelligence Agency, which has a team of sport scientists — including many who were educated at ACU — consulting to clients like the NSW State of Origin team.
“I really enjoy playing a mentoring role for up-and-coming people in the performance science area — it’s extremely fulfilling and exciting for me, and one of the main reasons I set up the PIA was to give young, talented sport scientists the opportunity to work with the types of clients we have access to,” he said.
ACU graduate Fabian Ehrmann, Dr Duncan’s sports science assistant at the Socceroos, was one of the great talents to work with the agency.
Next year, Dr Duncan will lecture students in ACU’s Bachelor of High Performance Sport, a new undergraduate degree that will provide a pathway to the Master of High Performance Sport that was set up in 2014.
He is also writing a book that uses the principles of performance science to help people reach their potential in everyday life.
Dr Craig Duncan is Senior Lecturer at ACU’s School of Exercise Science. He received Exercise and Sports Science Australia’s ‘Sports Scientist of the Year’ award in 2014.
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