The sports scientist behind Australia's bid for World Cup glory
He’s one of Australia’s premier performance scientists, credited with overhauling the Socceroos’ fitness regime for the nation’s first-ever Asian Cup victory in 2015. Now Dr Craig Duncan gets the chance to add another feather to his hat on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
As the brains behind the Socceroos’ fitness regime, Craig Duncan would be forgiven for boasting his credentials and talking up his successes.
However, the chief architect of the national team’s performance strategy happily quips that sports science is “not rocket science”.
“The goal of a sports scientist is simply to work behind the scenes with professional athletes to ensure they’re primed for optimal performance on game-day,” said Dr Duncan, Football Federation Australia’s Head of Sports Science.
"We are a very small piece of the puzzle … it’s the players and the coach who work the magic.” Humble he may be, but there is no doubt that Dr Duncan’s experience and professionalism played a crucial role in helping the Socceroos to secure their place in this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia
The long road to qualification
A chartered Airbus A330, complete with massage tables and physio facilities. A mobile cryotherapy chamber to speed up muscle recovery. Anti-fatigue glasses to help athletes adjust their sleep schedule and combat jetlag.
These were just some of the tools in Dr Duncan’s kit bag as Australia prepared for a sudden death playoff against Honduras last November, the final match in a gruelling 29-month World Cup qualifying campaign.
Having secured a hard-fought 0-0 draw in San Pedro Sula, the Socceroos were whisked back to Sydney on a chartered Qantas jet for the return leg.
Dr Duncan and his support staff were effectively at the helm during that flight, taking control of the menu and meal times, setting the temperature and suggesting sleep patterns in order to maximise the players’ recovery. The convincing 3-1 win over Honduras sealed Australia’s place amongst 32 nations to compete at the 21st World Cup in Russia.
“The charter flight did make an enormous difference, not just physiologically but psychologically as well, because the players were confident they’d be in good shape for the match in Sydney,” Dr Duncan said. “From all the parameters we measure, there’s no doubt the players recovered well and stepped off the plane in great shape … we knew we’d be well prepared for that final game.”
The race against time
The shock departure of Ange Postecoglou less than a week after the Honduras match left the Socceroos coach-less for more than two months.
When Dutchman Bert van Marwijk was announced as his replacement in late January, he acknowledged his greatest challenge ahead of the World Cup was a lack of time.
“It’s a big challenge, especially because we have not so much time,” van Marwijk said. "That makes the challenge even bigger.”
But it’s a test that Dr Duncan takes in his stride.
“Would it be better if Bert had more time? Of course it would. Can we do well in the short amount of time that we have? Yes, we can,” Dr Duncan said.
“Personally, I just love the challenge. It is what it is and we can’t change that, so we have to focus on what we can control and just work towards the outcome.”
As for his impressions of the new coach, the understated Dr Duncan said van Marwijk was “very good”.
“Now that Bert is my boss, it’s my job to identify what he needs and desires from the players in terms of performance, and to provide that service to him,” Dr Duncan said.
How technology gives the ‘Roos a competitive edge
With a squad of 40 to 50 players all around the world being constantly monitored, the Socceroos’ use of sports science technology is paramount.
“Every day, wherever they are, the players enter information about their training, fatigue levels and muscle soreness into an application that comes into our central database,” Dr Duncan said.
The data is combined with a range of objective measures, gathered through GPS technology, saliva analysis, heart rate variability measurement and sleep monitoring.
"Once the players are with us in camp, we already know whether each player is above or below their optimal performance level … where they’re at with training, recovery and readiness to play,” Dr Duncan said.
While the Socceroos’ use of sports science technology has been widely praised, Dr Duncan stressed that it’s most effective when used wisely.
“It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting the technology blind you,” he said. “Rather than just saying, ‘it’s the latest technology, let’s get that’, I prefer to ask, 'does it fit in with my end goal, to where I want to get to?'
Tim Cahill: Socceroos saviour
Aussie football fans breathed a collective sign of relief when Tim Cahill was named in Bert van Marwijk’s first Socceroos squad in early March.
While that doesn’t guarantee Cahill a place in the final squad, Dr Duncan was more than happy to sing the striker’s praises.
“He's in great physical condition and he’s got one of the most positive mindsets of any player I've ever worked with … I have no doubt he’ll be fit and ready to compete in this World Cup,” said Dr Duncan, who managed Cahill’s training regime before his return to Millwall.
“The opportunity to work with Tim Cahill has been a great fortune for me as a sports scientist and has brought me great joy. “He’s a special character and will obviously go down in history as Australia's greatest ever player, and he deserves every bit of praise that he gets.”
The luckiest man in the world
Since recovering from a stress-induced heart attack in early 2013, Dr Duncan has sidestepped the grind of football season pressure, combining his role as ACU’s Senior Lecturer in Exercise Science with the Socceroos gig.
He also founded the Performance Intelligence Agency, which has a team of sport scientists — including many who were educated at ACU — consulting to clubs like the Western Sydney Wanderers and the Brisbane Roar.
As a former footballer himself and a mad sports fan, Dr Duncan admitted he sometimes feels like the luckiest man in the world.
“As far as the World Cup goes, doing something at that level in the sport that you love for the country you love in the biggest sporting event in the world, it doesn't get much better than that from a personal perspective,” he said.
“It's not that I'm the best sport scientist around, there are many, many good people that do what I do. I’m just fortunate to be in this situation — it’s a wonderful opportunity.”
So, what does Dr Duncan believe Australia has to do to progress beyond the group stage of the World Cup?
“The hardest thing in sport is getting caught up in the ‘what ifs’. What if we don’t perform well in the friendlies? What if we lose against France?
“If we steer clear of that and stay focused on the present, stay focused on what’s in front of us, the outcome will take care of itself.”
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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