Derby County Football Club Women

Q&A with Strength & Conditioning Coach Matt Mayer

It’s been a difficult time behind the scenes for most women footballers as those below elite level has had to put their season on the back-burner, though this week has seen the return to training ahead of the resumption of the Women’s FA Cup this weekend.

Whilst it’s been tough for the players with no contact amongst their teammates, one man that has been busy for the Ewe Rams is Strength & Conditioning Coach Matt Mayer, who has continued to provide programmes for the squad in an effort to keep themselves as fit as possible.

We spoke with Matt to find out about keeping fitness levels as high as possible during a lockdown, the impact that not being able to play has had on players and his time with the Ewe Rams.

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1.) With football at Tier 3 Level affected by the lockdowns, how difficult was it to keep the conditioning of players at their optimum?

I think from a motivation point of view, not knowing if/when the season was going to return is tough, as you essentially want to prepare the players for a specific return to the game. Additionally, the national lockdown and weather conditions have created a variety of challenges for everyone, such as what they have access to and how they can maintain their fitness and strength levels within limited environments. Despite this challenge, we have embraced it and overcome it successfully from my point of view. It has helped me, and the players learn a lot by finding solutions to those limitations and enabling them to continue training within limited environments. A skill that I believe will be valuable in years to come.

2.) Will there naturally be drop off from players or would you expect them to come back in shape upon resumption of the game?

Yeah, I think it’s natural for any athlete that there might be a small drop off. At the end of the day, the most specific way to become match fit, is by playing the game as football is so unique and unpredictable. If that’s taken away it decreases that players optimal robustness to the demands, they face weekly. However, where my role comes in is that I am able to create programmes and sessions that target those physical and physiological qualities that we want to maximize or maintain, so that when the players do return, their step back towards optimal game performance is smooth and takes as little time as possible to adapt back into previous match fitness levels.

3.) You’ve set-up weekly Zoom meetings with the 1st team squad, how has uptake been and what’s your focus online, strength or cardio-vascular work?

Uptake has been very positive, not just from the players engagement in physical work, but also for the players to still see each other in some capacity from a social perspective. My focus has been very flexible in giving players sessions they need from a performance viewpoint, but then also taking away that expectation and running sessions that allow them to just move, be active and have some fun. It’s important to keep a good balance of performance and wellbeing in this difficult time, and I think having that flexibility has been key in keeping the challenges and activities the players take part in fresh and engaging.

4.) We’re just coming out of a third lockdown, did you see the impact of the first two lockdowns upon resumption and if so, has that affected your plans during this lockdown in terms of tailoring to suit the players?

I think the biggest impact was the change in conditions and opportunity to get outside and be active. With nights being darker and colder, and players potentially working in the day, it became a lot harder to fulfil sessions. To attend to this, we give the players a variety of options to tackle any limitations they may face, such as shorter or longer duration sessions, indoor and outdoor sessions, as well as additional strength and injury prevention plans alongside. All these plans are then adapted to the players personal home environment and day to day schedules. Despite so many challenges being thrown at the players, we are seeing some great feedback and results from the players, but most of all, the key has always been to encourage them to do the best they can within such an uncertain time.

5.) How important do you believe these sessions are, to be able to get back into the swing of things when football resumes?

I think for keeping the players’ minds engaged with some form of preparation for return has been important and just seeing familiar faces with the coaching team and their teammates goes a long way. Regular contact keeps that belief and motivation that the season will kick off sooner rather than later again, and that we will be ready to hit the ground running on return.

6.) As we push for the next stage in women’s football, how has the focus changed since you started working with the club?

Since I arrived at the club a few years ago, the overall squad physical status has just grown and grown to a place now where the competency and fitness levels of the players are not far off to what is found within the full-time level of sport. When I first started, the big rock for me and the sports therapist, was to reduce the risk of injury to the playing squad and maintain a fully fit squad for selection over time. Reflecting on that now, this has been a major success for us at the club, and something we are very proud of, seeing so much competition for places weekly, and keeping players on the pitch all year round. This also couldn’t have been done without the support of the Sam, Duncan and the team behind the scenes who gave me the backing I needed to bring in new equipment and resources to achieve the targets I set out. Since then, we now are committed to maintaining that success, and now seeing players achieve the highest fitness levels we have seen ever in the club’s history, and something that will hopefully contribute towards the players hitting the ground running on return.

7.) How closely do you work with Sam in terms of the players and their fitness, is it led by yourself and what is worked on or does Sam identify where she wants to see the improvements?

Working closely with Sam is key to the success of the programme. I like to see the process as a triangle. First and foremost, at the top of the triangle I work with Sam to identify what physical qualities the players need to execute the style of play and approaches she has in place. At the bottom of the triangle, I bring in my own testing and investigations, and finally hold discussions with players on their performance. With this information I piece together a picture of where every player is at and where I need to focus my attention to achieve the outcomes that have been discussed with all the relevant parties. Sam also shows a lot of trust in me to do what I need to do and has been great in facilitating the time for me to achieve this, and that’s something I’ve been extremely grateful for.

8.) How are you enjoying working with DCFCW?

Since I started at the club, I have thoroughly enjoyed every moment growing with a programme that has shown so much potential and reached new levels each year that’s gone by. Everyone from the coaching team, to the players, staff, supporters have been great and it’s exciting to see what the future holds for the club, everyone has worked tirelessly to take the club onto that next level.