30 November 2021

As a football scientist Alireza Monajati works with some of the best athletes on the planet. He is currently with the Scotland women's national football team and is also a senior lecturer and programme lead in sport at the University of East London (UEL).

Ahead of Scotland’s final FIFA Women’s World Cup UEFA qualifier, we asked him how a football scientist can help teams find that 'extra one per cent'.

Where does your love of football come from and how did you get into the academic side of the sport?

My dad and uncle both played for Iran's national team, so from three years old I was going with them to the training pitch and that became a huge part of my childhood. I went on to play international football for Iran, taking part in the 2001 U20s World Cup in Argentina.

As I was playing for the national team, I was able to do a sports scholarship and I chose to study a sports science degree in Iran. Then in 2011, I came to the UK to study strength and conditioning and then did my PhD. During my PhD I was working for Millwall and when my PhD finished in 2017 I got offered a job at UEL.

What was your role with Millwall and where has your career taken you?

I was head of sport science at Millwall Football Club. Following that, I became the head of performance at London City Lionesses Football Club, before joining the Scottish national team as a football scientist.

What does a football scientist do?

Well, as the game has developed and has become more professional, every single competitive advantage is important for teams. In theory, sports scientists can generally work in different sports, but as everything narrows as you get more competitive, you need to be more specific in your approach. A football scientist is dedicated to football and the unique approach to the game.

What does a typical training day with the national team look like for you?

We start early, having breakfast around 7.30am before the players arrive. We meet with the coaching team to go through the plans in case any adjustments are needed.

We then have some injury prevention and some activation exercises indoors, before moving onto the pitch outside for more warm-up work and the training program. Depending on the intensity of the session, we might have recovery work, a hydro session, and some massages if needed.

Then it's lunch and after that, we analyse the morning training session and make any adjustments. For the coaching staff this is from a tactical point of view, and for us, it’s from a loading point of view.

Typically, we'd then meet with individual players or the wider group to go through some video analysis, or we move into a double training session.

Finally, we have dinner and then meet with the performance team including the physios and medical staff, and plan for the next day.

Do you have any tools that help you?

Nowadays we have monitoring apps that help assess a player's readiness and wellbeing. Players use the apps each morning and we receive feedback. We review that and then, based on the player's status, we agree on any modifications to players or team with the coaching staff.

You mentioned wellbeing. How important is that in today's game?

It's vital and 100 per cent an important part of our preparation.

Within women's football, there's been a big shift in monitoring the menstrual cycle as well. There's more and more evidence that wellbeing affects performance and chances of injury, and that the menstrual cycle affects a player's mood and injury risk. It also has an impact on things from a nutritional point of view.

Ensuring we are optimising everything to meet each player's needs helps to bring that one per cent or even half a per cent difference, which is a game-changer at an elite level. It's the difference between the team that qualifies for the World Cup and the team that misses out. It's that important. That's why you rarely see those results of 8-0 or 9-0 in matches anymore. Sports science has helped make matches closer, more competitive and intense.

The menstrual cycle is one biological difference between male and female players. Are there any other ways that the preparation between the sexes differs?

Many elements are the same, others significantly different. Equality doesn't mean that you do exactly the same thing for male and female players. You do what is best for each sex and the needs of the individual.

There are biomechanical differences, and as a result, the type of injuries, and the mechanism of the injury, between men and women in football is different. For example, the risk of an ACL injury for females is two to six times higher than for males. Therefore, the injury prevention that you apply for women should be different to that which you apply for men.

What scientific advice would you give to a young footballer looking to make it as a professional?

From the nutritional point of view, there is a current trend on social media about specific diets that are going to make you perform better. Yet it's not about that, it's about having a balanced diet that suits your training need.

I think the most important thing to understand is that even professional athletes only spend three hours per day on the training pitch. This means that you're not playing football for 21 hours a day. And how you spend that time is going to affect your performance the same, if not more so, than the time spent on the pitch.

Your lifestyle and efforts off the pitch play a key part in your recovery, sleeping pattern, mental status and nutrition.

Is that why players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Megan Rapinoe play on so late in their careers?

Yes, but the thing is if you only start taking care of those things when you’re in your late 20s or 30s it's only going to help a little. You need to do it early, as otherwise, it's too late. So, Ronaldo playing at 36 is not the result of the last six years, it's the result of his lifestyle for the last 25.

What can we do to get more women playing professional football?

I think the media is playing a good role. There is more content out there about women's football, more coverage of matches and more fans because of that. The last few games we had at Hampden Park were amazing. We had more than 6,000 people there which was a new competitive attendance record in Scotland.

The young girls watching the sport now have role models and that can be a great motivation as they think 'that could be me'. Over the next decade, I think we'll start to see even more women take up football because of this.

There are also loads of good policies being introduced by FIFA, UEFA, the Scottish FA and the English FA. All of those can help to provide realistic and sustainable methods to help grow the game.

What are the Scotland women’s national team aiming to achieve at the 2023 World Cup?

Obviously, the goal is to win every match and go to the 2023 World Cup. But even if that doesn't happen, that doesn't mean that we stop. The aim is always to get better, to help each person get better individually and with that increase our chances of winning more matches.

We are in a good place. The fans are amazing. The players are great. The good thing is that everyone involved in the national team is open-minded, from the coaches to the Scottish FA.

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