Sowing the Seed of Speed
Richard Bevan (Fitness First Magazine) talks to Mick Clegg
WORKING for 11 years as the Strength and Conditioning Coach for one of the world’s biggest football clubs, Manchester United, during a period in which the Red Devils dominated the game with players like Roy Keane, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Cristiano Ronaldo, is just about as exciting as it gets as far as jobs in the fitness industry go. But, as Richard Bevan finds out in the latest of our Behind the Stars features, Mick Clegg has something that’s arguably even more thrilling going on in his rough and ready gym in the north of England.
He’s pioneering a new methodology of elite training that focuses on the development of faster cognitive awareness and reaction times to “produce a super powered brain for athletic performance”, in conjunction with plyometric, functional and traditional training. It’s something Mick calls the ‘Seed of Speed’ and it’s gaining attention from a host of top level athletes as the 55-year-old follows his dream of nurturing “the next Ronaldo"
STAR TRAINERS FACT FILE - MICK CLEGG
As well as training Manchester United’s players Mick also used to train the coaching staff, including former Manager Sir Alex Ferguson who was fond of boxing!
In his early days Mick worked in schools in the north of England coaching mentally and physically handicapped children. He says this gave him, “an understanding of movement and the brain’s mechanisms.”
Mick’s son Steven was scouted by Manchester United despite having only taken up football three months earlier. Surprisingly, Mick says that the aging Teddy Sheringham was the player whose fitness stood out most when he first joined the club in 2000.
Mick on David Beckham: “…a really quiet, nice mannered lad – very likeable. He’d put the effort in, he was totally dedicated to being as good as he could be but the new age began with Ronaldo – that’s when it really stepped up to another level.”
Mick believes footballers should never do heavy weights as, “the bigger you become, the more you lose your agility”
ARRIVING at Mick Clegg’s Olympic Sports Gym in the tough industrial town of Ashton-under-Lyne in the northwest of England, on the fourth floor of an old mill, surrounded by high-rise flats that tower above the gloomy streets below, it’s hard to imagine that within these walls some of the most groundbreaking, technologically advanced work the elite sporting world has ever seen is in full swing. But you should never judge a book by its cover and Mick has plenty of them – adorning the shelves in his ‘meditation room’ and covering just about every subject you could imagine, from physics and philosophy to religion and art (he’s read the bible from cover to cover three times).
The down-to-earth, no-nonsense Northerner describes himself as “not being an educated type” having instead gone to the “University of Life”. But the books, along with his embracement of practices such as meditation and yoga, reveal a constant thirst for knowledge and a drive to develop new ideas that push the boundaries of what elite athletes can achieve. Clegg, as I find out during my afternoon with him, isn’t a ‘sit still’ kind of guy and it’s this attribute that has led him to his pioneering ‘Seed of Speed’ training methodology.
“It’s a philosophy developed over many years working with top athletes, picking up various elements after seeing what works then bringing it all together,” says Mick, his eyes lighting up as he talks about the new passion in his life. “We work with footballers, tennis players, martial arts champions, a speedway champion – we’ve got a netball player who’s actually my assistant now and we’ve even had a golfer. It’s more suited to team sports or fighting sports than, say, track and field events but it can be applied to many different areas.” Seed of Speed, in a nutshell, is a form of training that develops an athlete’s brain, as well as their body, in order to increase their performance in a real life top-level competitive environment. If an athlete thinks quickly, they act quickly.
“If you think in terms of a footballer going out on the pitch – there’s him and 10 other players on his team,” says Mick. “There’s another 11 players on the other team, there’s two goals at opposite ends, there’s a ball bouncing around all over the place, and an annoying guy with a whistle who’s making decisions that you don’t agree with! The amount of information that’s going into the human brain is massive. I wanted to find out how we could optimise how much information we could get in there and how quickly it could be processed."
Situated on the third floor of the old Ashton mill, below Clegg’s Olympic Sports Gym – a traditional sweat and sawdust style workout facility, run by two of his five sports mad adult children – is the Sports Performance Innovation Lab. This is where the real magic happens and where an ever-increasing flow of elite athletes arrive on a daily basis eager to work with Mick on his futuristic equipment. There’s The Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, which projects 3D images of multiple tennis balls bouncing around in box at different speeds, in different directions; hitting off the walls and each other as they go. The athlete is tasked with tracking four assigned balls during a 10-second period while standing on a constantly moving wobble board. Trust me, this is hard. I wasn’t even standing on the board when I tried it and the most I could track was two balls. But while I was there, a 17 year old player from Manchester United’s Youth Team was having a session with Mick. He was out of breath having just been put through his paces in the gym and was also having to concentrate on maintaining his balance on the wobble board but he continually managed to track either four or three of the balls.
“It works on your concentration and also your peripheral vision and awareness,” says Mick who was the first person in the UK to use The Cave when he brought it to Manchester United following a research trip to the University of Montreal in Canada several years ago. Recently retired midfielder Paul Scholes, renowned for having outstanding ‘vision’ and awareness on the football pitch, was, according to Mick, one of the best performers on this piece of equipment. “Paul was incredible on it and his son was absolutely amazing too,” he says. “I can’t say whether his son will become a top footballer, or cricketer, or not, but brain-training wise, he’s phenomenal.” There’s also the D2 Light Training Board: A board covered in scores of small lights which flash on in a random sequence requiring the athlete to hit them to switch them off as quickly as possible. This one also develops peripheral vision, as well as reaction time and hand-eye coordination.
But the piece of kit that Mick is most excited by, and the one which most comprehensively showcases his full Seed of Speed methodology, is the fitLight Trainer. It’s basically eight wirelessly controlled discs which emit L.E.D lights with a central PDA controller. When a light flashes on from one of the discs the athlete puts it out by breaking the beam with their hand, foot, head or even racquet. Although not much to look at, it’s an incredibly flexible system that can be set up in any number of ways according to the sport the athlete is training for. Discs can be stuck to the wall, the floor, on posts – just about anywhere – at a variety of heights and used in conjunction with other forms of training. For example, Mick set up a circuit for the young Manchester United player where he had to do five barbell squats, followed by a series of plyometric jumping exercises over a vault and then go straight into the fitLight sequence which worked both his hands and his feet. He then set up a different fitLight sequence and while the player was in the midst of frantically rushing around switching the lights out Mick kicked the ball to him with the player required to control it then pass it back.
“Once we’re working concentration, reaction time, peripheral vision, hand-eye coordination, feet-eye coordination along with some power development and plyometrics, and then adding the ball into the equation, we’re multi-tasking at a very high level,” says Mick. “All of that together is what Seed of Speed is all about and by developing all of those areas performance will really improve.” Mick is clearly extremely excited about the potential of Seed of Speed to create a new generation of elite athletes as he embarks on the next phase of what has been a fascinating journey working within the fitness industry. He was Manchester United’s Strength and Conditioning Coach (or as he prefers to call it “Power Development Coach”) from 2000-2011 – a period during which the team won an astounding 17 trophies including seven Premier League titles and one Champions League. But his route into what many people in the fitness world would consider a ‘dream job’ was anything but conventional. Surprisingly, the Englishman wasn’t particularly sporty as a child and
spent his early adult years playing guitar in a band on the Manchester club circuit. He only started going to the gym at 20 years old after seeing a photograph of himself in which, he says, “my arms were thinner than my guitar strings.”
But his passion for his newfound hobby and his drive for improvement saw Mick make huge gains within just 12 months and he was soon turning his hand to coaching. In the early 1980s he bought the Olympic Sports Club and set about drinking in as much knowledge as possible from wherever he could get it – boxing, yoga, meditation, plyometrics (advanced jumping exercises) – you name it, if he thought it was useful, he studied it and it all became part of his repertoire. He also began training his children – Michael, Steven, Amanda, Mark and Shaun – from an early age. All of them became incredibly strong, powerful kids (four of them became champion weightlifters), who stood out for that reason among their peers.
Michael and Steven were both scouted by Manchester United and signed schoolboy forms – Michael made it right through to the first team where he made 23 appearances (he’s now Sunderland’s strength and conditioning coach) while Steven represented the youth team for several years. But it was the outstanding physical condition of the boys that caught the eye of the United coaches and it was former Assistant Manager Brian Kidd who first suggested Mick come into the club to work with the first team. But Clegg almost blew his big chance when he told Kidd that there was no way he could get older players doing the advanced physical training his sons were doing.
Mick Clegg on PLYOMETRICS
“I was doing plyometrics with the kids at the time and he’d seen our Michael and Steven and thought it had great potential,” he says. “I said, ‘Brian you can’t go teaching plyometrics to the likes of Gary Pallister and Peter Schmeichel – they’re big lads and have been in the game for years’. Brian got annoyed with me and that was the end of it. I thought I’d blown the biggest chance I’d ever have to work with Manchester United. But I wouldn’t have been training them in ways that were right for the team at that time. I knew what Michael and Steven could do, but these were much older guys.”
However opportunity came knocking again for Mick when Kidd moved on to Blackburn Rovers taking with him head physio David Fevre who was replaced by current incumbent Rob Swire. “Rob came to see a lot of what I was doing at the Olympic Sports Club and when they opened the new Carrington training facility he asked me to go and train the kids and run the gym,” says Mick. The key moment in the transition to working with the first team came when Roy Keane injured his knee and came to see Mick to help with his rehabilitation in the summer of 2000. “I had a boxing club and incorporated boxing into the training,” says Mick. “Roy used to do some boxing, he’d had a few matches in his younger days so he enjoyed it and we got on really well together.”
Keane would often criticize Mick deliberately to see what he was made of but the coach displayed his skill at dealing with different personalities. “I would turn around and shout, ‘Just get on with what I’ve told you to do, I’m the coach around here so shut up and get on with it.’ He encouraged that and loved it. It got the best out him. If I’d been soft I would’ve been left out but because I challenged him I won his respect.” Gradually Keane’s team mates heard about the work Mick was doing with him and one by one they started drifting in asking if they could start having sessions. Eventually new assistant boss Steve McLaren noticed what was going on and summoned Mick for a formal interview with a view to becoming the full time Strength and Conditioning Coach.
It’s hard to believe it now, just a decade and a half later when it forms such an integral part of top level football training, but at that time, footballers didn’t do any weight training in the gym. The walls in Mick’s Olympic Sports Club are adorned with induction sheets for each player from that period. On Keane’s the notes read, ‘Never done weights before’, the same applies to David Beckham’s, Ryan Giggs’s, Dwight Yorke’s...almost all of the players. “I sat down with about 13 people, physios, coaches etc and was asked loads of questions,” says Mick. “This was in 2000 – remember United had just won the Treble without doing weights so they were saying ‘Why should we do weights? Why should we do plyometrics?”
“Steve said, ‘I’ve had loads of fitness coaches over the years and they all come up with different ideas.’ “He had this big calendar board behind him. He pointed to July 1st and said, ‘That’s where we start pre-season’ and then pointed to August 8th and said ‘That’s the first game of the season, write on the board all the fitness training we need to do to get them right for the start of the season.’
“I said, ‘Steve you cannot put fitness training on a board before you put the football training on because you’re a football team. You put the football on first, what you need to progress on that side of it, then I’ll fill in what we need to do fitness-wise to complement what you’re doing.’ “He was blown away and said, ‘I’ve had all sorts of people coming in here and not one has ever said anything like that.’ “That’s why I was invited to come in on a full time basis.” But with no existing culture of gym work, Mick had to take things slowly.“I was doing plyometrics with the United kids but I couldn’t just start doing it with the older first team players. The younger players like Darren Fletcher had being doing that stuff with me from the start so when he came through to the first team he was great at it but I certainly couldn’t start doing it with Roy Keane and people like that. It was a gradual process and you had to vary what you did with certain people according to the individual.”
Ryan Giggs was one of those players most open to trying new things, keen on doing anything that would prolong his career. It was Mick who first introduced the Welshman to yoga, a practice widely acknowledged as helping Giggs overcome the hamstring problems that dogged his early career. “We wanted to expand on the stretching we were doing so I thought back to the yoga I’d done in my 20s. Ryan really took to it so I went out and got a yoga teacher called Louise who took yoga with them for a couple of years before they got someone else in.” “You could tell it really suited Ryan. It didn’t so much suit Roy Keane and it suited Gary Neville even less! Everybody’s different.”
Giggs took the physical aspect of training up a gear from the old school of Keane, Pallister, Steve Bruce and Co. But it was when an 18-year-old Portuguese by the name of Cristiano Ronaldo arrived in 2003 to replace the outgoing David Beckham that Mick was really able to take the training up to the next level and develop many of the ideas he’d been cultivating over the years.
Ronaldo made it clear that he was absolutely determined to do whatever it took to become the best player in the world. As well as spending hours after training out on the pitches at Carrington, working on the skills that would one day twist the blood of defenders the world over, he insisted on regular daily sessions with Mick to develop the body he needed to make the most of his talents.
“Ronaldo was the ultimate trainer, he was so dedicated,” says Clegg who helped the wispy teenager become the sculpted powerhouse we see today (pictured opposite). “People think his transformation into the player who left the club in 2009 took a few months but it didn’t, it took five and a half years. We did a lot of strength work, because he did his own speed work out on the pitch. We did press ups, chin ups, dips, mid section work, core stability and all that sort of stuff. We did some fast foot work sprinting, squats, dead lifts, power cleans, plyometrics – a bit of everything. But with Ronaldo it was the maintaining of a regular training regime that gave him such dramatic results. “He didn’t just wait until the Boss said, ‘right we’re going to have a gym session today,’ he wanted to come in every day with a regular routine. If you get that over a period of time you see much better results than if you’re just doing it sporadically. He made sure he got what he wanted and what he needed from his training.”
In contrast to Ronaldo, Mick believes former strike partner Wayne Rooney could have further exploited his substantial talents had he put in extra work in the gym. “Wayne did some boxing with me and you could tell he’d boxed before,” he says. “It’s probably the only bit (of gym work) he enjoyed. The only time he really gave absolutely everything was when he broke his metatarsal before the 2006 World Cup. He worked his socks off then and showed what a great athlete he could’ve been – to me, he could’ve been better than he is now. If he’d have come closer to matching the work Ronaldo did he’d have been an absolutely massive player, but he didn’t.
“I remember looking in a magazine that listed the world’s top 100 players. Ronaldo was No.1 and Rooney was something like 17th. I think that gap would have been closer, or Wayne could have eventually taken top spot, if he’d been able to emulate Cristiano’s attitude towards the gym.” When Ronaldo left the club for Real Madrid in an £80 million deal that made him the most expensive player in history, Mick was left with something of a void in his working life. But, never one to rest on his laurels, he began figuring out what he could do to take his training to the next stage. “For six months I was thinking, ‘What have I learned from the experience of working with Cristiano and talking with him about his training.’ And I remember waking up in the middle of the night with this phrase going round my head: ‘rapid cognition, rapid cognition’. It was like a sign! I studied the term and tried to understand what it was about.”
He took a trip to Canada with son Michael to spend a week with psychophysicist Professor Jocelyn Faubert at the University of Montreal, studying his techniques. It was here that he discovered The Cave 3D Environment and on his return he convinced Manchester United to install the device in Carrington whereupon Mick began incorporating brain training into his regular gym work with the players. But it was after leaving the club in 2011 that he was able to start really developing his Seed of Speed philosophy and piecing together the equipment and techniques that he hopes will help him create another world-beating superstar.
“Once Ronaldo left, it left a hole that I needed to fill, and I needed to fill it by producing another Ronaldo. But you’ve got to be able to find these people and work with them in various ways. The trouble with being at a football club is you’re restricted in what you can do because they have lots of other people looking after different aspects of the training. But now I’ve got the opportunity to look at speed, skill, power, strength, flexibility, endurance, visual field, concentration. It all comes together.”
Years of experience working with the full range of people, from kids right through to athletes at the highest level, certainly appear to have led Mick to a winning formula and having sown the Seed of Speed the sporting landscape looks set to flower with the fruits of his labour in the coming years.