Words: Ben Whelan
Like many other youngsters, aspiring to be a professional footballer took up a healthy amount of my time when growing up. With football so heavily ingrained in British culture it’s an ambition that many kids dream of, but so few go on to achieve. So, when scouted for Swindon Town FC at the age of 13 there was no doubt in my mind that this could be the first steps into the realms of the professional game. An opportunity perhaps, that could one day lead to a career carved out in the mid to lower tiers of English football. Unfortunately for me, a decision was made that the slim chances of making it where greatly outweighed by the 80 mile round trip down the M4 twice a week, thus the dream came to an end.
Several years on and clearly still not bitter about what could have been, the call up came from Nike with the offer of a 48 hour immersive experience in the life of a professional footballer. Billed as an opportunity to train, play and recover like a Nike athlete, the two day event promised to cover all areas of the modern game from gym work, drills, 11-a-side and of course the opportunity to trial all the latest products and innovations. Taking place within the English Football Association’s national football centre, for any football fan the invitation to visit and train at St George’s Park is a rare and unique opportunity and one I was more than happy to accept.
With world-class facilities including 12 external pitches, a full size indoor 3G pitch, sports medicine centre, running track, gym and hydrotherapy pools, this elite centre is amongst the best in the world. Built to be the base for all training and preparation of the England national teams, the Nike academy also takes residence within the grounds. Founded in 2009, the academy is a full time pro-level training programme aimed at providing a second chance for players looking to break into the game. A success story in itself, upwards of 30 players have progressed on to receive professional contracts, representing clubs and countries around the world. With a busy two day programme ahead, I was excited, albeit a little apprehensive, to start training alongside the academy team.
Proceedings kicked off swiftly after arriving at St George’s park, prior to even checking in we were ushered through the obligatory injury sign off procedure, handed a packed out Nike Hyper Shield Max Air bag and led directly through to football centre into the one of the many vast dressing rooms. Making our way from the on site hotel gave us our first overview of the sheer scale of the complex and it’s facilities, the football centre spanned the entire length of two full sized pitches, one of which marked out to the exact scale of Wembley.
Once kitted out we were directed into the England dressing room and greeted by Shawn Hoy, Senior VP to discuss recent innovations in Nike training. With the modern game and players progressing in speed and athleticism, the range had been designed to consider; run, cut, jump and lift as the four main movements recognised by Nike during Football training. As we’ve heard before, innovation is predominately at the forefront of Nike’s design, working to provide solutions to the athletes needs and this range is no exception, specially aimed at tackling range of motion, temperature and moisture management. From the Dri-FIT fleece to accommodate chilly conditions to Nike Dri-FIT Vapor Ultimatum shirt, equipped with additional seams surrounding the arms and shoulders, breathability and range of movement are consistent design elements considered throughout. Our lower apparel featured Flex repel shorts to further aid moisture management and Nike Pro Combat tights to keep the legs compressed through movement. Footwear was finished off in the form of Nike Free 3.0 for natural flex when moving in a linear or cutting motion.
After the run down of our gear and feeling somewhat over equipped, fitness levels considered, we moved upstairs to the sports medicine centre to work through a selection of exercises aimed at testing symmetry force, reaction times and flexibility. Greeted by a number of physiotherapist, we were guided through each of the tests and their overall benefit in relation to the game. We started off with a counter jump on a dual performance deck to measure jumping power, balance and symmetrical force, a test used to gauge, identify and prevent potential injuries from over exertion or dependence on either leg. Batak was up next to test reaction times, after we watched a few decent attempts for other group members, we quickly realised Didier Drogba’s record on the board was in no threat and moved swiftly onto the Y balance. Sock and shoes off, we set about a series of balancing and stretching exercises to examine flexibility and symmetry, after successfully recording the lowest flexibility scores out of the fifty other European press, our time in the sports medicine centre was up.
Things could only get better, so on from the fitness centre and straight into the gym for a circuit session hosted by Tony Strudwick, former backroom staff of the England national team and head of athletic development at Manchester United. A circuit session was laid out designed to work what soon felt like every muscle in the body. After discussing the benefits of each exercise and their relevance to the game we paired up to work twice through the circuit, soon realising the benefits and necessity of our Dri-FIT gear. A suitable amount of pain followed this short but hard felt work out, and even after a morning we we’re starting to feel the effect of trying to mirror the life as a professional footballer.
Following lunch we gathered to be taken through to the first innovation session of the experience. Try as we might, we’d struggled to get any info from our Nike counterparts of what due to be dropping that day. After making our way into what felt like the epicenter of SGP, we were given the worldwide exclusive view on the Nike Highlight pack, the clean white space helping to accentuate the vibrant colouring of each boot. The Highlight pack represents another colour drop on the current 4-boot silo and follows on from the launch of the Shine Through Collection in December. The new colour schemes draws from the accents of colour detailed in the previous release to take over the upper across the new boots. A motion like display of the Nike Revolution Jackets sat alongside the boots, which released earlier in January, takes insights from the Nike Golf design team, utilising a stretch engineered mesh through the back, shoulders and upper arms to strip out excess bulk, resulting in the lightest football jacket Nike has ever made.
Max Blau, VP of Football Footwear, was there to provide an overview of the new pack, we took 5 minutes to catch up with Max and discuss recent football innovations…
It would be great if you could start by giving an overview of the insights behind the new pack?
Yeah, we’re constantly trying to figure out what we can do better; in this case we felt there was an opportunity to launch a second colour. For the Last 20 years the approach was the same, whereby we launch a colour every three months, for the first time in 2014 we introduced a colour that shined through before Christmas. So we thought we had enough space to connect with the consumer one more time before we turned the page and moved into summer 2015, the collection as a whole including Shine Bright and Highlight was created with this in mind. Shine Through and the Highlight Pack were created as one pack even though it’s two different drops. The Shine Through set it up in an almost secret way, as the colour pop (from Shine Through) has become the main star of the show through the Highlight Pack. We then thought of how can we then connect that to our on page strategy, so we felt that the easiest way to create distinction was that if you’re a player in advance stages of the champions league you will play in these boots. So again, it’s super exciting and also it’s a great way to re connect and reenergise with consumers.
As you mentioned we’ve seen a glimpse of this colour within the last shine through pack, what were the main drivers or influencers for the choice of colours used?
There is a strategy behind our colour and we need to constantly be exposed to what we’ve done before and where we want to take the category. It’s probably the most powerful component of our communication beyond ads. The colour is by far the thing the consumer will react the most to, we have an amazing team within design, especially our colour graphic designers and what they do is constantly based on trying to push the boundary of what colour is all about. In this case it’s not just the colour, but teasing the consumer a little bit of that colour in the first drop and then bring in the colour pop to be the main part of the show in the second pack.
You’ve touched on colour strategy in a boots life cycle and this drop, does the competitors action come into play when looking into strategy around upcoming releases?
It’s not billed around what competitors are doing; it’s something that we don’t even consider to be honest. It’s especially based on where we want to take consumers next, build on a dialogue you have through colour and also kinda respecting the personality of each silo – that’s part of the process. You can always push a bit more on specific silos, so that’s how we approach it.
We’ve recently seen the cross over from sportswear to lifestyle in Nike football footwear, most recently with the recent Magista Footscape release. We’ve seen this transition for some time within running and basketball but what were the main reasons behind this recent transition for football?
I think a sport like football transcends from the pitch, it’s only logical for us to align with that reality and transcendence. The idea is that if you’re a Mercurial guy you would like to have something like that on your feet when you’re not playing, it’s a simple strategy and something that we’re still learning on. Like you said, with basketball they’ve been doing this for a long time, and when it comes to football, the same as in basketball, there’s so many stories to be told, so many ways to connect beyond the pitch with the consumer. So it’s a great way to amplify the football culture.
And why have we now seen a more visible cross over?
I think that the main focus for our football strategy was to establish ourselves as a performance and innovative football brand, all of our resources were behind that principle. And not that we’re done with that, actually we still believe there so much opportunity when it comes to innovation but we also recognise that the opportunity goes beyond the 90 minutes. Football as we say never sleeps, so we are as a team actually only focused on this part of the business, but we have a separate team thinking beyond the 90mins and how we can connect and continue to inspire. So I think that’s the main reason behind spending and investing in the amplification of football.
We spoke with Martin Lotti and Dennis Decovic last year and they both referenced how at Nike you were already planning big innovations for the next world cup. With Dennis and other senior members of the design team leaving and knowing what they know, has this had any impact on your forthcoming plans?
No, we’re still focusing on continuing to listen to the voice of the player as the main source of inspiration. We have a very detailed plan that we will continue to execute. So the plans will not change at all, the strategy is still the same. We feel extremely confident that we will continue to do very well.
The departure of these three designers has been widely publicised, what sort of impact has this had internally within the Nike design team?
It’s reality that people come and go, but life goes on as they say. We have by far the best team in the industry and certainly one of the strongest at Nike and we’re ready for where we’re going.
Match day had arrived and although feeling it somewhat from the circuit session the day before, we made our way down for breakfast eager to get started with the academy staff. Prior to starting and to further add to excitement ahead of hitting the pitch that day, Nike had laid on a second innovation session that morning. As we made our way into a small dark room we were given the first glimpse of the forthcoming NikeFootballX pack. Comprising of remixed MagistaX and MercurialX boots, this forthcoming release continues the application of Flyknit technology and Dynamic Fit collar within the small-sided game, whilst additional adjustments include; Nike Grind rubber to protect high abrasion areas, with Lunarlon midsole and low-profile Phylon cushioning to suit the different playing styles of each reworked boot.
Max Blau was on hand again to give further insight into the pack…
We saw the first application of Flyknit technology and Dynamic Fit collar in last year’s release of the Nike Elastico Superfly, can you give an overview of the technical aspects of this pack?
I think again the premise here is to leverage the best of what we currently have in terms of touch and traction, to bring the best into one new collection that we call NikeFootballX. From a fit and touch the current product is pretty amazing, but we felt there was a bit of transition if you play football from the currently Magista to something similar in the small sided offering. You don’t change who you are, so it’s critical that we give the player the consistency, regardless if you go from a power league or an 11 a side league. That was one thing, bringing the Flyknit collar and NikeSkin into the mix is a huge benefit for this type of game. Also, bringing to the mix things like Lunar midsoles from the Lunar Gato, which is one of our other styles and was another thing that consumers really liked, there are a lot of fans out there so the key message is that it’s not that we’re divesting from one or the other or again taking the best attributes into one, there are just certain adjustments. In the case of the MagistaX; an added toe pump for protection of toe drag, the NikeSkin is much stronger in certain areas and also aids the MercurialX for abrasion resistance. The best rubber compounds as a brand is Nike Grind, its extremely durable, it can get rough out there when you play on a small sided pitch, it really eats your shoes up if you don’t have the right compound. And then options for Indoor (IC) and Turf (TF), which were available last year but you didn’t have the choice of style of play. Should you choose something for basic surface or choose something for style of play, you need both; so this pack solves that for the consumer.
Specifically for this pack we wanted to have the freedom to truly express or connect at a different level with the consumer, what I personally feel extremely attached and attracted to in small sided is, it’s a place for kids and players in general, to feel the freedom to express themselves. On and off the pitch, especially on the pitch, it’s place where you try new tricks. It’s obviously about winning but not just winning the traditional way, if you can pull a few a tricks now and then it feels even better, it’s about expression, creativity and we wanted to bring it to this shoes also.
You’ve touched on the choice of sole, can give a bit more info behind the process that led to the decision of Lunar midsole and low-profile Phylon cushioning?
This came out of multiple conversations, I was part of some of them and we did what we call a global dig, which is digging for information. I was helping the team in three cities – Mexico City, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires. We regroup and it’s interesting, it’s very consistent even though the game is played slightly differently. The call was that the MagistaX is all about the playmaker, a lot of stop and change direction and little bit of heavy impact, especially that takes places on the heel so they need protection. And then in this case (MercurialX,) minimal, very fast but these guys want to be able to feel the ball, so in a way the need for extra cushion never came up. Again listening to the voice of the player and adapting to their needs, brining two different options from more protective to more minimal.
So what were the main player insights you receives for a shoe design for the small-sided game?
Both have cushioning, both have tractions but it’s just different, it’s almost like fine turning a bicycle if you will or any other sort of sport equipment. Cushioning for this one (MagistaX) is more important for the mercurial playmaker, Mercurial is about feeling the ball it’s about speed so it incorporates all the features including lock down fly wire to keep you centered in the shoe whilst you change direction. I think that although the style of play is very different in 11 a side or small sided game, the playmaker is still the playmaker and the fast guy is still the fast guy; those things really don’t change that much. Consistency came up in many conversations, I don’t want to feel like I’m completely changing shoes, especially if you play with the Mercurial Superfly and then you go to something low cut, there will be a big difference in the feeling. We’re adjusting to the needs in terms of cushioning and traction through IC and Turf, and again this is the starting point; we are already working on a lot of other new ideas to customise even more to the style of play.
You touched on consistently on the pitch and small-sided game, do you think we can see this being rolled out across the current 4 boot silo?
Why not, this is just the beginning of the new strategy. April 1st is when we will be launching them, the premises is again to leverage the benefits of the silo’s so you will most likely see all those key benefits and features being incorporated onto one across the four potentially, why not? We’re just getting started with this.
Lastly, we spoke yesterday about the look of the new Highlight pack and today more on the technical aspects of Nike FootballX, from a design perspective what percentage would you put on performance vs aesthetics?
I think that every product today you can have one way or the other if you want to be successful, if the iPhone didn’t look the way it looked I don’t think it would be such a relevant product. I think you need both and that’s why we have teams that work in both, we have the kitchen who’s working on long term innovation and we have a team that’s mainly focusing on the strategy’s of colours and graphics and you have to bring all of those together in one. I don’t think I could choose one of the other, as both are critical now a day. It’s proven we’ve done a bit of research on the physiological impact of colour in graphics, it’s proven that if you like what you see, it gives you confident, if you feel confident you perform better. Straight up, I mean that’s the way it is, the coaches mentioned last night about the mental side of the game becoming almost the tipping point, the main difference when you’re feeling good and confident it’s really important, colour and graphic when it’s done right give you that confidence and makes the difference.
Second innovation session down and it was now time to lace up and put through our paces by the Nike academy team. Kitted out following another brief visit to the England dressing room, we made our way across the football centre and into the full size indoor 3g pitch. The sheer size of the complex was still baffling us, this aided further by the panoramic glass wall that stretched the entire length of the 120m indoor pitch. After breaking off into groups we made our way through a series of four exercises designed to test key characteristics from each boot within the current silo. First up, Tiempo and ex England international Graeme le Saux took us through a drill based on building from the back and switching play to focus on touch and creating space. Hypervenom next and a shooting practice session soon to be forgotten, followed by a playmaking exercise for Magista and lastly, a possession game based on speed and movement to test the Mercurial. Lasting the best part of two hours, these punishing sessions replicated drills used by the academy team and instantly lead to an appreciation for their fitness levels.
Rest time, recovery tights and the big game loomed. Man mountain and ex Wolves goalkeeper Matt Murray took us through a tactical session to determine positions and gave a basic overview of pressing and building from the back. Our now residential national dressing room was lined with kit, boot room filled with personal choice and Wembley sized pitch flood lit for the occasion. Certainly the closest we’ve come to realizing our professional dream. Before Howard Webb kicked things off, James Milner and World Cup winners Mario Götze and Jérôme Boateng popped up to provide some words of advice on the big games ahead. The general consensus of their pep talk was to keep moving and play simple, so with three teams from across Europe competing for SGP glory we were set for kick off. The collection of sports journalists and bloggers from across Europe resulted in a surprisingly decent standard of football, but with the advantage of a couple of the UK best freestylers our team soon prevailed. Two games lead to back-to-back wins and the UK team crowned as the European champions of St Georges Park.
Our elated and slightly exhausted state was short lived, as we made our way to the hydrotherapy centre for a session to aid recovery. What came next was the type of unimaginable pain you can only relate to having experienced it yourself, the collective 8 minutes spent within an ice pool left us questioning the professional dream if this had to be endured each week. Our bone aching pain only slightly relived by a two-minute interval in a hot Jacuzzi. Hobbling back to the room to warm up, our previous jealously of a life of a professional footballer had been handed a severe douse of realism, our time spent at SGP provided a insight into the level of dedication and skill required to reach the elite level of the game. So as the stats, results and scouting report came through it was no surprise that our performance hadn’t provided anything for academy staff to get excited about.
Many thanks to Nike Football & Frueds.