University of Groningen: Working on health and talent together with FC Groningen

The University of Groningen (UG), the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG), and Football Club (FC) Groningen have been working together in the field of sports and exercise for many years. Wouter Frencken (FC Groningen) and Koen Lemmink (UMCG/UG) discuss innovative and interdisciplinary projects that have resulted from this collaboration. They also talk about the societal impact that they want to generate, for example in the field of the general lack of physical activity, and the development and retention of talent in the region.

Increasing collaboration
Wouter Frencken, top-level sports development manager at FC Groningen, started working for the football club in 2011. He had previously also done his PhD research there, supervised by Koen Lemmink, Professor of Sports, Performance and Innovation and head of the Department for Human Movement Sciences at the UMCG/UG. Their research focused on innovative measuring and tracking systems that could be used to perform physical and tactical analyses. Ever since 2011, the collaboration has become more and more intensive, with Frencken as intermediary between the UG and FC Groningen. What started with one single intern has developed into several academics working in a variety of positions at the club. The joint projects are also becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, with several UG faculties involved. Projects no longer focus exclusively on sports performance but also on topics such as the role that sport and exercise plays in health and sustainability. The collaboration is expected to be formalized in a statement of intent in the near future.

Football and science
FC Groningen has by now deeply integrated science into its work. This is rather unique in the football world, especially for Dutch clubs. ‘At an international level, football clubs tend to have more room for science if they have bigger budgets and play at a very high level. It is therefore very special and characteristic of our collaboration that this is happening here in Groningen too’, says Lemmink.

‘Societal engagement is an increasingly important theme in academia. One example of a theme that our collaboration should have significant effects on is the general lack of physical exercise in the region.’
‘Societal engagement is an increasingly important theme in academia. One example of a theme that our collaboration should have significant effects on is the general lack of physical exercise in the region.’
Sliding shorts with sensors
One of the products that the collaboration between the UG and FC Groningen has resulted in is a software system to support football teams’ tactical analyses. Frencken was one of the developers of this system. If these types of scientifically driven systems are integrated into a sports enterprise, the sports world will have to regard them with an open mind. ‘This was sometimes rather difficult in the past. Coaches sometimes felt that we were stepping into their shoes. Fortunately, these things have become much more common by now’, Frencken explains. ‘There is still a long way to go, especially in terms of communication, but science has become an accepted element of professional football.’ Lemmink adds: ‘This means that we are able to make increasingly deeper and more precise analyses and predictions about players and teams, at tactical and psychological as well as physical levels. For example, we are currently developing sliding shorts with sensors, as well as other smart clothing. In this particular case, they are used to measure the impact on players’ knees and hips in order to help prevent injuries.’

Mapping resilience
One excellent example of a project that has emerged from the collaboration between FC Groningen and the UG is about monitoring resilience. Frencken: ‘We use data-driven analyses to predict when a player is at increased risk of a bad shape, and at the same time, to find out how we can prevent this – for example by telling a player to rest more, or to train differently. The main principle is that we link physical and mental data and analyse them to help athletes to perform optimally, or to recover from a bad shape and get back to their original level as quickly as possible.’ ‘This concept originates from the field of psychiatric care, where patients are monitored in order to optimally ensure their wellbeing’, Lemmink adds. ‘This type of project often involves collaboration from various different disciplines, and such concepts could provide added value to a variety of sectors if they are applied correctly.’

Lack of physical activity in the region
Lemmink: ‘Societal engagement is an increasingly important theme in academia. One example of a theme that our collaboration should have significant effects on is the general lack of physical activity in the region. FC Groningen has a gigantic reach in society. For example, the football club visits all primary schools in the province to teach a gym class. This reach may have great added value to the UG in terms of data collection, in this case among children. Information is collected during this school tour, for example about what it is that prevents children from exercising. The UG can subsequently use its newly developed knowledge about exercise promotion to the benefit of the public. But other target groups also benefit from FC Groningen’s societal engagement via its “sports and exercise” programme.’

Talent in Groningen
Another theme in which collaboration can play a role is talent development and retention. ‘FC Groningen has a lot of expertise in the field of recognizing and supporting talent, from the perspective of sports, and the UG has a lot of academic knowledge in the field of talent selection and development’, Frencken explains. ‘The football club is faced with the problem that talented players transfer to bigger clubs in the Netherlands and abroad, and the University has a similar issue with talented academics moving to the Randstad region. Pooling knowledge in this field is very important to both parties, as well as to the entire northern region.’

Sport, Science & Innovation Groningen
The knowledge institutions, government bodies, and businesses in the North have joined forces in the Sport, Science & Innovation Groningen (SSIG) network. SSIG is a partner of the Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health as well. The SSIG network aims to become an important hub for collaboration between FC Groningen, the UG, and the UMCG. Lemmink concludes: ‘You could say that Groningen is a very special ecosystem, as it offers sports programmes at all levels, from vocational to university Master’s. This puts us in a unique starting position. And there is no competition within the SSIG. Quite the contrary: we formulate joint aims to help promote sports, exercise, health, and sustainability in the region.’

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