Always moving up to the next level

Always moving up to the next level

The preparation for the new season is almost over. Last weekend Ajax played its last friendlies on its way to the match for the Johan Cruijff Plate. Gavin Benjafield (manager physical performance) and his team are responsible for the fitness and physical development of the players. The South African tells us about Ajax’ new approach.

When Gavin Benjafield (38) and performance coach Björn Rekelhof started planning the schedule for the preparation, they came up with the idea of playing two friendlies in one day. Last weekend Ajax played both Osasuna and Werder Bremen and a week earlier two separate teams travelled to Waalwijk and Doetinchem to play friendly matches against RKC and De Graafschap. Both the men who conceived the plan and the technical staff consider the experiment to be a success. Apart from making everyone feel they are a part of it all, it is also convenient that everyone has the same schedule. Almost everyone on the squad could play for an hour or more in one day.

Benjafield: ,,In stead of the intended six weeks, we now only had four weeks of preparation. And to make matters worse, the international players often didn’t join us until later. By planning two matches in one day the amount of high quality practice moments has soared. Of course we were asked beforehand what the yield would be. I like to work from the idea: are we followers or are we leaders? Logistically it was no mean feat, but for the players there were nothing but advantages. At the end of the day, it gets the team off to a better start.”

With the aid of a number of coffee cups he demonstrates how his team works. Precisely one year after he came to Amsterdam, the team of the former Ajax Cape Town employee has become increasingly more defined. The implementation of the new vision is taking shape. The performance team is an integral part of Talent Development, as are study counseling and mental guidance. These departments work together from one vision in order to help the individual player develop and grow in every area. ,,But we still have a long way to go. The plans are still very much in the developmental stage and there is still plenty of room for improvement.”

Within the performance team there is a so-called ‘inner circle’ with the performance coaches Björn Rekelhof (team) and Perry Augustine (individual) and the physiotherapists Pim van Dord and Ronald Vermeer. The club physician Don de Winter, nutrition experts Peter Res, Bianca van Dijk (orthomolecular nutrition) and the employees of the adidas miCoach Performance Center add on to that. ,,And then we have the outer circle of course, which includes the two hospitals VUmc and AMC and specialists from abroad. Davy Klaassen travelled to Barcelona a couple of times last season to be treated for the injury to his groin, for example. In certain cases you must hire external expertise.”

Compared to last season there are now two performance coaches versus two physiotherapists, as opposed to one performance coach versus three physiotherapists. The Ajax Reserves have also expanded. Instead of one physiotherapist they have added two performance coaches to the team. This has all been done from the idea that prevention is better than the cure. It also lessens the gap between the Reserves and the first team where the work of the performance coaches is concerned. Benjafield explains: ,,The first thought for a physiotherapist is still to cure injuries. But that is a conservative way of thinking. When you train in order to prevent injuries, you won’t get any better. You must regularly push yourself to the limits, in order to physically grow to the next level. Of course, there is always the risk of an injury, but you do become fitter and stronger. Our performance coaches are here to devise the best training schedule for each individual player, whether that’s the eleven main players on Ajax’ first team, or the players who move back and forth between the Reserves and Ajax 1. They too can continue to stick to their personal schedule at all times.”

While watching the DVD on the Trilogy, Benjafield saw confirmation of the value of what he does. ,,Siem de Jong played almost every single match. But he was also on the physiotherapist’s table almost every day. Not because he was injured, but in order to recuperate as well as he possibly could. That shows you how dedicated he is to his sport. When you push your body to its limits, you must make sure you prepare as well as you possibly can for the next exertion. Both the physiotherapists and the performance coaches play an important role in that. Whether it be for fit players or injured players. This is completely in line with Cruijff’s vision, which is that you must work with specialists in order to prevent injuries and you must improve physical details. The focus must be on training possibilities instead of on medical impossibilities. We must take the players to a physical level that is the highest they can achieve. At the end of the day you will reap the rewards during the season.”