Q&A: New U.S. Soccer High Performance Director James Bunce

ussoccer.com: Take us through your professional background.
James Bunce: I studied for a Sports Science degree at Portsmouth University in England. Towards the end of my time there, I realized I wanted to work in a professional sporting arena and it’s something that I practiced and specifically trained at the university.

I started to reach out to local sporting organizations and locally with Southampton Football Club, who were in the League Championship in England at that time. I contacted them and asked if there were any opportunities where I could go in and speak to them and learn and observe and support them in what they were doing. Luckily for me, they answered the email and invited me in. From there, it grew from an internship to part-time work to full-time work to running the whole department over the nine years that I was there. Those nine years were quite the up-and-down rollercoaster ride, because in that time Southampton FC went from the Premier League down to League One, three leagues below the Premier League. We were in administration, we weren’t getting paid, the owner sadly passed away, and we had new ownership, so it was quite the rollercoaster ride.

In that same period, we were lucky enough to produce and develop some of the world’s best talent, such as Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Players like that still came through that very turbulent time, and it’s something that we held very dear to what we did. Even though there was this craziness around the club and the financial ownership, we still had player development at the heart of everything that we did.

After eight amazing years, there, the opportunity to go work for the Premier League, which is obviously the umbrella organization, came up. I had a great time at Southampton and I worked with some amazing players, coaches and staff, but couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try to oversee and develop strategies across the whole landscape of the country and all the clubs for player development. Improving the utilization of sport science and performance in clubs was a challenge I really wanted to take on. The main reason behind my move was to try to step away from the on-field work and try to develop more of a systems approach to improve both staffing and projects for research and development in the performance arena.

I was at the Premier League for three years. First, I was Head of Sport Science and most recently was Head of Performance. In that time, we developed some of the world’s largest soccer projects around performance. We have the largest Injury Surveillance-Based projects, so collecting and surveilling injuries for all players from under-9 all the way up to first team. We run a National Profiling project that profiles every player from under-12 to under-23, and we run a technical and tactical analysis program across all the 20 clubs. We’ve also done things related to the scrutiny on the qualifications of scientists working in the arena compared to the coaches, who have to go through a qualification-based program to get badges and be able to work in certain areas within a club. We designed a very specific soccer accreditation, working with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Science to make a very specific and developmental pathway for all the science and performance people in the industry to show that they have the skills, mentoring and continued professional development, and to show they were reaching the standards that we thought were necessary to work within the clubs.

I went from great times working for a club to the more strategic management side of working at the Premier League.

ussoccer.com: What would you say were some of the practical benefits that you’ve seen in your time with Southampton and at the Premier League of developing these high-performance programs?
JB: The thing that distinguishes a good to a great high-performance program is the interaction of the multidisciplinary team. There’s a lot of good science people, lots of good coaches, good medics, good analysis people, but unless they’re working in collaboration, and if they really aren’t putting the player and the team at the heart of everything that they do, then some of this good practice doesn’t get delivered. For me, the biggest thing is creating a core team that can work, speak, have disagreements, and in the end come together for the good of the player and the team. That’s one of the biggest things.

Another thing is high-level monitoring of players, understanding that players all develop at different times. All their attributes can develop at different times, and if you’re coaching a player at a very young age you can make massive fundamental errors around their trajectory and their ability. Some of the things we did at Southampton and I brought over to the Premier League revolved around growth and maturation, monitoring physical developments and other aspects like that.

ussoccer.com: Is there any particular player that stands out from your experience that might have been misidentified prior to these types of innovations but who didn’t fall through the cracks as a result of having these programs?
JB: Yes, the one I mention often is Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who’s an England and Arsenal player. At Under-14 he was very immature in regards to his physical ability. He was not going through puberty like a lot of his other counterparts. He was fragile and underdeveloped. In many organizations, he might’ve been released, but we rated him as a technician and as a person and we put a lot of time and effort into him. We decided to do what seems like a very normal thing now, but ten years ago was it was quite revolutionary: we kept him back a year and did not progress him up through the academy system and made him play with younger players. We created a specific program to develop him physically on a different trajectory from the other players and allowed him to play amongst people that he could match up with and not just get pushed off the ball, bullied, or not be allowed to use his skills and abilities. Looking back, Alex talks about that timing being really important to him in regards to being able to perform and being able to develop on his own trajectory. In many cases within England, players are being released for being too small. Harry Kane being released from Arsenal at under-9, Jamie Vardy was released from Sheffield Wednesday for being too small, and even the likes of people like Dimitri Payet who were released from their clubs for being too small. We took a massive stance on this, giving the players the right opportunity and the right environment to thrive no matter what their birthdate was, but rather what their individual requirements were.

ussoccer.com: At the end of the day, it improves the ability to make sure that players are judged appropriately and that they don’t fall through the cracks.
JB: 100 percent. If anyone is judging a player at under-17 or under-18 purely based on their ability to score goals or their ability to dominate in a training session, there is a massive amount of evidence now that shows that you could be misidentifying them. The way we coin the phrase here is that you start seeing fool’s gold and missing the diamond in the rough. You can’t start backing the player that isn’t actually your best option only because he’s just doing well in that age group. You want to be identifying the longer-term strategy, seeing what they could offer in their 20’s. These kinds of strategies hopefully ensured that every club within the system, not only in Southampton but within England, has the ability to identify these players and make sure that their strategies are in place to make sure that they don’t get lost in the system.

ussoccer.com: What are some of the responsibilities you will have as the High Performance Director for U.S. Soccer?
JB: The broad landscape is to try to continue the development of high performance within the Federation, including the areas of nutrition, strength and conditioning, sports medicine, the education program of coaches, and working with the Development Academy and the college system as well. We want to identify the things that we can build and improve on already from what’s going on at the Federation. Also, we want to look externally around the areas that we can have a larger impact on within the millions of players playing across America, giving them the right nutrition advice, the right instructions for recovery, inputting advice and standards across what soccer should be reaching for the Development Academy, colleges, MLS, and also the players playing at the grassroots level. It’s a very broad role and one that is really exciting because of that, but ultimately we want to ensure that every player within the Federation is getting the best service provision he can get across the whole performance landscape. Ultimately, that will hopefully filter into the wider community and ensure that the standards and philosophy that’s being delivered to the Federation will help benefit those players at the grassroots level and other areas of the country.

ussoccer.com: What attracted you to this role for U.S. Soccer?
JB: It’s not new to see how massive soccer is becoming in America. Over in the United Kingdom, we’re very aware of the trajectory of where U.S. Soccer is and where it’s been and where it’s going to go. For me, that was only increased when I started to meet and talk to the people around the Federation, around their passion and determination to ensure that soccer becomes the one of the biggest, if not the biggest, sports in America. For me, the ability to try to support that kind of goal is something that’s probably very rare within any kind of organization or profession. To be able to have that kind of ability to develop the already great practices that are going on and ensure that we can drive U.S. Soccer even further is one for me personally and professionally I couldn’t turn down.

ussoccer.com: In other sports, the U.S. is one of the world leaders. Do you think that there will be things that you can learn from those sports and apply them to soccer?
JB: No question. For many years in England, soccer has been very insular and did its own thing. Part of my job at the Premier League was to step away from soccer in many occasions and actually see what’s going on amongst other sports. Not only developed sports in the UK, but other sports in Europe and other teams in Europe. Knocking down those walls and opening up to learn from those … you might not apply everything, but you certainly start to question some of the things and practices you’ve done. For me, leaving a club environment and going to a league such as the Premier League environment has taught me a lot about the practices I was doing and reflecting on those and ensuring that you continually are moving at the rate that other people around you to make sure you stay ahead of the game. I’m not unaccustomed to working with other Federations or other organizations to ensure that ultimately you can take the information that they can help you with, whether it be the latest concussion information, the latest strength and conditioning or the latest technology, and trying to apply that as necessary within your organization.

ussoccer.com: Are there any challenges that you foresee when trying to apply these practices to the much larger scale of the USA?
JB: That’s a great point that the UK is a much smaller country with a much smaller population. There’s a lot less people even playing the game in the UK. The thing that you try to do is set the standard within the Federation and show the benefits, hopefully these things trickle down. Then you can start to really influence the wider community by the people seeing what’s being done with the elite population and realizing that these things are a good idea. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t happen overnight, and every project that we’ve done within the UK has started out as a proof of concept and has been introduced as a pilot with slow release and then turned into a mass release. We have ensured that we’ve done that across the board with all our projects, because that’s the only way to ensure that everyone comes with you and everyone understands the process and the benefits. Again, it’s about including people, ensuring that people are kept within that conversation and ensuring that everyone has the ability to contribute and gain information. The biggest thing that we did with the Premier League was that we weren’t just setting up these projects to take information and use for ourselves. We were setting up these projects to collect information and then disseminate it to people in the clearest and most precise way that we could to actually make changes and improve their ability to deliver. It hopefully becomes a bit of a no-brainer that people want to be involved, because they’ll be getting really useful and beneficial information for their club and their teams.

ussoccer.com: What excites you most about this opportunity?
JB: For me, it’s to work with some hugely passionate people. I can genuinely say that the various people at the Federation are driven to improve and develop on what’s already happening at U.S. Soccer. That’s a massive drive for me. To me personally, it’s to help create a real high performance culture within U.S. Soccer. Everyone I’ve spoken to wants to embrace that, and it’s just to ensure that we can build a team that can facilitate that across the coaching, education, and the wider grassroots community as well. For me, the thing that excites me the most is having this team that wants to develop and wants to improve that, and the ability to roll that out across such a wide landscape is challenging but one that is professionally unrivaled at this point.