A Unique Perspective on What Works in Elite Training Facilities

GWS Giants Learning Life Centre

GWS Giants Learning Life Centre

As sports science and technology advance, and the value attached to the world’s most in-demand players increases, across a range of sports, so too does demand for elite training facilities to accommodate them.

The Populous team, across the globe, has been designing elite training hubs for three decades, helping to create some of the sporting world’s most complex and futuristic spaces.

It was the mid-90s when I first began playing  first-grade rugby in Australia.

Back then, elite rugby training only involved using the field or weights set up at the back of the grandstand; using the equipment at the local gym was about as ‘elite’ as things got.

Our counterparts at the State and National Institutes of Sport, Olympic athletes, had facilities that would be considered high-performance.

Team sports, in Australia, just weren’t there yet.

However, spin the globe and it was a different story.

The Populous team began working on elite training facilities in the U.K. and U.S. as early as 1983.

The English Premier League, and in America the NFL and thriving college sports, were leaders in advancing the environments in which their best players could train.

In the late 1990s, thanks largely to a surge in funding from TV rights and sponsorship, Australia joined the fray.

Fast forward to 2016, and numerous codes, across Europe, the U.S. and Australia are developing exceptional training spaces.

Team and club owners and managers have acknowledged the effect first-class facilities can have on athletes’ physical performance, mental wellbeing, and, hence, team win rates.

The flow-on effect has been realised – athletes in peak condition, and clubs with a competitive edge, attract interest from other high quality players and coaching staff.

Ensuing financial benefits – increases in sponsorship, membership and brand value – have made investing in elite training facilities all the more attractive for clubs wanting to be competitive.

So what exactly makes a facility ‘elite’?

The latest in medical and nutrition resources, recovery and rehabilitation rooms and equipment, high-tech performance-analysis capabilities, dedicated education and commercial spaces… they’re all facets of a high-performance centre.

But what truly makes a facility elite is the seamless integration of these features.

Having a deep understanding of how teams operate, allows us to design facilities that provide this integration between all these multiple elements.

Access from the medical room directly into hydrotherapy or physiotherapy, or meeting rooms with separate areas designed for smaller groups, are simple examples.

However it’s the design of spaces that allows the organisation to come together, when appropriate, that can really make a huge difference to a team’s culture.

Facilitating connections between Firsts teams and lower-grade or academy teams, provides inspiration for up-and-coming players and cements all-important elite pathways whilst also pushing those in the top team in the knowledge that there are hard-working ambitious younger players biting at their heels.

Good design and integration is also key in preventing an ‘us and them’ mentality between players and administration.

Queens Park Rangers F.C. Training Centre

Queens Park Rangers F.C. Training Centre

In the U.K., the Queens Park Rangers F.C. Training Centre sets a real benchmark in this regard.

The Centre features a common entry, common gym and shared social spaces where all staff and players can interact.

The Rangers’ Centre incorporates the requirements of all of its teams, from nine-year-olds up to Firsts, seamlessly.

It provides well-linked state-of-the-art indoor facilities, and some 20 pitches, all whilst architecturally responding to its suburban West London location.

In addition to providing first-rate facilities for their own players and staff, clubs, like the Rangers, are increasingly willing to share their newly created elite resources with community teams and the public.

The Australian Rugby Development Centre in Sydney is a case in point.

Due for completion in 2017, the high-performance facility is of a standard that it can cater to national teams, including the Wallabies and Wallaroos, and the men’s and women’s sevens teams headed for the Olympics.

Right from concept stage, we also focused on how best to make the Centre accessible to local clubs, schools and indigenous organisations.

Similarly in AFL, the Geelong Cats and Greater Western Sydney Giants are among clubs that placed a firm focus on community, multicultural and educational resources when planning their training centres.

Environmental sustainability is also increasingly a consideration in elite training projects.

The University of Connecticut’s Populous-designed football complex was the first college or university athletic project in the U.S. to gain LEED  Silver (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

Due for completion this year, French football club Olympique Lyonnais’ €13 million state-of-the-art facility has all the design features you’d expect from a world-class training centre, including aqua rehabilitation, running hill, tracks and a covered pitch.

It also, however, has been designed to be highly environmentally sustainable being low-energy and carbon-neutral with natural ventilation, along with the possibility of installing thermal photovoltaics to heat water, and rain recycling technology to water the pitch.

Of course all advancements in elite training spaces, whether they relate to environmental, technological or other resources, come at a cost.

In Australia, partnering with local government in order to fund a facility is becoming more common.

Clubs develop high-performance capability off the back of existing government-owned grounds and spaces, under the proviso the community will have use of upgraded sports and recreation resources. The difficulty comes in how to incorporate both these elements so that they enhance the facility not detract from it – something Populous has successfully achieved with the GWS Giants Learning Life Centre in Sydney

We also work with clubs to establish strategies for maximising returns from their future facilities.

The creation of multi-team precincts, strategic partnerships with medical and scientific companies, and maximising hospitality and sponsorship opportunities are some of the means by which this is done.

Partnering with educational organisations can provide funding and other benefits.

There have, in fact, been some astounding developments in what is available to help top sportspeople reach their full potential, should budget allow.

Performance and physiological monitoring is now such that we can identify potential injuries before they develop.

The latest in technology is being employed to do everything from biomechanics to allowing players to create virtual images of themselves in new uniforms, as at Texas A&M’s college football training centre.

I think sports organisations worldwide, regardless of budget, are now looking at training facility investment in the same way –  Firstly as a way to optimise the long term success of the team on and off the field but also now as a way to benefit their communities socially, economically and environmentally. All games, even teams within a code, are, of course, different, and approach training differently.

The player in me is excited, and perhaps a bit envious, about the myriad future options available to each of those teams.

The architect relishes the challenge of creating bespoke solutions, integrating those options, to create true team homes.

This article was first published on iSportConnect.

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