Each new football season brings further advancement in the battle to become fitter, faster, stronger and, ultimately, more successful.
One of the next steps towards this aim may already have been discovered – not at a European giant such as Barcelona or Manchester United, but at West Bromwich Albion. And it comes courtesy of an entirely different sport.
Richie Woodhall represented Great Britain at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, where he won a bronze medal in light-middleweight boxing. He went on to fight professionally for 10 years, earning the WBC super-middleweight championship along the way, before bowing out in 2000 with a 26-3 record after defeat to the legendary Joe Calzaghe.
Woodhall has been expanding his horizons ever since, working as a coach on Team GB, an expert summariser on various sports channels, and even serving as Brad Pitt’s body double in the boxing scenes for hit movie Snatch.
But it was the transfer saga surrounding former West Brom striker Saido Berahino’s failed move to Tottenham that brought him into the footballing world via the club he has supported since childhood.
“I first started going in a couple of seasons back,” current BT Sport pundit Woodhall told The Set Pieces. “They asked me to train with Saido when he wasn’t injured but wasn’t playing.
“The idea was to introduce different techniques while keeping him sharp at the same time and Saido’s a big boxing fan so he was really keen on the idea.
“I just did pad work with him at first and had to teach him the basics. Of course footballers are already quite fit so after that it wasn’t long before we were doing full four-to-six round sessions, with extra cardio thrown in to push him a bit. In and out with the feet ladders, some punch training as well as speed and reflexes.
“It grew after that because three or four more players took an interest, so I was on hand to provide a little bit of extra training for those who found it useful or interesting. At one stage, I had as many as six or seven lads doing several rounds of training.”
Since experimenting with boxing training, West Brom have recovered from a relegation dodge in 2014 that would have reinforced their stigma as a ‘yo-yo’ club, and have consolidated as a formidable mid-table outfit, capable of taking points off anyone.
Woodhall hasn’t provided the training personally since summer 2016, but its introduction has arguably been one of the key factors in the Baggies developing their competitive edge.
Albion seldom receive compliments on style or technique – a symptom of employing Tony Pulis as head coach – but as any boxer or boxing fan would tell you, arduous and disciplined training gives you a serious chance against even the most gifted opponents.
This made Pulis’ West Brom a perfect candidate for methods usually reserved for getting fighters ring-ready.
“The players realised how tiring it can be even after just three minutes,” said Woodhall. “I’d coach them as if they were an amateur boxer.
“A lot is made of players digging deep and producing in the final 15 minutes of a football match and boxing is the same – it always has been.”
World championship bouts in boxing are scheduled for 12 rounds. Rounds 9-12 are often dubbed ‘the championship rounds’, with those latter stages separating winners from the also-rans.
“If you’re physically fitter and more durable, you become more mentally agile,” Woodhall explained. “You make the right decisions when you’re focused, not when you’re flagging.
“Boxing is an extremely intense sport that requires quick reactions, both attacking and defending. The mental dexterity it provides can really help in a high-pressure situation in a football match.”
Woodhall is proud to have played a part in his club’s current progress. As with his Olympic coaching, he knows that every new idea and its implementation contributes to the overall package that drives athletes – and teams – up the rankings, one step at a time.
But the 49-year-old would love to see more clubs adopt an idea or two from boxing, and would offer his many years of experience to anyone striving for that next level.
“I think it would benefit many clubs tremendously,” he said. “A few coaches came and had a look in while I did it at Albion and were very impressed.
“When you’re asked back more than once you know you’re doing something right. I still think it’s very beneficial to any footballer. If another club asked me in I’d try and help where I could.
“Even though it’s two different sports, there are a lot of ways, physically and mentally, that footballers can increase what they bring to the table by looking at what boxers put themselves through week after week during a training camp.”