How Zlatan and Man Utd use taekwondo
Written by Simon Austin — October 16, 2017
TAEKWONDO is an unorthodox training method for an unorthodox player.
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic posted a video of himself spinning through 180 degrees and kicking a punchbag in August, it was a demonstration of what he’d being doing since he was a boy.
The Swede was awarded a black belt at the age of 17 and has incorporated the martial art into his game ever since. For a man of 6 ft 5, Ibrahimovic has remarkable agility, flexibility and timing. He's able to pluck balls out of the air that others can't reach, and score goals unlike any we've seen before (think of the backheel volley against Bastia in October 2013; the kung fu volley against Monaco a month earlier; or the 30-yard overhead kick against England in November 2012.
Tony Strudwick, Manchester United’s Head of Performance, has seen Ibrahimovic at close quarters and says: “Zlatan is very strong on mixed martial arts – you certainly wouldn’t want to take him on.”
By chance, Strudwick was introducing taekwondo into training at Manchester United's Academy just as Ibrahimovic arrived at the club from PSG last summer. Andrew Deer, a former European Championship bronze medallist, was brought in to teach United's youngsters kicks, jumps and spins.
“It was great for footwork, balance and agility,” Strudwick told TGG. “For us, it's all about increasing the bandwidth of movement of our players and there was a really nice transfer of skills between the sports.
“For example, in taekwondo, the athletes are very adept at closing down space and backing off, which is a useful skill in football too, for defenders in particular.”
Deer, 30, is now GB Taekwondo's lead Paralympic coach. Along with United's Academy coaches, he designed a year-long programme for the Under-9s through to the Under-21s and came into Carrington once a week to teach it.
“United wanted a focus on agility work and plyometrics, so we worked within that spectrum," he told C4 Paralympics.
"We wanted to try and make the players more robust and give them more longevity in their careers. They learnt everything about taekwondo, although they weren’t actually making contact with one another. They loved doing taekwondo, kicking each other high, and I could see a lot of talented youngsters. There were some really tall, strong guys who could switch over if they wanted to.”
Strudwick says this is part of a ‘multi-skills approach’ the club has been taking.
“If you're not careful, all the young athletes do is play football,” he said. “You’ve got to improve that multi-sport participation, so we’ve also done things like gymnastics, boxing and sprinting in the Academy.
“If players are faced with movement problems, they come up with movement solutions. There’s compelling research to show that kids who specialise in one sport very early on are much more susceptible to injuries. It can lead to overuse and imbalances.
"And apart from anything else, we want to create a fun and stimulating environment for the players, instead of a structured, sterile one. This is helping them to learn, adapt and be creative.”