Interview with Dave Tenney

Dave Tenney Seattle SoundersDave, thanks for taking the time to be with us here today. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your current position?

Thanks for allowing me the opportunity Mike!

tenney-mug-2013I am currently the Sports Science & Performance Manager for the Seattle Sounders FC of MLS. This is a new job title, and fairly unique role because it involves the management of all personnel, methodology, & philosophy related to fitness, strength & conditioning, and sports science.

In our performance & sports science group, I am lucky to have Ravi Ramineni (data analyst) and Chad Kolarcik (head of strength & conditioning) both on board in full-time roles as well. We are also considering adding a full-time youth performance coach sometime soon as well.

At what point in time did you realize you wanted to make soccer your life/career? Were you always into soccer growing up?

I think when I went down to Virginia Tech to play soccer, I began to think that this was something that I really wanted to do.

After my freshman year of playing there, I was fortunate enough to have a summer trial with the junior team of Bordeaux FC in France.Seeing that level of play, and being able to watch the absolute top level of soccer (France would soon dominate world soccer a couple of years after that), I was hooked, and convinced that this was something I would want to take seriously – as both a coach & player – for the rest of my life.

Tell us about your career arc – it seems as though you’ve been everywhere!

Well, following from my Virginia Tech and French experience, I must say that my actual playing career ended up being extremely average.

I ended up playing for a couple years in the minor leagues of Germany and then seven years in the various incarnations of the indoor professional leagues here in the US. At 29, I’d had enough of the minor league pro circuit, and found that my true passion may be coaching.

For a while, in the DC area I was a youth academy director for the Washington Freedom women’s club (while also being fitness/gk coach for the 1st team), and worked at (and finished my studies) at George Mason.

I was lucky to be at Mason at a time (2005) when they hired Greg Andrulis, who had just been at the Columbus Crew, and was 2004 MLS Coach of the Year. He was very much into the physical side of training & conditioning, and allowed me to work in what was essentially an MLS environment for two years.

Long story short, the success we had at Mason ended up opening some doors up there for us, as myself and our other assistant coach had a job offer to join the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting KC) in 2007.

In 2009, Chris Henderson (on staff with us at KC), signed on as technical director of the expansion Seattle Sounders FC, and hired me on as head fitness coach. The team and club have been fantastic. Our crowds continually break records (averaged 44,000 people/game last year), and the club has the drive to invest in the most innovative ideas and technologies in the S&C and sports science world.

That’s awesome. As you mentioned, you’re currently working with the Seattle Sounders – tell us a bit about life as a strength and conditioning coach. What’s your day like? What are the common issues you deal with?

With the staff I am blessed with (and in our 6th year with an unchanged coaching staff), it’s allowed us the opportunity to really evolve what we can do on a daily basis.

My assistant Chad Kolarcik (now officially head strength & conditioning coach) will run our ‘pre-hab’/corrective group into the gym for about 30-45 minutes of work prior to the session to address whatever ‘bucket’ these guys may be in.

I start our coaches meeting with the entire coaching staff at 8:45 for a 10am session, and discuss with the coaches what loading we may be striving for on that particular day, and what exercises may elicit that loading.

This is always a tricky part of the day, as there’s “no one way to Rome’. As a result, it may often be difficult for us to come to a consensus on what exercises may be desirable from a physiological loading standpoint, while also fulfilling the tactical demands that the sports coaches may be looking to work on.

At the same time, our interns may be doing OmegaWave assessments and retrieving fitness/fatigue questionnaires from some our players who’ve recently played, and will shoot me those results while we are in the coaches meeting.

Getting this info “real-time” can be a huge benefit in the planning stages, as you can get a sense of the overall fatigue level of the group, which is important in such a long season.

Once training starts, I will often take the first 25-30 minutes of the training session, involving a dynamic warm-up that may involve a ball, along with a certain speed/agility topic for that particular day (even if it’s only a small volume of it; like reaction speed on the day before the game), and then often times a “transitional” physical and technical piece, like a passing pattern exercise.

This passing exercise is aimed at preparing the athletes physically for whatever that there of the day may be. If the aim is to have a high velocity day, then I may use this period for some higher CNS loaded sprint work. It could be some speed endurance (lactate tolerance) bouts of work, or it could be some 3-minute aerobic power blocks that may lead into 3-minute possession game blocks once the sports coaches take over.

The team will often lift 2x/week, often broke up into small groups. Every Tuesday is normally an afternoon lifting session, where we start strength training two hours after the morning field session is done. We will break the group up into three smaller training groups based on (1) age, (2) work capacity, and (3) recent playing time. Each session is normally about 40 minutes.

While this is happening, our interns and “infamous” performance analyst, Ravi Ramineni, are typically downloading GPS and Polar HR reports from the morning, and sending me PDF copies of our dashboard.

Once I get home in the evening, I will take a look at the training dashboard for the day, and decide what screen shots I may send to the coaches in order to give our coaching staff a sense of how hard the players worked over the day – and which players specifically may have struggled to tolerate the loading for that day.

If you’re a geek like me – please re-read that answer. It’s amazing how much information you are not only taking in, but actually using to make educated training decisions.

Now I know you spend a ton of your off-season (as short as it is!), traveling and learning. Where did you go, and who did you learn from this off-season?

This year I had an awesome off-season visiting Australia for the first time. The guys from Catapult GPS (Melbourne-based company) were kind enough to help set some of it up for me.

I was able to visit and spend time with the performance staffs of Western Sydney Wanderers (soccer), Sydney Roosters (rugby), Melbourne Victory (soccer), Richmond FC (AFL), Port Adelaide (AFL),  and Essendon FC (AFL). It was great to catch up with some top practitioners like Darren Burgess at Port Adelaide, and Dr. Craig Duncan in Sydney.

What impressed me the most was the way their “high performance departments” are set up, and the infrastructure they have in place.

Okay enough chit-chat, let’s talk training. What are some of the big issues you see in soccer players these days?

The biggest issue I see, which I think you’ll be able to attest to, is that the season is too long for us to really be able to do what we need to do with guys from a strength development standpoint.

Here, we are just about to finish a 9-week off-season, where, in many cases, we needed to give guys 2-3 weeks off after a 10-month season. That leaves a grand total of 6 weeks to get some good work done, and build a foundation or platform of strength and stability that will allow them to stay resilient through another 10-month season.

The ones who come in non-compliant with off-season strength work are literally doomed from the start, as our pre-season period is now shortened to just six weeks.

What this means is that from a programming side of the equation, we can often be far removed from what one would consider “ideal” conditions. It often feels like we are playing a game of constant “catch-up” to where guys should be.

I agree whole-heartedly – it’s incredibly challenging to get a training effect in that short amount of time.

And following up on that question, what are some of the issues you see in the training of soccer players these days? What are we doing well, and what do we need to continue to work on?

I think the main issues with soccer players from a strength & conditioning perspective would be:

  1. Soccer players at the pro level can still be resistant to true maximal strength work, and
  2. Most still fail at true, authentic hip extension.

DT CoachingIn fact, I would also say there’s a negative correlation between the pedigree a player brings to the table, and that player’s willingness to lift heavy at any point during the year.

That being said, we are making some real head way in this area. Doing a lot of heavy front loaded KB single leg work , and leading that into some heavier hex bar deadlifts.

But it’s a constant struggle – we are always fighting the culture!

This was really eye-opening for me, as coming up around sports like baseball, basketball, football, etc., everyone lifts year round. Soccer is definitely unique in that regard.

Now you’re obviously incredibly well-known for merging both skill-specific and fitness components of sport. Could you talk a bit about what small-sided games are, and how you can use them to develop fitness and technical/tactical skills simultaneously?

I think for many sport coaches, the idea of integrating skill and energy system development work may be foreign.

Basically, small-sided games are the use of smaller versions of the real game in training – going from 3 vs. 3, all the way up to 9 vs. 9, in order to create an overload somewhere along the ESD continuum (and maximize players’ involvement with the ball relative to a real match).

In this way, athletes can improve their conditioning along with improving their skills on the ball, and decision making within the game.

Smaller numbered games like 3v3 – 5v5 will elicit an increased number of touches per player, and be very metabolically demanding with short hard changes of directions.

In larger numbered games like 8v8 or 9v9, athletes may not touch the ball significantly more than in a game, but they get to train making “game-like decisions”, and have an increase in bouts of longer distance, high-speed running, because they are often closer to a goal, and to the ball relative to the big game of 11v11.

I find that many coaches fail by programming too much 4v4 and 5v5 with older players – in these games the heart rates can be high (maybe a good thing), but the eccentric load on the adductors, quads, and hip flexors can be enormous.

Just as within any training program, progression and variability is key – not always a strong point for some sport coaches.

Awesome, awesome answer Dave.

At the Seattle Sounders mentorship last June, you mentioned how players who don’t strength train in the off-season are more likely to get injured.

Being a former powerlifter, I just assumed that all athletes strength train! Could you elaborate on this a little bit?

I think the nature of a long season playing pro soccer, means that athletes will see a degradation of maximum strength & power over the 10 months. However, it’s such a subtle loss of power than most don’t associate it with a loss of strength, past hypertrophy gains, etc.

At the same time, our pre-season tends to be fairly grueling, and coaches want to begin to prepare to play in pre-season matches within 10 days of the first pre-season session. That leaves little time in the pre-season to build any base of strength without the adequate time for recovery.

We find that those that embrace strength training in the off-season will be quite resilient during the pre-season period, and may actually see power gains during the first half of the year.

However, those that don’t embrace strength training in the off-season, and rely on a few “beach runs” in the off-season holiday are just playing catch up, and trying to keep their head above water during the pre-season. This non-compliant group often complains of significant DOMS, and their CNS values using the DC Potential Metric on OmegaWave show severe CNS fatigue.

Such players are just training to avoid injury, and eventually it catches up to them.

Another thing you discussed at length in your presentation was your injury-prediction model. Could you tell us a little bit about what a model is, and the accuracy you’re getting from your model now?

Now that we are about four years into the process of collecting data on our athletes – looking at things like HRV, OmegaWave, readiness status, Vitamin D scores, and now all of the GPS feedback from training, we have a far better sense of the “inputs” (daily training stress) and the “outputs” (fatigue levels) of the training process.

At the beginning of 2013, we brought our data analyst, Ravi Ramineni on board here to create a statistical model that may be able to piece all of these data sources together.

We found some interesting things in our data, for example, when looking at OmegaWave results. By just looking at the the Green/Amber/Red readiness score of OmegaWave,  our athletes had a 14% risk of muscle injury in a two-week period following an “amber” readiness score.

We then take that basic response model from an OmegaWave score, and add things like Vitamin D score, pre-season values, and past injury history,  and put this individualized data into our algorithms to create an injury risk prediction.

When looking at what a lot of clubs are trying to do across different sports, we found that there’s still a lack of ‘data integration’ going on.

Can our data experts access GPS data, micronutrient levels, and FMS scores all in the same database?

Ravi has helped accomplish this, and allowed us to make some decent predictions about how likely our athletes are to get injured.

Very cool. So you obviously believe in and use the Omegawave system to track the readiness of your athletes.

Have you found the Omegawave to give reliable feedback? And for those that don’t have an extra $30k laying around, what could they do to improve their understanding of recovery from training?

Even things as simple as a pen-and-paper questionnaire can be used to track “individual response” to training over long periods of time, allowing coaches to create their own form of fatigue prediction.

There’s enough validated studies looking at RPE and things like monotony and strain in the training process which can give coaches a good perspective on the “input” to “output” sides of the training process.

At the end of the day, we are trying to really view the “response” to a training load and/or stressors. In this way, I think OmegaWave is really good at giving a coach a quantified view of the systemic response to loading – including things like travel, home stress, sleep, as well as training/competition load.

I think this is one of the reasons that HRV has taken off so much in the past couple of year, because most coaches are really good at the “programming” of appropriate loading – but many are still looking at ways to optimize seeing the response to loading.

This off-season, I had the privilege of working with two guys that will play for the Sounders this year. Is it ever weird being a public sector coach, and having your players work with coaches in the private sector?

I enjoy having my guys work with you!

No, I think our paradigm is a little bit different, in that we also have many of our guys in the National team program who also have their own fitness and S&C staff – so, it’s not only the private sector guys that are working with “my” athletes, it’s also National team staffs.

As a result, I think we learn early on that communication becomes key. I know that my guys will always have about 10 weeks off every off-season. So, that means that they will be under our care for 42 weeks, which is quite a lot.

My biggest concern is that each guy performs a minimal amount of work during that 10 week off-season. We typically have upwards of 10-12 athletes that reside in Seattle and train with me in the off-season, so finding a top quality trainer that I can communicate with for that 10-week period with my off-site athlete can only help me in the process of keeping the entire team with roughly the same work capacity.

Okay, let’s start to wrap this thing up a bit. If an entry-level coach or intern came to you for advice on being successful in our industry, what would you tell them?

DT & PlayerFirst, I think you need to find a mentor. The biggest thing that young coaches can pick up is not just on the exercise selection part… It is how the coach interacts with an athlete or team.

It is the ability to connect with athletes and motivate them – getting ‘buy in” from them is key.

Secondly, I think people coming into the profession should coach as many different types, ages, and genders as possible.

Learn the educational and motivational differences between how younger vs. older, or boys vs. girls need to be trained.

Also, by training so many different groups you will learn what loads will be too easy for one group, but blow up another group. And, yes, blowing up athletes IS an important part of learning how to be a successful coach.

Lastly, read, read, and read! With areas like HRV, statistics, data management, recovery methods, corrective exercise, newer assessment protocols like PRI, DNS, etc., we have a continually changing landscape in the profession. Don’t get left behind!

Last but not least, what is one mistake that you’ve made along the way, and how did you learn from it and grow either as a coach, professional, or human being?

I think one of the main mistakes I made in my early years of MLS was “undertraining” our group from a metabolic perspective over the course of a 10-month season to try and maintain “freshness”. It’s such a hard balance to determine loading over a year, and train at the appropriate loading and intensity without over-doing it.

I can say quite openly that there were days that I got it wrong, and recommended to our head coach to unload. I think sometimes, over a long season, it’s convenient to take the “easy road” and decide not to train hard (whether in the weight room or on the field), because you’re focused on recovery… especially when you may have a group of veterans that may ask to take it easy.

At the end of the day, it’s important to have periods of loading and “getting it on” in-season, even if you’re 5-6 months into a season. You may need to pick and choose this time period wisely, but it’s still a necessity.

Dave, thanks a ton for being with us here today. Where can my readers find out more about you? (Feel free to plug any/all websites, products, etc.)

Thanks again for allowing me the opportunity to talk here!

I can be found on Facebook, and on Twitter. I also will be speaking at the BSMPG Performance Directors Summit in May, and we will hold our fourth annual Seattle Sounders FC Sports Science Weekend from June 12-14 (details and registration available shortly).

We were happy to have people such as yourself attend last year, and we hope to bring in an equal quality group of attendees this year.

Thanks again Dave!


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