Interview with David Tenney
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Interview with David Tenney

I must admit that David has a really good timing. He must have developed it in his soccer career – I am just packing to get back to Serbia and his interview is a great way to finish this American Story.

I’ve heard of David Tenney for the first time from my fellow coach and friend Joel Jamieson and I soon realized we share similar training philosophy. David raised a lot of eyebrows training-wise lately by critiquing too much  of glycolitic conditioning volume  in soccer and pointing to the importance of aerobic training, which got pretty bad rep lately especially from pro-interval  group of coaches. David’s claims and training philosophy are backed-up by the success of his team Seattle Sounders FC.
I am really thankful to David for taking his time to answer my questions over this email interview. Enjoy!

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David Tenney is the first one from the right

MJ: First off congratulations on winning the US Open Cup with your team David. Second, thank you for your time to do this interview.  I know you have been busy lately preparing for the rest of the season. Can you please share some general info on who you are, what you do, and how did you come to be in the place where you are currently?

DT: Mladen, first of all, thank you for having me here. You have been at the cutting edge of performance training theory for the last couple years, so I am excited to be asked to do an interview with you. I am currently finishing my fourth year in MLS with the Seattle Sounders. Previously, I was in Kansas City, with the KC Wizards from 2007-2008. Originally, I was an ex-professional indoor soccer player from the Washington, DC area who worked at George Mason University (men’s and women’s soccer) and with the Washington Freedom women’s professional program before joining MLS in 2007. My background was previously as a sport coach of soccer. In 2004, I took the Czech Republic’s version of the UEFA ‘A’ license at Charles University in Prague, which really interested me in the sports science aspect of soccer. I ended up finishing my bachelor’s program (Coaching Science) and entering the master’s program (Fitness and Exercise Promotion) at George Mason following the course and slowly evolved into a “fitness coach” with all of the above soccer programs.

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MJ: You played soccer yourself. How come you decided to go into strength and conditioning instead of trying to be soccer coach? In your opinion, is it necessary for strength and conditioning coach to have experience playing soccer to be working with soccer players? In my opinion, there is a huge difference between in-game knowledge and about-game knowledge. What do you think? Did your soccer background help you as strength and conditioning coach and in what way?

DT: I decided to go into the fitness/athletic development/strength & conditioning side because I saw a huge need in soccer for this type of position. I recognized that we had a French fitness coach, Pierre Barrieu, who was with the US National team, and there didn’t appear to be many Americans who were qualified and believable enough to work with high-level soccer coaches. It’s not necessary for an S & C coach to have played soccer at a decent level, but it does help. My background as a soccer player helps me because those who’ve played typically have a better feel for the exact demands of the sport. However, four years on from joining the league, there are some young fitness coaches in MLS now. Jeremy Holsopple with the NY Red Bull and Mike Tremble with the Columbus Crew are two young fitness coaches whose teams have done very well this season. They have done this without a huge “playing” background. Ultimately, it helps in your daily interaction with players and coaches if you have been there as a player, but it’s not a necessity. I think it’s most important to have had the experience of playing through your 20’s, and being around the “old pro” who may be in his 30’s. These are the tough guys to “sell” your program to, and will often decide whether or not a group buys into your work. The guy who goes into the sports performance field straight after a college playing career is not going to have that experience. Managing athletes late in their career in a team setting is possibly the most challenging part of the job, and an S & C coach needs to have the right feel for how hard and when to push such an athlete.

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MJ: I’ll hit it straight to the point: you have probably noticed over-emphasis on glycolytic conditioning (300yard shuttles, HIIT, RSA) in contemporary training for sports. What is your opinion on this taking soccer into account? Are we neglecting aerobic training?

DT: Great question!! I do think that we have a lot of coaches who don’t really understand the physical demands of the sport, and thus, think that soccer is a very glycolytic sport with long bouts of anaerobic activity. I think the sport is very alactic-aerobic, where the goal should be to utilize the ATP-CP system as energy as often as possible for the short sprints required during the game. Then the athlete should be able to rely on the aerobic system to help replenish these ATP-CP stores, clear any lactate that may be building up within a muscle, and then provide as much energy as possible energy for 12-18km/hr medium-intensity speed that players must cruise around in during a game. If someone needs to rely on the glycolytic system as energy for this speed, then we are in trouble as we progress through a match. The more I delve into this alactic-aerobic idea, I am convinced that when many coaches program high volumes of glycolytic activity, the athletes WILL get a jump in their GPP, which may be mistakenly thought to be specific adaptations. We have college kids who can grind out multiple 300yd shuttles, meaning they can probably last through an insane college pre-season period. But, this doesn’t mean that they are specifically prepared to play soccer at a high level from a physical standpoint.

MJ: What about ‘real’ strength training? Soccer players are notorious for avoiding strength training, at least in Europe. What is your viewpoint on this, and do you manage to do it with the players in the amount you would like to?

DT: I am sure you know the European viewpoint very well. Most do not want to lift heavy weights. Our South American players are very similar. A couple things regarding this topic: (1) our off-season is longer than in Europe, so I try to use this period to have these athletes lift heavy, and get some true maximal strength work, (2) it doesn’t take much to see pretty big gains with these guys because they have never done such work. This season we have seen a big benefit from doing lots of single-leg work with a weight-vest, holding sand-bags or kettlebells. It’s about loading the players without them thinking they need to put a bar on their back.

 

MJ: How do you approach training in-season? This is a hot topic, since a lot of traditional training advices are based on sports with short competition period. How do you solve this problem? Do you ‘maintain’ or keep ‘pounding’? Can you please provide basic weekly template you do with one game per week?

DT: Agreed, most of the information in this country on how to periodize a training program for a team sport comes from coaches who normally deal with a 3-5 month regular season. We have an 8-month regular season, preceded by a 9-week pre-season preparation period. When the league first started we had ex-college coaches training teams that were flat and fatigued before the season even started! If you try to create a program that “peaks” a team for a certain part of the year, you can almost certainly expect that the group’s performance will drop in the 2-6 weeks following this peak. I think this is where the experience of the head coach and fitness/S & C coach really makes the difference. There will need to be “unloading” weeks put in at key points. There will also be natural “unloading” periods in a game schedule that a staff can use. If I were to give you a weekly template on what I think is a great weekly training model for an MLS team, I would say the following:

Saturday: Game day

Sunday: Off

Monday: Recovery/Regeneration day for those that played

Tuesday: Heaviest loading day of the week, small-sided high intensity (alactic or lactic) activities, with a second session in the weight room in the afternoon

Wednesday: Off

Thursday: Larger number (oxidative/aerobic emphasis) tactical day with a warm-up period involving core stability, and either starting speed, reaction speed, or coordination

Friday: Pre-game, low volume training session (50-65min)

Saturday: Game Day

None of this is rocket science, but it is the very basic framework that we use to determine the overall loading for the team for that week.

 

MJ: What did you do to ‘peak’ for US Open Cup? Do you believe in peaking (or sport form/shape) for team sports like soccer?

DT: Is it possible to peak for a team sport where the season is as long as it is in soccer? I remember meeting with the coaching staff for Fiorentina in Italy a few years ago. Their opinion was that it was important to maintain 90-95% of maximal performance potential. They believed that this level could be maintained for long stretches of time. Now, how does one quantify maintaining “90-95%” of an athlete’s performance potential? I am not sure how well one can peak, but I do think that this type of schedule fits perfectly to utilize the Block Training System from Russian Sports Science. As for our Open Cup win, and the “peaking” we have done this season, we are finishing a 12-week phase where we have been playing twice a week for the entire time. I found that this phase has actually helped our fitness, because you end up working on a real “high-low” sequence of training during this period. With all the games, and enormous travel, we actually ended up fresher and fitter than if we would’ve had a Monday-Friday training schedule. This “forced” lightening of the training load seemed to really help in alleviating the residual fatigue that builds up.

 

MJ: You went to Europe for a while. Can you please explain the difference between soccer training there and in USA, both from physical preparation standpoint and from skill standpoint? How did this experience  influence your own philosophy?

DT: Great question, and one I have thought about very often. The biggest difference is actually that here in the US fitness and “mentality” seems to be the stress of many training programs, while Europe there seems to be a much great emphasis on skills. It’s related to the tempo of game that is being taught. Like in many things, the US seems to focus on playing this frenetic, frantic pace of a game, that one MUST be totally fit to keep up with. Our players are typically bigger and stronger than our European counterparts, and our volume of training is greater. Of course, all of this depends on the country in Europe you are using as a comparison. The Latin countries in Europe have a suppleness and smoothness to their training that we don’t have. This starts with the way we train our young players. We spend far more time in the weight room than almost every European country. Yet, here’s a question for you – I have been in MLS for four years now, and I have never had a European or South American diagnosed with a sports hernia, yet I have had plenty of Americans. Why? This must have something to do with the way we train our athletes. I don’t really think that the Europeans are selecting exercises we are not. I think that most of our US players in this league are really “grinders”, who got to a professional level through high volumes of sports specific training, and probably not enough of the “right” exercises in the weight room to counteract the negative compensatory effects through the pelvis of these high volumes of training. Europeans seem to have a much better “feel” for when to push and when to back off, except for some of the Northern European countries, who have a similar mentality to the US.

 

MJ: I see a lot of coaches calling themselves strength and conditioning coaches while only working with the players in the gym in the off-season. What is the difference between this ‘personal’ strength and conditioning and ‘real’ strength and conditioning while being part of the coaching staff in a pro club? What are the pros and cons and how does this change your training philosophy? What additional skills are necessary to succeed in the latter situation?

DT: Many people mistakenly think that a strength coach in soccer mainly works in the gym. One of the reasons my title is “fitness coach” rather than “strength coach” is that 90% of my job takes place outside of the gym. I would say THE most important part of my job is the work I do together with the head coach in determining the weekly loading for the team training. In that respect, the work we do in the gym is just one small component of that. What good is periodization in the gym, if it’s not being used to match the work being done on the field? Of course, there are members of the staff who try to minimize the importance of what we do in the gym. That’s the negative of my job – there are times that some thing makes perfect sense to me training-wise from a physiological perspective, yet I am the only coach who may be in favor of doing something that specific way. It’s important that I am believable to the rest of the staff when I feel that we need to alter something within our training schedule due to over- or under-training. So, in that respect, I really have one foot in as a sport-coach, and one foot in as a strength/fitness coach. It helps that I am really seen, by both staff and players as just another assistant coach. If I was seen as just a “strength coach” who only worked in the weight room, I don’t think I would have the ability to shape people’s beliefs towards how we train and work.

 

MJ: Soccer in USA is getting better and better. In your opinion what should change in the USA soccer to bring it to even higher level?

DT: I agree that soccer has developed to a good level in this country. Our performance at two of the last three World Cups has shown that. However, there are still some real areas that we lag behind our South American and European competition. I think that if you look at the average high school age or college game, it’s an overly physical battle. The sport is really a game of rhythm, in which a team needs to be able to move through the different speeds quickly. Watch Messi play and you will see that. It’s about lulling your opponent to sleep, then, BANG, going in for the kill. The American game is about trying to play at a frantic speed for as long as possible. At times, it looks like uncontrolled chaos. When we start to get coaches that can slow the game down a bit, so players can think, then we will make progress. From the fitness standpoint, I think we are burning out many good young players because our volume of training and games for the 16-18 year old is just too high. We have created a system where it’s the “grinders” that make it through to the next levels, and the more creative, smaller kids sometimes get left by the wayside by those in charge. Some kids are left out because they are not “big enough or strong enough”, while others are left out because we place such high physical demands on them, that some technical, but under-developed kids may break down. Look at the Spanish team that won the World Cup, guys like David Villa, Iniesta, Xavi, etc. are these slight, quick little players who don’t look physically imposing, but can dominate the tempo of the match.

 

MJ: You are big on using OmegaWave. Can you please explain the readers what is OmegaWave, how and when do you use it, and how do you modify training load based on the results? What other monitoring you do?

DT: OmegaWave is a device created by a group of Russian sports scientists and engineers designed to give an immediate evaluation of the functional state of an athlete. The technology gives you feedback on the state of the cardiac, metabolic, CNS, and hormonal systems, as well as recommendations for training for that day. Like anything else, it is a tool, and must be used in conjunction with everything else in your toolbox. We use it early in each training week to get a sense of the “team wide” level of fatigue. Much of whether our week becomes a low, medium, or heavy loading week will be determined by the outcomes of these tests. Our players also wear the Polar T2 monitors for each session. I give our coaching staff a recommended “training load” count calculated by Polar, that we should hit as a team average to keep the appropriate loading.

 

MJ: For the last question, I would love to know which books and resources you find very influential on your training philosophy and what do you suggest as a must read/have? Which ones you consult most frequently?

DT: Where I stand right now, I consider Viru’s Adaptations in Sports Trainings as indispensable reading for anyone in sports science. I think Joel Jamieson’s Ultimate MMA Conditioning discusses the implementation of these similar training principles in a very practical way. In terms of research, I have found that the latest issues of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports  to be ahead of many other research journals in the depth of what they are investigating.

MJ: Thank you for this great interview David.

DT: Thank you too Mladen for great questions and have a safe flight back home

 

I am a physical preparation coach from Belgrade, Serbia, grow up in Pula, Croatia (which I consider my home town). I was involved in physical preparation of professional, amateur and recreational athletes of various ages in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts and tennis. Read More »
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