Interview with Darcy Norman
Darcy is a person who I owe a lot. We started communicating somewhere around 2010 (if my memory serves me well it was before/after my Mike Boyle internship in USA), and it was Darcy who got me in contact with Greg Berhalter in 2011 with whom I worked for two seasons in Hammarby IF, from Stockholm, Sweden. Darcy also got me in contact with Marcelo Martins, who was head S&C for Bayern Munich and whom I visited in 2011. While I was in Sweden, Darcy got me in contact with Shad Forsythe from the German National team and I managed to meet the German National team S&C coaches and watch a friendly game with Sweden. And during all this time I never met Darcy face-to-face. So, in April 2018 I decided it was about time to meet the big man during his last month with AS Roma in Rome, Italy. I have stayed in his house in the “countryside” and during my stay he gave me few ideas for my HIT Manual (the need for creating “Endurance Map” as his idea).
Darcy just got back from World Cup with Die Mannschaft – German National A Team (Men) and he was more than kind enough to answer my nagging questions. I want to take this opportunity and thank Darcy Norman for everything he has done for me and the community and I wish him all the best in the future endeavors.
Mladen: Darcy you have been someone working in both national team and club settings. What are the similarities, differences and difficulties?
Darcy: The first thing is the time with the players and the consistency in which you spend with the players. In the national team it is periodic so every time you see each other it is like getting together with family you have not seen in a while and with the club it is like living with your family or brothers when you see each other every day and see the subtle nuances in their lives. The second is probably the planning when with the club things are coming at you every day and you are constantly juggling and sometimes don’t have all the time you need to organize and think through circumstances where as with the national team you can take the necessary time to plan and look at contingencies. In clubs you are also dealing with different personalities with different cultural circumstances and with the national team while the personalities are different you have some similarities as it relates to cultural expectations which makes things a little easier once you understand them.
Mladen: What are your insights that other coaches, clubs and national governing bodies should pay attention to?
Darcy: This is a challenging question as I think everyone will find my answers obvious because I would say most people think of it so where the limit comes is in the act of doing it all, which is not easy. I think I am aware of this stuff to a high degree but I could also see in my experiences why I may not have done what I would say was the appropriate thing. And I ask myself why. I think some was due to too many things on my plate, a lack of a clear vision or purpose on what was to be executed, maybe a lack of feeling empowered, so why do it anyway, a lack of communication. So, taking some good insight from the book “Good to Great” and “Chasing Excellence”, that a lot of people feel like everything is GOOD and that is good enough but really its that attitude that starts to make things go bad, or settling in to this level of complacency. If you want to achieve excellence you have to keep pushing to get better. We ask it of our athletes, so we should also be asking it of ourselves.
Its important to have a clear vision around the team, as well as values the team lives by and those values are strictly adhered to and the ability to communicate them in the various situations. You need to make sure EVERYONE is committed to the project and has skin in the game because if not attention to details starts to suffer. That is players and staff. It is Team first, so people have to put the team ahead of themselves and any personal gains. There has to be trust and some anonymity that people know how to do their jobs but with that said there still needs to be accountability, and if there are concerns, to be able to discuss them in a professional way to find the best balance. We have to put egos aside and do what is right for the team and the athlete.
I think the other big thing is team chemistry. There are a lot of teams that maybe don’t have the best players on paper but have great chemistry and that’s what carry’s them through. Its like a relationship. You have to be willing to do your teammates work and vice versa, without any expectation of getting something back.
Mladen: How should they (clubs and national teams) work together for the maximum benefit for each and players?
Darcy: It really comes down to communication. Similar to above, everyone has to put their egos aside for the greater good of the athlete. In both cases it is about maximizing the players ability and what the player needs and needs to work on to be successful. I think clubs in general need to do a better job setting out objectives for their players and what they need to work on to be successful and track that over time. That information needs to be shared between club and country which you are starting to see more and more, so no matter where the player is they have a clear sense of what they need to do to improve. That is true long-term development. Just because they have a pro title doesn’t mean they can stop working on getting better. Obviously some of the responsibility also falls on the player as at the end of the day the player has to do the work so they have to bought into the process as well. I can tell you all day long what you need to be better but you have to do the work and if you don’t agree you wont be willing to the do the work. The athlete has to be involved and bought into the process
Mladen: Also, how did you deal with data monitoring and ongoing athlete development (and injury prevention) when athlete move back and forth between national team and club?
Darcy: For the club it was obviously a lot easier due to the consistency of working together and the day to day. With the national team it is about trying to develop relationships with the teams and the players in advance to know what they are being challenged with and what they are doing to keep themselves healthy and from there building opportunities into the schedule allowing them to get those pieces in. Sometime with the national team players may have their own practitioners that they trust and its important they are welcomed into the group because at the end of the day it is not about me or him it is about the athlete performing to their best.
There is tech now that you can get video, game data and filter it so all the data is essentially the same filtering system or currency along with your GPS you may use in training to get a better idea of what a player is doing in games and understanding the demands they are facing so you can program affectively and see if you are hitting the numbers. With other wellness type info it is just having conversations with the players as well as the staff that are interacting with them to get a picture of how they are doing.
From a development perspective when they are with the National Team it is really just about keeping them going with what they have been doing and then supporting them in any way to keep them moving forward for first the greater good of them and then the team they are playing for.
Mladen: In high level clubs, most athlete have their own S&C coaches, therapists and even psychologist. How did you deal with those and what should club do to maintain good relationship with the athlete without letting go of the control?
Darcy: I mentioned it a little bit above. I think the reason this is the case is because at some point the athlete felt like their needs were not being met within the team and so they took it upon themselves to find someone. We had a similar issue in one of the teams I worked and as a performance staff as we got more organized, improved communication and organization and the athletes realized we had their best interests in mind we didn’t have that any more or reduced it significantly. And if they did seek outside help we welcomed that person into the club to help us learn so we could support the work when maybe that person was not available. You have to remember that for the athlete to organize all that accessory help that takes work and time on their part and if they start to feel that the service they are getting within the team is better than what it takes to organize outside help they will just use the team services. Its not different if you were hiring a service to do something. If your not happy with it you will find another supplier of that service and if you are you will just keep using them. So you have to keep asking the athletes what can we do to get better or help you, as an athlete, get better.
Mladen: There is a lot of positive bias in S&C – few years ago, when Leicester won the EPL, everybody was making causal claim it was because of top notch S&C and sport science (without realizing that the other clubs have implemented quite the similar strategies). When Germany won in 2014, the scenario is similar – it was because of good physical preparation and so forth. Now when the Germany is out in the group phase, what do you think would be the explanation for the World Cup Winner?
Darcy: Great question. I have had the opportunity to be in the WC Champions and essentially with the same staff then not make it out of the group phase and the work was relatively similar. I say relatively as it was pretty much the same staff with the exception of a few people and obviously a different set of players and all with different experiences. It’s the crazy combination (whatever that formula is) of experiences, expectations, assumptions of each person interacting with each other person that all pieces together to create an outcome. Can I say I know why in our case or any other case, no chance….. I do a lot has to do with being a chemistry issue, an urgency issue, like Shad Forsythe would say “The hungry lion eats first”, it’s having good leadership and organization both in the staff and in the player group, there needs to be a buy in from EVERYONE as to how things are going to happen on and off the pitch, there are numerous reasons. You have to remember this is a complex system we are dealing with and it is not a matter of turning some dials to tune in. This is for sure one part that helps breed consistency but then there are a whole other set of variables that start with each person and their personal values and how those values blend into a shared vision. It is how each of those people see the situation(s) throughout the experience and then how and what they learn from each of those experiences from one day to the next until you reach a final or get eliminated in the group phase….
It is due to a multitude of things, and I don’t have THE answer, probably more questions. I will say to pin it on one thing is an easy scape goat. Especially something like fitness besides maybe someone coming back from a long layoff due to injury. These players are playing/training all year. They are all physically fit but they certainly could be mentally unfit due to all the stressors they are faced with and the their impressions of those stressors which we all know will limit their physical capacity.
Mladen: You were Performance Manager (PM) in AS Roma – can you explain what that role involves and why it is important to have PM in clubs?
Darcy: As the performance manager I was tasked with creating, managing and executing a performance team that consisted of doctors, physios, S&C, Data Science, nutrition and psychology seamlessly integrated within a facility/team/organization to enhance the athletes’ performance. Some of the roles existed and some roles, or departments were created and some areas like psychology we did not get to implementing like we would have liked. Psychology is an interesting area as it is not only the psychology/mindset of the athlete but also the whole staff and they interact together. I feel like my role besides managing a performance department was also like an athlete advocate to ensure that I was holding each of the areas accountable to offer the best service they could to the athlete and the athlete was given every opportunity to within the various areas to be successful. I think it is important because we all get caught up in our day to day of things and there needs to be someone that can ensure everything is running smoothly in all areas without getting too caught up in one particular area.
Mladen: When it comes to S&C, can you discuss the similarities and differences between ‘American’ style of team sport S&C and ‘European’ style?
Darcy: This is interesting as I have not worked in Team Sports on professional level in the US directly. I think the culture is really sport dependent more than continent dependent and then certain sports are more dominant on different continents maybe giving the impression of such. I would generally say there is probably a bit more of a weight room culture in the US then what I have experienced in EU although there are a lot of EU sports people that love the weight room and more of a following research in the EU that what I have experienced in the US, although I think there is also becoming a less of a difference due to the internet and globalization as now you see a lot more people trying to apply research in the US then what was done in the past.
Mladen: Speaking of S&C, soccer athletes are notorious of avoiding heavy strength training. What is your experience and did you make your athlete heavy lift and how?
Darcy: Another great question…..Look, at the end, strength is the precursor to power and power to speed. Lets also be clear that strength is not hypertrophy or size. Its just a matter of time before this stigma of what some people think heavy strength training will do, like make you slower etc is changing because people/players/ and coaches are catching on. Another thing people don’t realize is that the stronger I am the less energy it takes to execute a rep of something, say taking a step which then leads to a lessor metabolic consequence for that rep or movement. So, by getting stronger I am also helping myself get fitter as it takes less metabolic consequence for the same activity. As a result of the activity having a less metabolic impact, those athletes are able to recover faster from the same amount of work and as a result play more at a consistently high level. Our goal was to get our players as strong, kilo for kilo as possible while still working on power and speed and putting all that into the context of training for a sport. Some where open to this and felt the benefit and some not, so we would do our best to educate the guys, so they knew why and hopefully they would get on board. The others we would try and get once they got injured and had to go through rehab and then they started to realize what we were saying but they needed a significant incident to realize it. And the others that didn’t want to fully buy in we just tried to support them where we could in hopes they would eventually come around.
Mladen: You have been collecting a lot of data and creating reports and dashboards. In your experience, how important is that, and what was the buy in from the athletes and coaches?
Darcy: I think data is critically important. We use it in our lives all the time to help base decisions whether we realize it or not. We use it in medicine when diagnosing patients, we use it to help make informed choices, we use it to help understand our current situation like reading a gas gauge in your car and whether we should pull over now for gas or we can keep driving.
Data is there to help you make more objective and informed decisions bottom line. It is not the end all be all.
You have to decide first what you want to know and why as well as find out or anticipate what you might be asked by a coach/player/other support staff and why, and what you might be asked by management and why? From there you can start to collect what data you think you may need to answer those questions, so you can better act, or provide that data to support the others to make better decisions or create motivation to keep going down a path or maybe change directions on path you thought was once correct.
The data also helped us as a differential diagnosis to help us narrow down what might be the limiting factor as to why someone or the team “looked unfit”. Because if all your performance testing is saying your team is fit, but they are still not running, then you know it is not a fitness problem and maybe it is a motivational issue or maybe a lack of understanding as to why they need to run in a particular way.
The data can also be a precursor to have bigger conversations to discuss scenarios or get more information about a situation to help make our choices. We also have to realize that there are a lot of bias when looking at data so it was important that we stayed consistent in how we viewed the data and did not use it as a one time thing to help support a hunch we might have had but to also go back and see if the same thing was true when we were not so interested in that particular situation.
Mladen: How was the whole monitoring being implemented and was sessions changed based on the monitoring results?
Darcy: Data was being collected in many areas on many things, probably most of what you would typically expect from medical data, fitness/strength & testing data, GPS/Game data, wellness and RPE data, nutrition data etc. And yes, this data was all being used to help make informed choices on training periodization, how much we should do that day and who should do it and if anyone should be supplemented or not etc. I think it is important to note you can only take it as far as your groups ability to communicate around it efficiently and effectively as well as how BIG of an open mindset everyone impacted has to use it, which includes players, coaches, staff etc. This is something that can always get better as we continually look at how we push the envelope.
As far as how it was used, it was first used to help give everyone a snapshot of the players as well as what we would be faced with in the schedule of the season as well as an idea of those demands and from there we could come up with what we thought was the most appropriate way to move forward. Then using the data to monitor are we getting there and what adjustments we may need to do to get closer to our goals of improving the performance of the players as well as minimizing the risk of injury and having as many players available for game day as possible. From there you are dealing with the complex system of different mental models of the players, staff and exec group that all have their day to days that impact those scenarios.
Mladen: What are your thoughts on injury prediction?
Darcy: At this point I think it is near impossible because it is just to much of a complicated system that is ever changing. There are too many variables to control for, there is the consistency in which some data is collected, the immediate impression of that data and all the psychological factors that interface with it and the people with in it. Again, I think it helps us understand trends and gives us more awareness as to maybe increased risk but at this point it stops there. Maybe as we get more data, understand more research and start having better relationships around risk factors this will get better but sometimes it is like the weather guy. They give you a forecast and they are generally on point but it also coordinates with the time of year that we see time and time again so they are safe predictions and a lot of time they miss out on a day being colder or warmer or a thunder or hail storm coming up or better yet where that lightning may strike.
Mladen: What is the key to tournament competition preparation? How it differs to ordinary club planning?
Darcy: I think where it is different is that in tournament prep you have a group of already fit guys and the goal is to get them all on the same page, working together for a great cause as quickly as possible and just making sure they are tuned. Where as in the club there is more the traditional model of preparation from all aspects and then its how you keep the group going and motivated over an 11-month season.
Mladen: What are you currently reading? What sources of information would you suggest to up and coming S&Cs, physios and sport scientists?
Darcy: I am all over the place. I am reading nutrition, psychology, leadership, personal growth. Some of my favorite books in the last year are.
- Ego is the Enemy – Ryan Holiday
- The Obstacle is the Way – Ryan Holiday
- Chasing Excellence – Ben Bergeron
- The Black Swan – Nassim Taleb
- The Undoing Project – Michael Lewis
- Endure – Alex Hutchinson/Malcolm Gladwell
- Braking the Habit of Being Yourself – Joe Dispenza
- Black Box Thinking – Mathew Syed
- So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal Newport
- The Art of Not Giving a F*ck – Mark Manson
- Head in the Game – Brandon Sneed
- Peak Performance – Steve Magness
- The Fifth Discipline – Peter Senge
- Extreme Ownership – Leif Babin, Jocko Willink
- Work Rules – Laszio Bock
- Leaders Eat Last – Simon Sinek
- Good to Great – Jim Collins
Now that I am back in the US and have more time I will start looking at getting up to speed on some continuing education and attending more conferences to stay up to date and stimulate new thoughts and ideas.