Since joining Major League Soccer in 2009, the Sounders have been pioneers in transcending the world’s game in the United States. Therefore, it is no surprise their evolving approach to sports science and performance is no different. From the youth Academy all the way up to the first team, the organization has implemented numerous methods to collect and track data in order to optimize performance.
The end goal of this new data-driven approach is simple: to have a fully integrated system across all of the teams.
Dave Tenney’s appointment as Sports Science and Performance Manager two years ago, after five years as Head Fitness Coach of the First Team, got the ball rolling on this bold initiative. His implementation of advanced data collecting instruments has helped detect trends in each player’s fitness and performance levels. These trends can help the coaches make informed decisions regarding playing time as well as planning practices.
With the first team utilizing large samples of data and advanced metrics, the next step is to replicate this success with the youth teams. While this is no simple task, Matthew Hawkey joined Tenney’s team last year ready for the challenge.
Hawkey started working for the organization towards the tail end of the Academy season in March. This allowed him to have a better understanding of the players and coaches in the system, as well as their day-to-day routines. After spending several months learning the club’s culture, he formulated a plan for the current season.
Without the same resources as the First Team, Hawkey and the rest of the sports science department have designed a new system of gathering data on youth team players.
The First Team uses advanced instruments, such as Omegawave technologies, that measure changes in heart rate and performance level. Tenney, Jarryd Phillips (responsible for S2), Hawkey, and the rest of their team have developed a battery of self-report questionnaires that attempt to measure similar variables. With this system in place, the organization can track the progress of each player in the Academy.
One thing to keep in mind with this field of work is the distinction between internal and external validity. With the integrated sports science program still in its infancy, the focus is on establishing internal validity – or measuring what they are supposed to measure.
According to Hawkey, “We want to collect the right data, and use it in the right way.”
So, how do they collect the right data? Academy players, starting at the U14 level, are given several surveys to fill out on a daily basis. These questionnaires are given both before and after training, as well as matches. For the younger players, they even track growth rates and provide nutritional education to help them stay healthy as possible.
Each survey includes several questions that make up composite scores measuring variables such as fatigue and soreness. They also collect data on whether players enjoyed certain drills or aspects of training, which assists the coaches in developing optimal training sessions throughout the season. The inclusion of measurements for psychological well-being helps establish, as Hawkey described, “the ideal training-stress balance.”
The second stage in this initiative is to increase the external validity, or practical applications, for trends in the data. One example would be allowing a player to participate in fewer drills at training if their scores on the surveys indicate high levels of tiredness. After collecting data on a player for a long enough period of time, the sports science team is able to strike the perfect balance between maintaining fitness and resting. This is a vital tool for the Academy coaching staff, as they develop their players over the course of a 10-month season.
Since the focus of the Sounders FC Development Academy is to make sure that players in the program realize their potential, Sports Science plays a vital role. Ensuring that each player can play to the best of their ability every day truly facilitates optimal player development.
It also allows for greater integration amongst the teams. A number of Academy players, such as Lorenzo Ramos, Nicholas Hinds, John Magnus and Handwalla Bwana, train with S2 and play matches for their youth team. With a truly integrated system, the Sounders can make sure that each player in the organization improves every time they take the field.