Coaching Interview #9 – Tom Debenedictis (Part 2)

This is the ninth of a series of interviews with industry leaders in fields such as Strength & Conditioning, Coaching, Physical Therapy, Sports Psychology, Nutrition & Physical Education.

This is Part 2 of the interview with Tom. Check out Part 1 here.

Tom Deb

What is the periodization/programming model or philosophy which you use in preparation for the upcoming SANFL season?

The program this year hasn’t changed too much from the previous to be honest. The pre-season will be split into a pre-Christmas and post-Christmas block with a three week de-load/maintenance period in between. Now that we have GPS data for the previous two seasons, I’ll work out our worst case scenario in terms of game day load and then use this to plan our loads throughout the pre-season. Pre-Christmas we will complete a 5 week linear progression followed by a one week de-load just prior to Christmas with the focus on overall volume. Post-Christmas will then consist of two blocks, again of a linear fashion with a build-up and de-load phase. These blocks will focus more on intensity rather than overall volume and we’ll cut the distances on our conditioning drills but gradually increase the number of efforts increasing the biomechanical demands through the increased number of accelerations and de-accelerations. The last block will take us all the way up to the first of three trial games with players’ still carrying fatigue into the first trial. There’s obviously a small amount of injury risk associated with this method, however both myself and Brad would rather the players peak for round 1 instead of one of the trial games.

Again, our strength program is relatively basic in terms of periodisation. We will split the pre-season into 4 weeks blocks and focus on one aspect of either hypertrophy, strength, strength-power, power, speed-power or speed. The periodisation of these weeks will depend on the load out on the track that week but at the same time we’re trying to get the players into a state of fatigue so we’ll push them as hard as we feel comfortable with. On top of all of these we integrate running technique and max velocity running into our warm ups, and periodise these aspects along with the rest of the pre-season. There are also a number of sessions that I have termed athletic development sessions throughout the week and these will contain mobility, core, and proprioception drills that again will be periodised.

Most teams use a specific test battery during their pre-season period; can you detail your ‘go to’ tests and why you place an emphasis on these particular metrics for SANFL players?

At this point in time the test that I would deem my ‘go to’ test would be a 2km time trial. There’s a few reasons why I use it but the main one is that I rely fairly heavily on maximal aerobic speed running (MAS) when we complete structured running drills and using MAS allows me a greater amount on individuality when it comes to prescribing training loads to each player. In a recent study I was part of  we found that the average running velocity of a 2km TT correlated very highly with the final velocity attained during the University of Montreal track test (UMTT) which is seen as one of the gold standard track test for prescribing training loads and velocities. I’ve also been playing around with some repeat effort tests whereby we prescribe distances according to 120% of each players MAS and then run a repeat effort test to exhaustion with some interesting results in terms of time to exhaustion. In the gym we tend not to do too many 1RM tests due to the time limitations and the amount of time it takes the players to recover from those tests. Instead we focus more on quality of movement and as such I have played around with a number of movement assessment tests similar to those used by Ian McKeown at Port Adelaide. If we want a measure of how strong a player is with a certain exercise we’ll get them to perform a 5RM as part of their training session or ask them to self-report a bench press 5RM as part of the gym sessions they’re expected to complete away from the club.

Academy programs are key in developing the ‘next wave’ of senior players; what S&C philosophies or structures have you put in place to develop the younger generation and transition them to senior competition?

This is an area that recently I’ve felt very passionate about and believe that at the moment South Adelaide as a club and probably the rest of the SANFL need to improve the way in which their junior development programs are run. From my personal observations and experiences junior players significantly lack mobility, flexibility and proprioception skills and have a significantly higher incidence of overuse injuries than athletes their age should have. I’ve challenged the junior S&C coaches at South to focus more on quality of movement in the gym rather than strength and power and the issue is the same on the track. The players are exposed to significantly higher loads than I feel is necessary to achieve the same gains in fitness than if they completed lower loads, so again I’ve challenged them to work more on hip and knee control, landing, de-acceleration and change of direction techniques during their conditioning session rather than the running loads they’ve been exposing the athletes too. Once we start to get junior players that can move correctly and have a sufficient control of their body then I believe we’ll start to see a decrease in the number of soft tissue and overuse injuries.

GPS is one of the primary pieces of technology used in any AFL club or system; can you detail how you are utilising GPS at SAFC?

GPS now plays a big part in my role at South Adelaide, we use it each training session and across both grades (reserves and league) come game day. This has allowed me to define the match day demands and therefore decide our pre-season training loads. It allows us to monitor our training loads and with the live feedback it also ensures that we hit our training loads during each session and that we avoid significant spikes in loads that may lead to injuries. With the history of data we now have, I’ve been able to construct a library of the coaches drills and from that design a simple excel file whereby the coach can select the drills and the duration of each drill he has in mind for that training session and it’ll predict the different running loads, number of efforts and player load of each drill and the session as a whole as compared to my targets. I then have a good idea of how much top up running we will need to complete at the end of the session in order to hit the target running loads.

GPS is one form of analytics used for monitoring and tracking players; do you use any other types of methods to monitor players’ fitness or fatigue?

Apart from GPS we use a player wellness and RPE system whereby players are expected to report on a number of wellness measures prior to training and then following the session rate it out of 10. From the wellness numbers we are then able to identify players that may be at a risk of injury prior to the training sessions, and track their scores over time looking for patterns that may help us identify a possible increased risk of injury or changes in values that are larger than what we feel is the smallest meaningful difference. On top of all of this I’ve found that simply talking to the players and comparing your own predicted RPE to the players RPE is a great way of understanding how they’re feeling.

You and I have had some great discussions about Velocity Based Training; can you explain the positive benefits you receive from using this type of training and how you are utilising it at SAFC?

Football players are very feedback orientated and competitive so as soon as you provide them with instant feedback such as GPS or bar speed they instantly start competing against each other and push the boundaries. Often in the gym, players would just go through the motions and lift the weights I’ve asked them to do and get out. The idea behind the velocity based feedback was that I really wanted the players to start lifting the weights explosively and with speed; as this how we’re asking them to perform on the football field. I recently purchased a Push Band and have found that in terms of motivating athletes to lift weights explosively it works really well and its very cost friendly as compared to other technologies of this type. I’m hopeful that the club will see the value in it and purchase a number of units for the club.

What are some of the philosophies/structures you have seen or read about from other teams/organisations which sets them apart from the rest? How could you implement some of these structures at SAFC?

I spent some time at Queensland Cowboys just viewing some of their training and during their gym sessions they had what they called a ‘herd mentality’ where the players were expected to go through the program as one big group unless they had specific exercises due to injuries; in doing so there was a team mate watching the athlete perform an exercise, therefore increasing the external pressure and motivating that athlete. It’s also not a surprise that generally the best teams are those that work the hardest and have that ‘killer instinct’ which is something that has been missing at SAFC as identified by the players themselves. In order to create that kind of environment, as coaches we have a real responsibility to call the players out and force them to drive their own standards on each other up; be it pushing through to the cones, working hard in the gym, or turning up with the right mind set to train.

What have you found to be the most bang for buck type of ‘Strength’ or ‘Conditioning’ work for the athletes you work with?

The most bank for buck type of work I’d say are the basics. The majority of the players I work with lack basic movement patterns and almost all of the new recruits that come in have no experience in the gym so working to ensure that they can master the basic movement patterns, such as the squat, hinge, push, pull, rotation before we move on to more complex movements has no end of positive results on the individual athlete.

What are some of your current interests in the S&C field?

I’m always trying to improve my knowledge and learn new things but I’d say my major interest at the moment is player movement ability/efficiency. I feel that a lot of the issues suffered by team sport athletes these days are a result of the fact that they have no basic movement skills. The majority of junior players we see come through to the league level have no ankle mobility what so ever and then on game day they strap their ankles reducing their mobility even further. I strongly believe that this is just a knee or ankle injury waiting to happen. Recently, I’ve been exploring the critical power model which gives you an idea of the aerobic and anaerobic contributions made by an athlete over a set distance. Using this we can profile each player and work out a framework for rotations come game day with those players who are more aerobically inclined able to spend longer on the oval as they have the ability to recover and maintain a higher work rate for longer periods of time.

As a young and aspiring S&C coach, where would you like to end up in the profession?

I’d like to think that one day I will find myself at an elite level club in a team environment. I enjoy the challenge of working with large numbers of athletes and find that it constantly pushes you to evolve as a coach, however at the same time I enjoy the world of research so perhaps a role that allows me to combine research with practice would be my dream job.

Just before we finish up, what are your favourite/current industry blogs/books to read, or recommend others to read?

I think it goes without saying that the College Strength & Conditioning Blog would be one of my go to blogs! (flattered…) I’m a big fan of podcasts also as I can listen to them whilst traveling to and from locations and find myself listening to the Pacey Performance Podcast on a weekly basis with a notepad handy. I also find that Twitter is a great source of information as many leading S&C coaches seem to have very active  accounts and are always posting interesting information.

We wish Tom and the South Adelaide Football Club all the best for the upcoming SANFL season. Thanks to Tom for contributing to the College Strength & Conditioning Blog. Follow Tom below –

Twitter: @tommyd_90

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