Developing the high performance sports model in the US
For many years, sport in the USA has adopted an insular approach when developing patterns of coaching, fitness, nutrition and commercial structure. It has been for good reason, too. The big five sports leagues – football, baseball, basketball, hockey and, more recently, soccer – have led the world in developing professionalism and sophisticated commercial operations.
The memoirs of NFL coaches such as 49ers legend Bill Walsh or the Green Bay Packers’ Vince Lombardi are used as handbooks by modern trainers and managers the world over, too.
Interestingly, North American sports are now also beginning to develop strategies modelled on their contemporaries from Europe and further afield, while evolving beyond the standards of some other countries in certain realms.
Recently, I spoke to Joel Totoro, the first ever full-time dietitian in the NFL and a man who has held senior posts at the Board of Directors for Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association. He observed that we are witnessing a quiet, high performance revolution in US sport.
“As the science of sport continues to grow,” he observed, “sports dietitians will be tasked to individualize nutrition plans based on performance data, blood values, microbiome testing, and genetic makeup.”
Coming from a background that had him begin his career in clinical, trauma-based nutrition gives Totoro a unique perspective, adding that “When you look at the physical demands of training and competition, it’s easy to focus on simply fueling the activity. Sports dietitians must take a step back and look at athletes through a clinical lens, and focus on promoting recovery from sport, which can be considered ‘intentional trauma’. Taking a medical nutrition therapy approach to the physical damage and metabolic deficits caused by training and competition allows the athlete to best prepare for and recover from activity.”
The fascinating development, which Totoro eludes to, is that there is an opportunity for a change in approach. Traditionally, the pro sports – whether it’s the MLB, NFL, NBA, or NHL – haven’t looked to introduce high performance directors, whose role it is to control and develop every facet of an athlete’s diet and routine, down to data and analytics on quality of sleep, to maximize coaching and athletic performance.
In some locker rooms, there can be a misconception that high performance director and sport science roles are being created to replace strength and conditioning coaches and other existing roles. However, a true high performance setting needs to leverage experienced coaches and dietitians more than ever, to take all the available data and turn it into qualitative information that can be implemented in real time, in a training environment.
Now, major organizations across the United States are building on a traditional strength and conditioning approach and turning to the high performance model favored by many European sports. The change is starting to reap dividends.
MLB teams, such as the Toronto Blue Jays, St Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays, are moving towards the high performance approach in a bid to develop their own marginal gains. It can be as simple as making sure their players eat the best food possible at all times. In a sport where a team has 81 road games per year, that can make a world of difference in terms of consistency, health and fitness.
While MLB is America’s past-time and, perhaps, the most traditionally run league of the pro US sports, the NFL is well known for being the most forward-thinking, from a commercial perspective. Behind the scenes, the high performance model has been growing for a number of years. In addition to impressive home-grown talent, notable overseas imports are also bringing new ways of thinking into the coaches’ offices around the National Football League, including Wayne Diesel of the Miami Dolphins, formerly of English soccer team Tottenham Hotspur. Diesel has integrated with the pre-existing home-grown US talent, such as strength coach Dave Puloka, who has been with the Dolphins for the past eight seasons. With college and pro football in the US sharing similar trends, we have also seen this recently within the NCAA as well. Schools such as Notre Dame and the University of Oregon have appointed Directors of Performance Science from the UK, to work alongside existing staff, overseeing not only performance, but overall athlete wellness.
Bringing in knowledgeable dietitians and sports scientists helps prevent damaging issues for franchises. For example, there have been a number of high profile instances where players have been caught, unwittingly, taking banned performance enhancing substances. By developing nutrition departments, those franchises can not only exact greater control on the diets and supplement regime of their players, but can also educate them to make better decisions when not under the watchful eye of their employers. Most importantly, this is keeping players, which teams are investing millions of dollars into, on the field for more games, just as much as injury prevention can.
There’s a similar story at the NBA, where the recruitment of performance directors is growing, interestingly centered particularly around injury prevention. The size of the athletes and sheer volume of the games (82 regular season, plus playoffs) puts massive pressure on the teams involved.
In the NHL we are also starting to see a change taking place. Teams such as the Buffalo Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers are beginning to lean towards data driven high performance models. The Sabres are heading into their second year of doing so. The Flyers are heading into their first, with Ben Peterson, a US native who is coming from the private sector after spending the past three years with Catapult Sports.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, MLS has been the area of US sport which has long adopted a European approach to coaching, with high performance departments growing within the sport as more revenue and commercial success allows. Maybe more surprising, is the fact that the sport has also been going to great lengths to nurture their own domestic talent, with college graduates and sport science experts from the United States now making a name for themselves which could well see more US representation on the training pitches and in the analysis rooms of major European soccer teams.
While each sport must approach high performance in its own, idiosyncratic way, we are seeing more teams turning to this approach. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it, and teams will indeed look to other global leagues to learn and adapt, as they analyse what may be right for them. But, while looking overseas, they should also realize that there is a wealth of talent within the North American shores which can be tapped into, who can continue to evolve the face of US pro sports. They can often be just as hidden as some of those in Europe or Australia, waiting for the next big opportunity to come their way.