Not rocket science

With a new European coach comes a new European approach and SYDNEY FC already seem to be reaping the benefits

IT-S a sunny morning at Sydney FC-s training ground in the fields of Macquarie University at North Ryde. Spirits are high and there-s plenty of noise from the players, and from assistant coaches Michael Zach and Tony Popovic.

Around them buzz a coterie of track-suited figures, and the activity is constant. In fact, the only figure missing is the man around whom it all revolves, Vitezslav Lavicka. But the Czech coach, in whose hands Sydney-s revival has been placed, isn-t far away.

Lavicka is in the video editing suite a couple of hundred metres away cutting a highlights tape to pore over the nuances of the weekend-s game. By the time the players have finished their exertions, he-ll be ready for them, ready to break down their contributions as individuals and as a team.

Given Lavicka spends much of every afternoon planning the next day-s training session, he doesn-t need to watch it to know how it will unfold. But he will know precisely how each player performs.

For as well as Lavicka and Zach, a key appointment has been the arrival of Craig Duncan, a sports scientist from the University of Sydney. Don-t dare call him strength and conditioning coach - Duncan-s official title is physical performance co-ordinator, and the brief is extensive.

It-s Duncan and his assistants who mill around the periphery of training, supervising gym work and conducting tests on every player, to feed information into Lavicka.

As well as the almost constant use of GPS to track every individual-s distance covered, each squad member has his urine tested each week - both for levels of hydration and for salt content. Every player then has his fluid intakes dictated, not just quantity but the precise make-up of their energy drinks. It-s taken as a given in Asian climates, but at the end of an Australian winter?

“When I first came in, it was simply a case of implementing strategies to ensure that everything we did had a sound scientific basis,” says Duncan.

“It-s pretty simple, if players don-t drink enough they get fatigued more quickly in training, and by the time of the weekend they-re really not ready to play. Initially we found 95 per cent of the players were dehydrated before training, yet there-s a greater chance of injury in that state.

“It-s one of the simplest things to think about yet it gets ignored. We do the hydration testing every week now - not just to measure it but as a device to instil in the players- minds the need to drink fluid constantly, not just at training.

“We try to educate them on what else they consume. A big thing for me is that I believe a lot of Australian footballers are overweight - not in respect of the general public, but in sporting terms. I wanted a significant weight loss from the players, and we-ve got it. They-re leaner.”

Duncan-s influence is widespread; in essence his role is to deliver a squad of players in peak condition to Lavicka each week, and the coach - a devotee of sports science himself - is happy to follow their suggestions.

Thus each player is asked to rate the intensity of training after each session, with the feedback correlated against heart monitors. From that Duncan finetunes each player-s requirements and feeds them into the sessions planned each day by the coaching staff.

“There-s no reason why a player can-t play into their later years, but they can-t be treated as an 18-year-old,” Duncan says. “If a coach wants a John Aloisi or Steve Corica to do what the young lads are doing exactly, that-s not right.

They need monitoring closely and if they need a break it-s not because they-re lazy it-s because it will keep them on the field longer during games.”

In fact, there-s little opportunity for any member of the squad to feel anything like “lazy”. The usual A-League model of a morning session with the rest of the day off has given way to something approaching European preparation at Sydney.

Double sessions are the norm, plus there is a daily compulsory team lunch, yoga and further video analysis later in the week - the players start earlier and finish later. No wonder they report going home exhausted each day.

Lavicka has made it clear he wants his players to assume responsibility, and equally clear that what rules he does lay down are inviolate. He won-t tolerate tardiness by anyone - one young player reports going to the coach to apologise for misreading the schedule and arriving minutes late, to be told it-s the whole squad he has to apologise to.

“What-s been interesting is how the day is structured to encourage us to do extra work,” says defender Simon Colosimo. “We might finish a session at noon and have lunch at one, and you find yourself using that extra hour in the gym or discussing things with the coaching staff. Even in the afternoon the opportunities are there to work with the coaching staff or the fitness guys.”

Duncan is at pains to acknowledge that “it-s not rocket science” - just the application of accepted best practice, and using it to ensure the club-s most expensive assets, its players, are kept in the best possible condition. For the players with experience of top-level European competition, the extra workload is entirely par for the course.

“Vitja's brought in a European style, and not just in terms of playing,” says marquee man John Aloisi, the only Australian to have played in La Liga, Serie A and the English Premier League.

“You have to look after yourself these days - training hard's not enough if you go home and drink Coke, or eat crap food all day.

“Every morning he asks how you are, he's fundamentally a nice person - but he's really strict about discipline. He works on the basis that you need it off the pitch to have it on it.

“Turning up late, for instance, he can't handle that - he might make you do more running, or even take you off the starting XI in training. He's big on us being close knit and having unity, and he believes that comes from respecting each other.”