Last month, when Austin FC announced David Tenney would be the Club’s new Director of High Performance, it prompted some fans to wonder what that is exactly, as well as how it might be directed. High performance might sound like an abstract aspiration, but it’s actually a collaborative effort rooted in science, combining new innovations in data tracking and analysis with fitness, medical and nutrition regimens to help athletes maintain and refine their bodies.
“It’s an interdisciplinary department of fitness, sports science, and medical staff,” he explained. “It’s all the different specializations we have within those groups, brought together into a singular interdisciplinary team responsible for managing treatment, training, and the physical readiness of all the athletes.”
Tenney’s been at the forefront of this work throughout his career. In 2009, he became fitness coach for the Seattle Sounders as the franchise was preparing to enter MLS. He was instrumental in developing the forerunner of what’s planned for Austin FC, for a team that was a perennial playoff contender during his tenure there. For the past three years, he’s continued this work with the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
Tenney’s excited for how Austin FC will challenge him and the staff he’s beginning to build, particularly given the range of ages, experience levels, and cultural backgrounds on the roster being assembled by Sporting Director Claudio Reyna and Head Coach Josh Wolff.
“Austin FC is sure to be a diverse group of athletes from different parts of the world,” Tenney noted. “Every athlete that comes in from a different part of the world is going to uniquely see training, nutrition, recovery, and lifestyle through his own cultural lens. Educating these athletes in terms of what are best practices and what's evidence-led in terms of research, teaching them to make those considerations, will be one of the challenges.”
Tenney will draw on his experience as a former college and pro soccer player, as well as his career in the high performance field, to deal with the most immediate concerns players have: How to stay healthy, how to recover from injury, and how to play at a high level consistently throughout the entirety of a match.
“The specific challenge around soccer is that it is a speed-power sport, but also an aerobic sport,” Tenney observed. “So each position actually has to have this balance of how fast and powerful is the athlete, and does that athlete have the endurance to sustain a workload for 90 minutes.”
While that ultimately manifests when a team takes the field, a lot of thought and planning goes into structuring practice sessions, and even beyond that, to help individual players determine and regulate how much additional work they should — or sometimes more crucially, shouldn’t do — in between practices and matches.
Data collection was central to Tenney’s work in Seattle, and will be similarly important at Austin FC. It’s part of what led MLSSoccer.com’s Charles Boehm to refer to Tenney as the Club’s “secret weapon” as it prepares for the debut 2021 season. Teams can now learn about players via GPS tracking, which is now becoming more commonplace in world soccer, as well as optical tracking with in-stadium cameras, which Tenney was at the forefront of among MLS clubs during his time in Seattle. As he points out, though, data becomes more useful as more of it is collected, and it’s an investment that pays out over time.
“The Holy Grail in sports is to have an injury prediction, injury reduction strategy that comes from all the data you collect,” he remarked. “But guess what you need? You need lots of injuries. You can’t predict injuries unless you have lots of injuries in your dataset. Just getting the technology does not automatically equate to, ‘now that we've got data, we're going to reduce injuries’ You actually need a big dataset that has really good performances in your dataset and injuries and fatigue in your dataset.”
It’s also crucial to have a coaching staff that buys into what data can provide; Austin FC definitely has that with Wolff.
“The way that we want to play, our game model and our style of play, it's going to be very important that we're utilizing and monitoring our players in the right way,” Wolff noted, “so that they can stay healthy, achieve what we're trying to do, and so we can manage them in the right way.”
Wolff feels it’s particularly important to have someone with Tenney’s ability and expertise because Central Texas has a more unforgiving climate than many other MLS regions. “The capacity for running and high-speed running and distances covered and how we train is going to be extremely influential on how we can execute all that entails, specifically on game days,” he observed. “We have to prepare the players in the right way, and that starts from the moment they get here, having a clear understanding of the day-to-day needs, from wellness to preparation to the in-training to recovery. Hopefully we get it right much more than we get it wrong, and that’s where Dave's level of expertise is going to help us.”
He added, “We need to know how and when to back off players and when to push players, and I think Dave's pretty understanding of that.”
Tenney notes that Austin’s high-tech-infused culture, the Club’s belief in high performance, and its investment in the St. David’s Performance Center where Tenney and his team will be based all indicate commitment to high performance as a difference maker.
“First and foremost, you can only utilize data and technology as much as your head coach allows you to,” Tenney noted. Tenney knows that Wolff—who he first worked with in 2008 with the then-Kansas City Wizards organization—is well-schooled in the utility of a high performance focus from his time with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
“The organization and ownership and management is also very fully invested in helping us create the staff,” Tenney added, “that I think can be really effective to merge sport science and analytics in together with the coaching.”
“When you start a project like this, it starts with the humans in the room,” he added, noting that the team is likely to include a director of sports medicine, trainers and fitness coaches, a rehab coach, and a director of sports science analytics.
“Science has helped move our sport in a new direction,” Wolff noted. “As our sport has become more viable in this country, there's more importance on player health and player development. Dave's acumen, intelligence and expertise are hopefully going to be things that help set us apart from other teams.”