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Being Peter-active: Sporting KC’s training renaissance in Year Three of Pinnacle Training Center

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Navy Seals, Pendulums, Maximums and sub-maximums, Periodizing, MLS Maxes, and D-day: They are all here in this two-part article focused on Sporting KC’s training renaissance.

Thad Bell

Yes, it took a hiatus. But it is back. Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes is using the term “Sporting Fit” again.

Perhaps the return comes from a confidence in some new tactics and techniques Vermes and his staff are implementing, and from lessons learned in 2019, a year where “Sporting Fit” – somewhat understandably, somewhat unfairly – was maligned in some pundits and some fan’s circles. Vermes is being proactive, more specifically, Peter-active.

Through August 22, 2019, 34 different instances of injuries had inflicted Sporting players during the 2019 season, a factor that contributed to an 11th place finish in the Western Conference and missing the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons.

Most know the story: an early 2019 preseason forced by CONCACAF Champions League play, forced players to push their bodies farther and earlier than usual as they buzzed their way to the semifinals while competing in initial MLS league matches. It was too much, too early, physically, and mentally.

Surely a sigh of relief bellowed out from the War room at Pinnacle National Development Center, Sporting’s training home, when the 2020 MLS schedule came out. The 34 regular season matches were spread out over 32 weeks, with only two midweek matches. Saturday to Saturday. And no champions league, only the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup would complicate the match schedule.

Thus, when Kansas City’s last 2019 match ended on October 6, a plan was in place, or close to it. The new season would be different. After all, they had 145 days of offseason to prepare for it.

When Vermes was asked at Media Day on Tuesday, March 3, how Sporting was proactively trying to limit injuries in 2020, he revealed the first part of the plan.

“The offseason training program, that’s the first thing. You can be the best player in the world, but if you are not physically fit, not physically conditioned, to play week-in-and-week-out 90 minutes, travel, recover, travel, play. If you are not ready for that, you are not going to survive in this game,” he said, before giving a part of the training renaissance. “I would commend all the guys because we gave them the hardest offseason training program we’ve ever given them, and they all came back having done that.”

Sporting’s 4-3-3 formation and Vermes’ accompanying system (with perhaps more of an emphasis on the high press this season) takes endurance, stamina. It takes being Sporting Fit, and a surprising analogy to Navy SEALS.

In the first match of 2020 – a 3-1 win at Vancouver Whitecaps – Sporting not only held onto their lead, but added to it in injury time, a hopeful harbinger. In nine matches in 2019, Kansas City allowed a goal in the 70-minute mark or later, which resulted in either a loss or a tie. Turn that around, and Sporting make the playoffs.

Does Vermes expect to improve that course during this season?

“Yeah, because we are Sporting Fit,” he said. And there it was.

So where does the Navy SEAL comparison come in? Navy SEAL training is, initially, a 12-month process, followed by intensive specialized training and pre-deployment training for an additional 18 months. It’s all semantics according to Vermes.

“[Becoming Sporting Fit is] like becoming a Navy Seal. The first thing they do is test [him or her] physically. If he can’t pass the physical, he’s done. If [he] can pass [the physical], already [he is] mentally tough. Then [he] can meet the challenges of becoming a Navy Seal,” explained KC’s manager since 2009. “For here, we play a certain way. If you want to play in this club, you have to be Sporting Fit.”

With a strong base in place through the most challenging offseason program, how is a player given the proper training load, how is his response to the physical demands measured, how is that load monitored and balanced?

Let’s get to the nuts and bolts.

Pendulum swings, or not

“We have some very good regiments [in place]. But we are always learning because there are new technologies coming out, and they are not always good,” said Vermes. “When you have things that are working well, you have to stick with them (you can’t let the pendulum swing too far one way). But it’s also being open to what is out there.”

Director of Sports Performance and Science Joey Harty warming up the players before a game.
Thad Bell

Enter Joey Harty, Director of Sports Performance and Science, a position he took over for 2020 after joining the organization in January of 2016. He has moved the pendulum with some focusing and some enterprising.

“Joey Harty is doing a great job on the interpretation of all the data. At the same time, what he’s also done really well is that he’s taken what our training sessions look like and figured out what are the best ones to use on certain days based on the lows that we want,” Vermes lauded.

Mark one. And two, three, and four

First, and logically, one must have a reference point, a baseline of where players are fitness-wise at the end of the year and where they are at the beginning of the next. And that general idea is consistent throughout the season too, much of it based on one test, the VO2 max test.

To clarify, the VO2 max is “the amount of oxygen your heart can pump throughout your body and the highest rate of oxygen consumption during exercise done at maximal intensity.”

“When you give a player a VO2 Max, you can see what a player’s maximum heart rate spike is, what their maximum heart rate is, to see where that player would be if they were maximally exerting themselves,” said Harty via phone interview with The Blue Testament on March 11. “Once we start preseason, we do a series of sub-maximal tests that assess a player’s recovery, but, also, based off the player’s maximal test, it will let us know where a player is on a week-to-week basis from recovery, but also from a conditioning standpoint.”

One of Harty’s unique additions has been a test the players are put through, usually on Tuesdays after a Saturday match, a Sunday recovery session, and a Monday off. The test – a simple shuttle “run” – takes only five minutes. And it is done at a sub-maximal level, in other words, without full physical exertion.

“[The shuttle is] to assess the players’ average heart rate and max heart rate and track that week-to-week… you’re looking for that average heartbeat during that time period to drop,” said Harty, before explaining what the results mean. “So if you are doing a five-minute test, sub-maximal, and a player’s heart rate comes in and it’s 10% higher, that’s something to look at. That player may not be recovering quite what we hoped or the way he was last week. It doesn’t tell you the reason why, but now you are able to look at that and raise some questions.”

Harty pointed that the test has been especially effective with a few players who came late into preseason camp because of family matters or just being late acquisitions, like Johnny Russell, Gadi Kinda, and Winston Reid. Sporting has able to see where those players were when they first arrived, and then on a week-to-week basis.

But monitoring a player’s fitness level is more involved. Additional assessments give Harty more influence on the coaching staff, on training, and on an individual player’s level of training. As fans celebrate or lament the team’s Saturday performance on Sunday, Harty and the players are back at it establishing more baselines. It starts pretty chill.

“The players lay down and rest for five to ten minutes [to gauge their resting heart rate]. Immediately after that, they will do a 30-minute bike ride, primarily for recovery purposes to flush the system out and increase blood flow,” Harty revealed. “Between those three things – the resting heart rate, the bike ride, and the [shuttle test on Tuesday] – now you are able to look at something that is consistent week-to-week on the players…”

Conversations. (And Kansas City tops the league, thrice)

Armed with this baseline-referenced data, Harty can communicate and recommend to Vermes and the coaching staff with authority.

“’Hey, look. This is where he was this game, this is where he was a few days after,’” mimicked Harty.

Vermes system within the 4-3-3 formation is no doubt demanding for the players. Furthermore, that pitch is big! MLS’s league-wide Second Spectrum video analysis service provides teams with tactical and physical data to aid the analysis of match performance. The service shows that in their first two matches of the season – the Vancouver win and the 4-0 home victory over Houston Dynamo on March 7 – Sporting has topped the league for total distance covered, sprint distance, and number of sprints.

“So it’s really important for us to see how the players are recovering from that. You know that what they are experiencing in the games is, maybe not higher than our average, but definitely higher than what the average player is going through,” Harty stated. “Those are some of the things we do assessing where the players are.”

With baselines established, and activities in place to monitor the players’ reactions to their physical load, critical procedures are in place. Now, how is recovery and regeneration handled during the training week? What are “periodizing” and “D-day”? How are injuries being prevented, if they can be, and dealt with? How do Pinnacle’s amenities come into play? All those things and more will be in Part II of “Being Peter-active”. Coming soon.