Roma head of performance hired in 2014
Overseas all training and off-field activity
Norman set up World Cup training center for Germans
For AS Roma, the key to shaping its future is not forgetting its past.
That past now notably including Francesco Totti, who concluded his remarkable 24-year career with Roma on May 28, in a home match at the Stadio Olimpico against Genoa.
The 40-year-old striker has provided an interesting case study of football longevity for the club’s director of performance Darcy Norman, who is not your every day sport scientist.
Norman is interested in using a supply chain management and systems thinking approach, borrowed from the world of big business and applied to European football.
It’s an approach based on the idea that knowing that every action sets off a chain of events that will impact performance.
As for Totti, Norman cites a “complex system” that includes “good genetics” and balanced lifestyle that allowed the Roma great to make effective appearances at his age. Totti is very much in tune with his “performance mind set,” says Norman.
“His ability to read the game, (and) be at the right place at the right time can compensate for the fact that he may not be as explosive or 1/100th of a second slower,” he adds.
Darcy also notes that there are “definitely things to learn” from Totti, along with the careers of Daniele De Rossi (completing his 14th season at Roma), and Juventus’ 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
“There is a thing you see in sports,” Norman explains. “At a younger age your physical skills are at a peak, whereas your technical skills are still being developed. As you age your technical ability and your ability to read the game go up, and your physical ability goes down.
Motivation through education
These days football has become an all-encompassing profession, where off-field activities can be just as monitored – and crucial to a team’s success – as the action between the goalposts.
“We have (the footballers) for two or three hours a day,” Norman tells CNN, “so what are they doing the other 21 hours to either advance or hinder their performance?
“There’s our little ecosystem of the soccer team and training complex, but then each of those players have a system outside of the training complex,” he says. “You know, actions with family, friends (and) agents (that impact) their lifestyle.”
Norman has adopted a “motivation through education” methodology earned from his time at EXOS – dubbed by MLB.com as “a high-tech fitness boot camp for professionals – to preach habits that are performance enhancing and injury shielding that he hopes players will adhere to away from the team.
They include ideally refraining from alcohol, sleeping eight to 10 hours a night, setting daily goals in the morning, and even meditation sessions before bedtime or after waking up.
Norman, who was employed by Bayern Munich and then the German national team before arriving at Rome in 2014, has a background in physiotherapy and strength and conditioning. Much of his process, however, focuses on establishing a winning mind set.
Constant dynamic process
At Roma, Norman overseas a team of five physiotherapists, four fitness coaches, a nutritionist, an osteopath and a podiatrist dedicated to the senior team, along with a full staff for the youth academy.
Ideally, players would arrive before breakfast for a daily weigh-in, then partake in an individualized morning hydration session based on their blood chemistry.
That’s followed by a individualized breakfast, video session, pre-training injury screening, tissue treatment and a pre-workout nutrition session all before hitting the gym and, eventually, on-pitch training.
Post-training has its own routine, featuring soft tissue work, steam rooms, more video analysis (if needed), lunch and finally an afternoon nap.
Norman’s main objective is “to efficiently get guys in the best shape possible, as well as rehab them to perform again in the quickest way possible.”
That sounds simple enough, but is harder than you might think.
Away matches take on a new set of challenges, which Norman classifies as “a constant dynamic process.”
“Everyone has different elements of what their comfort zone is,” he says. “Some guys don’t like to play in the rain, some guys don’t like hot weather, some guys like to sleep on a certain pillow, some guys like a certain firmness of bed.”
While working with the German national team during the 2014 World Cup, the team Norman was involved with set up a full training camp in Bahia, Brazil with all facilities exposed to open air so that players could acclimatize to the humidity and temperature for up to 20 hours a day.
Germany went on to win the tournament, beating hosts Brazil in the semifinals and Argentina in the final.
‘Keep it in moderation’
The 45-year-old from northern Alberta admits that he sometimes faces resistance when introducing his methodology, which includes such challenges as asking a locker room full of Germans to refrain from beer, or Italians to avoid red wine.
The key, Darcy says, is balance.
“There’s the social side that goes with alcohol, so I’m not totally against it,” says Norman, suggesting that when players do indulge they avoid hard liquor and keep it in moderation.
Drinking while recovering from an injury is an absolute no-no, he stresses, as it can slow down recovery and increase risk of muscle tear.
Lately athletes in other leagues such as the NBA have frowned upon alcohol and cut down on nightlife, viewing those choices as hindrances to their performance and, crucially, their earnings potential.
For the most part, the industrious nature of that thinking has yet to make it way over to Europe, says Norman.
“In some cultures that mind set for earnings potential isn’t the same,” he says. “From what I’ve witnessed there are some players who don’t have that earnings potential attitude and they have careless lifestyles.”
Norman labels that approach as a “fixed mind set,” often taken up by younger players with an “invincible attitude” that can hold back their potential.
“They aren’t open to trying to be the best that they can be; they are content with good enough,” he says.
That’s partly because fresh-faced stars who are thrust into an unaccustomed life of fame and fortune face unusual pressure off the pitch.
Part of Norman’s job is to keep youngsters motivated and focus on the tasks at hand.
They include the likes of rotating goalkeepers Wojciech Szczesny, the Serie A starter on loan from Arsenal, and Brazilian Alisson Becker, along with prodigious Egyptian striker Mohamed Salah, who has been linked with a summer transfer to Liverpool.
The 24-year-old Salah, who Norman calls “the epitome of a professional guy,” will be fasting during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan which will decrease his lean muscle mass.
“He’ll have to work to put that muscle back on,” says Norman, whose team will monitor Salah’s risk of injury from afar while he trains with the Egyptian national team in June.
Though injuries are an unfortunate part of the game, they can also present career opportunities for those not accustomed to living the optimal lifestyle.
“Usually an injury – a big injury – can get them to change around,” Norman says, “because they realize that they are not invincible anymore, and have to pay attention to the details.”
Two Roma success stories include Dutch international Kevin Strootman, who underwent multiple knee operations before making over 34 appearances this season, and Antonio Rudiger, who tore his ACL training with the German national team last summer and returned as a fixture in Roma’s defense.
Culture of change
Norman’s hiring was part of a new initiative launched after Roma’s majority takeover in 2011 by an American consortium led by chairman James Pallotta, a co-owner of the Boston Celtics, and Thomas DiBenedetto, a part owner of the Boston Red Sox.
The Americans sensed an undervalued asset in the Italian capital. They pushed global brand awareness by improving facilities – receiving approval to build a €2 billion new stadium – and optimizing the organizational structure with the likes of Norman.
With Monchi in Roma’s front office next season – and with Norman constantly re-evaluating his optimal supply chain – the Giallorossi look set for another run at Europe’s elite.