Ivi Casagrande is currently the Women’s and Girls’ Sport Scientist at a FAWSL club team and a FIFA technical expert/consultant. She is a former Orlando Pride lead strength & conditioning coach, director of sports performance for Redline Athletics, and member of the U.S. Youth National Teams Sport Scientist Network.
Freelap USA: U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) players such as Sam Mewis, Tobin Heath, and Christen Press have played abroad and used that experience to adjust to new playing systems and new dimensions of the game. Moving from coaching in the U.S. to coaching in Europe, is there a comparable adjustment process on the performance side? What have been some of the new concepts or methods you have picked up since moving from coaching in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to coaching in the Football Association’s Women’s Super League (FAWSL)?
Ivi Casagrande: One of the biggest adjustment processes on the performance side I’ve noticed thus far is definitely the schedule change from one league to the other. In the NWSL, I used to have almost four months during the off-season, (although it has now changed to less time as the new Challenge Cup was created after COVID-19).
With a long off-season, you have a lot of time to work with individual players and have that one-on-one exposure that you don’t get to have a lot during in-season. In NWSL, some players would go to Australia or other leagues to play during that time, but for the ones who stay, as a coach you can really get the most of that time to prioritize things that you normally don’t have time to do during in-season.
In the FAWSL, you get about five weeks during the off-season, so your priorities as a coach definitely change. It is the balance between getting the athletes the break they need after a long 10- to 11-month season and just giving them enough stimulus and exposure for them to get back ready for pre-season. In the NWSL, you have to spend a lot of time working on their aerobic capacity, hypertrophy, and max strength, whereas in the FAWSL, you don’t have that time or as big of a need to really work on those as they will probably not lose too much in five weeks if you can get the right amount of stimulus in the context of the force-velocity curve.
Also, in the NWSL you have the lengthy travel from the East Coast to the West Coast that you don’t deal with here in England. All of those NWSL trips require flying, which really affects your training week, and you have to be very strategic with your recovery strategies and tools to help players adapt and recover well between games. You definitely need to spend much more time on recovery strategies because of the schedule.
I think in both leagues there is the same challenge as a performance coach, which is how to best manage players who go on international duty across the season and have to come back right away to club duties. The women’s soccer calendar is getting more and more demanding, along with the intensity of play, which really shows how much we have to be on top of not only their physical key performance indicators, but also the emotional, mental, well-being, and lifestyle factors and how we best manage their training loads across the year.
Freelap USA: From a preparation standpoint, which key qualities for soccer do you think you have the greatest ability to impact and what exercises/methods do you rely on to improve those qualities? Are there other necessary physical qualities for the sport that you think are best developed via small-sided games/the game itself, and how do you collaborate with the sport coaching staff to complement and support what they will be doing on the training pitch?
Ivi Casagrande: My perspective on the ability to impact players in terms of physical preparation has greatly changed over the years through spending time with different athletic populations. I think most of us coaches, especially when we started our careers (myself included), tend to have a very myopic view on physical preparation, sometimes spending most of our energy in creating the perfect periodization plan as well as the most effective strength and power programs so we see our players getting faster and stronger. We also try to get the best bits of every successful coach and every research paper and then copy and paste to our own programs, as sometimes we lack the confidence to create our own philosophy and plan based on our own environment and constraints.After reflecting on all my practical experiences, however, I realized the biggest impact I had on my players was the ability to connect with them on a personal level, says @ivicasagrande. Click To Tweet
After reflecting on all my practical experiences, however, I realized the biggest impact I had on my players was the ability to connect with them on a personal level. This shows them not only that I care for them, but that they are also part of the process.
One of the most useful theories I learned through my masters was Self-Determination Theory, in which autonomy, competence, and relatedness are key components for athletes to find motivation in their environment. I have tried to apply these concepts everywhere I have coached, and this has really helped me get buy-in from my players. Yes, you can impact the development of strength and power in your athletes, but the long-term impact will come from your relationships with them and making sure you educate them and provide the best tools for them to be successful in the long run.
Teach players to develop their coping skills outside of the pitch and know how to be proactive with things such as:
- Improving their position quality and joint range of motion.
- Breathing mechanics to not only improve performance but also to be able to handle stress (physical and mental) on and off the pitch.
- Strategies to sleep better.
- Ways to see the world with a different perspective.
I was a soccer player who left Brazil at a very young age, and I went through a lot of what my players are currently going through. That sense of relatedness has helped a lot in terms of sharing what worked for me in the past and offering that support outside of the physical preparation per se. The key thing for me is to be able to empower the athlete and give them autonomy rather than making them rely on us to provide all the answers or depend on us for a lifetime. The most powerful moments as a coach are the ones when you have an athlete you coached 5-7 years ago tell you they still use some of the tools you taught them, not only in their sport but also in their life.
Apart from all that, movement quality is something I have always had an interest in and my biggest mentors—including Kelly Starrett, Dan Pfaff, and Ben Ashworth—all have amazing eyes for movement and have helped me develop a better critical eye for key movements and shapes. From youth to elite players, there’s the same crucial need to help the athletes:
- Feel and own positions.
- Develop their motor control and neuromuscular coordination under different speeds, vectors, and environmental constraints.
When we talk about the other physical qualities important for the game, what I see missing in a lot of training environments—especially in the culture of American colleges—is not only the exposure to repetitive change of direction in the specific context of the game, but also developing the physical qualities within the technical model rather than just making soccer players run like they are track & field/cross country athletes.
Exposing athletes to small-sided games is something very easy to achieve by communicating with the technical coaches and educating them on the best work-to-rest ratios and constraints to make the drill not only good to develop their decision-making and technical skills, but also to develop their physical qualities. We all know players can have amazing performance on fitness tests, but if they are not able to be effective on the pitch and to sustain and have the capacity to repeatedly do high mechanical load actions within the technical model—and with added decision-making—then those tests are useless for technical coaches.
Speed work can also be done in warm-ups and during training within positional drills, so we can make sure players are able to use their speed in the context of the sport. The use of GPS monitoring and HR monitoring can be quite beneficial here to help performance coaches and technical staff analyze work output and effectiveness. By comparing match intensity metrics to training metrics, we can make sure we are exposing them to the right intensity in training, so they are able to effectively perform during game day.
Freelap USA: How has your understanding of the range of functional systems that impact performance changed over time? And as you identify and manage the range of “battery systems” that fuel athletes, from the central nervous system to the energy systems to the immune-hormonal systems and more, do any of these require extra attention or present specific challenges when training elite female soccer players?
Ivi Casagrande: There have been two big moments in the last 2-3 years that shaped my philosophy as a coach and my understanding of the complexity of systems surrounding my athletes, the people around me, and myself.
The first was COVID-19 and all the challenges that came with it, especially in the preparation and management of players during that time. My first thought when all that happened was: Okay, how do I keep their levels of fitness and manage their load away from training and on their own so that they’re ready to go when competition restarts?
Soon enough, though, I realized that this would be irrelevant if my players were in a bad place mentally or were struggling to navigate this new and unknown world that we all had to find a way to live in. We were all going through some heavy stuff outside of the world of sports, where we all didn’t really know when a sense of normalcy would be back or what we would actually be preparing for and what would be the timelines for competitions. All of a sudden, as coaches, we realized we definitely will never have all the answers and the right solutions to all the puzzles surrounding the best way to prepare athletes to be back at competition and when that would eventually happen.
More than ever, the only thing I felt I could control during that time was building relationships with my players and trying to provide them with a safe environment where they could be themselves and feel comfortable enough to show vulnerability and giving them tools to be able to have some down time to reflect, mentally switch off, and have some fun.The only thing I felt I could control (during COVID-19) was building relationships with my players…and giving them tools to have down time to reflect, mentally switch off, and have some fun. Click To Tweet
While I was still at Orlando Pride, I decided to order an inflatable kayak for myself and my partner, so I texted our players’ group and said: “Who is up for a social distance stroll with the gators?” Suddenly, almost half of our team was buying inflatable kayaks and going to the lakes so we could see each other while socially distancing. It also gave us a safe space to just share our feelings and how those times were hitting us differently and how much of a rollercoaster everything was. Our loneliness from quarantining became kayak adventures around Orlando and figuring out the best lake routes to go through, bike trails, and a sense of human connection again.
I also started some weekly themed Zoom workouts, where I would ask the players to dress up, and go through an old-school hip hop session or a Zumba class or try out some different classes such as yoga with martial arts. Then, all the physical preparation became so much easier for all of us because now we were in a better head space or at least more motivated to work toward the unknown.
So, in that case, the mental and emotional battery systems were definitely a priority for us—I think we always have to make sure we prioritize different systems during different cycles of training according to what each individual is going through or environmental factors.
The second moment that really shaped my thinking of the multiple battery systems was when I had my first panic attack in January 2021. During that time, I’d recently moved with my partner and dog from America to the UK and went into autopilot mode and didn’t really have the time to sit down and reflect on the transition. I was working crazy hours, trying to juggle my full-time work with my online business and side projects, when my body decided to scream at me and force me to slow down. Before I knew it, I was in an ambulance with my heart rate going from 70 bpm to 160 bpm in seconds.We always have to make sure we prioritize different systems during different cycles of training according to what each individual is going through or environmental factors, says @ivicasagrande. Click To Tweet
The only thing I remember was thinking my time was coming to an end; everything felt like it was disappearing in a dark tunnel and like I was having a major heart attack.
That was a huge eye-opening moment for me, as I realized that you can’t just forget about the other things that really affect your wellness and performance. My mentor, Dan Pfaff, was instrumental during that time, as he would have daily talks with me about coping strategies and how it doesn’t matter how much meditation, breathing techniques, or recovery tools somebody does if they don’t work on their own coping strategies and conflict resolutions or just have the time to allow reflection.
I tied those concepts to the world of performance right away, and I started testing all those strategies on myself before teaching them to my athletes.
The battery systems idea and concepts came from Dan Pfaff and some of our latest conversations about performance. We talked about why we can’t, as coaches, think that physical performance is the only key performance indicator for success. Before thinking about our technical, physical, and field monitoring processes, we need to determine when to prioritize the other KPIs such as:
- Lifestyle factors.
- Mental resilience.
- Emotional wellness.
Everything needs to work in synergy, and we have to look at the big picture. I try to provide not just my athletes, but young coaches (myself included) with tools to be able to improve their performance, even if it will only get them better by 1%. The list of those tools is long, but it includes things such as:
- Breathing mechanics work.
- Cognitive work.
- Working on exposing them to different stimulus every now and then.
- Developing self-awareness under fatigue using verbal, visual, and auditory cues.
- Developing habits of improving their range of motion and positional quality and capacity in the gym.
- Sharing coping strategies based on my own experience as a soccer player.
The key here is understanding that all those different battery systems demand unique types and amounts of work, as well as recharging times. Fergus Connolly was also pivotal in this process of understanding the big picture. His book Game Changer and his course with “Team Sports Masterclass” really opened my eyes to how to apply all this knowledge in the team environment.
In my experience, when training female athletes, immune hormonal systems can be a crucial battery system that needs more attention than others. As we all know, the menstrual cycle is a big one for female athletes. Finding ways to manage their symptoms and help them develop their own routine and tools for management becomes a key thing in their preparation and success in their sport: from the nutrition requirements needed in specific phases of their menstrual cycles, to the breathing protocols that could help aid their sleep and cardiovascular efficiency, to the coping strategies to deal with the mood swings. Managing the load of players who struggle more than others during their periods is also very important, understanding that certain individuals might require a longer recharging time than others.
Coordination systems, especially in young female athletes, are also extremely important. Teaching them how to slow down, own their movements, and develop rhythm and coordination especially during rapid periods of growth is extremely important to build a more resilient athlete and be more prepared for the increased demands of the sport and potential mitigation of injuries.
Lastly, as mentioned above, the emotional and mental battery systems can be key for female athletes, just because of the fact, from my past experiences, females are a little bit more open to being vulnerable and having those tough conversations (not exclusive to female athletes, but culturally seen more often). Developing their self-awareness and their understanding of how much those things can impact their performance can be a good educational tool to take with them in their journeys.
On that note, I hope we, as a society and as coaches, continue to help male athletes and the rest of society understand it is okay to be vulnerable and show their emotions without them thinking it is a sign of fragility or a lack of masculinity.
Freelap USA: What are some ways that coaches can provide female athletes with practical rather than simply informational tools to manage individual symptoms of their menstrual cycle in a team sports setting? How might this process and the communication strategies differ at different age ranges, from U14 to U18 to college/pro levels?
Ivi Casagrande: I first became very interested in the menstrual cycle process for female athletes in 2015, when I came across the work of Georgie Bruinvels, who helped develop an app for players to track their menstrual cycles. I started using the FitrWoman app with my players from Bowling Green State University’s women’s team. At first it was more of an educational tool, as not a lot of players truly understood the big impact that their cycle had on their performance, and how to develop practical tools to help alleviate the symptoms.
I created an Excel sheet back then and started to collate the information from their wellness questionnaires (simple questions such as “Are you on your cycle: yes or no”) to understand more about the length of the individual cycles and when that would happen so I could start the conversation and offer advice on how to better manage those phases.
I then used all the resources from the app to give my players some recipes and basic nutritional advice based on the phase of the cycle they were on. As I further developed my understanding of the physiological side of things, I started to teach them tools to manage the things they could at least control during their cycle:
- Breathing protocols.
- Mindfulness/meditation practices that would help them during the phases in which they would either struggle to sleep or struggle to manage their mood.
Something else I learned with Georgie and Dawn Scott was to provide recipes for smoothies or yogurt pots before bedtime to help them with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods and aid their recovery times, which can be affected in specific phases of the menstrual cycle. Lastly, a lot of players show lower back tightness around their menstrual cycle, so there was no one better than my mentor and friend Kelly Starrett to help me provide some individual strategies and plans for my players with the focus on mobility to:
- Restore or improve their range of motion.
- Sensitize painful movement and enhance their recovery.
- Reduce training session costs.
The biggest takeaway for me is that we as coaches—and also as female athletes—need to understand that there are a lot of considerations when it comes to our performance. Nutrition and hydration, training load, psychological factors, travel, recovery, and sleep. Menstrual cycle is a big piece of the puzzle, but all pieces must work in synergy to maximize performance and effectively manage symptoms.
Freelap USA: You created the Coaches Empowerment Network to provide a comfortable space for learning and networking opportunities for young coaches. What were your biggest takeaways from fostering that speaker series, and how can young coaches best take advantage of peer networks and other opportunities for career growth?
Ivi Casagrande: The Coach Empowerment Network is a very special project I started during COVID-19 and when I was moving over to the UK. I had some time to reflect before I was about to start my new job, and at the time I was mentoring a lot of young female coaches. I realized that a lot of them went through the same experiences, as female coaches, that I did during my last few years in the field. I just wanted to create a safe space for them to share their work and to bring together people to collaborate and talk about things we really don’t talk about.With the Coach Empowerment Network, I didn’t want to involve anything about physical performance…but rather to show and talk about vulnerability, mental health, and all our struggles as coaches. Click To Tweet
The purpose of these events was to talk about the challenges they encountered during their journeys and the tools they found to be successful when they were going through challenging times, and really showcase and share their resilience, lessons learned, and advice for the coaches in the room. I didn’t want to involve anything about physical performance, because we already have so much about that in our field, but rather to show and talk about vulnerability, mental health, and all our struggles as coaches.
The cool thing about the network was that it was not a closed group only created for female coaches. It was open to female and male coaches (only the presenters were female coaches), as I felt like we sometimes don’t have the same opportunities, or we are just not confident enough to talk about our stories and journeys to get to where we are. It was very interesting how uncomfortable it was for some of the presenters (including myself at first) to talk about ourselves as human beings rather than as performance coaches.
I think we all learned so much with each other in the process. We had about five sessions before things got quite busy with my full-time job and I had to pause it for a moment—we had people from 18 different parts of the world, including Thailand, New Zealand, and Australia, some staying up until 3 a.m. just to watch the presentations. We had a lot of amazing male coaches not afraid to join the conversation and discuss some of the challenges we, as female coaches, go through. I think one of the main things I wanted to also get out of it was to involve male coaches in the conversation so they could see from our perspective the different kind of challenges we have to go through to survive in the industry.I also wanted to involve male coaches in the conversation so they could see from our perspective the different kind of challenges we go through to survive in the industry, says @ivicasagrande. Click To Tweet
On the other hand, it was very cool to see that, a lot of times, the male coaches’ challenges were very similar to ours. I had people reaching out to me and sharing that they made amazing friends from those sessions. I saw some of them meeting each other in different countries and shadowing each other’s work in their jobs, so that was extremely rewarding. I am looking forward to continuing those sessions in the near future.
I have been very lucky to have had amazing mentors since I started as a coach; mentors who were not afraid to tell me the tough things about being in the sports industry. I learned a lot from them, and I keep fostering those relationships daily with all those people I really look up to and now see as friends.
The biggest advice I give to young coaches when reaching out to other people in the industry is that networking should be more than just picking their brains as to what they do in their jobs as a coach, but also looking to be open and discussing the tough things too. Learning how they use their coping strategies with some of the challenges of being in the elite environment and the lessons they learned that they can pass on. Lastly, don’t forget that those “networking” conversations shouldn’t be just for the sake of you getting all their knowledge and walking away, but rather should be a relationship that will be fostered and cherished for the long term.
Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire.
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