Working over 20 years in the human performance industry in multiple roles, Darcy’s past 10 years have primarily been focused on creating and implementing methodologies, applied data, building strategic relations, hiring, training, and managing medical, rehab, fitness, nutrition, psychology, and sport science staff at the highest level. Having lived and worked in four countries with scores of invitations for speaking engagements around the world, Darcy’s professional relationships and networking span the globe in all sports.
Understanding the body in motion, Darcy feels fortunate to have been on the front end of the human performance industry, working side by side with numerous sports performance leaders: individuals, teams, men, and women. His strengths continue to evolve in big picture implementation while never overlooking the importance of details. Currently, Darcy is Lead Performance Strategist for Kitman Labs and Performance Coach with the US Men’s National Soccer Team.
FreelapUSA: The interdisciplinary model of high performance depends on S&C, sports science, medical, nutrition, and all the groups involved communicating with common definitions, terminology, and goals…and with AS Roma and Bayern Munich, you’ve been in situations where the stakeholders were literally speaking different languages. How did you overcome communication challenges in those roles and what skills and takeaways from those experiences have helped you in terms of establishing or working within interdisciplinary models where that same language barrier does not exist?
Darcy Norman: There’s a lot of things to unpack in that question—but it does show the complexity of the situation, because communication is the grease that turns the wheels and the interdisciplinary model of high performance does depend on all those groups involved communicating with common definitions and terminology.
More importantly, though, what I’ve learned through the years is the importance of the involvement of your executive and leadership group. At the end of the day, it’s not this simple performance team that’s on their own working with the players—it starts with the leadership group of the organization, because they should be providing the vision, mission, and values on how you want to get those things done that then become the filters with which the performance team specifically executes their job on a day-to-day basis. And I think that’s where a lot of teams miss the boat—if there is no direction from above, then the performance staff should create their way and standard of doing things, but hopefully the team has a bigger North Star that they can tie into, so then it’s a common message through and through making it really clear for everybody what the ultimate goal is in that scenario.Communication is the grease that turns the wheels and the interdisciplinary model of high performance does depend on all the groups involved communicating with common definitions and terminology, says @DarcyNorman. Click To Tweet
The other piece is that there are a lot of ways to communicate. Just in the way you asked the question, it’s assumed that you’re talking about verbal communication…but there are also many other ways to communicate: through expression, gestures, actions or intent. So when you lack one of the main pieces like verbal communication, then you have to make up for it through other actions: your disposition, your effort, your accountability, those can all communicate what your intentions are until you have the ability to communicate better verbally in the language of where you’re at.
One of the key things supporting that is having great systems and structures that everyone is aware of—so even though you might not know the language, you still can communicate through other avenues. In Rome, for example, we had fourteen different languages represented—you gotta be super creative and find other ways to get all those groups on task and moving in the right direction. For anyone that has played abroad, a lot of it is just observing and keeping on point, which stresses that how you represent yourself is the perception you are giving off. Because the players are watching you and doing exactly what you’re doing. So your gestures and how you do a demonstration make a massive difference.
To your point of how it is now, it’s kind of funny. In my first tactical session with the US Men’s National Team, I told Gregg (Head Coach Gregg Berhalter) that it was my first tactical session in English…and it was so much easier! It’s one of those things that when you do have the verbal side, then you can really get into the nuance of things to understand people’s biases and heuristics that might be having them make decisions a certain way and get more clarity to understand their mental models, which gets everyone on board quicker.
FreelapUSA: What’s your starting definition of the word “Conditioning” as it relates to professional soccer? How does your background with cycling and Alpine sports inform your approach to conditioning with the USMNT and what physiological adaptations are you seeking to provoke or maintain, particularly given the reality of working with players whose energy system development is largely being dictated by performance coaches of their club teams and their highly variable game loads?
Darcy Norman: For the definition, in its simplest form I would say conditioning is the ability to endure the demands of what is put in front of you. This could be running, power, strength, or even consistency—the ability to repeat, self-awareness, your mental capacity, all those pieces fall under conditioning. When people say conditioning, your mind jumps to the physical aspects of it, but there’s a lot of other pieces that go into it. If you look at the brain and central governing theory as the limiting factor, the mental side is just as important.For a definition, in its simplest form I would say ‘conditioning’ is the ability to endure the demands of what is put in front of you, says @DarcyNorman. Click To Tweet
I think athletes need to be as metabolically conditioned and as strong as possible to execute and recover from the demands of what they’re being put through. The mental fortitude goes along with that, as well as the experiences to resolve the problems that they’re faced with. For example, take Bayern Munich, a big club, and you have a kid who tests out to be extremely metabolically fit and strong for his body type, but he goes into a game for the first time with a bunch of first team players and he looks like he’s totally out of shape because he’s overwhelmed by playing against some of the best players in the world and the mental piece is getting the best of him.
So you can have players that when they test out they look totally fit, but when they’re put into a certain scenario they look unfit because of all the extenuating circumstances. It’s really important for people to realize that, because I can’t tell you how many times you hear it from a coach—that player was unfit—but let’s break it down and figure out what’s the limiting factor so we can make sure we’re prescribing the right things moving forward and we’re not just jumping to a conclusion based on our biases or heuristics.
The other piece is that I’m a massive advocate of being as strong as possible, pound for pound—and that doesn’t mean being big. People think strong equals “big” and that certainly is not the case. Specific to soccer, if you’re strong pound for pound, then the energy it takes that you have to produce to move, say, a meter, comes at less of a cost, which therefore starts to improve your VO2 fitness. It also helps with recovery, because the energy demand to do the same thing goes down. Now that you’re able to recover quicker, you don’t have the breakdown from an injury perspective, so it’s certainly a piece that I think is a huge win.
Regarding my background in cycling, Alpine, and other sports, whether it’s American football or hockey, you start to see what is physically possible from the respective sports. In cycling, the amount of what they can metabolically put themselves through is incredible, and then in Alpine sports how strong those athletes need to be to overcome the eccentric forces of that sport, when they’re hurtling down the mountain with gravity coming at them and the strength they need to overcome that. This all helps to realize how strong or fit someone can become regardless of the sport they are playing.
You’re going to hear a lot more in soccer about deceleration training, if you haven’t already. The forces at play in stopping are six times more than what it takes to accelerate. Damien Harper talks about this, and the guy who did this research on the cheetah and what gives it its superpower. When they did the research and broke down all its abilities, it was the ability of the animal to stop and turn and change direction and then re-accelerate. That’s what we’re missing, because a big part of your ability to decelerate—or how good your brakes are —its that eccentric ability of your body. And to really take that to the next level, you have to get in the gym—it’s hard to get that on the field.
FreelapUSA: Following over a dozen years experience at soccer’s elite international level, how has your needs analysis of the sport changed over time with the tactical evolution of the game? Correspondingly, how has your performance programming adapted to meet those changing demands?
Darcy Norman: This is a challenging question because you can look at it a lot of different ways. I think the simplest is if you just take the reference of tactical evolution—the biggest change is the constant changing of the tactical dynamics, similar to a chess game. And then doing that at a much greater level of intensity, constantly throughout the game.
And in order to do that and be successful, it is really about education of the players in the various circumstances and their ability to recognize it. How you improve that starts at the organizational level—what’s the clarity on how they are playing and what it takes to play like that. The players need a clear direction and way of playing—or a North Star of what you’re trying to do—and then a clean way to measure whether they are executing it or not.
From the performance programming side of it, once you have that clear vision, then it makes it much easier to create a flexible system to adapt to the ever-changing demands. The more, for lack of a better term, modular you can make it—like this microdosing concept, where if you have really clean blocks of what you’re trying to accomplish, it makes it easier to adapt to whatever demands are being put on the group and to individualize to each player—and then work at an extreme intensity and do it on an individual basis as well as at a rate of change that is constantly happening in sports. You want the players pound for pound as strong as possible and as fit as possible to deal with whatever they’re going to be faced with.You try to appreciate the hardest thing they’re going to face and make sure that you’re getting them what they need from an volume/intensity perspective so when they’re faced with that, they’re able to adjust, says @DarcyNorman. Click To Tweet
You try to appreciate the hardest thing they’re going to face, which is the player that’s switching positions—where, maybe they’re starting with four in the back where they’re not moving up as much and then switch to five in the back where they’re a wingback. Or if you’re playing a high pressing defense versus a mid block—those things change the intensity of how the players run in those positions, so just making sure that you’re getting them what they need from a volume and from an intensity perspective, so when they’re faced with that, they’re able to adjust.
FreelapUSA: Shifting to the technology side, with athletes who are intermittently available like players on a national team side, how does tracking force-velocity profiles with 1080 Motion help support your training and decision-making? In that scenario, to what extent do you use resisted/assisted sprint protocols as a speed training tool and what specific gains are you targeting?
Darcy Norman: Working with the players on the National Team, we don’t see them on a consistent basis as you alluded to—so it all starts with trust and transparency, with both the clubs the players play for as well as the players themselves.If they’re performing well with their club, it gives them the best opportunity to perform well for us, so it’s a matter of how we can support them in the best way possible.
The 1080 has been a big piece over the last couple years. I mentioned Damien Harper, and then JB Morin and Les Spellman have been great reference points with the system. It’s allowed us to bring more objectivity to how the athletes are performing and what they can benefit doing more of to improve their performance. It’s putting objective numbers to what they are doing, and bridging the gap between the gym and the field and helping us to prescribe better training.
It is really fascinating, because you can have one person who is super fast… but when you compare his acceleration, even though he has a good 30m time, his 0-5m or 0-10m time is actually one of the slower ones. So it takes him a while to get up to speed, but once he gets up to speed, then he really gets rolling. Whereas another player might be extremely powerful from 0-5m or 0-10m, and then for whatever reason, they start to falter and end up being slower over 30m. Once we know that, we can prescribe the right training for that quality giving them a better chance for success.
When you have the objective numbers and you know what they’re doing in the weight room, then you can start to see what their individual prescription should be. We know strength is the basis of power and power is the basis of speed. So if they’re really strong (relatively speaking) and they’re powerful (relatively speaking), but they’re missing these qualities, then you know it’s a technique or an application problem. Whereas, if they’re not fast and they’re not powerful and they’re not strong, then you need to get them strong first. Because they might be great technically and that’s what’s getting them to the level they’re at, but if we can build them up from a strength and power perspective, they’ll have that much more potential.Tools like the 1080 allow you to differentially diagnose what the limiting factor is to their improvement, then you can more specifically individualize the prescription, says @DarcyNorman. Click To Tweet
Tools like the 1080 allow you to differentially diagnose what the limiting factor is to their improvement, then you can more specifically individualize the prescription. Which can be more resisted sprints—and is that heavy resisted or lighter resisted, it depends on what their limitations are?—and then the deceleration piece is a whole other category. When you look at the assisted, is that assisted for overspeed training? Or is that assisted to help build up the ability to decelerate and change directions in an effective manner. So it gives you a ton of options to move the needle.
With deceleration, it’s a progression. If you sprint 5m, stop, and then accelerate 5m, you’re only going to be able to build up so much speed in that 5m. And then doing a 10m buildup, so a 10-0-5, and then a 15-0-5, and a 20-0-5 and you have these guys that have to get on their horse and do a full sprint and they’re darn near up to speed at 30-40m and all of a sudden someone clears the ball and they have to stop within 1-2m and change direction and hustle back down the field, that’s an unbelievable amount of momentum they have to stop and change direction. I don’t think we realize the stress it has on the system—if that happens 2, 3, 4 times in a game, then they’re carrying that stress throughout the rest of the game which can give them some hot brakes.
FreelapUSA: Looking at Kitman Labs’ platform to consolidate and harness training, recovery/readiness, performance, and other data points, how does this scale to the youth, academy, and high school space and how can the system best help coaches on the developmental side mitigate injury risk and audit their own training programs to make sure their athletes are progressing in line with their potential in the sport?
Darcy Norman: That’s another big question with a lot of a pieces. Working with an intelligence platform like Kitman Labs facilitates getting your act together if you are not scared of what you may learn and what you can improve from it, which drives success as I have mentioned above. It facilitates getting organized on another level, so you have to challenge your processes which expose gaps, but it is in those gaps, where the learning happens. In order for technology to best work in your favor you have to be organized and everything needs to be interconnected and if you can do that, you can answer some amazing questions in real time and in an applied environment. It provides you phenomenal information to differentially diagnose what someone needs to reach their goals. It also gives you the opportunity to iterate extremely quickly and adapt to market changes just as fast.Working with an intelligence platform like Kitman Labs facilitates getting your act together if you are not scared of what you may learn and what you can improve from it, says @DarcyNorman. Click To Tweet
The system makes you appreciate the quality and quantity of your data, and what more you need to collect to get more fidelity on the questions you are trying to answer. It makes you think of how important that information is to you to make proper decisions, and confronts your biases and enhances your instincts. So now you have an opportunity to accurately learn from the past and better understand what is important and how to create it and then continually grow and do it more efficiently. Probably the most important is the information it is providing you, driving better communication and decision-making. This provides a starting point to have a better conversation with a coach, player, parent, executive, colleague, etc to get smarter.
Coaches can also go back, if they document everything, and can really start to see how they can make their training more efficient to reach their goals, analyze what they have done in the past, and then determine how they can improve upon their systems to get better results in the future. We know the power is in the learning and the iterative process. Everybody does the “plan” and “do” part, but very few people do the “review” part—so, to build a tool that has your whole history from coaching to performance to nutrition and more. You have an unbelievable history to go back and look through to see where you spent your time and energy to get the results you did, and where you might be able to do things better in the future based on the things that you’re trying to achieve.
Kitman Labs can also help you differentially diagnose the limiting factor to what might be holding up progress on an athlete. If you have information on how fit, strong, powerful, and fast they are, you can start to see what they may need to make them better with immediate results. Or, they may be good at all these pieces and they are still not performing, so you know that you have to address how they are applying their qualities to the tactics of that respective sport.
Looking at the high school and academy level, if you have the ability to keep track of the information, you start to see exactly what somebody needs to move from one level to the next. You may see athletes who are slow to develop in certain areas and be able to individualize things better, so can you break up your training sessions to be able to maximize each kid’s abilities at their respective levels?
The area where people might go wrong is they overcomplicate it. It should be as simple as your car dashboard: you’re cruising along, you’ve got your game plan, you’ve got your mission-vision-values, you know where you want to go, and then your car dashboard is just telling you hey, you’re low on fuel. And then it’s up to you… do I want to pull over now and fill up for gas because I’m also hungry? Or do I want to go another hour to beat the rush hour traffic? That information is just giving you better insight about your situation, so you can optimize it for whatever journey you’re on or whatever journey you’re providing for the athlete
Collecting information for information’s sake is where people get lost in the whole data world, where they then lose sight of the big picture. The first thing is to have a strong plan, then go execute it, make sure you’re collecting information around that plan, and then continue to refine it. Kitman Labs allows you to be a great historian, and that’s one of the problems with sport—we get so stuck on the wins and losses and the moment that we lose sight of the big picture. Collecting this information gives you such a better holistic, long term historical insight toward the greater good that you don’t end up losing the trees in the forest.
Photo By Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire