This week we had the honor to interview a group of sports performance experts.

  • Marco Nunez, former head athletic trainer for the LA Lakers (NBA).
  • Pierre Barrieu, Director of high performance at Toronto FC (MLS) and FIFA High Performance Expert.
  • Alexi Pianosi, Strength and conditioning coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL).

?Show Notes: Through this interview, we touched on load management, and the biggest challenges on a daily basis to do their job. We also touched on the biggest problems they see with sports performance technologies in general. We will also talk about mental health, and their favorite technologies.

?Best Quotes: Here’s some of the key discussion points and best quotes from our conversation with Marco, Pierre and Alexi.

  • On the importance of load management:
    • Marco Nunez: “And it’s funny that you kind of bring up Kawhi Leonard, because several years ago, that’s when the word load management came out and became very popular. Unfortunately, no one really knew what load management meant. Restricting minutes, restricting time on the court, on the ice, in the field, that was kind of referred to as load management. And even now, people are trying to kind of figure out what is load management. Back then, as far as in the NBA, load management was just “hey, we’re going to restrict this person to 15 minutes as they were coming back from an injury. Next thing, we’ll allow them to load to about 17 minutes, then 20 minutes, and slowly increase the minutes. But the question was, how are you determining that?”.
    • Marco Nunez: “One of the frustrating parts about it is, and I hate to say this, and I know we’re recording this, is that sometimes the league interferes with how you play load management, even in the NBA. It’s gotten to the point where you can sit a player or manage their load as long as it’s not a nationally televised game, which I find very, very interesting how it played into that. So, if it’s not an ESPN game or a national televised game, yeah, you can implement load management. So, even if you set a schedule off for the season and say ‘hey, this player, we’re going to start load management this game. Oh, wait a minute. This is an ESPN national game. We can’t. Now we got to move stuff around. And I get it. At the end of the day, it comes down to money. That’s the interesting part about it”.
    • Alexi Pianosi: “From the hockey perspective, I think the idea of load management hasn’t been quite as pervasive in the NHL as it has in other sports. When we look at our schedule, arguably the largest difficulties the players face with their load is the game, probably between time zones, things like that (..) The load management question in hockey right now is less focused on the games and more focused on, away from the games, what can we do? And the really challenging thing is, like with any team sport, coaches want to have the whole team together. So, it’s hard to do that, if you have 18 players who need to practice today and two players who really shouldn’t practice. It’s hard for those two guys to sit out team practice, especially when they’re an important part of the offense or the defense or the strategy. So, finding a way to individualize in a team sport when it comes to load management, I think, has always been a big challenge. And finding small ways to get a little bit of 1% or 2% here and there is kind of the most common methodology, I think, in the NHL right now”.
    • Pierre Barrieu: “Load management is very prevalent in soccer. And I also think that the reason being it is that we have less substitution, and we have more playing time (..) We play less games than the NHL, and we play less games than the NBA. But again, the load is a big factor. For me, load management is risk by management. And then when you get into risk management, you’re opening many, many can of worms (..) Load management has also become almost a culture. And that’s the last thing you want to happen to your organization”.
  • On their biggest challenges in their job on a daily basis:
    • Alexi Pianosi: “For me, the biggest challenge is often time. The players only have a certain amount of time where they’re at the facility, at the rink for practice or games. You have, in the case of hockey, 20 to 25 players there. Everybody, I’m sure, would benefit from some individual attention from a soft tissue standpoint, from a exercise modality standpoint, from a recovery standpoint. But when they’re only there for a few hours, most of which is dedicated to meetings and media and then on the ice or performing, there’s not a lot of time to get in the touches you need with everybody. So, trying to prioritize what is the most important thing I can do today, who needs work the most, who’s hopefully not on the cusp of an injury or something like that, or who got hurt a little bit in the game last night and you’re a little worried about some inflammation in the joint or something like that”.
    • Alexi Pianosi: “Ultimately, when you choose one person, you’re neglecting someone else or not choosing that person. It ends up being tough because you don’t want to do that. You love to help everybody, but you’re only one person. Or if you have a team even, if you have two or three people, you’re only two or three people. So, it’s difficult to work with everybody. So, I would say, for me, for sure the number one constraint is just time and having the ability to spend some quality, one-on-one, work with someone time, whether it’s from a recovery soft tissue standpoint or a strength and conditioning standpoint”.
    • Marco Nunez: “It’s almost like a two-edged sword. You can have a rehab session or a recovery session, such as a 3:00, 4:00 session in the evening because the athletes are there, and they’re not going anywhere. So, that’s the upside of traveling with them. The downside, of course, is traveling. On the other side, being at home, the upside is being home, which is where they’re able to go home, sleep, have a proper meal and all that stuff. But then the downside is that they want to go home and be with their family if they’re a local family type of thing. So, it’s almost like a two-edged sword on that part”.
    • Pierre Barrieu: “Mastering the environment is one of the challenges of our work. For me, the higher you go, the less of a practitioner you become. And especially if that’s the direction that you want to go, which is mine. Meaning, I like to surround myself with people that are experts in the field, smart people, who sometimes are smarter than me, and that’s the way to go. And then obviously, it leads to the next challenge, which is managing humans. So, for me, this is the thing that I had to adjust for sure, as the staff kept expanding. and then it leads to what Alexi was saying. So, now it comes down to time. You need to have enough time to have an oversight, looking at everything that is happening and making sure that everything functions. And, in order to do so, you have to create such a dynamic where all these people doesn’t require too much of your expertise, because if that’s the case, you just cannot be efficient. So, in a nutshell, for me, it was definitely the management side of things, as opposed to the content. And making sure that we are running a smooth and efficient performance team”.
  • On mental health in the world of elite sports:
    • Pierre Barrieu: “The mental side has always been there. It’s a little more public now. These are the consequence of the pandemics. It is because times are changing, athletes are more open, and mentalities are evolving. I think it’s a little bit of a mix of everything. Personally, I’ve always been, whether it was the wish of the head coach or now from me, because I lead the performance department. I’ve always been surrounded by mental experts, even if before it would be an assistant coach with a sports psychology degree. The one thing I want to say in this domain is that it’s for sure the brain that controls the rest. So, that’s why it’s always been an essential part, if not the crucial part, of the puzzle”.
    • Marco Nunez: “There was a sports psychologist I was talking to about a month ago, and she mentioned that mental health has always been there. It just pretty much came to surface in the last, maybe, five to six years. And people are starting to recognize it, and not only recognize, but acknowledge it, so to speak. I’m a strong believer that skills would only take you so far. Your mental toughness or your mentality is going to take you further from that. I always had this thing about who do you want in the trenches with you? When you’re at war, you’re in the fight, do you want that skilled sniper that can hit somebody but he’s not mentally tough, he’s going to bail on you? Or do you want those mental athletes with you while you’re surviving? So, yeah, mental health, I think, is an issue. It’s always been there. It’s just coming to surface now. And I think that helps you excel even further”.
    • Alexi Pianosi: “I think we need to know what we don’t know and with mental health, we’re starting to learn more about it, and it’s a very complicated process. But what makes it so complicated is that it’s so individual. What one person goes through can be very different from someone else. And while one person might be struggling with performance anxiety, another person might be struggling with how their identity relates to their sports performance, and if they’re not scoring or not playing well, then they’re not worth anything. Or other people might have problems at home, problems at the rink. Other people might have issues with coping. And when the coach yells at them and when the coach criticizes them, they don’t have the skills to take that information in and use it in a productive way. (..) It takes time to understand the nuances of everybody’s individual nature and how they respond to adversity and criticism and praise and success and failure. And it’s ultimately how that all intertwines and builds somebody’s mental toughness or mental resiliency, which we all want”.
  • On the problems with technologies in general:
    • Alexi Pianosi: “The biggest problem that I see is that people seem to be devising solutions to problems they don’t quite fully understand yet. And that’s not a knock on the companies or the people, but looking at my job in particular with hockey, the game of hockey on the ice is so complex (..) But if you don’t fully understand the problems you’re trying to fix or what really is a problem and what matters, then I think you’re going to end up getting a whole bunch of products that you only use half of what they’re capable of doing or could be doing, or you end up recording or bothering the players with tons of tests and protocols and do this and do that and fill out this survey. And at the end of the day, if it’s not actually helping you address that problem and it’s not leading to better performance, more wins, then it’s probably not worth what you’re paying for it or the time the players and the staff are investing in it”.
    • Pierre Barrieu: “You have to understand why you need technology for. So, I always say, if that’s the case, then I’d like the technology to answer that question or to fill that need rather than to create another one. And that’s what I’m looking for. And therefore you need to know what your needs are. And then I think Alexi also mentioned time. Time efficiency is the next big, crucial criteria in our minds here. Do we have the time to take advantage of this technology? (..) Sometimes you end up with a traffic jam of different technologies that overlaps each other. And that’s the last thing you want in a successful organization (..) In a high-performance position, you are being bombarded by technology companies. And if you want to do your due diligence, it becomes almost impossible to do the rest of your job”.
    • Marco Nunez: “The first one that Alexi mentioned is trying to find out what issues you’re trying to solve and then going out there and finding what company, what device, what tracking system, whatever it is, is going to help you solve those issues or address those issues, Versus the other way around. Most people are like, hey, this is a great company. Let’s try to fit it into us. And I think that’s where teams get an issue with trying to force something into it, versus the other way around (..) The big example, sometimes, I give to people is like, hey, yeah. You may want to go buy a nice Ferrari, two seat sports car because that looks nice, it looks great. But if you have a family, three kids, how are you going to fit that family in that two-seater car and be able to travel around with it? You’re not”.
  • On their favorite technologies:
    • Marco Nunez: “One’s called Strive, and it uses EMG sensors built into their shorts. I think Athos is the other one type. So, if I’m rehabbing an athlete, I want them to make sure that they use a proper glute activation, the proper hamstring contraction. Then that’s what I would to use. (..). If I’m working with a track athlete and I’m trying to track their movements, their speed, maybe a GPS system is what I need (..) Personally, I don’t feel like there’s one technology that is going to be for everything. So, it’s tough to pick one”.
    • Pierre Barrieu: “I have been using KangaTech a lot lately, for the reason I mentioned before. It’s portable, there is compliance, and it can solve more than one problem. And then the one thing that I would say is that you should never underestimate the power of the video when it comes to coaching. You can never underestimate the power of a screen when it comes to technology. And the second I saw how it was working and also the ability for the player to be self sufficient, and functioning on their own, knowing what to do. I’m talking about any kind of technology that promotes initiative, I think these are the one that I have found are the most easily implemented on our end”.
    • Alexi Pianosi: “For us in Pittsburgh, we recently purchased one of the 1080 quantum, the 1080 sprinter. And from a rehab perspective, I think we had a lot of success with that. Just being able to work with the athletes and measure their response, both eccentrically, concentrically, with different speeds, ranges of motion, and patterns. And we’re actually able to take the sprint onto the ice and do some forward accelerations and analyze left leg versus right leg in a lower body injury rehab. So, I think that’s a pretty cool piece of technology. It just gives you some more information to help build up what you know about that athlete”.