Vancouver Whitecaps FC are fortunate to have Dr. Mike Young, Ph.D. as their strength and conditioning coach. His pedigree includes the USA Track and Field team, United States Olympic Training Centre (all three locations), Carolina RailHawks FC, as well as teaching stints at Ohio University, Louisiana State University, and the University of North Carolina. But that won’t help you spot him walking down Robson Street.
He’s the short – by comparison to the players – guy in a black jumpsuit that puts the substitutes through their paces every fifteen minutes, keeping them active during the match, and ready to make an immediate impact at a moment’s notice. The rest of the time, he’s working behind the scenes.
As someone who has such a key, and close, role with the team, Young proved an ideal person to ask what to expect from players returning for preseason training:
"It really depends on how much work they put in. A lot of guys come back, actually better. In the season, they can’t train their physical capacities to the full extent, because they’re always playing games. But during the offseason they have the opportunity if they put in the work to do that."
"We saw a handful of guys come in better than they were, especially in their speed power values, than we out processed them a couple of months ago. We have a very, very athletic team right now; a handful of guys in the low fours over thirties, a couple of guys approaching sub-four; A lot of guys over thirty inches in the vertical jump, so it’s very impressive this year to see what we’re dealing with."
Just to put some of that into perspective, Usain Bolt – the 100 Metre, 200 Metre, and 4 x 100 Metre Relay World Record holder – managed 30 Metres in 3.78 seconds back in 2009, and Gerald Sensabaugh of the Dallas Cowboys, managed a verified 46" standing vertical jump back in 2005.
"Obviously you can never be too fast, in this game or any other, and we still need to do a little bit of strength work. It’s good both for speed and power, as well as injury prevention. And we’ll always need to work on overall fitness, especially aerobic fitness. Right now is the time to put the hay in the barn as I like to say."
To measure the speed of their players, the Whitecaps set up a series of lasers that record when the beam is broken. They do this for short bursts of straight line running, and for relays, where they must run a zigzag pattern. For vertical jumps, they use a force platform that measures the time in air, allowing them to calculate their vertical leap result.
"We do this battery of tests a couple of times a year, as well as one other test for repeat sprint ability, and another test for their aerobic capacity, and we’ll be doing those in Arizona."
Here, he is referring to the Multi-Stage Fitness Test, or "Beep Test" for short. In it, players must run between lines spaced 20 metres apart, before a "beep" noise is sounded. The time between each bleep gets progressively shorter, making it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the bleeps. In every such test I’ve witnessed, it’s been a race for who will finish second to Russell Teibert.
And if you think an injury is enough to get you off the hook, think again. Just as they tailor expectations to the individual, so too do they the testing.
"Generally we wouldn’t test a guy unless he’s at full capacity, but some tests we’ll allow for people to do here and there. We had a couple of guys who were injured do vertical jump test and so forth, or maybe even a ten metre, maybe guys that have a hamstring pull could do a yo-yo test, but not a sprint test."
"But we’re pretty careful about that. We want the test to be indicative of what the person is capable of, so if they’re injured we generally wait till they’re ready to test."
Although this is the time to put the hay in the barn, Mike Young is a mainstay at practice, usually the first one on the training pitch, and often the last one to leave. He works with all the players before they’re handed off to the coaching staff, helping those working through injuries, and the young players after practice, all while observing throughout.
"On a weekly basis, I’m putting the guys through two to three strength sessions, usually two in the weight room, and maybe one on the pitch. Following a technical session, we’re doing speed work two to three times a week, incorporating the ball quite often."
"And the metabolic or overall fitness training we’re doing in concert with their tactical technical training through small sided games, and drills with the ball, trying to make it as game specific as possible, try to do that two to three times a week."
It is through these tests that they assess their squad. They know exactly how capable a player is, physically, at any given time, and use it to adjust their program. Some players may need a rest, while others haven’t worked hard enough.
It’s a report card of sorts, and so far, the parents are very happy.