Interview with Mladen Jovanovic

Mladen Jovanovic is a Physical Preparation Coach from Belgrade, Serbia, and current Head Physical Preparation Coach at Hammarby Football Club, Stockholm, Sweden. He has previously worked with a variety of athletes in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts, and tennis.

I’ve been a keen admirer of Mladen’s blog for some time now and have corresponded with him numerous times over email. He has written many articles on preparation for soccer players, periodisation, repeated sprint ability, published on 8 Weeks Out and EliteFTS, and developed his own intermittent fitness test IE20-10.

You can follow Mladen on Twitter here

Chris: Hi Mladen, first of all thanks for taking the time out to conduct this interview. I’ve been a keen admirer of your blog for some time now, and really excited to learn about your career as a Physical Preparation Coach. I’ll start by asking what is current job and what does it entail?

Mladen: Thanks for kind words Chris. It is always a pleasure to share some of my viewpoints and discuss training issues. My current job is head of strength and conditioning for Hammarby IF – a soccer/football club from Stockholm, Sweden. This is my second season with the club and I am really enjoying it. The team culture is great, the guys are really great to work with and the stuff has set up a common philosophy of training so I think this year we are about to do some great performance. At the moment my role, besides strength and conditioning, entails helping with planning and programming of the training process, prehab and rehab, recovery after games and most importantly monitoring training loads and analyzing physical performance.

Chris: What are some of the key work experiences that you have had that have led to where you are now?

Mladen: I am mostly grateful to three persons who I own a lot. First one is Vladimir Koprivica, who was my professor of training theory at the Faculty and who was a strength and conditioning coach for Partizan Basketball Club for a long time. Vladimir organized some internship with Partizan when I was a student and allowed me and other students to get some hands on experience.

Second person is Miša Filipović, who is strength and conditioning coach for Partizan Football Club. Without knowing me personally (only through my writings at late Charlie Francis forum and through a common friend) he suggested me for a position of head strength and conditioning coach for RAD Football Club in 2007. That’s how everything started. Miša is a coach I own everything to.

The third person is Boris Šimurina  who is volleyball agent. If I remember correctly, I’ve met Boris through Mike Boyle’s forum in 2007 or 2008. Back then he was living in Belgium and with his brother Bojan  runned a renowned volleyball agency for providing agent services to elite female volleyball players. I still remember his call in October, 2008. I was in really bad situation during that year (broke, no flat, bad job in another city, high pressure, family problems) and it was simply a call that made all the difference. Without knowing me personally back then, Boris offered me to help out Anja Spasojević, a Serbian volleyball player, who came pretty much out of shape and injured to Fenerbahce Volleyball Club from Istanbul, Turkey. I was basically living with her during the October 2008 and was helping her with rehab and training.

Coincidently, in the same building was Vladimir Grbić with his family. Vanja (short of Vladimir) is Hall of Fame volleyball player and one of the best players in the history of volleyball. After some of his famous „interrogations“ of me and my training methods he decided to hire me for his private strength and conditioning coach as well. After some time the whole club (Fenerbahce Men Team) decided to hire me. It was basically the end of season and I weren’t doing much except consulting younger players. Still, Men Team finished second in the league by losing in finals, women team were Champions and Vanja was best blocker of the Turkish league. That was his last year as a player. We are now very close friends. I am also thankful for all his help, beyond training. He is like an older brother to me (he is plus 40) to whom I turn for advice.  He provided me a great experience of working with a great person and the Olympic and World champion.

In 2010 I decided to do an internship at Mike Boyle’s facility in Boston, Massachusetts. That was great experience as well. Mike is a great guy and I’ve learned a lot – which I realized upon returning back home. Visiting USA was really a breakthrough in my career. I’ve build some extensive network of great coaches and professionals and I’ve improved my English skills and gained confidence in leading the groups of athletes on English language (if haven’t tried to lead in foreign language, please try). Through that networking I’ve met Dave Tenney and Darcy Norman which are responsible for my current position. Darcy recommended me to Gregg Berhalter who is my head coach within Hammarby and that’s how I got here to Stockholm.

Chris: Who have been your most influential writers/researchers on strength & conditioning and/or who do you read or respect (from previous research)?

Mladen: It is really hard for me to name couple of coaches/researchers that have shaped my thought and practice without neglecting or forgetting someone. What I can say, that during the last year I have been mostly influenced by Australians – Dan Baker helped A LOT, Stuart Cormack, Will Hopkins as a statistician, Rob Shugg from Kinetic Performance, etc. What I like in the guys from Down Under is that they create a lot of applied science and actually integrate it in high level sports.  Data samples usually come from high level professional athletes in the papers coming from Australia and New Zealand.

Chris: Who have been your most influential past mentors in the practical coaching sense and now who do you listen to, or go to for advice for when faced with practical coaching problems?

Mladen: Definitely Dan Baker. He was really helpful during the whole  last year with his practical advices. Great supports were also Dave Tenney and Darcy Norman as well. I am really thankful for knowing them. Sometimes (or most of the time) it is not what you know, but who you know. Having a reliable source of quality info and advice is really important.

Chris: You’ve previously posted several articles on the Troubles with Repeated Sprint Ability for example. There is lots of research being published on RSA, High Intensity Interval Training, and Small Sided Games in relation to football for example. How do you feel each method fits into preparing players for the demands of training & competition?

Mladen: I believe that everything works, but nothing works forever. There is time and place for almost every method. The trick is to know which one to use with your athletes, under your context and your objectives. I do believe RSA is slightly overrated though. Especially when the coaches prioritize RST (repeat sprint training), without considering power and speed of their athletes to begin with. As Carl Valle would say we don’t want Repeat Slow Ability.

Chris: What about ‘real’ strength training? Soccer players are notorious for avoiding strength training, at least in the UK. What is your viewpoint on this, and do you manage to do it with the players in the amount you would like to?

Mladen: I am lucky enough to say that the soccer culture in Sweden is a lot more different than back home (Serbia), especially when it comes to ‘real’ strength training. Still it is not even close to rugby, hockey or bundy (Swedes play this big-field hockey) when it comes to seriousness of strength training. I believe we need to work on educating coaches, managers and players on the importance of strength training. Using stories, backing them up with data might be a way to go, although it is hard to change a culture. Not impossible, but hard.

Chris: How do you approach training in-season? This is a hot topic, since a lot of traditional training advices are based on sports with short competition period. How do you solve this problem? Do you ‘maintain’? Or look to ‘peak’ & ‘taper’ taking the competition schedule into account?

Mladen: I believe that pre-season programs and in-season programs shouldn’t be that different. There should be a nice transition instead of abrupt change. Hence the in-season is similar to pre-season, yet priorities change a little bit. Sometimes you rotate players and then you can use the opportunity to ramp up the load a bit. Anyway, I believe that the loads should be pretty much stable and ‘shape’ should be high, but not too high to demand any type of peak. Peaking for 5 months is just not possible. The bigger the uphill, the worse the downhill in this case. Say you want to ‘peak’ – you need to decrease the load to dissipate the fatigue. Athletes peak. Then after some time they start de-training because of reduced load (usually volume). You try to counteract this with increasing loads. They get sore and/or tired and then they again underperform. You get scared and reduce again. And then you end up chasing your own tail. It is better to catch a nice wave during the pre-season and ride it during the in-season making sure not to lose it by any abrupt changes in loading. As late Charlie Francis would say: “Everything is done, only the volume varies”. Yet make sure not to make too much of the volume variations.

Chris: You recently posted a series relating to making a readiness monitor using a simple wellness questionnaire. How important do you view monitoring of the training loads, fatigue and adaptations? What specific protocols have you implemented in data acquisition? And how is this fed back to the playing/coaching staff to modify/individualise training?

Mladen: I think monitoring is important, as long as it is not Paralysis by Analysis. My goal is to make is simple, reliable and action based.
There are multiple levels of “monitoring”. First one is monitoring of the training loads. This way one can compare planned vs. actual. There are multiple ways to do this and they usually split into three categories – physiological (HRs, TRIMPs, time spent over 90% HRmax, etc), performance (various GPS data, like distance covered, high intensity running volume, etc) and psychological (sRPE for example).
Next one is training reaction monitoring or fatigue/readiness. One should track how do players adapt to those loads. Again there are couple of categories. Psychological ones could include short wellness questionnaires and other subjective indicators. Physiological ones could involve non-invasive and submax tests, like rest HR, HRV, etc. Performance one could involve tests that produce minimal load and thus minimal contribution to training loads – something like jump test, ISO pull, reaction time, tapping frequency, etc. Using intra-individual descriptive statistics one could see trends and variability of the each individual and thus make some educated guesses on their readiness.

Last one are basically testing – you want to see how much athletes are improving in some key performance indicators. They evaluate cumulative training effects. Everything goes here – from 10m sprint test to YoYo test, to performance on the field.

Using these three categories one can guide their training better – what loads did you plan, what are the realizations of those loads, how did athletes reacted to them and how did they adapt to them. I believe one should have a simple action-based rules (action-steps) and algorithm based on these data. Now when the collecting of the data is really easy using the new technology, the bottle neck is communication and decision making based on those. What are you going to do when the athlete is red-flagged or when one is not improving? Anyway, I see the monitoring as the dashboard in the car – you just get the basic info on the car performance so you can make better decisions on your driving. If the oil lamp is lighted, what do you plan doing? Stopping or trying to reach first gas station? Every decision have pros and cons, risks and benefits and one need to weight them based on their own specific contexts and objectives.

Chris: What are the biggest professional challenges have you had to face (ie. Problems with the Head coach, admin or athletes)?

Mladen: I have been working in lousy settings, without money and stuff like that, but all of it could be survived if it wasn’t human and communication factors involved. I would say communication, empathy, trust, understanding, honesty, consistency, simplicity, purpose, teamwork and culture/belonging. A lot of coaches/players burn out because of these. And we don’t learn about this in school – you learn it in hard way. There must be great communication, delegation and trust between the staff, management and players, clear and long term goals, expectations and objectives set up and common philosophy outlined. This is all necessary to avoid “Alibi coaching”.
I will be really honest and open here (Damn, I should have waited to be invited by Oprah instead) – what I believe my biggest challenges are the lack of better assertiveness skills and more confidence in myself and my methods along with better empathy and “outrospection” skills (I believe Roman Krznaric was the first to use this term).  This could have helped solve me a lot of issues, especially ones that involve a lot of passive-aggressive behavior really characteristic for the “Nice Guys”, in both personal and professional situations.

Chris: What has been the biggest innovation in training that you have seen during the course of your career and where is the biggest room for innovation in training athletes?

Mladen: I think it is technology. But I don’t think technology as a ‘magic bullet’ or even worse ‘snake oil’, but rather as something that makes doing the basics, the old proven methods better, more consistent and with more feedback that allows custom tailoring the whole process.

Chris: What do you see, currently and in the near future, as the biggest problems facing younger Strength & Conditioning Coaches?

Mladen: Learning the skills that serve the purpose of helping and supporting your main roles. This involves learning how to deal with technology and measurement, basic statistical methods and probabilistic thinking, along with improving your basic human traits as a leader and learning about motivating/managing others, the process of change and habit building, effective communication and psychology in general.

Chris: What advice would or do you give to younger Strength & Conditioning Coaches who wish to attain a full-time career in S & C?

Mladen: Learn Excel really good – you will need it! Meet with people, be humble, talk and exchange ideas. Do your chores – do the internships, volunteer and build the network of trusted people. Because it is not what you know, but who you know. Not talking about getting the job under the table here, but rather knowing who to ask for advice when you get stuck. I made a mistake of being to ‘individualistic’ – learn to rely on others and be interdependent (instead of dependent or independent).


Developing Lower Body Strength to Enhance Sprint and Jump Performance

Researchers from the University of Salford have recently had an article published ahead of print in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning  Research. The study investigated the relationships between maximal lower body strength, sprint and jump performance in youth soccer players.

Sprint performance is important in many sports, including football, and can vary dependent upon standard of play (youth, semi-professional, professional, and elite). Elite soccer players spend approximately 11% of the game sprinting, which equates to a 10-15m sprint every 90 seconds (Withers et al., 1982; Bangsbo, 2006). In many sports, low loads, such as kicking and throwing, and high loads, such as body weight during sprints and jumps, must be accelerated (Verheijen, 1998; Reilly, 2006). Athletes must possess sufficient strength to overcome or accelerate body mass. McBride et al., (2009) found a small-to-moderate relationship between absolute strength in the back squat and sprint performance, whereas Wisloff et al., (2004) found a strong correlation (r=0.94) between 1RM squat performance and 10m sprint in professional soccer players.

The testing protocol included 34 well trained (≥3 x week for ≥2 years) male youth soccer players. Tests selected were 1RM back squat, 5-, and 20-m sprint, squat jump (SJ), and countermovement jump (CMJ). It is important to note that testing was conducted mid-season, so all players were training full time. Therefore, other skills, tactical, speed, and conditioning being trained concurrently could have affected the results of the study. This is in contrast to previous research, where subjects are usually recreationally trained, or testing occurs during the off-season. The athletes were tested to positive failure with a 5RM, this was then equated to predict 1RM back squat. The authors acknowledged the potential problems in using regression equations, indicating a lowered risk of musculoskeletal injury for athletes that are unaccustomed to training with maximal loads.

Results showed moderate-strong relationships (r=0.52-0.67) between strength and sprint times. In addition strength showed strong relationships (r=0.62-0.76) with jump performance. Absolute strength showed strongest correlations with 5m sprint times (r=0.60), SJ height (r=0.76), and CMJ height (r=0.76), whereas relative strength (1RM/BM) showed strongest correlation with 20m sprint times (r=0.67).

The results of the study illustrate the importance of developing high levels of strength in order to enhance sprint and jump performance in youth soccer athletes, with stronger athletes tending to demonstrate the best sprint and jump performances and the weaker athletes demonstrating the worst sprint and jump performances.

The authors acknowledged that a strong correlation does not imply cause and effect. Strength training should be improved as part of a periodized programme, ensuring that technical proficiency in sprint mechanics and exercise technique (resistance training lifts) is not neglected.

Comfort, P., Stewart, A., Bloom, L., and Clarkson, B. (2013). Relationships between strength, sprint and jump performance in well trained youth soccer players. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b.13e318291b8c7