What is a Sports Scientist? Hear from the man who keeps Atlanta United players fit

It’s a comprehensive, year-round strategy.

When you think of a sports scientist, at first you might picture that guy from ESPN who goes into excruciating detail about Tiger’s club speed or Kyrie Irving’s quickness off the dribble. (Personally, I think a show about science should have focused on teaching Kyrie about the Earth being round, but I digress.)

When soccer pros think of a sports scientist, they think of a guy like Atlanta United FC’s Ryan Alexander. Before coming to Atlanta last year, Ryan worked as a sports scientist and physiologist for the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams. And as the Head of Sports Science for the Five Stripes, Ryan is responsible for designing, implementing, and monitoring the conditioning plans for all the players—from Miguel Almiron to the youngest members of the academy.

I had the chance to chat with Ryan about what his day-to-day job is like here in Atlanta, how the players train throughout the year, and what a weekend warrior rec player like you, dear reader, can do to reach at least a bare minimum level of soccer fitness.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Can you describe what your responsibilities are as Head of Sports Science at Atlanta United?

In general, I make every effort to oversee the physical preparation and development for the club.

That’d be from physical preparation for the first team and the USL, and then the further down the line you get to the younger ages, it’s a bit of a transition over to development. We want to make sure that when we’re looking throughout the course of a plan or a development period—a season, a campaign, whatever it may be—that we mark out important time periods, important tournaments, for the youth side.

And then as you go into the USL and first team, preparing for those playoff time periods, those dense fixture periods, we always want to get those guys as close to 100 percent as possible.

What does your average day look like?

My main role from a day-to-day standpoint is to assist the technical staff and the players in whatever way possible, even if that means having a conversation about adjustments to their breakfast or lunch or their pre-training meal, their post-training meal. Or in case it is a little bit warmer than usual or in case they didn’t get as much sleep the night before because they had some sleep disruptions.

Anything possible that we can do to help educate or to inform the players in any way about how their body is preparing, and how it will recover from the training or competition.

How are you involved in the players’ offseason preparation and conditioning?

The most important thing is just understanding where they’re at. There’s so many different age groups and athlete types that we have.

We have the families that their kids are still going to be in school late until December, so we know that they’re going to be in town. We have some of our younger guys that as soon as they can, they’re going to get off and they’re going to get some time away from the field, meaning that they’re going to go home to see their families and they’re going to do some traveling.

Whatever environment players may be in, we try to get that communicated to us so that we can build programs that are, most importantly, realistic for them. We’re not going to have somebody in the weight room five times a day if they’re going on a cruise, or if they’re going to be traveling across the country in a specific time period.

We want to make sure that we’re able to be understanding that they need their time away from the field. They need that physical release as well as the psychological relief from a very long professional season.

Once the players arrive for preseason, how do you work with them to get them into shape for the first matches?

We want to know if they’re going to be prepared to at least take on what we know the training load’s going to be in preseason. That doesn’t mean that we come back on the first day and they’re at 100 percent and they’re ready to go for 90 minutes.

The preseason is the time period where we know that we can build them up and we’re going to be able to monitor them very closely. By having those conversations with the players to talk about their offseason plans, we feel very confident that we will be very, very informed on the state of physical fitness when they come back.

Is there a lot of the conditioning work done on the ball?

We like to do as much on the ball as we can—as much related to the game specific, to the position specific to the player and the role within the team. There are specific time periods where we know that we’re going to attempt to overload them and do some pretty intense conditioning back-to-back. Within those time periods you may start to see some of the more standardized running come into place because we know it’s safer.

But as much as we possibly can, we want to develop the on-ball mastery and knowledge of the game. Our technical staff does a great job of including, as much as they possibly can, time on the ball.

What kind of work do you do with players during the season?

As the season goes deeper and deeper, as you transition from the preseason into the competition phase, it’s all about preparation — going competition to competition, match to match.

What you see is that you have the players sort of fill into their roles. And as best we can, we build out programs—exercises, training sessions, etc.—so that we can keep as many of the players on the same level as possible.

If you have players that are only subbed in late in the game and they play 15 minutes, their workload the following week could be slightly more intense than a player that played 90 minutes in the previous match. Their emphasis would go to priority number one: recover, get them back up to normal state, and then try and wrap them back up for the next match.

What do players do to help them recover after games?

We want to empower the players to have to find their regimen, their routine. We have the ice baths, we have the warm baths/ice baths, which is commonly called “contrast.” We have the stretch band, we have the foam rollers, we have a meal waiting for the players immediately after the locker room.

We never want to force a player into a specific routine or into a specific modality. So many of the different athletes respond differently. Some guy can go through 90 minutes and if he happened to have scored the game-winning goal he could be on cloud nine and be like, “Yeah, I want to go for a jog now.” We wouldn’t really promote that, but if we need to go take a walk and he needs to calm down a little bit more, that’s fine.

Some guys are completely exhausted. Alright, can we get you guys in the ice bath? We want to get those guys cooled off, get that body temperature back down and try and get some food into them so we can start the recovery process.

What advice would you have for those “weekend warriors” who may play soccer on the weekends?

I think the most important thing is just consistency, and making sure that you know where you are. You recognize, you acknowledge where you’re at, and you start from your base and try not to tackle too much.

Because if we think about it, so much of going out and playing on the weekend is a really big stimulus, right? It’s a pretty intense event for us, so recovery will probably take us two or three days. Whereas we have these incredible athletes at Atlanta United, who they can recover in 24, 36 hours. We’d take a little bit longer.

When you know that you’ve had some good meals and you and you’ve gotten good sleep, try to go for some jogs and be consistent with your jogs. Once you’ve been jogging for a while, maybe put in a couple of strides. You don’t want to just go straight for the sprints, but maybe some speed pickups, gradual pickups over some distance because a lot of the game it’s intermittent. It’s stop and go. You want to try and train your body in that way so that it uses the energy in that way. That’ll help you recover faster.

Outside of that, weightlifting is great. So much of the game of soccer is explosive in nature at times because people are trying to get separation, and they’re decelerating at a very high intense rate to accelerate again, and to find space again. So doing weightlifting, making sure that you’re balanced in the upper body and the lower body—squatting, deadlifting bench press, pull ups, push-ups.

Not so much on the bicep curls or the tricep pushdowns. Those are great and they’ll make you feel good about yourself. Overall, just keep trying to move your body as an entire unit is going to help you out on the field.