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How the Rapids are using sports science to keep players on the pitch

We talked with Chad Kolarcik about evaluating fitness & fatigue and how travel affects athletes.

Chad, left, speaks with Head Coach Anthony Hudson during a preseason session earlier this year.
John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Between the end of the 2017 season and the beginning of the 2018 season, there was a lot of change for the Colorado Rapids. There was plenty of talk about improving personnel both on and off the pitch, and while Anthony Hudson put together his coaching staff, Pádraig Smith had some changes in mind for the technical staff.

Smith called sports science, in particular, a “critical aspect of the modern game” and created a new position to “oversee the Rapids’ medical and sports science departments, including trainers, strength and conditioning personnel, and external consultants in order to create more intelligent, individually-tailored training techniques that can improve overall performance and prevent injury.”

With a Bachelor’s degree in computer science, math, and economics from Duquesne University and experience as the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Seattle Sounders for the past six years, Chad Kolarcik was the man chosen for the job. (He’s also pursuing a Master’s degree in exercise science.)

Burgundy Wave sat down with Kolarcik and talked to him about what exactly his job entails, how he determines whether players are fit, and other factors that come to play when you’re trying to keep professional athletes on top of their game.

“Most people think that sports science is synonymous with data. For me, if I start at a high level, ultimately sports science performance in this type of setting is just about monitoring two main aspects,” Kolarcik explained. “First, what guys do—what do they do in training, how do they respond to travel, what do they do in the games—and the second piece is how do they respond to what they do. To me, at a very high level, those are the two things that we’re trying to capture within our department.”

How it works

That’s not to say that there isn’t a ton of data collection involved in sports science. “There are two things that happen on the field: there is an external load that someone does, an external amount of physical work that they do, which is primarily what GPS will be capturing,” Kolarcik told Burgundy Wave. “Or when we’re playing in games, we capture physical data using a camera in the stadium. So those would capture what someone physically, actually did. The heart rate data would basically capture the cost of them doing that work.”

In turn, that information is used to determine a player’s fitness and level of fatigue. By monitoring what guys do and how they respond to it, the sports science and medical staff will use the physical data (i.e. how much the players have run), heart rate data, and other metrics to figure out how much fatigue a particular player might be experiencing.

So when we see a player jogging around the pitch at training or leaving practice early, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are injured or fell out of favor with the coaching staff. Many times, it’s simply managing their workload to keep them fresh for an upcoming game.

Kolarcik believes that team sports are interesting because you’re creating one training program for 30 different players who are all different ages, have played a different number of minutes, and who have all had different breaks in the offseason. Each of those individuals are going to respond differently to training because they’re each in a different spot mentally, physically, and emotionally.

“For instance, a problem that we’re dealing with right now is that we’ve had a handful of European players that have come over that started last June so they’re already 12 or 13 months into a season,” he said. “One of the guys actually hasn’t had a break for two years, so that becomes something we manage and you wind up looking at each player on a weekly basis. Ultimately we want them to play in the game—that’s the number one priority—so what you have during the week is a little bit of flexibility to manage their overall loading and try to restore some freshness; dissipate some of the fatigue they have from playing for 12 or 13 months straight.”

Reducing the impact of travel and crossing time zones

The rigors of travel in MLS are another factor.

“It’s the same as being at altitude: you’re at oxygen deprivation for extending periods of time, you dehydrate faster, you have disruptions in your sleeping patterns and Circadian rhythms, so when you want to talk about elite performance and the smallest of margins of reaction,” Kolarcik continued. “To me, when we’re talking about elite athletics and guys making hundreds of decisions in split seconds, if those things are disrupted even a little bit it’s going to influence all of their decision-making, all of their reactions, and all of their movements on the field.”

Luckily, most of the Rapids’ core group of players are in what he called the “ideal age range,” which is 23-28 years old. They can bounce back more easily and their bodies are more tolerant of the stress of travel.

That being said, Kolarcik said that it can be challenging for European players to adjust to the travel demands when they come to MLS. They might fit in perfectly on the pitch, but when you start adding in hours on the plane, crossing multiple time zones, playing in humidity one weekend and at altitude the next—they’re just not used to it.

To combat the negative side effects of travel, Kolarcik insists that the guys move around once they land. Whether it’s juggling a ball, swimming, biking—anything that’s low intensity but will make you break a sweat will help wake up the body and “kickstart you back into your normal rhythm.”

Chad Kolarcik (center, in all black) warming up with the guys at practice.
John A. Babiak - @Photog_JohnB

Fitness isn’t just physical

We hear the word “fitness” thrown around a lot. It’s the reason why a new player doesn’t play for a couple months. It’s the reason why another player might be sitting the bench. As fans, we often wonder how it’s possible for a professional player to not be fit after a certain amount of time.

According to Kolarcik, “there’s a large physical piece to fitness, but there’s also a huge mental, psychological, and emotional piece that people don’t always think about. Sometimes the fitness isn’t just about the physical, but is about that person not actually playing a lot of games. If you don’t play games and you’re not in game situations, you’re not going to be match fit.”

That’s why we see the younger guys running laps around the older guys at practice or crush it in the USL, but they can barely last 20 minutes in an MLS game. Or guys who have been on the team all year, but aren’t 90 minutes fit.

“You can get pretty close to match fitness in training, but at the end of the day you have to play games,” Kolarcik explained. “Most people think that fitness is purely physical but fitness is very contextual to the sport of soccer. I find this a lot, especially when you do rehab with someone. You could go on the side, by yourself with a player, and do two times as much actual physical work as they would do in a training session, but as soon as you put them into that training session and they do 50-60% of the work they did on the side, their heart rate responds and the cost of them to do that escalates.”

Managing risk

Another part of Kolarcik’s job in the sports science and medical department is managing risk and figuring out how far you can (or should) push a player, and that largely depends on where they’re at in the season.

“You’ll probably take less risk with a guy at the beginning of the year than you would at the end,” he said. “We actually had that particular situation happen this past weekend with one of our players. If it was a playoff game or the last couple games of the season that were really important, we probably could have pushed them and had them play. But because it’s the middle of the season, we still have 13 or 14 games left, you’re weighing that risk. When there’s a decent risk, it might not be worth losing him for two months, but if we don’t play him for this game, then he’ll probably be okay.”

Using all of this to inform game day decisions

On a day-to-day basis, Kolarcik works very closely with his staff to communicate player health to the coaching staff so they can then plan training sessions and make any necessary modifications.

When it comes to daily training sessions, the sports science crew is busy. “When we get out on the field, a lot of it is running the warm-ups. If there are any guys in end-stage rehab, I’ll take those guys. If there are any special needs for certain guys on the field, I’ll be managing that, and then obviously during all that I have a few assistants who are helping with monitoring with the GPS, heart rate, wellness, with the technology Omegawave, we do hydration testing, we do some muscular/skeletal screening stuff, so all those things are happening,” he said.

From there, the data will eventually end up back with Kolarcik, and he gets the information to management and the coaching staff, which helps them make decisions for the next day.

For Kolarcik, that’s the most important part. “Ultimately, the bigger, most important thing is managing how that information flows from the athlete to us to the coaching staff to ultimately make really good decisions about each player every single day. That’s probably one of the biggest things on my mind in terms of my day-to-day process—making sure our decision-making process is as accurate and precise as possible.”