This is the tenth instalment of a series of interviews with industry leaders in fields such as Strength & Conditioning, Coaching, Physical Therapy, Sports Psychology, Nutrition & Physical Education.
In this interview we hear from Serbian born, now based in South Australia, Port Adelaide Football Club’s new Data Scientist/Strength & Conditioning coach, and owner/founder of the ‘Complementary Training’ blog, Mladen Jovanovic.
I first met Mladen in Stockhom, Sweden in 2013, when I was visiting some family and he was Head of Physical Performance at Hammarby FC. I had been following him on Twitter for a while, and since I was in town, we organised a Twitter blind-date, and caught up for a coffee and talked ‘shop’ for a few hours. I remember talking all things Dan Pfaff, Charlie Francis and Darren Burgess and thinking not only is this guy lightyears ahead of my understanding of training theory but also a great bloke!
Mladen is unlike many people I have met in the Physical Preparation world where he constantly challenges the norms and pushes the boundaries in all areas of the profession. He has the mind of an innovator, entrepreneur, scientist and an engineer, intertwined into the physical skills of a great Strength & Conditioning coach. If you follow his blog closely, you also know his skills behind a keyboard are mostly unmatched unless you live in Silicon Valley.
The Port Adelaide Football Club are fortunate to have someone of Mladen’s expertise and I know he feels the same being able to work with world leaders, Darren Burgess and Ian McKeown.
Enjoy the interview!
Can you share with the readers a little bit of your background?
Thanks for having me Dylan. I am Serbian, who grew up in Pula, Croatia. I never did much competitive sports growing up (except PE and playing pick-up in the parks), but I was crazy about programming (been competing on Croatian national level during middle and high school in Qbasic and C) – I even wrote a virus and antivirus and very basic operating system in Assembler language. Those were the nerd days, but the “problem solving skills” one gains from programming can be really applied everywhere else – and having this background proved to be useful numerous times, especially with the recent “sexy” trend of data science.
The only serious sport I did growing up in Croatia was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, with the pioneer of BJJ in that region Mike Bencic (who was later the grappling coach of famous Mirko CroCop Filipovic).
After high school I ended up in the Faculty of Sports and Physical Education in Belgrade, Serbia. I always wanted to be an engineer, but some life events led me to try this route. I had always been interested in martial arts and how to make performance enhancements. We were also the first generation of students who finished “physical preparation specialization” at the Faculty. Remembering now, it was really a shitty experience – luckily we had professor Vladimir Koprivica (who was S&C for Partizan Basketball club) who took us in applied settings as interns in the Partizan Basketball Club.
After that I got a role of Head of S&C for Football Club Rad, to which I returned multiple times and one season we managed to finish 4th and play Europa League qualifiers (which was major success for the club) while being led by Marko Nikolic.
My major breakthrough was meeting and coaching Vladimir Grbic, Volleyball Hall of Fame member, who is now my best man and like an older brother to me, during his last year as a player in Fenerbahce in Istanbul, Turkey.
A couple of years later I visited and interned at Mike Boyle (MSBC) in Boston, USA and then worked for two years as Head of S&C in Hammarby from Stockholm, Sweden, and my last gig was at the Aspire Academy in Doha, Qatar, as a Football Physiologist.
Growing up in Pula, Croatia, how did you find yourself gravitating towards the world of Physical Preparation?
Funny you asked, but I think mostly through Yoga and that type of literature. Those were the only books translated in Croatian, as well as books by Zoran Rebac on Muay Thai. Being fan of Jean-Claude van Damme also got me interested in training. Those were the 90s!
I know you have had several influential mentors in your Physical Preparation career, can you give some insight into these people and how they have shaped your principles, philosophies and career?
The major influence was the late Charlie Francis. I had been reading Supertraining by the late Mel Siff and participated in internet groups, when a friend of mine, Jovan Buha (who is now Head of S&C for Bayern Basketball, Munich for 5 seasons) directed me to the Charlie Francis forum. Then, I read everything I could get my hands on – it was tough during that time since we didn’t have money as students and it was hard or nearly impossible to get things delivered to Serbia.
Other major influences were Mike Boyle, Dan Baker, Mike Tuchscherer, Joe Kenn, Martin Buchheit and so forth. I can probably fill couple of pages with names.
You have recently moved to Adelaide, Australia to work with the Port Adelaide Football Club (AFL), under the tutelage of Darren Burgess and Ian McKeown. Can you explain how you ended up in Adelaide and what your new role (Strength Coach & Data Scientist) will entail?
I applied for the role a couple of years before, but it was Ian who got it (lucky guy!) I was familiar with both Darren and Ian and we exchanged numerous emails and spoke a couple of times. I have been following their work for a long time. The chat about this role emerged after I participated in one data analysis course and analysed (for fun) data that was anonymously posted by Darren. He contacted me the very next day and we first chatted about me doing some data analysis for Port and discussing a potential dual role in the future if something emerges. Darren was wondering what role would make me happy and the role I described to him in our talks is pretty much the one I have now: applied work with athletes, but also making data-driven decisions. Or in other words combination of muscle head and a nerd.
I know you have the utmost respect for both Darren and Ian; what excites you about working alongside these High Performance professionals who are at the forefront of the industry?
Regarding those two I would say learning opportunities. Plenty to learn from both Darren and Ian and other staff at Port. Just being part of an agile, transparent and united team excites me a lot.
Can you describe the learning curve you have experienced trying to understand all the nuances of Australian Rules Football? What commonalities/differences have you found with the sports you have previously been involved with?
When it comes to tactics I am yet to learn more about Australian Rules Football. The good thing is that all field invasion games share certain tactical elements, so there is some transfer. I am just going through some books and coaching videos besides picking our coaches brains. I hope to start playing 9s or something – emerging yourself in the sport and learning on your own, besides a top-down book-worm approach, is much more important.
Knowing some tactical demands and nuances is important, but in my role it is more important to understand the physical demands of the game and specific positions. I also utilize free “resources” I have at the disposal in the club with years of experience. I would be stupid not to ask/talk to someone much more advanced than myself. I have not come to PAFC to tell them how to do things, but to learn and embrace the culture, provide some fresh views on the same old problems and hopefully over time nudge the program toward something I/team might find optimal or better.
From a Physical Preparation or Sport Science point of view, what excites you about working within an AFL environment?
Contact! This blend of different qualities needed in this game makes me really excited. It is a running game, but players need to be “combat” ready and explosive, besides being tactically smart.
Prior to arriving in Adelaide, you spent time working in professional organisations in both Stockholm SWE (Hammarby FC) and Doha QAT (ASPIRE), can you detail your experience working in these environments?
Stockholm was great experience and I enjoyed both the culture there and club and players. I would say I “honed” my analytics skills there and made great connections. Besides, it was my first “real” international job (besides Fenerbahce experience).
Aspire is an interesting place, but at the end of the day it just didn’t suit me.
In your previous roles from above, you have successfully bridged the gap between Physical Preparation, Sport Science and Analytics; explain why this is important in the current climate of professional sport?
I am not sure I did it successfully, but I am trying. I believe in data driven decisions. This usually sounds much better on paper since there is a big struggle to make sense out of data and actually use it in everyday work. A lot of organizations just use data because everybody else is using it, or to create nice charts for the board. What I believe in are simple data collection that make one job easier and more individualized and optimized.
Most people know you for your website/blog and for making provocative statements on Facebook & Twitter. What has led to you being such a ‘forward-thinker’, ‘willingness to step outside the box’ and ‘challenge the norm’?
I think I have just been born that way. No therapy can help here. Having a programming background makes one to think analytically and critically. Challenging the status quo, asking for transparency and rationale for certain actions and decisions and optimizing things by removing waste and using kaizen were just something I had with me the whole time. Probably some books influence it – like reading Supertraining early in one’s career, or stumbling on humble people such as the late Charlie Francis.
Extending from the previous question, if people have followed you online for a while, they already know you have a unique set of skills in data analysis, coding and excel wizardry. Can you detail what sparked your interest in these areas and how it can be integrated in Physical Preparation?
Most S&C coaches punch the numbers in Excel and spend a lot of time doing it. I call this “flipping the burgers” or generally a waste of time. I just didn’t want to waste my time on that and was always looking to ways of optimizing the process – making things more automatic so I (or anyone else in my team) can focus on things that matter and leave flipping the burgers to the computers (or the interns!)
Along with Bryan Mann & Dan Baker, you are one of the foremost experts in the field for Velocity Based Training; can you explain why you believe this is an important tool for Physical Preparation coaches?
Not sure I can be considered expert in VBT – some of my insights just came through playing with the equipment and maybe seeing the same things everybody else saw but in slightly different way.
I think VBT could be usable for more optimized and individualized strength training prescription and monitoring which continues on from my previous answers. Folks believe that VBT is about lifting things fast – it is not – it is about using velocity to prescribe your training. Anyway, VBT has multiple components that could help S&C, but we also want to avoid punching the numbers again – so the coaches need to weigh the pros and cons of such a technology within their environment.
You recently posted a blog on Agile Periodisation in Sports Training. Can you explain some of the key points which coaches could implement in their own system?
Agile periodization is my approach in implementing some ideas from SCRUM/Lean/Agile approaches in software development to performance training. It basically revolves around iterative planning and shorter cycles with the aim of managing uncertainty and information. Uncertainty comes from multiple sources, such as biological individualization in reactions to training, to a competition calendar and player availability to job security.
In short, the basic difference between an Agile approach and traditional planning would be iterations through shorter training cycles and re-planning and re-adjusting as we go. There is more material about it on my blog. This is still something that I am trying to develop and wrap my head around.
From your experience working with team sports to MMA athletes, what have you found to be the foremost limiting factor to overall performance?
That is interesting question and I am not sure I have the right answer. Take a look at the famous graph from Yuri Verkhoshansky books:
According to Prof. Verkhoshansky we have two complementary aspects that limit performance – let’s call it structural (i.e. potential for performance) and coordinative (i.e. ability to exploit the structural/potential). According to him, the higher the level of the athletes the more the limit by the structural components since athletes are already very skilful in utilizing what they already have. This is also a driving force behind some of his planning (e.g. block one: increase the potential, block two: utilize the potential).
On the other hand, we have Frans Bosch who basically claims the opposite – saying that the structural factors are not a limiting factor, but coordinative ones, even at the highest level of the athletes.
I’m not sure who is right here – what is left to the coach at the end is to respect different models and use them as long as they are useful and ditch them when they are not. Just understanding this complementary aspect of performance is a major step forward – but it is up to us to figure out what is limiting each of our athletes. It is not an easy task and something that needs to be re-evaluated (hence the need for agile planning and iterative processes).
If you ask me personally, I would say it is the skill (i.e. coordinative aspect) and things should be viewed through this prism more since the “bio-motor qualities” dominated viewpoints have been so overused. After that, I would say strength, but that is not very well defined bucket.
Earlier in the year Anti-Fragility gathered more steam in our industry (and as always you had an opinion on it!); can you briefly identify some ideas or concepts which can implemented by Physical Preparation or Sport coaches?
Oh, there is plenty. It is fascinating book and very funny to read. Nassim Taleb is apparently finishing one more book and I cannot wait to read it.
I wrote a blog post outlining some of the uses from Antifragile book here
Extending on the previous question; What have you found to be the most bang for buck type of ‘Strength’ or ‘Conditioning’ work for the athletes you have previously worked with?
I guess focusing on the skill/coordination aspect instead of chasing numbers. In strength training that is approaching strength as skill (and aiming to have transfer to competitive activity) rather than chasing numbers and trying to become powerlifter/weightlifter/bodybuilder. When it comes to endurance – I would say similar principle. We are so focused on “intensity zones” and we disregard coordinative aspects of endurance running. I cannot recommend highly enough work by Steve Magness in this area.
Monitoring athletes is high on the agenda for most Physical Preparation professionals (and I know you have experience with HRV and Omegawave) can you explain the monitoring methods which you have found to be most useful?
This is a hard one, since one needs to know cultural constraints and level of trust. The easiest and cheapest ones are subjective estimates, but one needs to be sure they are given without any hidden agenda by the players and are not biased.
When it comes to GPS in team sports I like velocity estimates, Player Load and Player Load 2D. Metabolic power estimates seem interesting, but I’m not sure yet how valid they are. Player Load 2D is an interesting metric that takes changes in acceleration (without vertical component to remove foot contact component) and gives an estimate how much load there is in very short and short changes of directions.
From all the people I know in the Physical Preparation industry (some not personally), perhaps except for Carl Valle, you are always ahead of the curve in regards to technology and apps. Can you detail some of your latest interests in the area?
I keep following both Carl Valle and Jose Fernandez since they are major leaders and early adopters in this area. What’s coming next? My hint is better algorithms and software to make sense from all the data we collect – something that will remove the noise from the signal, something that will “prune” the big data tree.
What advice would you give to young and aspiring Physical Preparation coaches?
Don’t become a specialist… try to be familiar with multiple skills and embrace continuous learning. Never become too proud to learn from anyone and most importantly from different fields and sports. Stay open and humble. All that touchy feely kinda’ stuff.
Just before we finish up I know you are an avid reader, what are your favourite/current industry blogs/books to read, or recommend others to read?
I am currently reading the new Frans Bosch book and I will continue with the new book by David Joyce. I read too much, sometimes due the fear of “missing out”, but like everything, our field is really competitive. I am trying to read fiction a bit and a friend recommended Shantaram. When it comes to blogs I like reading the Freelap blog, Just Fly Sports and Strength Theory.
A big thanks to Mladen for contributing to the College Strength & Conditioning Blog. I wish him and the rest of the Physical Performance staff at the PAFC all the best for the upcoming AFL season.
If you aren’t already following Mladen catch him below: