It’s no secret the United States women’s national team has a reputation for fitness. If they can’t outplay you on the field, they sure as hell can outlast you. Former high performance coach Dawn Scott took to the team to the very peak of physical performance with her data-driven approach, but stepped down near the end of 2019 to join the England WNT. New Head of Performance Ellie Maybury is stepping into very large shoes, but has been working for several years on the youth side, and informally took over for Scott in 2019 before being officially confirmed in the position. Not only that, she took over in an extremely strange time for sports, particularly for teams that engage in international competition. Who knows when the United States will take to the pitch again?
That doesn’t mean the players are off the hook for fitness. In fact, it’s been even more of a challenge trying to keep everyone on hold, held in a state of readiness that would allow them to ramp up to competition fitness as needed. NWSL returning helped a little; before the Challenge Cup, when most Americans were deepest into isolation, the players were stuck in a variety of environments with a variety of access levels to workout spaces. In a phone call with Stars & Stripes FC, Maybury discussed having to individually tailor workouts under the current circumstances, whether they were stuck in a high rise apartment or in a house.
“I think from the outset I’m pretty used to managing players remotely,” she said. The players are in and out of camp in a normal year; there’s just more “out of camp” this year. Even pre-COVID, players would have extended periods of time outside of both the NT and club environment. Maybury said they have a variety of ways to collect data: training apps, wellness apps, GPS monitoring. With GPS, she can see players’ live data as they go through a session on the field and then afterwards there’s more data they can download to look at the whole session. They measure key metrics like total distance, high speed running, impact, accelerations and decelerations, and on and on. Maybury said there are hundreds of metrics they could look at; what she and her staff have to do is pinpoint the stats they think are important for each player. What Becky Sauerbrunn needs to do physically to be ready at center back is different from what Tobin Heath needs to do as a winger.
Then all that data has to be placed within the context of each player’s wellness data. Players report daily on sleep quality, soreness, menstrual symptoms, and so on. Maybury uses this data to get a feel for the players’ norms so she can spot abnormalities, or see what needs more intervention.
The menstrual data is still early days, though. “The research isn’t there to say we 100% know how this affects performance,” she said. “Even the top researchers in this area would probably admit to that, it’s still very much in its infancy in terms of like different phases of the menstrual cycle, what they mean, how they might or might not affect performance.” Her predecessor Scott also tracked menstrual cycles within the team, going from simply logging when cycles started to tracking things like length, symptoms, and impact on play.
“I think the key thing to remember,” said Maybury, “Is a lot of the work we do with the players is all to do with symptom management. We’re not using the menstrual cycle in a way to say hey, you can’t go here, you can’t train here, you shouldn’t do this here.. It’s not a limiting factor. It’s just symptom management, so if they are playing particularly with menstrual cramps, how can we help that player through the symptom management of that whether it’s through diet, whether it’s through sleep interventions, whether it’s through recovery interventions.”
All of this is part of Maybury’s constant communication with the players’ clubs, which at the moment include places like Manchester United and Manchester City. Maybury said the communication is good whether it’s NWSL or FAWSL. “We’re pretty transparent in terms of our communication about the players and how we manage them and really sharing their data so they can step into that environment and perform,” she said, which makes sense. Without the clubs’ cooperation, there would be huge gaps in the players’ data. It goes the other way too; US Soccer does make recommendations to clubs on player load management, recommendations which are weighted by USSF paying WNT players’ club salaries. In the Challenge Cup, some national team players had minutes caps, like Rose Lavelle, who was restricted to 30 minutes at a time.
“I think obviously the Challenge Cup was a unique situation in terms of the minute management mandate that was kind of arranged between the league and the federation and the clubs,” said Maybury. “I think with the Challenge Cup it was just so quick to get the players ready, so whether it was Rose or another player, there was that arrangement that’s put in place which the players were advocating for as well.”
The Challenge Cup was a schedule just as grueling as a World Cup format, in extremely hot weather, under a lot of mental stress due to the isolation protocols of the bubble. To prepare for a load like that, Maybury said that the USWNT performance team might plan months, and even years, in advance. “Even our projections for the 2023 World Cup, those physical kinds of programming, that starts now,” she said.
As to how they settle on 30 minutes, or 60, or whether players can go back-to-back games or not, it comes back again to data. One player’s clearance to play is different from another’s, based on what is going to be asked of the player. USSF has data on each player going back as long as they’ve been with the team, and it’s that data that Maybury uses to set her benchmarks, and then measures against them using the GPS data and the players’ questionnaire answers.
Collaboration may not always be smooth; though Maybury herself said she hasn’t yet encountered philosophical differences between herself and club physios, at least one NWSL coach has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with USSF interference: Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke said that Lavelle left for Man City to “get away from people who were holding her back and stopping her from playing minutes...” Later asked on a conference call before the Spirit/Red Stars Game to clarify if “people” meant US Soccer, Burke said, “I think it’s well documented that I would play Rose Lavelle with her leg hanging off if I could. She’s such a valuable player and I would’ve played her every minute possible. But I didn’t put any restrictions on that kid. I would’ve maxed out minutes and I think Rosie would’ve done the same thing. Her biggest complaint in the Challenge Cup was being held back. And that certainly wasn’t done by us. We would have certainly played her more and pushed the boundaries of her ability to play rather than be on the uberconservative side. But again, US Soccer are paying her wages and US Soccer are her direct employee [sic] and therefore we didn’t really have a say in that one.”
It will certainly be interesting to see how the interaction between national team and clubs may shift while the US is effectively persona non grata in terms of international travel, coming or going. Maybury is still in constant collaboration with clubs both domestic and abroad. She said that the American mentality towards fitness and hunger to improve is unlike anything she’s seen before, from the youth side up. “I think the thing about America and American players - and I’ve always been pretty privileged since I’ve worked here - is they want to do the work,” she said. “Their mentality to become the best athlete really impressed me when I arrived here and that’s sustained ever since. These layers just have the culture here for training mentality and becoming the best athlete.”