Rafael Maldonado [M.Sc.] is an internationally recognized conditioning expert. The humble Spaniard worked for Italian football teams like Fiorentina AFC or Udinese Calcio. Currently, he serves as conditioning specialist in the staff of head coach Paulo Sousa (former Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund) at Tianjin Quanjian. Maldonado holds two masters in sports science with a major in physical preparation of team athletes. Besides his passion for practical athletic preparation, he is working on his Ph.D thesis.
In this episode we are talking with Rafael Maldonado about his experiences in the field of physical preparation in team sports. Briefly, we are talking about learning, failures and the integration of innovation into practice.
I have had many failures and every time I think „fail more“ … one of them was to use training machines as a method and not as what they are … a training tool.
Rafael, in your squad renowned players like Modeste, Pato or Witsel are playing. What do you do to prevent especially these athletes from ankle, knee or muscle injuries?
Rafael Maldonado: In my opinion, the prevention of injuries is the most critical factor in modern football for fitness coaches. Why? Currently, a player who has technically and tactically skills and is not physically 100% can be decisive in a game; however, a player who is injured simply can not play. That leads to significant losses from the economic, sports and sociological point of view. That is why all the members of our staff try to take care of all the details and coordinate to minimize the risk of injury. In our last season with Fiorentina our team showed a very low injuries rate in the Serie A.
We didn´t find the „magic formula“, but rather our success based on constant communication between professionals and players,with respect to different areas like physiotherapists, doctors, nutritionists. We also monitored fatigue states and, finally, player analysis and ongoing research on training methods. From this holistic vision, that was the strategy of our work on prevention of muscle and joint injuries.
In your daily practice with which problem do you have to deal?
Rafael Maldonado: In general, I am not having significant problems beyond communication. Also, to the language barrier as it is logical, certain communication problems arise due to ignorance of the culture and “modus operandi” of the club. Personally, I’m trying to understand their habits and look for strategies so they can understand all that I’m trying to say … Moreover, these „problems“ are not only with the players, but in general (club workers, taxi drivers …). In the end, with patience, empathy and a right attitude the adaptation becomes faster, but not easier (laughs). At the sports level they are almost non-existent, except for the number of trips that we have had at the beginning of the season that does not facilitate training in the gym. In general, I am thrilled with the attitude of all players: they are predisposed to improve.
What do you do to increase adaptation cycles of the athlete?
Rafael Maldonado: As I argued in the first question, for me the most important thing is that they are not injured and an essential factor for them is that the player is in a good fitness performance, as argued by various authors. From my point of view, the definition of „fitness performance“ is that the player can play the matches without having discomfort and get tired as little as possible. To do this, we create pre and post training habits during the preseason as well as increasing the load so that the player adapts to the types of efforts typical of the competition. Once the season starts, depending on the schedule of matches and the players‘ participation in them, we assess the fatigue and/or detraining. Moreover, as I said before, these contents are determined in an interdisciplinary way.
What strategies do you apply to increase acceleration and ability to change directions?
Rafael Maldonado: According to the scientific literature, these physical qualities are essential in football, but I think it is not enough to identify them only as pure physical qualities … I mean … there are soccer players like Xavi or Busquets that are not characterized by having these qualities and, however, they use them efficiently. Therefore, it is not just about accelerating more, but not separating the tactical component to these actions. That is, how, when and where to do them. We are trying to optimize these capacities in two ways: Firstly, through the football specific tasks that mimic the match, here is the focus mainly tactic objectives; if the required physical objectives were not achieved according to individual match needs, we carry out other tasks with „more physical“ predominance. Secondly, through co-adjuvant strength training in the gym, where we do exercises that simulate movements of higher or lower level of coordination difficulty and uncertainty to develop feedforward mechanisms, using machines such as inertials that allow us freedom of movement and the high peak of tension in different vectors. On the other hand, we add complementary exercises aiming to stabilize the joints as well as exercises to compensate for the stress of this type of actions (for example, stabilization of the core).
Cognitive training strategies receive more attention in football practice. How do you think about it?
Rafael Maldonado: I agree with you, but I would add that we should not talk about „cognitive training“ or „physical training“ We should not separate the nature and context of the motor actions that occur in the game. Only then can we optimize the player, with a holistic and unbiased vision.
Is it possible to have an unbiased vision? We are filled up with ideas, concepts and experiences? From a scientific point of view there is some value to separate some things to understand them better. However, I am with you that we need an integrative perspective in order to understand the actions within the context of the game.
A lot of research on soccer is being published recently, which is based on the theory of complex systems which, in a summary way, does not separate the player from his environment and the nature of the sport. It is also beginning to study for the prevention of injuries. For several years now, our working group has been observing the interaction, not each one separately, of the so-called „risk factors“. Why is a player injured when all of our tests to prevent injuries were correct? Well, because we are looking in a biased way at something that is complex and, therefore, we are applying a wrong paradigm for the prevention of injuries
How do you perceive the progress of the football culture of China compared to Italy or Spain?
Rafael Maldonado: Besides not being a coach, I have been here for a short time to give an objective opinion about it. I have been able to appreciate that the „velocity of play“ and the „speed in actions“ are higher in European football. I know that the Chinese government is betting that the level of Chinese football grow, in order to go to a final phase of the FIFA World Cup (China has only participated once). Our job here is to contribute to this by our knowledge.
To become a top professional like you is the result of a passionated way of life. Let us have a look at your early days as a student. What was your vision and what steps have you done to achieve it?
Rafael Maldonado: As you said, it is a matter of passion and attitude for excellence. Since I started studying at the University, I continuing with the same or more desire to keep learning and unlearning.
Despite the difficulties of the beginning, I was not discouraged at any time and I was very persevering. There was a turning point in my career when I met Jose Manuel Quintana (Watford FC) and Julio Tous (Chelsea FC). They helped me to start a new approach, with a philosophy of training different from what I knew at the time. This is where the company VF Sport SL was born, a training center that since 2004 started to apply new technologies for monitoring like Tensiomiography, SmartCoach, MuscleLab, and strength training technologies like Yoyo Technology, Versa Pulley, whole body vibrations, pneumatic Machines Keiser …). In these years I have experienced an exponential growth of knowledge which is the base of what I currently apply. Also, I had the opportunity to work with colleagues from other professions like physiotherapy, medicine, nutrition, which helped me to link my knowledge at that time seen in isolation. For the future, I hope to continue (des) learning.
You mention the term “unlearning”, that sounds a bit confusing to me. Can you expand this, please?
Rafael Maldonado: It´s a neuroscientific concept. Unlearning what has been learned involves facing and solving in a different way than usual.
We all have failures, a professor once said: There is a need for a Journal of Failure. How do you think about failures and what failure story would you submit to the Journal of Failure?
Rafael Maldonado: Hehehe. Well, I think it would be an impact journal! It is clear that failures make us grow as professionals rather than successes (perhaps because they leave us a somatic marker) … from my point of view, we should not associate the word „failure“ with „something bad“, but rather „a“ one more step to acquire knowledge „within the learning continuum”. I have had many failures and every time I think „fail more“, hehehehe … one of them was to use training machines as a method and not as what they are … a training tool.
Do you have a brief example to illustrate this?
Rafael Maldonado: When I started using new machines for strength training like vibration machines, I believed that the device was the solution to the problem and it’s not really like that. The machine is just a “vehicle” that helps you solve it as long as the objectives, design and approach to the exercise are correct.
Yes, I agree with you. Technologies are extensions of the brain. Therefore, they can help to make smarter decisions and can provide relevant and useful insights. Physiotherapists or strength and conditioning professionals very often have difficulties in integrating them into their practice. Do you have some advice or simple protocols to start? For instance, with the integration of vibration or eccentric overload concept?
Rafael Maldonado: In my opinion, as you say, it is essential to know what I want to achieve with training (objectives) and, on the other hand, what means to optimize it as best as possible and these machines help to achieve it. In recent meta-analyzes, they observed that the effects of vibration machines are inconclusive. In my opinion and from an empirical point of view, vibrations are a „machine with acute effect to accelerate“ any process. I use them mainly in pre-training or match activations to stimulate the nociceptive level and, in addition, for the first phases of recovery of muscular and tendon injuries. Regarding the machines with eccentric overload, the most frequent questions that the attendees usually ask me are related to „when“ and „how much“. My answer is simple. As with any other means, the most important thing is the progression of load; For example, start not generating fatigue by doing few sets-repetitions, with low inertia units for, depending on the final objective (hypertrophy, force, activate …), increase the „dose“ until you reach the optimum load according to the objective. But I insist, the most important thing is to know what I want to achieve and then I choose the appropriate vehicle.
After your graduation which academic and professional courses do you have attended?
I have studied two masters related to high sports performance and team sports; I have attended numerous congresses and conferences in different areas (not only fitness) and, above all, but I have also had and I am lucky to have a group of professional friends who are international references for me.
Would you be so kind and recommend some courses to the readers, please?
Regarding academic master programmes, I only know the ones taught in Spain. So I would recommend the Professional Master in High Performance in Team Sports of the University of Barcelona and the Master in Physical Preparation and Rehabilitation in football of the University of Pablo de Olavide in Seville. Concerning congresses and conferences, I would recommend readers to attend those where the speakers are not only researchers, but they are also working directly with players and tell their experiences.
That is a very general answer. Tell us, please, what were the last conferences that you have attented as a participant?
Rafael Maldonado: Hehehehe … however, it is the truth, rather than giving specific names. The last congresses that I was as a participant was related to the theory of complex systems and sports, held in Barcelona (http://www.complexsystemsinsport.com/?page_id=3428) and in Malaga (http://www.fidias.net/iii-jornadas-entrenamiento-fidias-sistemas-dinamicos-complejos/) and, on the other hand, related to the importance of fascia in sports held in Madrid (https://congresowfattspain.ucjc.edu).
The last question, we all have lovely and inspiring people that offered guidance to us to become a better professional or person. Do you have an anecdote or a person you would like to express your appreciation?
Rafael Maldonado: I am lucky to have met many and if I start to name them all I never finish, hehehe … perhaps, for having been a turning point in my professional and personal life (the most „productive“ cognitive and … of laughter), to my VF Sports colleagues: Jose Manuel Quintana, Luis Suárez Arrones, Fco. Javier Núñez, Santiago Vita, Fran Molano, Leandro Fernández, Álvaro Peñafiel, Carlos Benito, Agustín Enríquez, Iñaki Moreno, Alberto León … as you can see, we were a great family and you can imagine how much fun we had at the Christmas friends dinners. What a „cashondeo“!
Thank you for the discussions. That was a further episode of the PROathlete talk. Do you believe that it is possible to discuss different topics in future, Rafael?
Rafael Maldonado: Of course, it’ll be a pleasure! Thanks to you for the opportunity to participate in your blog.
Rafael, all the best.