Daniel Hicker is the Head of Athletic Performance for the San Jose Earthquakes. He has been in and around soccer for the duration of his career and recently sat down with Perch to tell us his story, his philosophy on coaching and the use of technology, and how to create a culture and environment that athletes respond positively to regardless of background
The San Jose Earthquakes have also implemented Perch units in their weight room along with numerous other technologies and we are thrilled to be able to support their mission of continual development of athletic performance
Daniel Hicker: I started out coaching soccer, I thought I wanted to be a sport coach. I began coaching at the youth and junior college level and moved up to the 4-year level for a small college in Washington State. At the same time, that college wanted to start an exercise science program, so I taught a few classes there. Around that same time I was pursuing my coaching licenses, and I met Jerry Smith, who is the head coach at Santa Clara University. We got to talking shop over the phone a few times a month, and half a year later I found myself moving to California and joined Santa Clara to join the staff as a volunteer coach. I thought it would be my springboard into being a head coach for a big college someday. What it turned into was performance enhancement. I was working with a lot of the players to bridge the gap between what was happening on the field and in the weight room and communicate developments with the coaching staff. It helped the players understand what we needed from sessions. How to transfer training qualities what in the weight room onto the field.
And because of the increase emphasis on player development as well as working to get the athletes to buy into the program, we slowly started began integrating GPS, and then later the force plate. Ultimately my role in performance enhancement transitioned me into me becoming the strength & conditioning coach for the program.
I spent about 4 years at Santa Clara, and then moved onto the San Jose Sharks, where I spent approximately 2 years. That was a wonderful experience for me, because I got to see how different the culture can be in a different sport. Those guys came into the gym and wanted to get work done. Because most had a greater training age and exposure to a gym setting, they understood the importance of doing the work to support and improve performance. Having that experience and connecting it to where we were lacking in soccer was a really important identification moment for me.
Around the same time, I joined US soccer as a per diem performance coach. With this experience I further understood where basic principles of strength & conditioning were lacking in soccer. Some things that they just didn’t know because they never had the education and exposure. So the question became: how do we implement this more effectively at this level and with this population? When you’re working with athletes that come from a bunch of different backgrounds in terms of club experiences, coaching staff and mentor methodologies, etc, it can be a challenge to create one cohesive system.
While maintaining my position with US Soccer, I transitioned from the Sharks to a private sector for sports performance in Seattle. It was the same facility that the Seattle Sounders utilized, so I was able to be around the MLS training environment and connect with player and performance staff. About 2 years into that, I made my way back down to San Jose to join the San Jose Earthquakes. I began working approximately 75% Academy, and 25% first team. The following year it turned into being about 50⁄50, and fast forward to today, I’m the Head of Athletic Performance overseeing our clubs physical development.
I essentially believe in the opportunity to bridge a gap between what’s happening with our academy programs, our USL team, and of course our first team. The emphasis being long term athletic development. Just a lot of planning and collaboration in that respect.
DH: That’s a really good way to look at it. Being around athletes for awhile, you develop a coaching eye and when you get a handle on that, you can really start implementing technologies to back up what you see or to that ultimately smash your initial perspective. Then you’ll have to start rethinking your principles and your application. That’s a massive benefit to technology especially when you can find a way to integrate it effectively and efficiently. We can get wrapped up in technology and it can totally take away the part that coaches love, that artistic part and being able to develop a relationship with the athlete. If you get too wrapped up in the numbers and forget about who the athlete is then it can get a little bit messy and can take you away from the things you enjoy doing.
There’s a massive benefit to technology. Not only does it support the things that we’re trying to accomplish in the short term, and help us pivot if we need to, but you can also show the athlete that they’re improving over a longer period of time. This can be very important when you have athletes in a program for several years. They can be a positive soundboard for culture.
DH: I don’t see it as being separate from what we do as coaches. I think that the more we integrate the technology, and the more the technology advances and improves, it will only continue to elevate what we do and help us to help our athletes improve. In our environment right now, everything is integrated. We want the athletes to know that this is part of the culture. The graphs and numbers they may see is their information, and their feedback. It is a measure of their performance and we want to use it all to help them.
A lot of that integration is going to depend on the methodology of the coach. Initially I pushed back a little bit too. For example, I don’t want players on their phones in the gym looking at their information because it may detract from the training environment. You never know if they are sneaking in some texts or Facebook time. But honestly, technology is part of our culture, especially considering our youth. I think that’s where Perch is great, it’s very simple and the information is instantaneous. Athletes aren’t getting wrapped up in having to change around a framework or anything on the phone or tablet. It’s pretty seamless which is something that I enjoy. We now integrate VBT, force plate, and GPS, so the guys know and it is simply part of the culture.
DH: Keep it simple! If you make it too difficult, you’re going to lose the quality. That’s the realm I am in now. The college level is a bit different. You have your team, your plan and routine. If the athletes aren’t buying in, that’s a quick conversation you can have with the coach if necessary. In the professional environment, you have to find a way to get the athlete to buy in because it’s not just expected. You have athletes with a great background and training age, and then you have some who have never done it and don’t care for it, so you have to help educate them on how it’s going to be beneficial to them. So Sometimes they see that through the technology and they can see the numbers making sense to them, or they feel it on the field and can see the difference there. Regardless, keeping it simple gives a good perspective on how we want to approach things. For me, it always goes back to long term athletic development. It is a cradle to grave approach so it’s not just focusing on certain training variables at certain ages.
Wherever they need attention on the spectrum of long-term athletic development is exactly where you have to train them. The movements that will have the biggest impact on them may not be what everyone else is doing. So I always go back to my long term strategy and just keep it simple, that’s where it comes in for me.
DH: We want to use the data to educate. And we want them to be able to feel a connection between their outputs and what is going on out on the field. I’ve had athletes come to me and ask me “what if I’m already happy with my body.” And the answer was that we weren’t trying to change their body, we are trying to positively impact their performance. Sometimes that changes bodies a little bit, but we’re not trying to turn them into body builders. We just want them to feel better and perform better. This can be monumental to a athletes career longevity. So it just shows that again, at this level, there’s a huge education component that needs addressing.
I think it is also really important to not hide anything and to keep things clear and visible. So as far as technology goes, there are metrics that are just going to help them understand that link between on field performance. Ultimately we need to keep it simple in the information we give them so as to not overcomplicate things. For our guys and for VBT, we give them peak velocity for any explosive movement, and mean velocity for any strength movement. And that information lends itself to the competition piece as well. So we’re trying to build in the technology where it is helping them to be competitive and understand how it impacts their performance. They’re not necessarily going to know everything, but they’re going to compete with each other and have a higher level of intent with each action.
As far as coaching goes, you have to be a little bit of a historian. You have to know what performances you’ve had in the past and how you’re trying to connect it to the future. We’re trying to help guide athletes in a direction that will benefit performance long-term. So they may not see something now, but now I can not only tell them that they’re better, but I can also provide information that indicates that. The technology helps inform that long term athletic development piece. Athletes can understand the mission and vision values and how we’re moving through the process if we can show them the data.
DH: When I was with the Sharks, we used the staple Tendo. I wouldn’t say it was something that was integrated, but we used it as necessary just to get some type of feedback. From then, VBT was something that interested me, but when it clicked was when I started to feel like it was something that could be used effectively as part of the training environment. When Perch came into the picture and we saw how seamless it could be, what the feedback was and how effective it was, that’s when it really clicked for me. This was something that could be part of our training environment on a regular basis and us to maneuver through our programming and season in a way that allows us to manage training solutions more effectively.
What I mean by that is: sometimes I’ll have 20 minutes with the team, sometimes I have 45 minutes with the team, sometimes it’s on different days, sometimes guys are getting extra work in on their own. Being able to connect that data with how the guys are feeling etc, allows us to make smarter training decisions. With the information we’re gathering, we can bring things to the attention of the performance staff as needed and make changes.
DH: Regarding VBT, for right now I’d say we’re simply collecting data. Every time we have a gym session, and we’re integrating it into our training environment, we are educating ourselves and the athletes along the way. We’re starting to look a lot at numbers, percentages of change based on those numbers, and also prescribing based on those numbers. So we’re moving away from prescribing based solely off 1RM. We’re connecting the velocities and 1RM information to find what works for us. If the speeds are low, we know we need to tell them to back off a bit, and if the numbers are high, we know that’s an opportunity we can take for them to develop a little more power. If the water is boiling, keep on cooking! Either way, the feedback is beneficial, and we’ve been clear with them from the beginning on what our protocols are. The technology is seamless.
DH: The more we can engineer culture to reflect a means of normalcy, the more we will gain honest feedback from the athlete. This allows for adaptive periodization and programming by the coach. It doesn’t seem realistic to expect the receipt of positive training outcomes without being open to adjustments. Every athlete is different and will respond differently to imposed demands, whether it be prescribed or unforeseen due to life.
It could change drastically, and there’s so many different types of applications. So this is a difficult question because it’s hard to see where things are going due to so many options. What we’re seeing with true integration with the force plate and GPS, going back to that “simple” philosophy, it is less time consuming and just part of the culture There’s a tactical approach to successfully implementing technology in team sport. It’s not always perfect, but ultimately it should make some sense.