International soccer operates in a series of camps that take place all over the world ranging from approximately 10 days to 6 weeks or longer. With plenty of access to athletes and staff, there are numerous ways in which international soccer staff members function to provide high-performance support to their teams.
I have had the privilege of working with the women’s soccer programs from two nations. I will share insight into some of the similarities and differences I experienced between the New Zealand Senior Women’s National Team (WNT) and Canada’s Senior and U20 WNT teams this past year through training camps and major tournaments.
To conclude this article, I will offer practical takeaways related to making the most of the opportunity when traveling with a national team program, including having a willingness to travel to camps and competitions, which will enhance your experience as a practitioner.
Similarities between New Zealand’s and Canada’s Senior WNT environments
Sport Science Processes
In large part, the sport science processes in both environments are alike. Both teams perform daily morning wellness routines around breakfast time including: a questionnaire, hydration testing, and range of motion assessments. These reports are distributed to players and staff promptly with follow-up check-ins as needed.
The morning wellness processes are facilitated by the players in both settings and performed diligently. In addition to wellness monitoring, other daily functions around training such as the use of GPS monitoring (both use Catapult) and reporting, leading all warm-ups (max. 15 minutes), providing protein post-training, and collecting RPE data were consistent across teams.
Session planning debriefs around timing and size of practice components would be carried out with the assistant coach. Both teams’ staff members lean on the sport scientist for schedule planning which include timing of all meals, practices, and general flow. In both environments, the lead sport scientist is responsible for all things nutrition, including buying snacks for the team, liaising with the hotel on the menu to ensure food allergies and preferences are accounted for, then turning up to the beginning of each meal window for inspection. In my experience, this part of the role is the biggest challenge when travelling for camps and tournaments.
On game days, both teams perform a walk and stretch. For each practice and game day, the lead sport scientist would be on early departure duties to assist in field and locker room set up. In general, many of the routine processes functioned similarly in both environments.
From a cultural standpoint, New Zealand and Canada are comparable, and thus, it’s not surprising that both have similar standard operating processes around sport science.
As a culture, both value sport science and have sport institutes, strong graduate research programs, and similar sport funding models. As such, coaches have a high level of trust regarding guidance and feedback from sport science and medical staff members.
Differences between New Zealand’s and Canada’s Senior WNT environments
Sport Science Processes
Between both environments there is little in terms of differences from a sport science perspective. I’ve highlighted the similarities in fundamental processes above which encompass roughly 80% of the role, however there are a few notable differences.
With New Zealand, we carried out daily morning activation sessions post breakfast which were approximately 15 minutes and ranged from a semi-guided stretch and roll in the hotel to a walk with a brief period of coach-led dynamic stretches and movements. This is a practice I’ve utilized with some teams when traveling, though is not part of the daily process with Team Canada.
The second difference was with the reporting structure and processes relating to data collection. New Zealand used an athlete management system (Catapult) to collect and report wellness data and visualized the GPS data in Excel. These processes were led and developed by the lead sport scientist. At the time, these weren’t formally sent to staff. Instead, individual player flags from wellness and GPS data were raised to medical and technical groups as needed and session reporting was done through a debrief with the head coach.
With Canada, all reporting processes (wellness, GPS and hydration) are done through Power BI. The lead sport scientist processes wellness, hydration and training data, and shares reports with staff and players respectively through WhatsApp. These reporting processes are developed by a data scientist who works across the men’s and women’s Canadian Soccer programs.
The third and final notable difference between the two national teams was in their approaches to activations and warm-ups. With New Zealand, there was no formal team activation in place, players performed their individual activation sessions which includes specific exercises prescribed by the medical team as needed. With the Canadian Team, the lead sport scientist prescribes an activation protocol specific to the session demands which players complete with supervision. Similar to New Zealand, players add individual exercises as directed by sport science and medical staff.
As mentioned earlier, leading warm-ups was exclusively the job of the sport scientist in both settings. With New Zealand, the coach had challenged me to prepare the players “physically and mentally” for the session they were about to perform – clarifying that for them to be properly ready meant to move directly to the soccer drill following the warm-up. This meant I was challenged to include the ball in ways that would allow players to get their touches and range of passing, along with the movements at an appropriate intensity, that would flow into the subsequent practice component. With Canada, the expectation is slightly different as the team’s session structure involves a technical warm-up.
On both sides, the warm-ups are at a maximum of 15 minutes. My experience has been that if you include the ball, coaches are more willing to give you 15 minutes and allow for a small grace period of 1-2 minutes. However, if a ball is not included, the time prescribed to a physical warm-up may be shortened. It is not surprising to find differences in this one fundamental piece of the role as many soccer cultures across the world have differing views on warm-up structures and how to integrate physical and technical components to prepare for training.
Just as soccer cultures vary around the world, so does the make-up of the players and team dynamics. If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely drawing the conclusion that the role was relatively similar between both environments. The difference, likely across every sport, comes down to the people you’re working with, players and staff alike. In that respect, the environments were different from each other.
I joined the New Zealand team for their first camp post-Olympics where they had not come together as a team for over a year due to COVID. Furthermore, a new coach had just been appointed. It was her first camp and unfortunately, local staff and players were unable to join the team due to travel restrictions in New Zealand. I am sure you can appreciate the team dynamics were challenged due to the circumstances.
I was part of a newly assembled staff that would lead the New Zealand team into two matches against Canada (the Olympic Champions) in Ottawa. These matches were part of a gold medal celebration tour across Canada. I would eventually be a part of the tour a couple months later for the final leg in Vancouver and would come to understand the difference between teams further.
Kiwis and Canadians are universally known for their kindness and being polite. Many of the New Zealand team members were easy-going as expected, Canada too. However, it appeared to me that many players on Team Canada had something different about them. I can only attempt to aptly define this observation as a difference in mentality. The top players on New Zealand exhibited this same mentality, but Canada had more of it across the team.
I remember witnessing this difference between the two teams when I first saw Canada behind the scenes as a member of the opposition as they performed their pre-game activation. I feel this difference in mentality is perhaps in part due to recent successes of Canada’s WNT. There is a core group of Canadians who have won 3 consecutive Olympic medals, featuring players from top teams in the world – including the leading international goal scorer and Canadian icon, Christine Sinclair – who strongly exhibit this mentality. Each player presents this quality differently, from Jessie Fleming who is always first through activation to Kadeisha Buchanan’s unwavering poise, they give their best to lead the team and show up for their country. It was a valuable learning opportunity to view the contrast of a New Zealand team writing a new chapter in their first camp with a new coach, to a team in Canada with an established high-achieving culture.
Apart from the experiential learning that has been afforded to me by working with both teams, I’ve gained greater insight into the role requirements during travel and training camps, supporting a team through major tournaments, and competing at the highest levels of the game.
Having been called back to both environments, I’ve outlined some practical insights (in no particular order) for those aspiring to join a national team environment based on personal experience and knowledge shared with me:
Be adaptable: Sport is like any fast-paced environment, things change, and you must be ready to think on your feet and go off-script. It may be related to a return to play program, changes to the substitution plan during a game, or game day operations – things will change, and you will have to remain fluid and adapt.
No task is beneath you: No matter your role on the team, when you’re a traveling act, you’ll have to pitch in to help in a variety of ways. Your degrees don’t come into play here. Tasks which may seem trivial, like filling water bottles, collecting balls/cones, and moving equipment are of importance in maintaining a high-level daily training environment no matter where you are.
Find opportunities to add value: This can be through your personality or directly related to processes. Nobody is going to grow tired of that person who finds a way to lift their others up and keep things light. Additionally, nobody is going to shut down a value add so long as it’s practical.
Practical Example – When working with NZ, Canada’s WNT and U20s, I’ve collaborated with the Goalkeeping (GK) coach on integrating GK specific activations and functional strength into their sessions. This is not revolutionary stuff, but something that brings value and 1% improvements into the environment.
Profile others & yourself: Being able to quickly discern someone’s personality traits and tendencies will go a long way in understanding how to communicate and work with them. Don’t jump to conclusions here but try to hone in on their preferred communication style. Once you got this, you can reflect on how you may have to adjust yours to connect with that person. The reality of these environments is that there are always new people coming in on staff and the team proving to be a valuable trait.
Practical Example – Using the DiSC profiling system has helped me to understand how others on staff communicate and my dominant style of communication. It is not without its shortcomings, though can be a good starting point. Having a discussion with colleagues and sharing insight in these areas can help reduce friction and improve collaboration and camaraderie. I’ve done this with and without formally completing the assessment and found it very helpful with multiple staff members.
Joe is a sport performance professional. He’s worked in multiple high-performance settings with various sports. Joe is completing a Master of Science in Skill Acquisition. His research focuses on relearning to change movement strategies and habitual errors in athletes. As a practitioner, he aims to apply both strength & conditioning and skill acquisition principles to improve sport performance. Currently, Joe is serving as an Assistant Sport Scientist with Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Program and Lead Strength & Conditioning Coach with Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia.