Ruan is the Head of Performance at the Premier League Soccer team, Stellenbosch Football Club (SFC).
Having obtained a post-graduate degree in Biokinetics through the University of Cape Town(UCT), he went on to complete his Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (NSCA) certificate and master’s degree in Exercise Science (UCT). Having worked at SSISA (Sports Science Institute of South Africa) and SAS (Stellenbosch Academy of Sport) Ruan has worked with a wide range of sporting codes at both developmental and Olympic levels. While having worked primarily in the field of rugby union and rugby sevens, he is currently exploring the world of professional football.
rugbyscsa: What was your first season in the PSL like?
RR: Firstly, thank you Nico for asking me to participate in this Q&A. It really is a privilege to be on this platform with you.
It has been an exciting season for us (Stellenbosch Football Club) thus far. As you know we are a club that is in its developmental stage, being founded in 2016. We had a very good 2018/2019 season, winning the National First Division (now the Glad Africa league) and gaining automatic promotion into the Premier Soccer League(PSL). The club’s goal was to gain promotion to the PSL in five years, doing it in three was a dream.
The primary objective has been to consolidate the squad, unlike rugby, there is fairly regular turnover in players. Building the club’s identity in conjunction with maintaining our status in the PSL has been our primary objective. The challenge, therefore, was the need to put in place sustainable athletic development structures, while balancing the immediate challenge of performing and winning.
rugbyscsa: What were the major challenges moving from sporting codes (Rugby to Soccer)?
RR: Having worked in rugby for the majority of my career, the physical component of the sport was held in extremely high regard (almost on par with the technical-tactical components). Having better developed physical qualities (strength, power, running capacity, etc.) almost always results in a competitive advantage. Football is almost the polar opposite. It is extremely technical- tactical driven, the physical component seldomly results in a competitive advantage, with dominant teams generally covering less distance in matches.
This challenged my “traditional role” as a strength & conditioning coach/sport scientist, which resulted in some necessary reflection about myself and the way I come to understand different sports.
rugbyscsa: Take us through your thought process for doing a needs analysis for a new sporting code.
RR: When you start working in a new sporting code or with a new client that partakes in a sport that you aren’t experienced in, you start with the literature and identify the physiological requirements of the sport. You ask yourself questions like – what are the most prominent energy systems, what are the movement demands, what are the most prominent injuries etc. You might dig a little further into some literature surrounding the periodization strategies of the sport, and how frequently the athlete needs to peak/compete. Finally, you apply your knowledge of the sport into your personal framework as a strength & conditioning coach/sport scientist.
What I have experienced through this journey is the importance of identifying how much the physiological component directly influences the outcome of the sport. Physiological development in sports like track and field, rugby, MMA & Swimming are of the utmost importance in influencing the sporting outcome. Making that connection allows you to gauge the specificity and complexity of your interventions.
rugbyscsa: What, to you, are some of the essentials you must get right in performance program for soccer players?
RR: The biggest challenge in the transition has been the application of the pre-season. Football has 4-6week pre-season in which teams usually start with pre-season friendlies from week 2, followed by a 10 month in-season. With the amount of football that is played, physical development is something that needs to be “dosed” very carefully. Understanding the minimal dose that is required to create and stimulate the physiological response is paramount. Knowing when to apply the “dose” is the art behind the science. Footballers want to play football, applying the minimal dose effectively and efficiently ensures you grow compliance and understanding. Being able to create strong links between what we are doing in the weight room, and how that correlates with their footballing performance aids in buy-in.
rugbyscsa: What are some of the mistakes you made this year with your soccer athletes?
RR: Understanding my role in the bigger picture that is football has been one of the best lessons I have learned. Once you realize your role in the team, you can leverage that towards building better relations with the athletes.
I thought that all athletes want the same thing from me, to get stronger, lift weights, run fast, etc. This created a disconnect between myself and players that did not align with what I thought all athletes want.
The intrinsic drive of your athletes differs greatly, identifying these drives, help you align your outcomes as a coach, with the outcomes of the athlete.
Everyone that wears the badge wants one thing, to see the club and the athletes succeed, our role is to ensure that all parties are effectively working together
rugbyscsa: I can’t imagine that your weight training programs for soccer and rugby players would look the same. What are the core differences in what you try to achieve with your soccer athletes compared to rugby players?
RR: Yes, and no. Rugby and football share a handful of similar traits. Lower body strength, efficient movement patterns, the transfer of power, running capacity and maximal speed are all examples. The core difference is not in the strategies to develop these qualities, but rather the sport specificity.
I am a firm believer that the basics/ fundamentals stay the same across 90% of your field athletes. We as coaches all want our athletes to be robust and resilient. We all know that stronger athletes, that can move well, express force efficiently is going to be in a better place than athletes that are weaker, who move poorly and lack the ability to express force. Getting to this outcome shouldn’t be swayed by the sporting code you work in.
Once the fundamentals are in place and are executed efficiently, then we can start getting specific to the sport. The specificity of the program is driven by the physical demands of the sport/position. I think the influence of “Instagram” workouts has really hampered s&c’s credibility especially in football and has swayed the public and players’ opinions of what a footballer should be doing.
rugbyscsa: You guys have access to some nice technology at SAS. Tell us a bit about what technology you have and how you implement it in your soccer program?
RR: Yes we really are privileged to have SAS backing us! Currently, in the 19/20 season, we have been utilizing Kitman Labs as our athlete monitoring system, this serves as our database where we store, organize, and analyze all of our different data sources. We also collect our subjective data (RPE & Wellness) and musculoskeletal data through the Kitman app which each player has on their phone.
In the weight room, we have access to a force plate where we collect lower limb dynamic stability scores and a Norbord to assess eccentric hamstring strength. We use these tools frequently, as this data drives our programming and our individual prehab protocols.
On the field we utilize GPS religiously, we run a tactical periodization model, and our sessions are structured to ensure that we marry the technical and tactical demands of the sport with the physical demands. Our goal is thus to replicate specific physical and tactical outcomes on specific days of the week. This data as per the weight-room data drives our individualization of exposure on the field and drives our monitoring process.
rugbyscsa: Can you give us a break down of the skillset an aspiring S&C coach requires to land and keep a job in professional sport?
RR: Tough question! I think the biggest shortcoming I have seen and experienced myself in thinking that you have to know everything and be a “complete” S&C/sport scientist from the get-go. Being comfortable with the fact that we will never know everything and being open to criticism/feedback is an important mindset to have in our industry. The ability to self-learn is crucial. Being open to sharing what you know, and pursuing what you don’t ensures that our field is progressing and evolving. Our ultimate goal is to provide the athlete with the best possible service, and the service you deliver is an amalgamation of knowledge shared and obtained through the community.
From a skillset, soft skills are severely undervalued. Knowledge and information are important, but if you are unable to get your message or information across to your audience, it is all for nothing. Empathy and understanding drive buy-in and buy-in allows your athletes to maximally engage in your program. The world’s best program means nothing if your athletes aren’t aligned.
rugbyscsa: What are your current go-to resources for educating yourself?
RR: I have been extremely fortunate to be able to call some of these educational resources my friends and colleagues Having spent 4 years at SAS there is no shortage of really smart applied people. I strongly believe in the power of networking and developing relationships with others that share your vision. I must admit I have sent a ton of LinkedIn messages to professionals across the world, some successful, others not so much.
A more traditional route that I visit frequently is websites such as Simplifaster, HIITscience, Rugby strength coach, EliteFTS, Fergus Connolly & the Football Science Institute. Book’s I strongly recommend are Brent Bartholomew’s -Conscious coaching, Damian Hughes’s- Five steps to a winning mindset & David Epstein’s – Range to name a few