Neurocentric Training in U.S. Soccer – Interview with Joe Locassio
“I am a big fan of isometric strength training, end range perturbations and learning how to shorten and lengthen muscles through controlled full ranges of motion in sport specific positions. “
The emerging field of neuro athletic training has its original roots in the United States. Although more popular in germany, coaches from all over the U.S. use the neurocentric training philosophy to develop their athletes.
One of the first ‚Neuro Coaches‘ from the US is Joe Locassio from San Diego, CA.
Joe, tell us something about your own athletic and educational background
Soccer broke me. A Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science did very little to help put me back together. Physical therapists, chiropractors and other professionals applied their best efforts and wished me luck or surgery as they had no other options to resolve the chronic pain I in my shoulder, elbow and back. I could barely perform as a goalkeeper coach. The best thing I did for this sport was leave it. I left to work with golfers. A career path that did not hurt so much and a sport I was terrible at, naturally I was intrigued. In that process I stumbled across a lifelong education journey that started fixing my issues as I learned and applied more. I spent 2 years working through the Z-Health Performance Solutions curriculum and to date have spent just under 1,000 hours being formally educated by Dr. Eric Cobb. Now I am on a mission, be the coach I never had. A coach that can purposefully improve performance and resolve injuries and issues at the same time. That can understand what is going on to lead to the issues/underperformance with ways to assess and improve. And understands the individual athlete so well with options so specifically tailored and the results would not be achieved with another player that followed the same training.
Tell us something about your current workplace and the athletes/players you work with
I work within an American Soccer Academy. I am responsible for performance improvement, fitness, injury prevention/resolution and lifestyle improvements for players 13 to 19 years old. I run warm ups, cool downs, work hand in hand with coaches on developing fitness plans and sessions specific to improving the soccer actions required by each position and player.
How do you use neuro in your work?
Players do tailored vision and vestibular prehab prior to training. Warm up and cool down emphasize the 4 pillars of a players nervous system: See, Balance, Move, Breathe. During sessions, coaches point out areas that need to be improved with each player. I will work with them off to the side of the session, prior or after and during rest breaks. The goal is to find a training direction that the coach notices immediate improvement once back on the pitch. This is my favorite part of the job. There is nothing like watching a player struggle a bit, everyone knows it. I take him off to the side for anywhere between 1 and 10 minutes, the player re-enters the session performing at a higher level. One coach I work with has come to expect it. Giving me a smile every time he see the improvement desired in that player.
How do you bridge the gap between training individually and a whole team?
My prospective is that everyone should be able to do the things I am asking. They are human skills after all. If you cant do them well or are worse off from doing them, you are on my radar. We use a test/retest system on Monday of every week. We explore different exercises and demands in each pillar. The player is responsible for keeping track of the exercises that improve their testing. As I identify the individuals that need extra attention based on sport performance or lack of performance in these ‘human tasks’, I use the information they have gathered, run it through my thinking filters and provide fine tuned direction for the individual.
What neuro aspects do you mainly focus on in your work?
Breathing exercises, motor learning and control exercises, field vision skills: saccades, peripheral awareness, vergence; field balance skills: head and body saccades, VOR-C, single leg balance progressions
How does a typical training session with you looks like?
Fill me in. How are you, how’s your game, what are you working on, what doesn’t feel right, anything bad happen lately, what do you want to be better at by the end of the day? As the conversation continues I watch them walk for a few minutes. I let them warm up how they like to (unless you work with me privately where we tailor your warm ups). I am gathering information about how their brain is creating/controlling and refining movement. Typically I see something that looks a little different than normal or best. What is the session goal? Show me how well you execute and perform. Based on my observations, I already have ideas as to what I want to look into further. We dive into some assessments. When I find something a bit off, we train it. I watch you walk again to see if anything improved. If there is big improvement, we get to work on the session goal. Execute over and over and over, when it breaks down… train what we found, make it stronger and better than go back to executing over and over again. If I don’t see improvement in your walk, we keep assessing and improving things not working at their best until I do. At the end of the session, we reflect on the improvement, make sure you understood what we did and plan for accomplishing the specific drills that gave success at home.
Sometimes Neurowork seems like magic on people. What are some of your favorite moments as a neuro athletic coach?
Any time a player comes up with a full report from health professionals: They said it is this muscle, its doing that, this is why I feel this way,, I need to release it or turn it on…plenty of guesses out there. While they go into it, I watch them walk and within 5 minutes of assessments/drills their issue went away… without looking at anything the other professionals did to provide their own explanation of the issue. The look of confusion and relief at the same time priceless.
Watching a player underperform in a specific requirement, providing a drill and seeing that underperformance immediately turn in to performance. Again the smile and excitement for improvement that took minutes with the look of “I dont care how, but how?”
What were some of the biggest paradigm shifts in your thought process transitioning from strength and conditioning coach into neuro athletic?
If a muscle hurts, the long term answer for resolving the issue rarely comes from focusing on the muscle. Resolution of injuries and roadblocks has to do with making yourself BETTER than you were, not getting you back to where you were. Where you were was the problem in the first place. It wasn’t good enough. A hard truth no one wants to hear due to the amount of work put in to be there. All I do is fix stuff that isn’t working well and in turn you are good enough and no longer expressing the complaint. Your next issue will determine if what we did made you good enough or if there is still work to be done.
What is your position on football players and classical strength training? How do YOU define strength training?
I am nervous. Classical strength training is so much easier than soccer. The biggest challenge is how much and how many. So soccer players are entering the weight room, getting stronger at tasks simpler and more controlled than their sport and hope that the strength gains transfer to the complex uncontrolled demands required by the sport. SAID (Specific adaptation to imposed demand) Principle needs to get even more specific with the understanding of brain function. If it doesn’t look like soccer, it probably wont transfer the way you’d hoped. There is no barbell getting up for a header although squats do look similar. I am a big fan of isometric strength training, end range perturbations and learning how to shorten and lengthen muscles through controlled full ranges of motion in sport specific positions. I travel with bands to accomplish strength work with soccer players. Overall, I define strength as an ability to control tension, stabilize and produce force in any position/direction that sport requires.
In an ideal world, what in your opinion has to change with current athletic training?
The current focus relies on evaluating the outcome of brain function. Movement. We need to bring in to focus evaluating how movement is created and refined by the brain to get a true understanding of an athlete and how to best help them. That means that everyone working with human movement now, has to go back to the education world and learn how and why movement happens. Which is knowledge readily available in todays world. It’s tough for the business model but right for the individual trusting you to help.