We talked about physical preparation, prehab injuries and soccer performance with Ivi Casagrande. Brazilian of origin, but based in the United States for years, she has got to know the American sports system from within, as a player and as a coach.
In just a few years, she has lived various professional experiences at the best training centers (EXOS) and has worked alongside great professionals such as Kelly Starret. About all this we have talked in this extensive interview.
We want to thank Ivi for her time and dedication, which have made possible for this to come to light.
To ge started: I think you had several experiences before getting to where you are now,
incliding in Brazil as a soccer player and in the USA as a coach. Can you tell us about your story and the experiences that left a bigger mark on you?
I tried soccer in Brazil, which was completely different for me. I did a try out with the national team, but I just was trying it out and seeing where it was going to take me. I did really well, and I was pre-selected for the national team during that time.
I didn’t end up going; but I was preselected, which for me was was huge. So I decided to invest more in my soccer career. I started playing professional for Clube Atletico Mineiro—which is the club where Ronaldinho Gaucho Plays, the men’s side. So I played there for about a year and a half, two years, while I was in high school; but in Brazil—and I think in Spain it’s the same— it’s really hard to do both: you have to choose one path or the other. That’s when I realized that in the United States you can actually do both if you can get a scholarship at the university and you can play at a competitive level while actually studying.
I went to the American High School of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, where I was able to learn English learn a little bit about the American living style of classes and training afterwards. That really helped me out and prepared me to go to the US. I stayed there for a year and half, graduated high school and then I was able to get five different offers from division-one schools here. I picked Ohio. I chose the coldest place in America, but I wanted to really have an opportunity where I could really learn about the American lifestyle and be immersed in the culture. I had places to go —to Florida or other places, but then there are so many Brazilians there that I was like, “I would not be really learning a lot about the American culture if I go to those places.”
So I went to a place that I knew that I was going to be all focused on everything about the culture. I was one of the only two brazilians in the school, which was a twenty-thousand-people school. So I started there, I was a pre-medicine student at the time and was playing for the university at the same time. I did my bachelor’s and finished in 2014. Then, after that, I went to California. I tried to work in a bunch of different jobs to figure out what I wanted to do. I wanted to play professional Europe. But I got a sports agent who pretty much stole my money and ran away. I was really sad after that happened, because I really wanted that closure in soccer.
Then, realized that I wanted to work with something that included coaching and soccer at the same time. I got the opportunity to go back to Bowling Green, Ohio, to do a Master’s in Exercise Physiology, while also being a Sports Performance Coach volunteer for the team that I played for. For me, it was the perfect thing to do, because I was doing my Master’s, and I was able to apply everything that I learned on the practical side with the team. And it was during those two years that I applied for the internship at EXOS. As a player, I have trained in a Sports Performance Gym in Brazil, which followed their methodology, and I realized how much better as a player I was after I was training with them, in terms of understanding my body better, being more explosive, and just overall stronger as an athlete. So I applied, and I didn’t know I was going to get in, because it was so competitive. But I did end up being accepted, but that meant having to go all the way to Los Angeles to do it but I was master’s student and I didn’t really had enough money to go, because LA is a really expensive city. The internship was unpaid, too, they wouldn’t pay for anything.
I was lucky that I had some friends that lived in LA at the time and they told me “Oh, you can sleep in our couch for 4 months!’’. So I went there. It was the best experience of my life. I was able to work with a lot of athletes —professional athletes from Arsenal, from all those high elite teams, as well as with professional tennis players. I got chosen to be an intern for LA Galaxy. They train in the same facility and I was an intern for them at the time. That’s where I met one of my mentors Ben Ashworth, who was the physio from Arsenal at the time (and I was also training some Arsenal players) and he said to me “Well, as soon as you have time, come to Arsenal and spend some time with us’’. So, I got his contact and I still talk to him every week until now. He really helps me with all aspects of training and guide me through my journey as a coach. He is a physio and he’s a really good. He’s now in Prague as the director of high performance for Sparta.
So during my time in my masters, I did the internship and then the next year, my last year in my master’s, I took his invitation and I decided to spend two months in Europe, as a professional development trip. I asked a lot of friends for couches to sleep on. I went to Switzerland, where I stayed with FC Basel for about a week. Then I called Aston Vila’s academy and went there for two days, to follow what they were doing there. After that, I spent about two weeks in Arsenal. I was following not only their academy system but also followed the first team, which was great. That really opened my my eyes to training, to coaching and in those two years of my masters, I was able to really take advantage of all those opportunities and build my own philosophy as a coach.
I graduated from my master’s in 2017. That year, I was looking for jobs and I was accepted to be a Director of Sports Performance for RedLine Athletics. It was a youth training facility in Michigan. The good thing about it was that I needed some leadership skills, so as a director I was going to able to learn those skills. We also were starting the facility from scratch —it’s a franchise, so there is a bunch them in the entire United States, but we were opening this one from the ground up. So there was still construction and I was going to be able to apply my own methodology together with what they believed in, which was the Redline athletics methodology. It was amazing. I stayed there for a year and half and I was really able to apply my coaching philosophy to it and learn with my mistakes. I changed a lot of things that didn’t seem to work because I was trying to get the EXOS methodology a little bit to youth but I had to change a lot of things because with youth you have to be creative—you can’t use the same drills that you use with older athletes and elite athletes. You have to modify to be able to build buy-in and making it fun for them.
One of your mentors was Kelly Starret, the creator of Mobility WOD. What did his method mean for you and your education?
Yes. He is another one of my mentors —him and Ben, I talk to them pretty much every fifteen days. I did his course in Germany, 1 and 2, and pretty much everything I learned to this day was mostly because of his help. He guided me to get the resources and helped me understand the body as a whole —starting to see from your feet up, and movement quality and being able to really fit those little details. He was a really huge person that helped me and guided me through that. He is amazing.
The biggest thing that I learned was learning how to develop the youth. When you get to the professional level you see that it is so important to know how to train the youth, because at a professional level you think they all know already. You kind of get back to basics and you have to really develop them with the little details, the little things that matter. I think it’s really interesting that they have to get all the basics even if they are at the professional level.
According to you, women’s soccer is at its height, regarding both its level and its impact. What differences do you see between women’s soccer in the US and women’s soccer in Europe or the rest of the world? Why is it that in the US its level and its impact are so much greater?
I think the biggest thing is the college system. If you see the amount of money that they have into the college system, in terms of equipment, in terms of technology, in terms of gym, the personnel, the staff… You see college players going from college to professional, and most of them have built a solid foundation, strength and metabolic foundation.
We have high schools here that are unbelievable. The athletic programs you see here, you are like “Wow!” They have huge gyms. Since they’re young they are exposed to that. They are super athletic, because that’s the culture that the system provides. But, again, in Brazil I never lifted in high school. Even in professional soccer teams. Its definitely improving now but when I played, you really didn’t see that at all.
So I think the system is really important. The system that the United States has in their high school and college is huge. And then in Europe, as as well as in Brazil, it’s more about the technical side of the game. And a lot of times I think that what is missing here too; the technical aspect of the game. We have a lot of players with huge athleticism , but they might don’t have the understanding of the game like European players have, that they grow up playing and watching soccer every day. If you can have both , that would be perfect. I think that’s huge. I think that’s really important and I think the technicality of the sport still has a way to go.
What do you think are the main differences when it comes to training female players as opposed to males? What factors do you think
is important to take into account in order to prevent injuries and improve performance?
I think the biggest thing that you have to take into account is the physiology of women. The menstrual cycle, all those things that can affect physiologically women more than men. That’s something that we have to try to pay really close attention to.
So, for example, knowing the players that have more challenges within their PMS (premenstrual cycle), and how that affects training is important. It’s not like we’re going to cut them in training, but it’s a good thing for you to really know your player, see what can really affect their game and find a way for coaches to understand that, too, that it might not be that they are doing really bad at training; sometimes it’s probably because of their hormones, lack of sleep etc.
That I think is the biggest thing as trainer, because in the weight room we are going to train them the same way. Of course, physiologically, men can be much faster and stronger, thats how they’re built. But we try not to put any limitations on our training with the women. Our expectations are as high as if we were training men.
It doesn’t change a lot. It’s all base on the individual player. For example , if we were doing their metrics, the GPS, their max speed, we are going to work based on those individual’s max speeds. So it’s not really based on the gender but on the individual players and what they can achieve. And we do the same thing with strength. It’s about how much can you push a player. It’s all going to come down to how safe you can progress training, right? Even if you want to build the strongest player ever, you still have to have protocols so that is going to be a safe way to get there.
That’s the biggest thing. I think the hormonal part of the menstruall cycle —that’s something huge; but also, the female anatomy, even the ACLS, being able to really put a program in place , strength training, having them from a young age do movement skills, specially right now, I think, with a generation of young female players. Female and male players they are not used to playing outside that much anymore, they’re always on their phones or playing video games. You are having players coming from high school that are so bad at movement technique and they just have terrible coordination and this all can be a huge factor for injury, especially for females. You have to pay attention to all players, but with females we have to be even more careful with it, and you really have to build the strength from a young age, because females will mature earlier, too. They are going to have the menarche and the menstrual cycle earlier, so that means you can start strength programs even sooner than guys. This means building the foundational strength since early ages will really affect how they do when they are older and I think that’s the biggest thing.
There are so many reasons that injuries can occur, but then if you really look back to it, most of the things are all going to be about the really foundational movement skills that are kind of being taken away. Especially here in the US, their physical education classes are being taken out from from some schools, which is huge. Like, that was the main thing that was going to help kids from this young age. So it all adds up to the snowball effect.
You have experience in different areas of performance training, having also worked with young and adult players. Do you think programs for young players should be different than those for well-established players (when it comes to injury prevention)?
Again, so I think the main thing that I got, especially in my first year here, is that professional players still need a lot of work on the foundational movement and strength . I think athletes are masters of compensations. I always say that, because they will find a way to compensate somewhere to get the job done. But the biggest thing, I think, is when you coach youth, and you have to be creative. You have to find ways to get to your players, so they can understand the message clearly. So as a youth coach I had to really find my coaching voice and be able to be loud and motivate my players.
Same thing with professional players. They still have to have their abilities in their training otherwise they are going to get bored. We still do a lot of fun stuff that I’ve brought from my youth experiences with reaction and fun games. You will see a lot of players who are really slow in reaction drills. It’s kind of like you have to train your brain, right? We always think about training the body as a whole, about being strong, but then if you forget about the brain and if your brain really is not working, then your body is not going to follow. We try to recreate that as much as possible, and I think even the perspective of creativity and being able to command a room full of elite players is the same thing as with youth —you have to command the room, you have to know how to find the best way to, for example, to do a drill or a warm up with a big group. To find what is the best way to really get to them.
And again, bringing back the basics. I’m really big in perfecting the basics. So in the weight room, even with the professional team, we still do the basics really well. Can they squat really well? Can they hold and own positions really well? Because when I train youth, it’s all about motor control, especially when they are going through a growth period. And a lot of times, you see players in the league level that do a squat or something really, really fast and they really don’t own the movement. They really don’t get the stability and all that. So I slow them down in some instances especially when they are going through their growth spurt. I really want them to own the movement and learn to slow down sometimes.
It kind of goes back to the the basics and how you perfect those basics, and the micro doses of good work. You come into a place and you say, “Oh, I have so many ideas I want to implement all of it!” But, instead of doing that, can you do five minutes every day during the warm up, or in the prehab? A good movement quality that you add all those 5 minutes for 365 days or whatever, imagine the amount of good work that you’re doing!
It’s all about how you can, not reinvent the wheel, but make sure the players are really perfecting the basics. Because, at that the end of the day, that’s what is going to really help them to be successful and be a more durable player and be stronger to deal with the demands of the game.
With professional players, I think sometimes, for example, you don’t want to change their movement mechanics, because that worked for them for their entire life. But how can you make them more effective, more efficient in their movement?
This is all about the small details that can really help them that 2% percent at the end of the day, that will help them in the match, for example. It’s not like you are changing their mechanics, but you are making them more efficient and creating a safe way to do movements under chaos. And being able to teach your athletes and make sure you help them through the process, help them understand the process, I think that’s huge.
I believe in an interview you commented once that your two passions are health and soccer. In your opinion, what relation is there between a soccer player’s injury prevention and recovery and their performance?
I think the biggest thing is getting a feel of how you can individualize the player’s needs. I try to do that for each player. And you can use warm up as an assessment, you can use phehab as an assessment for you to see how they move.
So the biggest thing for me is: what does your team needs the most, in terms of prescription of exercise? I think that comes along with the fact that a lot of the times, we as coaches, we have some exercise that we like or you see something on Instagram are you are like, “I’m going to put that in!” But at the end of the day, you have to think, “How are you maximizing your time with your players?”
I think that’s the biggest part when it comes to injury prevention and the recovery side. Because as a strength and conditioning coach. you have really limited time with them, so you only have one warm up time, sometimes rehab, and then the gym.
For our players, especially female players, I think a lot of lumbar pelvic control is needed; big toe mobility, which a lot of people underestimate, but the big toe is important in force production, acceleration, and deceleration. So all those things are things that we try to educate our players on to really make part of their recovery session or their individualized exercises list. So it’s all based on what they need.
I think it’s all based on your needs as a team and how you can really maximize that with the time that you have in recovery. Our recovery sometimes is all about doing some activation exercise or mobility exercise based on that assessment. So my players that have had struggles with limited hip external rotation, limited hip internal rotation, or even big toe mobility, that’s part of the exercise that they do when they are doing they recovery, and that becomes kind of a routine for them. That’s really important for me —educating the players on the importance of taking care of their bodies on and off the fields, and creating that routine of like, ‘’You are not doing that work only when you’re in training, you have to take care of those big things outside of the field, too.”
What techniques do you use to teach players movement mechanics and movement patterns?
Sometimes it can get boring, and sometimes it’s the boring part of practice that you have to teach them, like running mechanics and all that; but I think it’s important for you to take at least five minutes, for example, during the warm up, to do running mechanics with resistance for example; so you are reiterating the movement and ingraining that movement in their brain. And then, after that, you link that into a more chaotic environment or situation.
When we do, for example, maximal speed drills, our drills are put out there in order to reiterate that movement in them. We do cycling drills,ankling drills using a PVC pipe to limit trunk rotation,, for example.
We always start from the basics and build up from that. So you start from the running mechanics, and then you can increase it to the complexity and the chaotic environments, in a way that it is always a progressive thing. But because we trained that in their brains, it’s ingrained in their brains automatically, their bodies are going to use that movement and that’s what I think I am trying to achieve with the minimal doses everyday. The more they do those little moments, when it gets to a game, it’s going to be automatic and it’s going to be chaotic; not like it’s going to be a robot, but you are going to have have control of your body when you need to be able to control your body in chaotic environment and unpredictable environments.
Getting the athletes to participate in the process is important. Because if you don’t explain to them why you are doing what you do and why they are working on it, they are not going to buy it. But if they know that’s a limitation, and if they see that that’s going to be a problem in the long run, then they are going to be like, “OK, what can I do to get better?” So then you involve the player, and it’s completely different when the player is bought into what you want to do.
I believe that throughout your career, you got to experience something that is not very usual in Europe: mentoring. And you were in two reference institutions: Mobility Wod and EXOS. How does mentoring contribute to a coach’s education? And, also, what do you consider to be the most important lesson you learned at those institutions?
For me, when I was in my masters, I didn’t have anybody to look up to in my program or I didn’t have anybody really guiding me to the right path, but I think sometimes you have to learn with people that are more experienced than you and that have been there for a long time. Now, I’m starting to pay it back with my interns, so I’m pretty much paying forward by teaching my interns.
The biggest thing for me is that, for my mentor specially, they didn’t really tell me the way to do things. I’m not copying them. When I ask them a question, sometimes they don’t even answer right away, they make me think by asking questions not providing the answers. And that has been huge for my growth as a coach.
To be a good mentor is not providing all the answers; it’s guiding your mentees to really find their critical thinking and guiding them on the way, so you’re there to provide them with the best option. This is what works with me, but it doesn’t mean that you have to copy me.
Sometimes you don’t agree with all your mentors, you take the best from all those coaches that you look up to. I have a list of coaches that I always look up to, and some of the things those coaches do I don’t agree with, but some of the things they do really resonate with me, so I pretty much pick the best thing from the best coaches to create my own philosophy. I think that’s the biggest thing as a young coach —to really develop your own philosophy, you have to be able to learn and you have to be open minded. Sometimes you are not going to have the right answers all the time, but you have to keep evolving your coaching methodology.
For people to be successful I think they need to understand that you are always going to have to learn something and you are always going to have to perfect your craft. To be successful I think you have to be humble enough to know that you have to keep evolving, and you have to stick with the right people around you and have the right mentors who are going to really challenge you. There’s a lot of value in listening to other people’s perspectives and rather than just reading textbooks, reading research papers, or listening to podcasts.
Finally, before we finish, could you recommend us three books that you have found helpful or that have been important to you? They don’t necessarily have to be about coaching.
One is the
Also, Becoming a Supple leopard’ by Kelly Starret, on the importance of mobilizations.
A book that really resonated with me is ’ You are a badass: how to stop doubting your greatness and start living an awesome life’’ by Jen Sincero. It’s about how you can really empower yourself throughout life and that’s really valuable as a coach, too.
And I know you said three, but I have a fourth one, which is Conscious coaching: The art and Science of building buy-in’’. It’s about how to deal with your relationship with your athletes, which I think is really important. To be a coach, you can be the smartest student in the room, in your math class, you can be the smartest kid, but if you don’t know how to deal with your