Fitness in the 21st century (Pierre Barrieu Q&A)

Interview by Mike Woitalla

Pierre Barrieu served as the U.S. national team fitness coach for nearly a decade, serving Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley at three World Cups. After Bradley was replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann, Barrieu was hired by the United Arab Emirates as fitness trainer and assistant coach.

SOCCER AMERICA: What was your reaction to reports that Jurgen Klinsmann increased the amount of fitness work during U.S. national team camps?

PIERRE BARRIEU: My first reaction is no reaction. I totally didn’t take it personally. This is down to the coach’s decision. I’m not going to talk on behalf of Jurgen. I don’t know why it’s the case. I don’t know if that automatically means he thinks the fitness wasn’t good before.

If you wake up and go for a morning jog, some coaches think there is some positive in doing this, but I don’t think it’s the case. It comes down to making choices and why they’re doing more fitness work than before. That’s a question for him. For me, it doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I’m supporting the U.S. If they think it’s the best thing to do for the team, then great.

SA: While you were fitness coach, there were many examples of the team coming back late in games, famously at the 2010 World Cup against Slovenia and Algeria, and also in qualifying play. Wouldn’t that point to a very fit team?

PIERRE BARRIEU: Perhaps, but how much of it is fitness? It’s also attributable to the medical staff, the coaches, substitution, the team spirit …

SA: Klinsmann said the U.S. players need “more physical speed, more sharpness, more mental speed, more reaction speed.” Considering players spend the vast majority of time with their clubs, how much can national team coaches do to increase their players' “physical speed” -- or improve their fitness in general?

PIERRE BARRIEU: Any time there is the word “speed” or speed training or speed work in a question then you could take 24 hours talking about this because it means so many things, and there are so many ways to influence the speed factor.

It depends on what type of camp you’re talking about. If it’s a three-day camp on a single fixture, the margin of improvement would be limited. If you’re talking about a double-fixture with one week, there are things you can do on the field to at least try and improve one particular type of fitness.

If you have a long camp, like a pre-World Cup, you can do it. If you’re talking about building strength, speed, running technique -- that takes time to develop.

There is one aspect of speed that you can really at least improve if you do the right kind of work. It’s the neural aspect -- the nerve response to any type of stimuli. Especially with a player who doesn’t do that type of training, yes, you can get improvement over a short time period. When you talk about mental speed – that’s trained only on the soccer field. It’s not trained in the gym.

SA: Is there a point where fitness training is going to have a negative effect considering that players are coming into camp in the middle of a strenuous club season, perhaps arriving after a significant amount of travel?

PIERRE BARRIEU: Absolutely. Too much definitely doesn’t mean better when it comes to physical work. Again, it’s a complicated topic.

Workouts matter, but it doesn’t matter unless you give them time to recover -- the time to actually benefit.

Clearly it’s possible to overload players. This is an area where the newer technology has been very effective in preventing doing too much by monitoring the players on a daily basis.

When you go to the national team, overtraining shouldn’t cross your mind because you don’t have the players long enough. It could be a problem if you don’t factor in the travel time and the time zones. I don’t imagine this being a problem for the U.S. players or U.S. teams.

SA: Klinsmann has also emphasized nutritional education for his players. Was it ever a problem during your tenure as U.S. fitness coach that players weren’t eating right?

PIERRE BARRIEU: Not really. These guys are adults. You probably get these issues with younger players. But our U.S. players are, for the most part, educated.

You know their eating habits. You provide them with good, balanced meals. They’re responsible and also pretty smart.

But this is an area on the list of fitness coaching you have to keep an eye on. You have to try to do your best and usually when you approach them with the issue they respond.

You cannot overlook it. But it’s never been thought to be a problem for us before.

Can a little progress, on a case-by-base basis, be made in this area? I think so, sure. Maybe a player can pick up something even if he heard it before but it didn’t resonate the first time. The more mature they become, they more receptive they become.

SA: What are the unique challenges of training the USA?

PIERRE BARRIEU: Definitely the distance. You have four times zones. You have five hours flying from the East Coast to West Coast. You have players playing in Europe.

Those are logistic challenges, but American players are great players to coach. They’re level-headed. They’re good pros. That part is very easy. It’s more logistics, and things like jet-lag.

SA: Was it common -- when not injury-related -- that you felt players came into to U.S. camp from MLS or foreign clubs in midseason and were not fit enough to perform to the standards necessary for the U.S. national team?

PIERRE BARRIEU: My first instinct would be to say no. But then you have to make a lot of distinctions. Are we talking about a big World Cup qualifier? A double-fixture when you have one week to prepare the team and to think about who will make the final roster? Then the answer is probably no, because you would monitor the situation well before the call-up.

If a player is injured, then he’s probably not coming in. But if there is a little question mark of someone who’s a starter, then I relied on a network of coaches. You talk to the player, you talk to the coach, the assistant coach -- triple-cross your sources and find out what the real situation is.

By the time he comes in, 95 percent of the time you know exactly what to expect.

If you call someone in who you expect is not in optimal shape, it’s most likely because he’s been hurt or he’s not starting for his team. Then you plan something in advance for him to prepare and try to catch up. This is really not something that we had problems with over my 10 years with U.S. Soccer.

SA: In 2012, are there any methods to getting players optimally fit that not all national team coaches know about?

PIERRE BARRIEU: I do not talk on behalf of all national team coaches. But when you get to a level of expertise that every national team coach is expected to have, now I would assume that these so-called experts not only know their basics, but they know their job inside-out.

At the end of the day, when you’re a fitness coach, you may not believe in the same things. You may stress one area as opposed to another one, and the other coach may do the same. Every fitness coach has his own recipe.

There are so many things that you can work on, you have to prioritize and you also have to have your own method because you know it works or you think it works.

Methods are different. Science, when you talk about big national teams, where they have access to technology and financial backing, I would say the science is the same. The choice of method can differ.

SA: Do you think you could get a player fitter in 2012 than you could have in 2002 -- or 1992, or 1982?

PIERRE BARRIEU: Obviously, the technology evolves, so you always have to stay up to date. That’s for sure.

Does this mean that this coach, or that coach, or my method has evolved at the same pace as technology? Probably not so true. I think the basis of my method has stayed the same.

The technology is a training tool that allows you to check if what you’re doing is working, and go one direction or another.

In theory, you could say in 2012 there are more ways to control that your players are fit than in 2002. Is he ultimately fitter? I would like believe the answer is yes, but the difference would be really small.

SA: What are your favorite memories from your time with the USA national team?

PIERRE BARRIEU: The 2002 World Cup -- the win against Portugal is really where it all started for me and to some extent for the team and the teams to follow.

I remember, for example, working every single day in the gym with Landon Donovan and Brian McBride, among others. ... I had only been with the senior team for six months. Portugal was No. 3 in the world and the USA was coming off not such a good 1998 World Cup. A lot of things were clicking and we were up 3-0 after 35 minutes. [The USA won, 3-2, paving the way to a quarterfinal appearance.] ...

Then the Algeria game at the 2010 World Cup. We hadn’t lost a game but we might be going home after the first round. Then Landon scores in stoppage time.

I had put so much time in this game because I was in charge of scouting England and Algeria. So it was great – winning the game and winning the group. …

And of course the Confederations Cup win over Spain. This is Spain we beat!

SOCCER AMERICA: How’s life and coaching in the United Arab Emirates?

PIERRE BARRIEU: I like the UAE. There were more things than I imagined to get used to. And now it’s great. The standard of living is extremely high. The kids are at school. All your logistics are taken care of -- driver’s license, car, and the GPS works! We’re hitting our stride.

SA: What’s your role with the national team?

PIERRE BARRIEU: To be the fitness coach and assistant coach, and help the coaching schools -- similar to what I did for U.S. Soccer, for which I set up the Fitness License and was helping with the A, B and C licenses.

There was a head coaching change since I started here, and because I had FIFA experience, my coaching responsibilities increased.

The experience of coaching World Cup qualifying in a different confederation [Asia] has been good. So has been discovering and adapting to different coaching philosophies as well as getting in touch with some big-name coaches from all over the world.

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