From fairytale with the Foxes to triumphs in Toronto
Written by Simon Austin — October 17, 2017
Tom Williams is in his second season as Head of Strength and Conditioning at Toronto FC, who have just finished top of the MLS Eastern Conference. He left Leicester City in January 2016, halfway through the most famous season in their history. We asked him what it's been like to work for the MLS record-setters:
How did the move to Toronto come about?
TW: Toronto were searching for a strength coach for more than a year and I was recommended by Dr Jeremy Bettle, the Director of High Performance at the Toronto Maple Leafs (who have the same owners). We had met at Leicester City for a CPD day, about a year before he took the role. From there, I had a call from Jim Liston, the Director of Sport Science at Toronto FC, and we shared the same vision and beliefs of athletic development and building a culture of excellence throughout a club. After a visit to the city, a tour of the facility and meeting the staff here, it was evident that the ambitions of everyone involved were to bring a Championship to the city.
Was it a difficult decision to go there?
It’s never easy to move on. I had a great time at Leicester City with a great staff, but I have always been keen to experience different cultures and see how different departments operate. When I heard that Toronto FC were interested in me, it was too good an opportunity to pass up to work with some incredible staff both on and off the field. And the vision of the club was something that really made the transition easier.
How was the transition?
At Leicester it was a great experience to be involved in an extremely successful club with a commitment to building a strong Academy philosophy and structure. Moving back into a first team environment with Toronto FC wasn’t difficult at all, as the club were very open to new ways of thinking and developing a top-down approach to athlete development. Within the performance department, we oversee all the physical development for the first team, all the way down to our youngest age group, the U11s.
I see this as a fundamental part of a successful physical pathway, as no mixed messages are sent to players and there is a clear pathway ahead for each individual athlete. The Academy structure in MLS is growing rapidly with clubs placing more and more emphasis on developing youth players for the first team. Currently 30% of the Toronto FC squad have come through the Academy system.
What are the main differences between being a practitioner in the Premier League and MLS?
In the UK, the 'Strength Coach' is generally seen as the 'Gym Guy', at least in my experience. In the MLS, the Strength & Conditioning coach oversees a great deal more: the monitoring of players including wearable technology, wellbeing intake tools and player tracking for example. My role involves the delivery of all physical elements including warm up routines, recovery sessions, along with the strength and conditioning sessions.
So I feel the role combines the traditional sport scientist and the strength coach into one. Personally, I feel this a good thing, as it allows me to build stronger relationships with the athletes in all areas of physical development, rather than being pigeonholed into one specific area. The travel schedule has been a new challenge for me though. Travelling to various states all over North America poses a fundamental challenge in terms of preparation and recovery.
Flights vary from two to six hours, with time differences of up to three hours and temperatures below freezing or above 40. A great deal of emphasis is placed on hydration and compression whilst in the air; yoga or aqua therapy to recover from the flight; and acclimatising to environments begins upon landing in the away city.
As a performance department, we place a large emphasis on how we prepare the players for these situations, and in the last two seasons we have held the best away record in the league, with most goals scored and points accumulated.
How do facilities compare?
We are fortunate to have a very forward-thinking management team who make investment in resources a priority. We use GPS and heart rate daily with the first team, reserve team and Academy senior teams, along with a state-of-the-art training facility with hydrotherapy suites and two fully functional strength rooms. It is our vision as a club to become a leader in innovation in the MLS. Investing in key resources and committed people should allow this vision to become a reality.
Is there much of a crossover between sports in Toronto?
We are lucky to be in a very sporting city, with the Raptors and the Maple Leafs here along with the Blue Jays. Having the ability to interact and talk best practice with the staff at these clubs is a luxury, but also a fundamental part of our development. As a department, we have also built strong links with the other clubs’ performance departments.
We have also built a relationship with The University of Toronto, where we collaborate on research topics, welcome students and advise on practical elements of applied sports science modules. Sport in North America is most definitely a lifestyle. Big cities like Toronto live and breathe every sports team, win, lose or draw. In the grand scheme of pro sports, football is up against the powerhouses of the NFL, NBA and MLB, but the league is still in its infancy compared to the European leagues. As it continues to develop and grow it will soon compete with some of the best in the world.
What can English football learn from the MLS?
One major difference between the MLS and UK football is the Academy and collegiate systems. There are various pathways to become a professional in North America: some graduate from the Academy system, as in the UK, but certain players who may slip under the radar initially or develop later on have the option to play in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Each year, major sports in North America select athletes from the draft system, where collegiate athletes are showcased and teams can recruit them based on picks/trades etc. Having another avenue to become a professional is something to be considered and I believe that athletes who have learned independently, met deadlines and generally fended for themselves come to clubs potentially more mature.
A great example of this is 19-year-old Jack Harrison, who left Manchester United Academy at the age of 14 to be schooled in the US. He moved on to Wake Forest University and in 2016 he was first pick in the MLS SuperDraft, where he was drafted to New York City FC. Recently he was called up to the England Under-21 squad. I think within the Academy system, more emphasis should be placed on developing well-rounded individuals, with education and real-life skills to the fore.
These are a fundamental part of human growth. People talk about developing intelligent football players. For me, this means players who can think for themselves, make good decisions and execute at a high level. If this is done on a day-to-day basis, not just on the training field, then a culture change will eventually occur and we will be developing young professionals with a broader skill set.
Having David Villa and Andrea Pirlo around to train with and learn from has obviously been a huge benefit for Jack too. He has adapted well to a different country with a different culture, so credit to him.