‘Training is first of all educating.’ Fernando Signorini Diego Maradona’s fitness coach – Olympic Strength & Conditioning Coaches interviewed Episode 115
Fernando Signorini, best known for being Diego Maradona’s personal fitness coach outlines his journey into strength & conditioning. His 5 decades of experience training the best football players in the world including Lionel Messi, Jürgen Klinsmann, Diego Milito, Javier Mascherano, and many more.
Furthermore, we discuss
- How he got into strength and conditioning
- His best moment
- His worst moment
- His advice to a younger Fernando Signorini
- His advice to young aspiring strength and conditioning coaches
- His your training philosophy
- The person that has influenced him the most
- Diego Maradona’s physical preparation
- The difference between Diego and Maradona
- The challenges in the life of Diego Maradona
- The common traits of the best football players in the world
- How to gain an athlete’s trust
- A typical day in the life of a strength and conditioning coach
- What’s going on in the life of Fernando Signorini at the moment
- How to design a training program
- His interview nomination
- Where can you find Fernando Signorini
Christian: Today I’m joined by Fernando Signorini. Fernando has 5 decades of experience in strength and conditioning preparing football players for 49 years. Fernando’s bio includes the who is who of football, eleven years personal coach of Diego Maradona, but also coached Lionel Messi, Mascherano, Milito, Klinsmann, and many more. This interview will be in Spanish. You can find the subtitles under this interview or the text on my website.
Let’s welcome Fernando. Welcome.
Fernando: Hi, how are you, Christian? Good afternoon.
How he got into strength and conditioning
Christian: I’m very good. Fernando, with so much experience in professional sports, you went to four World Cups, you trained the best players of the world. Where and how did it all start? How did you start the path of being a strength and conditioning coach?
Fernando: I lived in a town in the middle of the Argentine Pampa, in Lincoln. It has the name, precisely, of the former American president, it was named to honor of him after his death.
In the year 1971, the career of national Physical Education teacher was opened, and at that time there were no possibilities of traveling. Buenos Aires was still much further away than now because there were practically no roads back then, it was all much more complicated, and there were no faculties, there were no universities.
And when that career in physical education opened, I signed up, and I graduated in the year 1973. It was a 3 years course, and I always had in mind that I was going to specialize in soccer as a team sport and tennis as an individual sport, so I started working in the second year of my degree, in the year 1972, in a club in my city of Rivadavia de Lincoln, and I was there for 10 years.
I always had in mind that I was going to specialize in soccer as team sport.
I also worked in another club called Atlético Quiroga, which was a locality near Partido de Nueve de Julio, which is another city in the west, in the humid Pampa, and in the year 1983, I, along with my wife, who was a teacher and tennis player, traveled to Barcelona because I wanted to have an experience in the European football that was talked about so much and about which there was so little information.
Because at that time, the matches were practically not televised, so I chose Barcelona because there was the coach who had seduced me the most, not only with his football proposal but also because of the ethical way of understanding the sporting event when he said that although it was very important to win, the means used to achieve the end we’re still more important.
That coach was César Luis Menotti, who was at that time as coach of FC Barcelona where Diego Maradona played. Menotti had been champion in Argentine soccer in the year 1973 with Huracán, perhaps one of the best teams in the total history of Argentine soccer, or at least in the recent decades.
I wanted to have experience in the European football, and I chose Barcelona because there was César Luis Menotti, who was at that time as coach of FC Barcelona where Diego Maradona played.
And later in 1978, he was the coach who won the World Champion with Argentina in that remembered final against the Netherlands in the River Plate stadium, against a Netherlands team that, fortunately for the Argentines, did not have Johan Cruyff, because, otherwise, the story would have been different.
His best moment
Christian: Ok. In your life as a strength and conditioning coach, what was the best moment?
Fernando: Surely the moments that are most remembered are the achievements of the players that you have the privilege and the luck to coach. The World Cup in Mexico 1986, that was the highlight of Diego’s career and where he certainly gained popularity worldwide.
The World Cup in Mexico 1986, that was the highlight of Diego’s career and where he certainly gained popularity worldwide.
But also the achievements with SSC Napoli, a team that in its life had practically won nothing, and he with his arrival at the club put Napoli on the soccer map of the world, made it known and recognized, made it win or helped it win two Scudettos, a UEFA Cup, an Italian Super Cup, and the Italian Cup.
Those were the moments that are most remembered, precisely because of the importance of the achievements.
His worst moment
Christian: What was the worst moment?
Fernando: The worst moment, perhaps it also coincided with the suspension, first in Napoli in the match against Bari, where Diego was disqualified for a year and a half for having found a cocaine metabolite in the blood analysis.
And then, when he said that they cut off his legs at the World Cup 1994 in the United States. Fundamentally, this was even more painful, because Diego had made a monumental effort to be able to get to what was going to be his last World Cup in the best shape.
And yet I believe in a fact that is still more full of doubts than certainty, more full of shadows than lights, he was left out in what for me was a clear instrumentalization that was made to the players when the players have the bad idea of rebelling against the power.
As long as one is politically correct, as long as one is consistent and shut up, you will have good luck, but if you oppose and are critical of the established power, sooner or later, you will have problems.
What happened to Diego in that case, since that lemon still had juice, and they had to keep squeezing him. When he stopped having it, then they threw him in the trash, he was no longer useful to them.
Diego had made a monumental effort to be able to get to what was going to be his last World Cup, 1994 in the United States in the best shape, and then they cut off his legs because he was rebelling against the power.
Christian: And why do you think they cut off his legs?
Fernando: Precisely because of that, because already in the 1986 World Cup, he had said that in those conditions of extreme temperature, lower partial pressure of oxygen because of high altitude, that they could not play at noon to privilege television rights because surely in the center of the court, in the sun it was 50 ºC, the players were not going to be able to perform at their best.
And that was also a kind of scam to the public, who was attending and who was watching because the players were not going to be able to express at their best level. Precisely, when we began Diego’s preparation for that World Cup, in the beginning of March 1986, I told him that due to the weather conditions this was going to be his World Cup.
It had to be his World Cup because all those problems were not going to allow opponents the persecutory mark that had given so much annoyance in the previous World Cup in Spain in 1982.
And this was the case, except in the final match against Germany, in which Germany shortened the spaces forward a little more and reduced Diego’s space, and he didn’t find so many solutions.
But in general, in most matches, they could not put a personal mark to pursue him because it was practically impossible, due, I repeat, to the weather conditions, and in in that context, Diego was the one who said, along with Jorge Valdano, that they couldn’t play that way. And the president, who was Brazilian João Havelange at the time, said that the players may shut up and play, and that was a big mistake.
I think they shouldn’t have played, they shouldn’t have kept quiet, they should have stopped the World Cup in the middle of the World Cup. All the players from all the teams in the world agreed, and see who was more important if the leaders or footballers.
Who was going to play? Havelange wasn’t going to play because he’d made people laugh. Also, he had a very prominent belly. So, the fact the players become like that, facing the power.
They began to take into account that there was an Argentine player who was very wayward, who was very rebellious, and they had to be careful with him. But on the other hand, he was also the magnet that attracted crowds to stadiums and made people all over the world watch television to see him.
Diego was very rebellious, but on the other hand, he was the magnet that attracted crowds to stadiums and made people all over the world watch television, just to see him.
It was like, let’s leave him for now, sooner or later we will cut his legs, and sooner or later they were cut off, it was at the 1994 World Cup, when, I repeat, the lemon no longer had any juice.
His advice to a younger Fernando Signorini
Christian: If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give your young self?
Fernando: To try to enjoy every moment of the privilege I had because, furthermore, this profession of strength and conditioning coach for team sports players didn’t exist, much less in football.
That was invented by Diego as a result of the injury he had in September 1983 in Barcelona, and the privileged one was me. So I would tell him that, that the world of sports in general, not only football, is first of all, as César Luis Menotti once said, a wonderful excuse to be happy.
The profession of a strength and conditioning coach for team sports players didn’t exist, much less in football. It was invented by Diego as a result of the injury he had in September 1983 in Barcelona, and the privileged one was me.
And as such you have to take it, you have to put aside the symbolic and implicit violence that is unleashed in the stands in many parts of the world. In Argentina, in a youth soccer match, a fight broke out, and the father of one of the players, who came to his aid because he was being beaten, was killed by a blow to the head.
So, I say that sport was born with the idea of improving and preserving the health, not only physical but also mental, of those who practice it, not putting it at risk. And today I believe that in all professional sports, due to the demands of the media, the highest value in anyone’s life, is health, and it’s being put at risk. See how it is.
I can’t understand that in the third millennium of the Christian era, in the UFC, inside a wire cage, men and women risk their lives, gouge out their eyes, teeth, break their nasal septum to try to build a better future for them, there is no better future like this.
If the system is not capable of developing alternatives or possibilities so that people can earn a decent living and not risk it that way, then it seems to me that humanity itself is in serious trouble.
His advice to young aspiring strength and conditioning coaches
Christian: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to be a strength and conditioning coach?
Fernando: That first of all, you have to try to understand football and footballers. At least in Argentina, football is a cultural construction of the popular classes, and the boys who live in those places, as was the case with Diego, Riquelme, Tévez, Agüero, Ortega, have been great players.
Why? Because in those places there were no other possibilities, they had to play football for 8 and even 10 hours a day. They couldn’t maybe be basketball players because they didn’t have height, nor athletes either because athletics is not developed in Argentina either.
Diego, Riquelme, Tévez, Agüero, Ortega, have been great players because they lived in places where there were no other possibilities, they had to play football for 8 and even 10 hours a day.
They could only be footballers or boxers, The problem is that of thousands and thousands that begin, very few ends. So, I would say that the role of the coach is first of all, beyond knowing about physiology, biomechanics, neuroscience, I think that what he has to try to learn the most is football, to lead the player to play better tomorrow than today, and also help him from every point of view.
Because training is first of all educating, but nevertheless, many times the players are not educated because the system pretends them the stupider the better, that way they are much easier to handle.
Training is first of all educating.
They fill their pockets with money but empty their brains and hearts so that they neither think nor feel the class commitment that they have to defend at all times and respect the history of football, because they are now thanks to what others were before.
His training philosophy
Christian: What is your training philosophy?
Fernando: I have always had the opportunity to work with those coaches who aimed at what I was saying before, that the team have an idea and can develop it, and all the work that I had to do was referred to developing those possibilities, to helping them through complementary work, to discovering the secrets in order to play in favor of efficiency.
As César Menotti says, the more the technical coach knows, the less the strength and conditioning coach works. José Mourinho, in his book “Mourinho: Why so many victories?” He says: “I would not have a job to give to a conventional strength and conditioning coach because the problem is not running more, but knowing how to run.”
Pep Guardiola himself says that all the time before, and he agrees with Johan Cruyff on that when he says that the time that has to be invested in learning to discover the secrets of the game.
Today it’s simply used to try to develop muscles, but the main muscle that the soccer player must have is his intelligence to be able to handle time, distance, and deception, of the four fundamental actions that soccer has, which is to defend, recover, generate and define.
The main muscle that the soccer player must have is his intelligence to be able to handle time, distance, and deception.
Otherwise, I believe that saying strength and conditioning coach is a reductionism, it is a theme that was adapted from athletics because the athlete does, the athlete has to prepare physically.
All a sprinter has to do is prepare to run the distance in the shortest time possible, and then he routinely trains the same movement every day to try to gain hundredths of a second at the start, on how to stand up little by little and how to make his race on a lifeline that protects him from any blow, nobody can cross because would be disqualified.
He will not have to slow down, start, turn, jump, choose whether to pass to the right, to the left or suffer the blow. The footballer is exposed to all that. In addition, athletics does not awaken in people that sense of belonging that often turns into violence due to disappointments.
Because it seems to everyone that with our eyes, from the stands, we are all capable of not losing a ball and playing very well, but soccer has sociological implications that emotionally alter the player in a way that is completely different from what it does to any athlete in any discipline.
The person that has influenced him the most
Christian: Who is the person who has influenced you the most as a coach?
Fernando: Without a doubt César Menotti. He has an enormous capacity for synthesis, and he transforms a movement into a concept through observation, with which he can later develop into a method.
César Menotti has an enormous capacity to transform a movement into a concept and later develop it into a method.
There were others too, and there still are, because I always try to get closer to those who know better than I do. Because it is the best way to be all the best you can be. So, at the time, Dr. Oliva, who was Diego’s personal doctor, who was also a doctor of Menotti’s coaching staff in the 78’ and ’82 World Cups.
Also Ángel Cappa. And then very important books, as Mourinho’s book, then from Johan Cruyff, the whole story of Rinus Michels here in Argentina. I have a friend who worked for 3 years with Rinus Michels at Ajax in the Netherlands, his name is Héctor Ronald Chavero, and he is a world-class guy in training young people.
However, he is ostracized in Argentina, because he attempts against the mediocrity that he cost so much to achieve in Argentina. Imagine, a person who spent 3 years with a world football saint such as Rinus and is not taken advantage of.
In addition, he has friendships with most of the great coaches and best historical players of that golden age of the Netherlands. However, they don’t even call him for an interview. I have also learned a lot of concepts from Héctor. I always try to be attentive.
There are also others that I don’t know but that I would also be interested in knowing, despite the fact that what their teams express on the field is a way, a guide to realizing that they are really on the line or we modulate the same frequency, such as, Paco Seirul·lo, who is a legendary coach of FC Barcelona players.
Diego Maradona’s physical preparation
Christian: You coached the best soccer player ever, Diego Maradona. How was the physical preparation with him? How did you do it?
Fernando: First of all, when you want to help someone, the first thing you have to try to do is get to know the person. Get to know them in-depth, not just from a physical point of view.
- Also check out the interview ‘My job is to help express the athlete’s ability come game day.’ With the Head of Strength & Conditioning of the All Blacks Dr. Nic Gill https://christianbosse.com/nic-gill-interview/ , who outlines the most important thing as a coach is to know your players.
I once said that a gram of brain tissue weighs more than 80 kilos of muscle. So, from that point of view, if the emotional part is not well due to any problem, any anguish that the player may suffer, it is useless to force the physical part.
A gram of brain tissue weighs more than 80 kilos of muscle.
However, there are very few coaches who have or who put the point on this issue, that every morning or every afternoon in training they ask the players “How are you?”, “Did you sleep well?”, “Did you digest well?”.
Because if you are not in good condition, everything I can make you do is going to be something that has nothing to do with your state of form at that moment, be it physical or psychological, right?
So, I think the first thing to develop is a relationship of absolute honesty, of absolute trust, of absolute loyalty with the player. If you are his personal coach, or with the team, if you are the team manager, but you practically have to dedicate yourself from the vocation, from the love for that, to try to help him from every point of view.
The difference between Diego and Maradona
Christian: A question about the life of Diego Maradona. I read an interview to you where you made a difference between Diego and Maradona. What is the difference for you?
Fernando: Diego was the nice, witty, creative boy, a tremendous person, with tremendous tenderness in dealing with his friends, with his family, mischievous, as we say in Argentina.
Maradona was the character that he had to invent and develop to face everything that was demanded and asked of him when he became an idol first, and then a worldwide icon.
Diego was the nice, witty, creative boy, with tremendous tenderness in dealing with his friends and his family. Maradona was the character that he had to invent and develop to face everything that was demanded and asked of him when he became a worldwide icon.
He was practically the first product of globalization on a global scale. He became the best-known man in the world. I’m not saying the most important, but the best known, and no one had prepared him for that.
When he lived in Villa Fiorito, there was no Argentine president to ask his parents if they needed anything, and there was no Pope to invite him to the Vatican. Now, later, when he returned with the World Cup, he inexplicably ended up on the balcony of the government house, when the natural place of soccer players has to be either the field or, at most, the main identity, the Argentine Association of Football.
That was another clear instrumentalization of the success of these boys who, I repeat when they live in those humble neighborhoods that don’t exist in the Netherlands, that doesn’t exist in Belgium, they don’t exist in first world countries, they, unfortunately, exist in this third world. The same people who celebrate them in victory are the people who despise them when they live in those places.
The challenges in the life of Diego Maradona
Christian: A question that interests me personally, because Diego was my idol. If you get to a place like him, where you are almost a demi-god, I imagine that it’s very difficult not to go crazy. Since you were always by his side, what was your experience with him?
Fernando: It was an experience not only very rich but also unexpected, and almost mind-boggling at times because there was no place in the world where he wasn’t famous.
There was no place in the world where he wasn’t famous.
In Japan and the United States, we have been and still, football was not important, at least at that time, but even there everyone knew him. And then I remember him having gone to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, and the passion was uncontrolled.
They put him inside a limousine and the people, all dressed in white, climbed on the roof of the car, on the trunk, on top of the engine because they wanted to see him, they rested their noses on the glass, and we were like a fish in there, and he had to endure practically 45 years because from the age of 15 he began to be Maradona.
The common traits of the best football players in the world
Christian: You trained with the best players in the world. What are the things they have in common, in your experience?
Fernando: The thing they have in common, above all, is the love for what they do. For this reason, many times when they say “a soccer player retires”. That’s not true, they don’t retire, they are soccer players until the last day of their life.
Above all, it’s the love for what they do. Soccer players never retire, they are soccer players until the last day of their life.
What happens is that they are already grown up and there is no coach who has the courage to put them on a team but go ask Gullit, Van Basten, Rijkaard, or any of the greats of the Netherlands, they are still players.
Later, they re-invent themselves as a coach, or General Director of soccer, or sports journalist, because they always, always have to be very close to the ball, very close to the field of play.
The adrenaline is high, the accustoming that produces the habit is high, which is practically born with the first years of life. It is very difficult to be unaware of all that, and then conditions to play this sport that can’t be explained, they just can’t be explained.
They are born to be admired because you can have players of great stature like these 3 Dutch that I told you before, who were football phenomena, but you also have boys like Diego, like Lio Messi, like Iniesta, like Xavi, who are a little bit taller than the dwarves and they also play like the gods.
Football is the most democratic, the most generous of games, and it is a game that is much, much more linked to artistic fact than to scientific fact. It’s not like cycling or athletics, where science has a lot, a lot to do with super high performance.
Not in football, as much as they want to confuse everyone with these drones, GPS, neuroscience. If they had had all those advances, what player would have been Pelé, Garrincha, Maradona or Rijkaard or Gullit?
I think that on the contrary, they would have been confused because they would have put their interest in something else, and the interest is in trying to play better and better, and that has absolutely nothing to do with science.
How to gain an athlete’s trust
Christian: You talked about the emotion and that the player must trust you. When you start working with someone, what are the ways to gain this trust?
Fernando: As Bielsa once said, all human beings and players too, we have a kind of board in our heads, and you have to know which button to touch to get the answer that you want to get.
All human beings and players too, we have a kind of board in our heads, and you have to know which button to touch to get the answer that you want to get.
But since each one is different, what helps you the most is the dialogue, to say them, I ask them “let’s have a coffee”, or “let’s go to have a beer”, and we go to talk. So, let’s talk about it, and then you say something you think they are interested in.
Talk about life, about the life of your family, if you have children if you don’t have if you have a wife, if you have your parents or if you lost them, what that loss represented, that the player realizes that you are interested in them.
Because afterward, to pretend to prepare them simply from the physical point of view, it is to have understood absolutely nothing of the human being. I believe that the most important part of the physical preparation, since everything is important, is not from the neck down, it is from the neck up.
The player needs to realize that you are interested in them. Because the most important part of the physical preparation is not from the neck down, it is from the neck up.
That’s where you have to target, and in general with people, and also soccer players. There may be exceptions, as in any rule, but they are tremendously intelligent, intuitive people and they know how to realize it.
It is maybe like an animal that knows if the owner is going to treat it well or is going to treat it badly and reacts accordingly. If you treat it badly, it will surely try to bite you, and if you treat it well, even if it’s a lion, you can put it in your arms.
I believe that human relationships, first of all, is about that, the fact of gaining trust, and you gain trust through things that are closely linked to the truth, because when you lie and they discover you, then there is like the relationship will not be the same.
Christian: Yes, and you can never get it back, right?
A typical day in the life of a strength and conditioning coach
Christian: How does a day in the life of a strength and conditioning coach like?
Fernando: I don’t know, what typical days are. I know what a day in my life is like. It must be fun, entertaining because they are supposed to be doing what they like, right?
You start from that premise. When you do what you like, then there is no way to have a bad time, to get bored. We are doing what we like to do and that is a privilege. How many millions of people in the world surely would like to have or enjoy the privilege that we enjoy?
We are doing what we like to do and that is a privilege. How many millions of people in the world surely would like to have or enjoy the privilege that we enjoy?
So, there is nothing to complain about. Of course, we face injustices committed by leaders, journalists showing disrespect, the security with which they treat you, but that is why it is very nice to be among sportspeople who are the true protagonists.
Besides, journalists and some of the leaders there are people who are really worth it, but today, unfortunately, those who have the most press or those who have the most influence on the sport, given the degree of degradation in which it is found are those who don’t really meet those conditions linked to the ethics that is claimed and is needed to be in this activity.
What’s going on in the life of Fernando Signorini at the moment
Christian: What happens in the life of Fernando Signorini of the moment?
Fernando: Now, with this pandemic you can imagine, we are all limited in an unexpected way, with many more doubts than certainties, at least in Argentina. One thing is said, and then another thing is done.
Today I read that several countries of Europe face an increasing number of victims, and that has us quite limited, but there is always time or ideas to entertain, read, write, watch some interesting movie, work on putting together content for César Luis Menotti’s coaching school, so I have enough reasons to be entertained.
How to design a training program
Christian: Good. Last question about training. How do you design a training program?
Fernando: It is very difficult, Christian because first, you have to know the team in-depth. Then you have to take into account who the technical coach is because if the coach is really important, he is not going to let his strength and conditioning coach do as he wants.
He can consult him on some things, but ultimately, the one who is going to postulate the idea of what he is going to do is the coach and you have to adapt. That is why it has to be a coaching staff where people have an absolute understanding and conviction of the idea that is being pursued and act accordingly, but in no way can the strength and conditioning coach be the one to carry out the training plans.
In the places where it happens, it means then that things are not being done very well.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone for an interview?
Fernando: I would suggest to you, because he is very, very interesting and because he is going to give you a vision of Argentine football enriched with everything he achieved through that relationship with Michels and 3 years in the Netherlands, Héctor Chavero.
I can put you in contact with him because, in addition, for him, it will be a recognition that will surely make him very happy, because he is someone who can contribute a lot, and he is also a very good friend, a close friend of César Luis Menotti, Ángel Cappa, and at 83 years old, and he has so many, so many things to transmit and to teach us.
Christian: Very cool.
Where can you find Fernando Signorini
Christian: Where can people find you?
Fernando: I have an Instagram. Honestly, I don’t like social networks, but my friends insist, then there is one who tweets for me, the other manages my Instagram.
I erased my Facebook account because it’s crap, so you can find me in the book I wrote in 2014, which is called “Football, call to rebellion, dehumanization of sport”, by Corregidor publishing house in Argentina, which is not translated into any language, but whoever knows and understands Spanish can read it.
Fernando Signorini’s social profiles
Christian: Very good. Fernando, thank you very much for your time and for sharing your experience.
Fernando: Christian, a big hug and take good care of yourself because, although we are better, we are trying to combat the same problem, which is quite a lot, it is a real nightmare.
Christian: One day we’ll meet in Buenos Aires.
Fernando: Better in Amsterdam or Rotterdam, but hey, if it’s around here it’s going to be a pleasure anyway.
Christian: Do you prefer the Netherlands? I prefer Bueno Aires. Fernando, thank you very much.
Fernando: A huge hug, see you soon.