‘You have to use all the tools for the best possible outcome for the individual athlete.’ Loris Bertolacci – Olympic Strength & Conditioning Coaches interviewed Episode 86
Loris Bertolacci, a strength & conditioning coach with more than 4 decades of experience in professional sports and Olympic sports shares the story of how he lost his job with a professional football club and how his brand was damaged in the process.
Loris outlines how he chooses his staff, the opportunities the fitness industry offers for young S & C coaches, the 3 sports you need to dominate to have the skillset for a well-rounded S & C coach, and why he believes multi-skilling is the key quality for S & C coaches of the future.
Furthermore, we discuss
- How life was before the world realized that core stability is the basis for everything
- How he got into Strength & Conditioning
- His darkest moment
- His best moment
- His advice to a younger Loris Bertolacci
- His advice to young aspiring Strength & Conditioning coaches
- The importance of multi-skilling
- How he stayed motivated as an S and C coach for more than 4 decades
- The qualities he looked for when hiring Strength & Conditioning coaches
- His coaching philosophy
- His core values
- The person that has influenced him most
- A typical day in the life of a Strength & Conditioning coach
- The differences between working in Olympic sports vs professional sports
- How to design a training program
- His interview nomination
- Where can you find Loris Bertolacci
Christian: Today I’m joined by Loris Bertolacci. Loris’ name has been mentioned twice already, once by David Jones and once by Ann Quinn.
Loris is a fellow Strength and Conditioning Coach with more than four decades of experience in strength and conditioning, working with Olympic sports and professional sports.
Loris: Thank you very much for the opportunity to check with you, Christian. That’s fantastic.
How life was before the world realized that core stability is the basis for everything
Christian: Loris, considering you’ve been around for four decades, how was life before we realized that all you need for strength and conditioning is core stability and the ability to activate your TA, and on top of that, that every athlete is somehow deficient in that area?
Loris: Yes, it seemed like before we didn’t have any glutes and we couldn’t fire our glutes, you wonder how people went to the toilet, back in the days? I suppose I’ve been pretty lucky, because I’ve gone through all the phases where I was just a maniac in the gym, myself as an athlete, and then obviously I lifted heavy weights.
I did get sucked into the whole Pilates and core stability thing, the Paul Check thing in the late nineties. My head got scrambled a little bit and I went too far down that path, but that only lasted about two years before I realized I was making some big mistakes.
I did get sucked into the whole Pilates and core stability thing, and I went too far down that path, before I realized I was making some big mistakes.
It’s a bit crazy now, isn’t it? That whole area has got its place, but it’s more for rehabilitation, to be honest. There’s quite a dichotomy, or a misinterpretation of what it means when you’re training a young athlete, a young boy, for example doing an arabesque.
It’s an exercise; it could be a squat. You’re not activating TA, so people get really mixed up, In terms of very light exercise versus TA. I have to say that I did work in the Pilates area. I am a bit of a geek and at one point I was doing ultrasounds on the transverse abdominis.
In very extreme rehab situations, there’s real validity in that whole area. But you can’t go around the athletics’ track holding TA with your fingers down your pants.
How he got into Strength & Conditioning
Christian: How did you get into strength and conditioning?
Loris: I actually remember when I was in school when I was doing sport and I’d be playing football, or I was in the last year of my schooling, I just seem to be organizing groups and helping people. I look back and remember that.
As an athlete in my athletics club, I was a hammer thrower, shot putter and I was at university, I used to write programs in those days in the athletics clubs. It was just a normal athletics suburban club in Melbourne. I was always writing programs, helping people, and showing them how to do the Olympic lifts or whatever.
Then I went to Italy to train in the late seventies. I was lucky to be involved in that whole era when the Russians were there and I’ve learned a lot. I came back and I was teaching people all the time.
As an athlete in my athletics club, I was always writing programs, I was helping people and showing them how to do the Olympic lifts, I was teaching people all the time.
So that was a start, but I wasn’t doing a formal strength and conditioning course. I was at university and I was actually a total dropout. I just dropped out about three courses.
I did science. I actually did start with physical education, but I left that. I went back to science, and I did a whole range of science subjects, which was really good because when you do science, that’s the background of what we need to do.
It’s better than doing physical education because I learned physics and chemistry and biochemistry and all this other stuff. However, my true grounding was at the athletics track in the gym with the athletes and then helping people.
That progressed and I went to the Australian sports for a year. I came back, I retired from the sport and then I became a Sprint Coach in 1983, and I was actually training sprinters and jumpers.
Significantly, I still hadn’t really got formally into strength and conditioning in terms of what you do and what I do now. I was actually working in gyms. That was a critical part to earn some money from about 1984 or 1985.
After a failed business venture, I got work in the fitness industry and I’ve worked in public gyms. I look back on that era and working in gyms and working with the public, but also working with young kids taught me valuable things.
It taught me the value of hard work, listening to people, talking to people, writing programs, and customer service, which is pretty important in coaching really, and we tend to forget that.
I’ve worked in public gyms, working with the general public, but also working with young kids taught me the value of hard work, listening to people, talking to people, writing programs, and customer service.
Then the cleaner at one center out in the Bronx of Melbourne, told me there was a job at this new football club. I went for it and I got the job. I want to tell the story very quickly because I think it resonates these days with career choices.
I’d finally landed a good job as a Gym Manager. They have a whole lot of sexy girls there in the gym and I was getting good money. I thought that this was a great job. I was married and I got this job at Essendon Football Club part-time.
The Essendon Football Club was the first year of AFL. It was about $6,000 a year for four nights a week after work. I went to the Manager of the gym and I told him that I wanted him to change my shifts so that I could do the job at Essendon because it would have been great for him. I told him that he would get a lot of exposure and I would be the cool dude there.
He told me that he was sorry, but it was either there or Essendon. So I resigned from a council job to actually facilitate myself being able to work at Essendon.
I worked at a place called the Peter MacCallum hospital, which is a cancer hospital in Melbourne, as an orderly during the day, so I could work at Essendon until I got another job. That’s how keen I was to get into the industry and that’s 1987 which was a different year.
I think that’s important, because I nailed that job and then I didn’t have my degree yet. Five years later, I went back to university, finished that then did my grad side of my masters. I finished everything on my way through.
Christian: I believe it’s very important because even nowadays a lot of my colleagues, including myself, started at a fairly low level, just because we wanted to make our passion into a profession. Whether it’s in the 1980’ or 2000’s it’s the same process.
Loris: Exactly. The other thing too was a definite decision that I had to juggle because I had a family. I had kids just born and I had finally got a good job. I didn’t have any money and I had a job with the council and it was a beautiful job.
I knew that I was entering into the AFL just when it was starting and I thought that this was my big opportunity for $6,000. I was going to give up a really good job and supplement my income because this was the brand I wanted to get for where I wanted to be later.
I knew that entering into the AFL was my big opportunity and I was going to give up a really good job because this was where I wanted to be later.
I think that resonates these days, and that’s an important thing. You’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to sacrifice your family, but that was a very real decision I had to make. It was a fork in the road.
His darkest moment
Christian: As an S&C coach, what was your darkest moment?
Loris: The darkest ever was 2006 in April when I was sacked as the High-Performance Coordinator and Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Geelong Football Club. It was as simple as that.
It’s pretty well known now, that it was a personality situation there. But I was a year and a half in a very good contract and it was April. It was about round three and I immediately got on my high horse and went to the lawyers and just took a year and I litigated twice and went through a defamation case. It was harrowing because Melbourne is the hub of football.
People even now are talking more about football than COVID-19. It was almost like, it was around me all day, every day, and I had to find work very quickly because I didn’t have a lot of money. Very much the situation now, I actually was stuck because I’d actually had to find money.
I had to pay lawyers and I had to downsize. But also, I was just getting smashed by the trolls on the internet, even then already, idiots saying things, and people making up gossip, and then your brain is being squashed. It was harrowing for six months.
I was just getting smashed by the trolls on the internet, idiots saying things, and people making up gossip, and then your brain is being squashed. It was harrowing for six months.
It was extremely stressful. I probably didn’t cope that well with it and it wasn’t great for my family. Obviously, I got out of it and I litigated successfully, but it was also a dark moment. I’d actually joined that club in 1998 and it was 2006.
Then you’re not aware of football, but you long had recruited the basis of their super team in the late 90s, early 2000s. So I’d spent six to seven years with a group of 18-year-olds and then just when they were coming good and they were already okay, I was terminated.
So there was a whole range of reasons that it was extremely dark. Then obviously I couldn’t get a job after that. I couldn’t find work.
Christian: From what I’ve just heard between the lines, was it also some kind of character assassination following all the incidences?
Loris: I live with that, I have no problems with the football club now; in fact, absolutely none. I have no problems with the CEO either. He’s still there. Because they’re a corporate identity, they’ve got to protect their brand.
A year later, at the end of the day, everybody’s going to remember David Beckham or Gary Abel Junior. They’re not going to remember the strength and conditioning guy. The supporters don’t really care.
If you go and they’re reasonably successful after, you’re totally dispensable as much as you don’t think you are at the time and a lot of strength and conditioning people forget that. I knew that pretty well. I’d always said I was dispensable.
They’re not going to remember the strength and conditioning guy. The supporters don’t really care. You’re totally dispensable and a lot of strength and conditioning people forget that.
They litigated to protect themselves, and they were trying to justify the reasons for the media. There was quite a battle going on legally. I’ll probably mention it later, but the other thing is that supporters are just mad.
In Melbourne that’s all they think about, it’s just all footy [Australian rules football]. Footy is more important than the universe in Melbourne. You’re just copping it from every way in society. Everybody recognizes you for that period of time too.
Because I litigated, that was damned if you do and damned if you don’t. That meant it was a fight, so I don’t know whether it was a good thing to do now or it wasn’t a good thing.
History has, I suppose, somewhat vindicated me and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and all those things are very real. And then out of that grew a lot of other opportunities and learning experiences, which I never would have had. I was starting to become a bit of a footy head. A lot of positives came out of the negatives.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Loris: It’s funny and it’s going to sound strange because I was with football clubs when they won premierships. I’ve been involved with very successful athletes and trained them. However, this isn’t what I remember as the best moment.
I was with football clubs when they won premierships. I’ve been involved with very successful athletes. However, this isn’t what I remember as the best moment.
It was actually when I had to earn money very quickly. I didn’t have much money when I was litigating. At that time I was training a lot of kids who were twelve and thirteen years old, in the park just to earn a bit money.
I was still pretty negative about everything. I was quite cynical. I had a lot of issues, but I’m a bit of a joker myself, known to be a bit silly sometimes. When kids were around, I’d make sure that I worked hard because I had a good work ethic. I looked after the kids and I tried my hardest and I made sure I was nice to the parents and tried to listen.
Then one day there was a session where I helped a kid. He couldn’t do anything and I stuck with it. He was crying and I helped him and we were all laughing at the end. The realization came to me that these kids just appreciated me for who I am and for how I’m going to help them.
They care how you look after them and how much empathy you’ve got for them. They didn’t care about footy like the old people or like the parents and they didn’t care about the sagas.
They didn’t have preconceived notions. They just think that you come along and you’re a good guy. They think about the fun that they’re going to have. That was a big “aha” moment for me and an enormous change in my mindset at the time on how I approached everything.
That was an important moment. It was one that I actually got in my car and I told myself that the kids liked me for what I do. They told their parents that they want to go back to Loris.
Christian: How has it influenced the rest of your coaching career?
Loris: In that situation, but also going back as an athlete, I always had a lot of issues. I’ve been a successful athlete; I’d won a national championship. I’d worked very hard, but I’d also not finished my degree.
I hadn’t finished my professional life and I just dropped out of university and all I did was train for athletics. I was a hammer thrower, who had an eating disorder; work that one out. I always wanted to have abs. I wanted to have abs as a hammer thrower, but that’s impossible because you’ve got to eat.
So in the end, everything got to me at about twenty-seven years. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a wife. I hadn’t worked and then I had a real downer for about two years. I came out of that and that was fine.
Everything got to me at about twenty-seven years, I just dropped out of university, I had an eating disorder, I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a wife. I had a real downer for about two years.
I’ve been on the ground in front of a hundred thousand people in the footy stadium. I was a guru. I was the man. It was extremely humbling, just going out in the park and training kids.
So when you look at the why I coach athletes, but it was also before, because of other experiences. I’ve always had quite a fair bit of empathy for the athlete, more than the administration. I’m an athlete-centered coach. I listen to the athlete.
Do you know how I always didn’t like it when a football coach says that a player is soft? I usually tell them that I would have liked to have met them 20 years before. I could probably have taken them into the market in Iraq and they’d probably shit themselves and yet they think they’re that tough coach.
I understood the frailty of human beings. We’re pretty sensitive, frail people, and we have issues. So therefore I believe a lot of the things that happened to me as an athlete sort of have helped me as a coach.
Now, the flip side is sometimes I’ve got too much empathy. Sometimes, you got to go hard, but sometimes I’m a 1% soft man. But those things made me understand people with issues and problems and then be able to work through them, because that’s the art of coaching, otherwise you can’t get by.
I was a great believer that if I’ve got a hundred athletes, I want ninety-nine to be successful. I don’t want just one or two to be successful.
I was a great believer that if I’ve got a hundred athletes, I want 99 to be successful. I don’t want just one or two to be successful, which is what a lot of other coaches do. They just smash people and that’s the law of survival.
His advice to a younger Loris Bertolacci
Christian: If you go further back in time, what advice would you give a younger Loris?
Loris: Finish your degree, you big idiot, when I was young. That’s an absolutely critical part of the advice I gave somebody, who is now working for Victorian sport. He went to the Olympics, he got the final for the 4×100 meters.
Finish your degree, you big idiot.
He was the High-Performance Director for Elvin Victory in the A-League, St. Kilda. He worked at Melvin Storm in NRL and was a very successful guy, but he was floundering. I was helping him a lot when he was a young guy at around 18 years.
He’d been a junior champion. He was all over the place. He was unemployed and he came to see me for some advice, plus I let him train at the football club. It’s exactly the same advice that I gave him I would give to a younger me.
I told him that the first thing I want him to do was to get a job. He said that he couldn’t because he had to train full time. I told him that he had to get a job. I didn’t care what he did, but he was to get a job. I told him that I didn’t care what it was as long as it was not digging ditches and then when he finished work at five, he could go and train.
I reassured him that he would be fine. He would have $700 in the bank, he could work and he’ll be able to take his girlfriend to dinner. He would still have five hours to train.
Then from there he got a job and then he did his certificate three, then he did his massage qualification and then he went to university part-time, actually when my daughter did and he got his degree and it was all those things I put in place for him, because I knew that in our societies, generally speaking, not always, if you don’t get your life fixed up and organized, there’s going to be a tipping point at some point things will go bad. That’s probably what I did wrong, more so, probably for my athletic career. That’s what hurt me at 26, 27 years.
To be honest, probably as a Strength and Conditioning Coach, it might have helped me because of some of my experiences of how I deal with people now, which probably gives me more scope to understand the holistic approach to coaching.
In our societies, generally speaking, if you don’t get your life fixed up and organized, there’s going to be a tipping point at some point things will go bad.
Christian: Was not having a degree the factor why you didn’t get any job at some point?
Loris: Oh no. I got a degree now. In 1990, Essendon Football Club did an inquiry or a review – every club does a review – and they found out I didn’t have my degree. That’s 1990, so I went back to university at the age of thirty-five. I was married, I finished that, then I did my post-graduate diploma.
I started my masters, but I didn’t finish that, but I got myself fully qualified. Now, I’m fully accredited as a High-Performance Sports Scientist. Not later, that was fine. That was more in 2006 to about 2010. That was more my brain was just squashed.
But the other thing with the football club still was an issue, because when you get sacked and you send a CV abroad, people just go on Google and they go, “Oh, the guy got sacked somewhere. He might be a good guy, but we’d better not take a risk with him.”
I understand that. They don’t know me. They’re not sure of the circumstances and the other thing was my age. When I was sacked, I was already 52 years and that I didn’t quite understand. That took me a few years, the industry was building up.
There was a big grand swell of very good people coming through, a very competitive environment and I got swamped a bit too. It was multiple factors, but I was fully qualified and fully accredited with everything.
His advice to young aspiring Strength & Conditioning coaches
Christian: What advice would you give young aspiring S and C coaches?
Loris: That’s a tough one. These days it’s more pertinent than ever, really. Before you even get into university, make sure you really want to do it. Don’t just think you’re going into it, because you can be Loris Bertolacci with Essendon Football Club in front of a hundred thousand people, because a good chance you won’t get there.
Before you even get into university, make sure you really want to do it.
That’s just a system called reality. Somebody needs to advise these kids that they’ve got the right reasons to do the degrees and the masters. I think we’ve reached a bit of a tipping point there, but then once you’ve got into the system and you want to get work, then you have to multi-skill these days and it’s going to be more important now. You have to take the sports science and the strength and conditioning head off.
The way I’m thinking is that the fitness industry is going to provide a lot of avenues for young S and C staff now coming through. It is a fantastic learning ground, plus you can make some money.
You have to be very patient. I don’t like telling the young Strength and Conditioning people that you’ve got to work for nothing for five years. I don’t think that’s a nice thing to say. It’s sometimes a reality and because of the situation in the world right now, clubs are probably going to use interns a bit more.
But I believe you have to be extremely patient. You have to find work just outside the pure Strength and Conditioning field, but close enough that the moment you get an opportunity, you can work 30 hours in a gym and eight hours with the soccer club down the road, and then hopefully that’s ten hours and twenty hours.
You have to be extremely patient and you have to find work just outside the pure Strength and Conditioning field.
You’ve got the ability to work in other areas and that could be 10 hours as a pool attendant, 10 hours in the gym, and five hours doing GPS. It’s fine and the other one that I think is really important, I actually said this to somebody the other day is to keep your eye on your goal.
You’ve got an end goal that could come sooner or later, but I think personal training will become bigger with young kids. That will become a big industry. It’s not glamorous for the young graduates to go on the soccer field, or to bring a TRX out, to bring some dumbbells out.
It’s great work and it’s what you got to do. You earn some money, you learn and so you need to multi-skill. But you want to stay fairly close to the industry so that, you see these always growing and then obviously, keep ticking away at your CV.
That CV has got to grow all the time, so you’ve got to work out how to do that. That’s the quantum difference now and then seize your opportunities.
One of my friends is in Houston now working in the MLS [Major League Soccer]. He was working in a factory. He was doing his degree in Exercise Science. I was mentoring him. I was facilitating an internship at Melbourne City for him in the A-League, which meant he had to work for nothing.
He said to me that he loves playing soccer. He’s working and earning money, so he said he has to work. I begged him to realize that he finally got an opportunity and he was to just grab it and not muck it up.
That’s the other thing, it’s like a footballer. The coach puts you on the ground. You’ve got five minutes to go and you’ve got the opportunity in your life. You should just grab it because you’ve probably had people yourself come into the gym and you’ve probably made a decision pretty quick.
You might tell yourself that you’re like some guy that you see there or that he is really working hard. You’ve got to nail it. When you do get an opportunity, that might take three years and it’s a multitude of things. But I think multi-skilling in the future is going to become really important.
We’ve reached a bit of a tipping point, once you’ve got into the system, you have to multi-skill these days. You have to take the sports science and the strength and conditioning head off.
I don’t know what happens in Europe, but here in Australia, in the fitness industry, we have certificate three. The local plumber can go and do certificate three and get his First Aid and he can work in a gym.
There needs to be a change there because I really dislike that. Even though I won’t say that I started in a way, but there’s got to be room for graduates and the fitness industry is so big. That’s where thousands of people can start and then move into clubs.
The importance of multi-skilling
Christian: I would like to dig into that multi-skilling. Could you outline a few skills? Multiskilling is a bit abstract. What are the different skills?
Loris: Actually you’re right, multi-skilling is everything, from doing a variety of jobs to actually what you do in terms of your athletic activity. Now, what I mean by multi-skilling is that you need to apply for a job if you can’t get work and you’re a graduate.
I’ve mentioned the fitness centers and I’ll keep going in that area. You need to knock on the door of a council gymnasium and tell them that you’ll work in the pool. Tell them that you’ll be a pool tender, plus you’ll help in the gym.
The moment you’ve got that, and you’ve got some hours in the gym, you’re on the way and you’re ready to go. One part of multi-skilling is people. A lot of strength and conditioning graduates say that they don’t want to do some things.
They may say they don’t want to work with old people. This may be some accountant who’s 150 kilos. It could be anything. I think that personal training is really important and that’s multi-skilling because a lot of people don’t do that, to be honest.
They all want to go towards the inner sanctum. They want to be interns in the AFL, or NRL, or Premier League. By multi-skilling, probably yes, this is a bit of a nebulous word. I probably mean just get out into the community straight away and offer your services at the lowest level.
A lot of strength and conditioning graduates say that they don’t want to do some things. They all want to go towards the inner sanctum, the AFL, the NRL, or Premier League.
Even if it’s the under 13 women’s netball team and you’re helping them warm-up, that’s a critical part of your development. It’s an extremely important part of your development when you got the FIFA warmups and they’re not being utilized for instance.
So I could go on forever like that because I think that there’s a great lack of knowledge within universities. There is one thing that I would like to do if I actually had control over other universities. You’ve got FIFA 11 and in Holland, I think there’s a new volleyball warmup.
Let’s teach these young kids how to do these warm-ups and get them into local football clubs and get these young graduates to just work and show the warmup. Seventy-five percent might be able to do it.
This is probably the wrong word, but in the other aspect of multi-skilling, there are that one of the pieces of advice that I always gave my staff within AFL clubs, especially the young ones. I told them that they’ve got a chance. I encourage them to do Olympic weight lifting and go out and do a level one course and learn how to do Olympic weights.
Funnily enough, from your first question, I tell them to go and do a Pilates level one course. They’re looking at me and wondering if I really meant Pilates and if I’m crazy. I also tell them to go to the athletic track and get a good coach. I want them to do all three at the same time.
They would answer in amazement. So I tell them that if they know how to lift Olympic weights, they can do anything afterward; one arm dumbbell raises, an upright row, one arm kettlebell snatch, Turkish getup. Once you know how to do Olympic weights, I don’t care what anybody says, you can do everything in the gym.
Number two, I want them to learn how to sprint; go ahead and run. It’s going to help them a lot if they want to be involved in soccer and football. So I encourage them to go on the track and run and compete for a year.
I tell them to join the club or just join the group, start running three hundred and do high knees and go and do Pilates, because Pilates is just fine-tuning. Everything like learning that external rotation where the shoulder and the humeral head sits, that’s important.
They’re not just the muscle head at Westside barbell. They’re not some person in the Pilates studio just doing dead bugs on the Pilate reformer. They’ve got all three areas covered and then they can all join in and I can honestly say a lot of people took my advice and did it.
I could name names and that was just something that I suppose I’d done in my career in the 90s especially, where I was training people and we were just lifting massive weights. Footballers are massive, right and I was successful.
I was getting too many injuries and then I went the complete other way, the Pilates way, and what you mentioned at the start, and investigating everything. It sort of worked, but the athletes were crap. I couldn’t do anything with them.
I realized that my philosophy hadn’t changed and I became very holistic in my approach and my philosophy became totally holistic. So in other words, do anything that the athlete needs. I just grab from anywhere in the current research and the athlete knows that, and that’s how I started developing or mentoring from probably 1999.
I changed my mentoring and I think a lot of the people that I’ve mentored since I’ve actually given them that insight to be extremely holistic and never sit in a brand. I tell them that I don’t want to hear them becoming a brand. You’re basically going to be able to solve anything with an athlete. That was some of the advice and the directions I gave young people.
How he stayed motivated as an S & C coach for more than 4 decades
Christian: Let’s switch gears and go from young, aspiring S and C coaches to thriving S and C coaches. In Strength and Conditioning, you see that there’s a trend that coaches transition out of the industry after 15, 20 years to become performance managers and lecturers. What made you stay motivated and continue as an S and C coach for so many years?
Loris: I think that’s a big fallacy and that’s just going to change in the future. The industry will realize that just went too quickly. First of all, necessity, I had to work.
That’s a big fallacy and that’s just going to change in the future. The industry will realize that just went too quickly.
One of the sports that I’ve been heavily involved with since 2006 is tennis and luckily, I’ve actually trained a lot of players on the ATP, WTA circuit that is quite good. I had to learn a bit about tennis because I didn’t understand really what the requirements were.
So how do I blend in the specificity and the change of direction and the footwork and the shoulder needs? How strong do they have to be? Did they really have to be that strong?
I had to learn a new skill set in terms of tennis and I just scoured everybody. I just pinched things from Jez Green and from Mark Kovacs and I just read things and trialed things with the athletes. I love that and then you see improvement and then you see a result.
For the life of me, why are they calling people sports scientists? I have no concept of what is going on in the industry and you’ve got to realize that’s only recent. We’re talking like 1995, since 2000. It’s not like since 1762.
I understand that research is critical. That’s a sports scientist or researcher. That’s a different thing. People researching a fascicle, or TA or whatever, that’s fine. That’s a researcher. That’s a completely different thing.
We need that research because ultimately that will be linking 20 years’ time. I don’t understand the whole notion of having these different titles for people. Do you just tell people how to lift and you never look at the velocity on the bar, or do you never take an RPE?
Of course, you’re a sports scientist too. You use that knowledge and you use sports science. Then the evolution of the High-Performance Manager, which is just an extremely recent phenomenon.
We’re talking like 10 years that’s happened. Yet, people are going to question that now, right throughout the whole industry. Sadly, because of what’s happened in society, because they’re just going to be saying that they haven’t got as much money and all the guy does is go to meetings and talk.
We just talk and talk and talk, and that’s all we ever do. I think, there’s a limit to the administrative functions that people like that have to do. Just get a secretary if you have to do that.
You have to manage; you have to do budgets; you have to hire and fire staff; you have to buy equipment; you have to go to meetings and pass doctors, or tell doctors that they have to know how to set up a database and integrate it into meetings and have all the systems going throughout the club.
I still think there’s time for those people to get into the gym and show a person how to do a Power Clean, activate their glutes, or do a high knee, or something like that. There’s going to be a trend towards this. The fact is that whenever I develop my staff, I never let them work in silos and I never let them have a title.
Whenever I develop my staff, I never let them work in silos and I never let them have a title.
So if you came to me in an AFL club at 24, I would put you in the gym and on the track a bit and I’d give you a hamstring injury. I’d make you do some performance testing, to just give you a nice broad experience. A lot of the guys that I’ve known that are doing quite well now, they’ve had that nice broad experience and I think it’s helped them.
The industry is very recent. It’s very new and I think that we’re going to see it live away a little bit. Also, the admins are going to start questioning the hype of sports science and gurus.
The qualities he looked for when hiring Strength & Conditioning coaches
Christian: Talking about hiring and firing, you have been involved in hiring processes of S and C coaches, and assistant S and C coaches. What are the qualities you’re looking for?
Loris: That’s a great question, isn’t it? Obviously, the first thing is passion. To be truthful, when I was in the AFL, I did have a bit of an idea of how I wanted to set up my staff.
I did have a preconceived plan, and generally, I like to have a bit of experience, a bit old, a bit young and ambitious, a bit of experience, and somewhere in between too. I like to have a bit of a balance and then somebody with a personality too.
I did have a preconceived plan of how I wanted to set up my staff.
So I realize that you need to have a nice blend in your stuff, but having said that, a really good story probably to illustrate that, is a guy called Christopher Dennis. Now, Chris unfortunately due to the whole AFL shut down, he’s not working at this stage, which is the last two weeks, but Chris started with me in 2002.
Just flipping forward, he was at Geelong Football Club in 2005. He was with the Queensland Reds for two years, he worked as a High-Performance Manager for different clubs and he’s back doing the strength and conditioning with Geelong.
He is a highly successful guy at 39 or forty. Chris was pestering me, sending me emails and ringing me up and I’m from Ballarat, which is just outside Melbourne. He tells me that he’s got a double degree in Physical Education, or Sports Science, and something else.
Also, he said that he has been working with the underwriting system and he wanted to come and help me. Anyway, the third time, he came into my office, he was really well dressed and you’ll laugh if you listen to this.
He had this really nice professional looking bag with him. I’ll never forget that and Chris came in and he just listened. He didn’t say anything; he just listened to me. I asked him who he was and I asked him other questions. He said he was a basketballer and that he had also worked in football.
I told him that he could come in on Wednesday mornings to the weights session. He was to be there every Wednesday morning at six o’clock. I told him that we were not going to pay him and we would do that for the year.
He also knew that if he missed a session, I would not use him anymore. He never missed a session. He did his job and he showed up. As I got to know him, his personality gradually shone through and through.
He just worked his butt off and he was confident, which is probably 60% to 70% of it. But what amazed me was his ability to seize an opportunity and grab it.
Now, obviously he was impressive. He was good and he knew what he was doing. He sees the opportunity and grabbed it with open hands and I could sense that straightaway. Ultimately, it was probably the knowledge he had.
I’ve had other people seize the opportunity and they’re just not as good. That’s fine, but I still respect them and they have a go.
It’s funny though, there’s a girl I know and I won’t mention her name. She was brought in an AFL club. The same thing happened where she seized the opportunity and she struggled. She really hadn’t done a lot of strength and conditioning, but she was good.
She was always there to help me, so I gave her a lot of GPS work and stuff like that, and this girl now, like five years later is doing really well. I think that’s the trait, you want to see. They’ve got the work ethic, they’ve got the passion, they’re punctual and they don’t mouth off.
The traits you want to see, work ethic, passion, they’re punctual, they don’t mouth off, and they’re not full of themselves
They’re not full of themselves, because you just don’t want to see that unless they’re funny. That’s different. If you’ve got a personality, that’s different.
His coaching philosophy
Christian: What is your coaching philosophy?
Loris: I’ve touched on it before and it’s changed a lot, certainly in terms of the sports involved. I came out of hammer throwing and I actually trained in 1977 and 1978. I went to Italy twice to train as a hammer thrower.
Actually, this is the truth. I actually sat in rooms with Bondarchuk and Verkhoshansky in Italy and listened to the periodization models, over bottles of wine. I don’t drink, but they were drinking and the Italians used to bring them into Italy and they used to get them pissed.
I actually sat in rooms with Bondarchuk and Verkhoshansky and listened to the periodization models.
They used to try and milk all the ideas of the Russians, it was pretty funny. I actually thought that it was unbelievable. I was actually seeing history. Can you imagine that? Bondarchuk and Verkhoshansky, unbelievable.
So I came back to Australia and I was a power freak. I did three weeks on, one week off; two periodization models, jumping over hurdles, and everything. I also did rotational work.
I’m hopping, I’m bounding, I’m doing plyometrics, I’m doing altitude jumps, I’m doing everything. Then when I got the job with AFL, I did the same thing. I just started off with a bang. I just figured that I had to get these guys strong, super powerful, and fast.
That actually worked. There’s no doubt it worked, but it was a bit of collateral damage. Some people couldn’t cope and some got injured. So then I went through the whole Pilates scene, the core stability, transverse abdominis, and glute firing.
Probably the light bulb went on in about 1999. I was fully qualified. I was very scientific because I have a scientific background and I am a geek. I had computers from 1988 and I read widely in terms of research.
I just said that I would use everything. I didn’t have a philosophy. I just got one guy here who walked into the footy club. He’s 18 and he’s 98 kilos. He’s just done an overhead squat with 80 kilos and he’s never lifted a weight in his life.
Then I had another guy here who’s from a private school. He actually couldn’t do a chin-up. He’s hanging from the bar and this guy here has had 16 injuries since he’s 16 and 17 and doesn’t look like he’s going to be a man until he’s twenty-three.
So all of a sudden, I can’t do the same program with these guys. This has to be totally different. It ultimately blended into getting them strong and powerful. They’ve got to be able to do bounding.
Ultimately the end model is fairly similar, but the development phase, which will last until about 22, twenty-three is different. Basically then, all my experiences came to the fore.
It was more now about figuring out that one guy may need to do low-level work for the next year until we were ready to go. Another one maybe can’t run. Therefore, we just need to spend a lot of time working through a whole lot of issues and getting his range of motion right, getting his legs strong, and teaching him the drills.
So basically, I’ve just learned my philosophy is to use anything and everything that’s out in research in sports science and strength & conditioning and all tools to achieve the best possible outcome for the individual I train. Sorry, I haven’t got any magic exercise.
I’ve just learned my philosophy is to use anything and everything that’s out in research in sports science and strength & conditioning and all tools to achieve the best possible outcome for the individual I train.
Therefore, I’m happy to use the Trap Bar. I’m happy to use the dumbbell, I’m happy to use the Kettlebell and I don’t really care anymore. I still love my Olympic lifting. I still think it’s gold. I’m not so much into the swimming and cycling and rowing.
But we all know in running sports and team sports that ultimately if you can’t jump and bound, you might as well retire if you’re thirty-two. It’s over; you’re finished. You can’t absorb force anymore. You can’t take these entry points.
So that’s the end result. You know what the end result is. You’ve got to produce and exert force. But before that, how do you get there? It is just to use whatever and so that’s probably a snapshot of my philosophy.
His core values
Christian: What are your core values?
Loris: Looking at my core values in terms of coaching. One of the things that I used to like to do with professional footballers was to make sure that they enjoyed what they did. Another thing is probably not a core value, but it was probably an approach that I took, was that it took me a while, but I learned to be myself.
Now, sometimes it’s a bit hard for people to take, but whatever that is, that’s something I’ve always said to Strength & Conditioning Coaches, don’t try and be something you’re not. If you’re a quiet guy, you’re a quiet guy, that’s fine. That’s okay. Just be yourself.
I’m Loris, so I’m a bit of a joker and a bit zany and all that stuff, so be yourself. My core value in terms of coaching is that I want to have empathy with what the athlete’s going through. I want to understand what the athlete is going through, so that’s really important.
My core value in terms of coaching is that I want to have empathy with what the athlete’s going through. I want to understand what the athlete is going through.
There is another core value that I taught a lot of Strength & Conditioning staff. I learned this probably more so working in gyms. I thought that it was a really good experience working with the public for a number of years was.
You have to treat everyone the same, whether it’s a football star or a normal person. That was an important core value. That for me, was inbred in me, I think, to really help everybody in the gym and I didn’t care if they’re a champion or not. Realistically, I’d still give 0.5% more time and thought to the champion, because that’s your bread and butter.
But in a team sport, the players see that in a team sport, if you’re helping everybody and you’re not just gravitating towards the stars, the players in teams are very smart. They like to see that. They like somebody that does that. That was an important core value.
The other core value I have is resilience. I think for me, is I’m just a human being and I have negative moments and dark moments and I still get scared before I go into a session in front of people. The butterflies are still there.
It’s just believing in myself and slipping into that. The two devils, they’re fighting each other and having that faith that I can actually help an athlete, therefore help the team. There are some of the core values.
The person that has influenced him most
Christian: Which is the person that has influenced you most and why?
Loris: That’s tough because I’ve just been around so long and met so many coaches, but I think my father, to be honest, is the one who has influenced me most. And that’s an interesting one, I say that because Dad is an interesting guy. You probably can find some pictures on the net – Georgio Bertolacci.
Dad was a really good athlete in Italy before he came to Australia in 1957. He played rugby and water polo, Greco Roman wrestling, and represented Tuscany in the shot put and discus. Then he came to Australia.
He was nearly the first Italian guy to ever play AFL football and he represented Victoria in the shot put and discus. He was working on the wharf and he was a tug of war guy. He first introduced me to shot put. He coached me for shot put and I was instantly successful at 13, and then he started coaching down the athletics club.
Dad was a very smart bloke, he’d been to university in Italy, but did not finished because of the war. But he had a massive sporting background. He was a massive guy. You would have loved him.
At one point he was 150 kilos; he was just huge; he was massive. He started coaching at the athletics club. His methods were interesting. In terms of his success, he coached juniors right up to 2012 and he probably had 50 Victorian champions, 30 Australian champions, and your average sports scientist and strength and conditioning guy would probably laugh at his methods now.
The older kids knew that he trained on Tuesday and Thursday night at the Athletics Club. He’d open the gate Tuesday and Thursday night and he was there. He was also there Sunday morning in winter. So that was it; Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday morning.
I saw guys at 16 benching 150 kilos doing reps of five, reps of three, and reps of two. They were doing three sprints, two overhead shot,s and five jumps. It was like the ultimate minimum effective dose theory.
And all these kids are just exploding. But he also had a lot of fun with them and joked with them and drove them home and all that sort of stuff and incredible success at that journey level.
But his actual method was pretty good because it was the minimum effective dose, but it was all good work. It was all quality and I even outsmarted myself at 21, twenty-two. It’s my dad and I said that it was no good, but looking back, it was a fantastic way to train kids.
I remember at his funeral, my cousins spoke and my cousin was a superstar athlete. We trained together and he just said George inbred the love of sport in me. I had that experience with the sport, but I also had that experience seeing him coach.
So obviously that was probably the greatest effect because I’ve had a million coaches. I’ve worked with some of the greatest AFL coaches.
So I’ve had all these myriad numbers of coaches and people influences, but pivotally, that was what really stuck in my mind. Some of these guys were serious throwers. They could throw and some of the guys that he coached became super AFL players later, so it was very interesting. It was just quality over quantity and an enjoyable coaching method. There you go.
A typical day in the life of a Strength & Conditioning coach
Christian: How does a typical day in the life of an S and C coach look like?
Loris: Now, in China, or back in the days in the AFL, that’s totally different.
The differences between working in Olympic sports vs professional sports
Christian: You’ve worked in Olympic sports as well as in professional sports, so what’s the difference, as an S and C coach, in the way you work?
Loris: There’s no difference. It’s a good question. Preparation is the key. Now, whether you do that preparation at night, the worst possible thing is to go into a session and wing it.
Preparation is the key, the worst possible thing is to go into a session and wing it.
Once in a blue moon and actually there’s an add on to that story or add on to that statement, but preparation in the day of a Strength and Conditioning Coach, or the night before, which is part of the day is actually having a plan. It’s documenting everything and having it, especially at the professional level, to be honest, whether it’s training the Olympic athlete, especially when you got some numbers of people too.
It’s so much preparation. The day begins with basically working out what every athlete needs, documenting that at all times, and being fully prepared. The next thing is part of that process before that session is making sure plan B is ready, just in case things happen.
So you’ve got plan B, either written down, or you’ve actually thought of it. For me often, especially even here, because I had language barriers in China, it was like three to four hours of making sure all my programs are set up on my computer or on my iPad.
I had everything written and then obviously to myself justifying what I’m doing in terms of “evidence” base, so the program’s got some validity. But the other thing too is, especially when you’re working with groups and teams, is that working out how this session’s going to work? How’s it going to gel?
Probably with an Olympic athlete, if you’re one on one with Usain Bolt, you probably can just wing it because you’re doing six sleds and six sprints afterward. But when you’re working with multiple athletes, you’ve got to actually work out how that hour is going to work. You have to know how it’s going to look and where you’re going to fall into traps?
Again, that’s preparation and timetabling. A lot of the time is spent getting into coaches’ meetings too much, just talk too much these days, but the preparation phase in terms of strength and conditioning is a critical one.
Now, as you get more and more experienced and you would have experienced this too, you still prepare. I absolutely hate going into a session without being ready. Something happened to me down in Kunming, a couple of times, because all the teams were in lockdown.
I absolutely hate going into a session without being ready.
So we only had one gym and we had a thousand athletes. The road cycling team would take over the gym and nobody’s timetabled this and I’ve got thirty cyclists and we’ve got no equipment and I’ve got a minute to think of something. So that’s the opposite.
That’s just experience ticking in. The typical day of a Strength and Conditioning Coach is getting ready for that surprise, because it’s going to come and that can happen too in a typical day of a Strength and Conditioning Coach, as much as you’ve planned and you need to plan, as much as you’ve meticulously written down things.
Sometimes you have to change everything and you’ve got one minute to think of something and you want to look really confident when you pull it off. That does come with experience.
You’re either an amazing 24-year old or you’ve just been down that trap and an alarm bell goes off because you remember it. You just grab the dumbbells and you think of exercises. It’s like saying, “Don’t ever go into battle without a plan, but plans are useless.”
The day of the Strength and Conditioning Coach is just like planning meticulously, but then during the session, it is being ready. Also, it’s really important that I learn a lot in terms of working with professional athletes, even in the private environment, such as with Olympic athletes and obviously trying to earn a living. It also applies to working with football and even working here when I’m busy.
The other thing that’s really interesting is you need to look after yourself. So the typical day of a Strength and Conditioning Coach is I need my eight hours, so – seven hours minimum -unless you’re just somebody who can live off five hours.
So you’ve got to look after yourself and you’ve got to actually be like an athlete. So a Strength and Conditioning Coach has to think that they’re an athlete. I have to think about when I’m going to eat, think about my blood sugar levels just so I don’t get angry. Do I also have to wonder if I am rested?
You’ve got to look after yourself, a Strength and Conditioning Coach has to think that they’re an athlete.
That’s important, I think in the typical day, is actually looking after yourself and how you eat. I’m sure you’ve done it too. You’ve got multiple sessions, so you think that you might have half of your lunch here and half of your lunch there so you can actually feel good. I might have a 10-minute power nap so that I’m ready to go when I hit the athletes.
The last thing you want to be is in front of athletes feeling drained. You’ve always got to make sure that you’re rested because it’s very hard to hide that. Sometimes you can, so that’s really important, is, funnily enough, it’s probably a bit of a lateral one and then it depends on who you are really.
Obviously, at my age, I’ve had to work out different ways of coaching and putting the message across, which involves computers and iPads and vision, because I can’t do plyometrics anymore. So these days, I think somebody like my father could still coach in an athletics club because it’s like small groups.
He sees them every day, so there is consistency. But in terms of our world and the professional environments, I think there’s such an evolution with vision and the tools you can use. You’re still coaching, but you’ve got some fantastic stuff you can do, getting vision prepared.
Really when you say that, I think preparation and making sure you’ve washed your face and you’ve got clean clothes on and you’re ready to go in front of the athletes and that’s a really important part of it.
How to design a training program
Christian: How do you design a training program?
Loris: I’m probably the worst person to ask that. First of all, I simply, depending on what sport it is and depending on what phase we’re in, I simply look at what the team needs and what the athlete needs. I don’t have any preconceived notion of what I’m going to do for an athlete or team.
I simply look at what the team needs and what the athlete needs. I don’t have any preconceived notion of what I’m going to do for an athlete or team.
So the best example is 1993. I remember a chap called Verne McMillan came to see me and he just got the job at the Kangaroos’ AFL team and Verne’s become really famous in golf now. I think he owns about fifteen boats. He made the smart choice and he went to golf. He’ll probably have a laugh if he listens to this.
He came to see me and I was working at Essendon, so we’re at rival clubs but those days he was a mate. He asked me how I periodize the season. I tell him that I don’t periodize it.
We start training in November. I have a break at Christmas. They have two weeks off. They come back in January, then they stop playing games in February, then the season starts in March. We do a truckload of work in January, so I just react to the time frame working backward and then fill it in.
I don’t follow traditional periodization anymore. He was amazed. It seems simple now, but I told him that I’ve got this much time, so I’ll just work it out. That’s the big picture.
Then obviously the team, if it’s a team, as in a soccer team or football team, which is a little bit different from a cycling team like I’m working with now, the coach will tell you what they want. That’s the next thing because the coach says I want to do this much and he tells you that it’s a little bit too much.
He says that he wants to do this much skill. We’ve got that, which is fine. So once you’ve ascertained generally what the team wants, then you go back to the athletes, and then we’re designing a program.
Well obviously, if I’ve got a 19-year old team sport player, especially in football and rugby and those things, and 78 kilos and I need to put on 20 kilos, I’ll design a hypertrophy program for 18 months for them. Quite obviously, I won’t do Pilates, because they’ve got to put some meat on before they can get strong.
However, the guy that walks in at 97 kilos, well, he actually retired at 97 kilos, 10 years later, I’ll design a very different program. So straight away, it’ll be a little bit more like jumping and still some weights and a totally different program for him.
Then, somebody who’s always getting injured, we’ve got to get him strong, but we’ve also got to get him rehab, so it could be a totally different program again. Now, I don’t have the luxury of doing that now in my current job, because I’ve actually got 60 athletes in two teams.
I’ve got a track endurance and a junior race cycling team. So the road cycling teams are juniors, they’re under 18, bar two or three athletes, so it’s about 30 of them. Then there is about 30 of the track endurance team.
So I set up a template on Excel. I try to individualize it all for them, with the track endurance team, as much as I can. The more I get to know them, I designed the program. Basically with them, they hadn’t lifted a lot of weights, a lot of them are 23, 22, 21, but they hadn’t done enough.
They hadn’t done proper weights, so I still had to go through and I actually used Dr. Yessis. Have you ever heard of Dr. Yessis? I used his program for four weeks.
There are 20 exercises, only three or four weeks and I made sure they learned all these exercises, they got some conditioning and then I just did supersets. Then when that was done, I started the proper strength program and they’re starting to get strong now and that’s just the classical program.
With the juniors, I have to react to the situation. I’ve only got them two to three times a week and it’s 30 of them. I’ve only got them for an hour and a half and there’s not enough equipment in this joint. So I just have to design that around them, so I have to do circuits.
I have to develop something that will work, but still, get some conditioning into him. So, it’s a fairly broad situation. I help a few players around the circuit right now, online, that’s totally different. If I’ve got a one on one athlete, like a tennis player that I’m helping, I ring him up and ask how he feels. If he says that his shoulder’s sore, I will tell him not to do the bench press or any pushups.
I then ask what he did the day before and plan what we will do the next day. I want them to show me their plan. Or I may tell them that the next day, we’re doing speed. I’ll send him the speed program the next day.
The next day we’re doing leg weights and doing power weights. It just depends on what you hit with and what you need to solve, I suppose, and assist with.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Loris: I sound like a family man now, actually. Well, she’s not really Australian anymore, to be honest. It’s my daughter.
Lauren left Australia in 2005 and she did her Exercise Science degree. She was already in the Australian Volleyball team, she played in five countries in Europe, represented Australia 120 times, and is a trailblazer in volleyball.
Part of their contract in 2013 with the Swiss team, Lucerne, was to coach the men’s team in the second division. She got them up to the first division that she was playing too. When they went to the first division, they told her that if the coach retires, she’ll be the full-time coach.
She coached the men’s team in the first division, which is pretty crazy. Then she was only 30 or thirty-one. She’s got a great gig. Last year you could tell, she won the pre-season cup, the in-season cup, and the league.
She won everything and now heading to win everything this year again when the season was canceled. Lauren’s got this fantastic background in strength and conditioning. She did the strength and conditioning for the men’s team. She’s a superstar volleyball player.
She’s a trailblazer in coaching and she’s still only thirty-three or thirty-four. I hate to say, I hate to stick to my family, my father, and my daughter, but it’s not too broad, but I think that she doesn’t get the recognition in Australia that she deserves, and yet she’s highly respected already in the world of volleyball as a player and now a coach.
There you go, I nominate Lauren Bertolacci.
Christian: That sounds really interesting. Looking forward to it.
Where can you find Loris Bertolacci
Christian: Where can people find you?
Loris: I’m extremely active on social media. In fact, I’ll probably spend half my day at 65 years of age, go figure. I’m very careful what I write, but on LinkedIn, you can find me, as well as on Instagram and Twitter.
I have a bit of a problem with or social media because when I put something funny, everybody likes it, but when I put something serious and theoretical, nobody seems to be interested, but anyway, maybe that’s part of my character.
But no, I do get a fair bit of interest and LinkedIn is a pretty serious approach to that. I do post a fair bit on LinkedIn to be honest, just in terms of the professional side of things. I’m easy to find on all those platforms.
Loris Bertolacci’s social profiles
Christian: Loris, thanks so much for your time. Despite all the difficulties we had with the technology, sorting it out, and thanks for sharing your expertise and experience over four decades.
Loris: Oh, fantastic. Thanks for having me. It’s made me really think about things too and prioritize what I had to say and not talk too much. I probably did. Thanks a lot. Thanks very much.