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Homegrown Australian Adam Centofanti: From NPL to coaching in MLS

Adam Centofanti Profile

Adam Centofanti’s insight into the contemporary Australian football landscape is unique to say the least. As a player, Centofanti spent time across the Victorian NPL with the likes of Dandenong Thunder and Hume City, learning plenty along the way to apply to his endeavours as a performance/strength and conditioning coach which ran parallel to his playing career.

As a qualified coach, Centofanti’s passion for the game has led him on a coaching journey which has seen him work his way to Major League Soccer side Houston Dynamo, with a stopover at Melbourne City during their transition as the Melbourne Heart into becoming the super club they are today.

Currently, Centofanti’s role as the Head of Academy Strength & Conditioning with the Dynamo sees him predominantly working with the U-23s and U-17s squad, a position that has given him a direct lens onto the league which has produced the likes of RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams and Manchester City’s Zach Steffen.

To start things off, what drew you to the sports science side of football?

Adam Centofanti: I think the original thing that drew me to the sports science side of the game is just my love for working hard, training hard and the intensity of the game. And as a player – when I was younger – I always wanted to compete at the highest level I could. And to do that I thought the only way was through fitness, so I began to love that side of the game.

Ultimately, as a player, it didn’t work out for whatever reason, but you meet some people along the way and in particular for me, it was a mentor named Loris Bertolacci who got me into the sports science world. [With him] I was able to experience working with athletes and exposure to a professional football team for the first time, Melbourne Heart.

From being at Melbourne Heart and then Melbourne City, how did you end up making your way to the Houston Dynamo?

Adam Centofanti: Obviously I started at Melbourne Heart, but then they became Melbourne City and I was able to get a job as a Community Development Coordinator. So, basically, I would go out and coach kids at schools, which was sort of my foot in the door to getting paid by a professional team. At the same time, I had been volunteering my time for many years to the sports science department of the youth team.

So, it was many long hours, but it was something I knew I had to do. Because it was something where you had to commit to doing what you actually want to do long-term and fortunately, I was given a role at Melbourne City. I then spent a good part of five to six years there plying my trade, and ultimately there was an opportunity [at the Dynamo]. I had a contact at Houston through my current colleague Alex Calder, who is another Australian performance coach, and went through the interview process and got the role that way.

I did notice that there are a lot of Australians that have worked as physios, sports scientists and strength & conditioning coaches overseas over the past few years. Why do you think this area of Australian football is growing so well?

Adam Centofanti: I think across the world Australians are quite respected in the performance side of things. It’s definitely something I noticed when I first got to America, they just thought that Australians must be good at strength and conditioning. Obviously, that’s also down to the people who came before us, the big names of Darren Burgess and Phil Coles, guys that have been in the game for a long time and have set the premise for what Australians are all about.

If you look at the players we’ve produced in our nation in the past, from a conditioning standpoint they were excellent. And they all played in the top divisions. So, we sort of started to earn this reputation of being a fit country who work hard, which makes it positive for people like myself when they do come to an overseas team as you’re respected from the get-go in that regard.

As you mentioned, in addition to working in the sports science area of football you have played the game yourself, representing the likes of Bulleen Lions, Hume City and Dandenong Thunder. What did you learn from playing the game yourself that you have taken into your strength and conditioning work?

Adam Centofanti: The first thing I’ll say is playing the game can’t help you enough in this type of role whether it was at a good or okay level, the experience of playing gives you great insight into what is required physically and mentally to perform. Knowing what it feels like to be a player is important from a communication point of view, but then also now your understanding of the game is better. So, you can apply best practice to drills and you can talk to coaches in a certain way that maybe other people who haven’t played the game.

As well as that, for me, I was always extremely competitive and intense as a player and I’ve become that type of coach, which is sort of a stereotype for a conditioning coach but if you’ve got that edge and drive about you, it does brush off on the players.

Football – and the world today – is completely different to where it was 10, 20 and even 30 years ago. Why has sports science become such a pivotal part of football around the world?

Adam Centofanti: The main thing is the game is obviously faster, the players are fitter and stronger, the style of play has changed as well. We’re seeing a lot more pressing teams, which from an intensity standpoint means it’s gone to another level, meaning that the preparation for these players needs to be at an even higher level to ensure you can keep them on the field [for longer].

As well as this, due to advances in science these types of positions are becoming part of general practice in football clubs. So, now it’s baseline standards to have these people to help the environment. It’s reached a point where now you see performance staff and technical staff collaborating as one team, and it’s not so much a hierarchy where the coach dictates everything.

Centofanti coaching

In terms of working to circumvent injuries, what is the methodology behind that?

Adam Centofanti: In terms of injuries, programs are designed in such a way to address all the potential issues in the gym and on pitch before they happen with the hope that we can get guys to a higher level physically and increase their robustness.

We’re training guys to match the high standards of modern football so that these issues don’t occur. Which is why I think the mentality needs to be – especially with the youth players – get them to a level of conditioning where you can throw a whole lot at them. We’ll do things where we’re testing players physically and mentally to the point where we’re potentially red-lining them, but it’s an important part of development having the body exposed to those kinds of demands. [It means that] when they’re asked to do it in a game, multiple times a week potentially, they can tolerate it.

You obviously spent time working with Melbourne City in the A-League, who have developed into the powerhouse side they are in the A-League today. What was it like being in that environment as its facilities and infrastructure were being built to the standard they are at today?

Adam Centofanti: The Melbourne City experience was absolutely amazing, first and foremost. Seeing the club transform from what I saw at Melbourne Heart days to where it is now is day and night. I remember [at the Heart] doing gym sessions with my ex-colleague Raffaele Napoli on the field with bands and tying them up against a fence because that was the best gym that we could provide. To the point where, just before I left, you’ve got two world class gyms and top-level fields that are hard to come by anywhere in the world.

So, the transformation was remarkable. But I think the biggest thing about the Melbourne City development was that not only did the facilities improve overtime and obviously the team got better, but the technical staff and performance staff were just top-level practitioners. So, that is a club that is not only evolving from a logistical standpoint, but the quality of the individuals they’ve hired to fill certain roles has been exceptional.

What was the transition like between working with Melbourne City and Houston Dynamo?

Adam Centofanti: It was a really interesting experience at the beginning because I was heading into a role that was brand-new. So, it was very much a blank canvas to create processes, new standards, education around how we train and why we train – whereas all that was established already in Melbourne. So, I found early on that it was an educational experience to get my point across about why we do certain things and why this can improve the level of the players.

The best thing about Houston since I’ve been here has been the exceptional buy-in from day one. They’ve been very open to ideas and it does come from the fact that Melbourne City and City Football Group is a respected entity. So, going into it they already respected what I was going to talk about, which made the transition a lot easier in terms of implementing similar ideas that I had done in the past into a new environment with a completely different cohort of players. This was a cohort of players who, unlike in Melbourne, had minimal experience in any sort of hard conditioning or gym. Another major positive I noticed very early was the hunger of the players to work. Coming from a range of backgrounds, football means the absolute world to them, so the players were more than willing to put in the hard work to improve.

The first 6-12 months were about education and exposure to the different types of training that we were going to do for years to come. Fast-forward to now, the players are at a very good level and are able to do everything that I’ve seen players do in the past. So, it’s been a really good evolution in my time here.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S3 Ep 2 with Gary Cole interviewing Steve Corica

Corica FCA

Steve Corica is Head Coach of A-League Men at Sydney FC, where he narrowly missed out on three A-League Championships in a row, losing to Melbourne City in the Grand Final last season. What a remarkable start to his first senior head coaching role!

He played his junior football in Innisfail in North Queensland, before heading to the Australian Institute of Sport and playing just under 500 professional games in Australia, England and Japan.

Steve’s preparation for coaching began while he was playing, and he started to gain his coaching licences before taking on an assistant role with the Sydney FC Youth Team.

He served a seven-year apprenticeship at Sydney with the Youth Team and then as an assistant to Vitezslav Lavicka, Frank Farina and Graham Arnold before taking on the Head Coach role in 2018. He learned from each of these coaches and also learned, like most ‘he didn’t know, what he didn’t know’ when taking on the Head Coaching Role.

Steve believes that team and club culture are key to success. He understands that while he is the driver of the culture, that buy-in from all of the players is integral to behaviours being demanded from the playing group of one another.

Steve’s ‘one piece of wisdom’ was ‘to be yourself’. Know how you want to play, the style of football you want to play. Be strong when you do get setbacks, but believe in what you’re doing, stay strong and keep believing in the style of football you want to play.

Please join me in sharing Steve Corica’s Football Coaching Life.

Catherine Cannuli: “It wasn’t easy to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again”

Catherine Cannuli

June 1 this year saw long-time stalwart of the Western Sydney Wanderers – Catherine Cannuli – appointed to the role of Head Coach of the Women’s side for the upcoming 2021/22 A-League Women’s season.

In addition to having built up an impressive resume through her role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association, Cannuli has been announced as the latest addition to the Executive Committee at Football Coaches Australia (FCA).

Her landmark year of achievements thus far reflects her immense efforts in working to reach what she acknowledges as a personal high point in her coaching career. Cannuli’s success is undoubtedly a testament to her determination, but her transition from player to coach was self-admittedly challenging one.

The lack of clear routes towards securing coaching roles at all levels of the game has led FCA and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) to announce – within their Memorandum of Understanding strategies –all members of PFA’s Alumni will have their joining fee to FCA waived in an effort to provide additional support to aspiring coaches.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, Cannuli spoke on her efforts to reach the point she is at now in her career and highlighted the significance of this recently announced FCA and PFA Alumni partnership.

Coaching

It was announced in June that you were to become the new Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers. What has that been like for you so far?

Catherine Cannuli: It’s been exciting and challenging. Obviously, with the current COVID-19 situation that we’ve been in, I probably had four or five weeks in charge as the head coach and then we went into lockdown. So a lot of it has been done from behind a computer. But it’s been a great time to be able to plan and make sure that everything was ready to go come first day of pre-season.

In terms of opportunities for females in football following the end of their playing career, can you give us some insight into what was going through your head as you were coming to the end of your playing time?

Catherine Cannuli: I really didn’t think about coaching straight away to be honest. I retired and I thought I was going to get my weekends back and be a normal person. My friends were always having a go at me for missing so many significant birthdays or weddings.

It was after being off for about six or seven months, and not having football, where I realised more than anything what it left in me as a person. Football’s been such a big part of my life. It took me some time to realise that I couldn’t be a player anymore, because the commitment at the time was really hard – juggling full-time work and doing everything that I wanted to do. I was at a crossroads in my career at that point. It was thinking ‘do I sacrifice another four years or do I just focus on work and preparing for life after football?’.

It was at that point that I got into contact with the Southern Districts Association and explained that I wanted to give back to our community and asked what I could do to get involved with the girls. I went down and did some sessions with the team at the time, and within six months I’d landed myself my first coaching gig. I took over the First Grade Women’s team there and that was it. I fell into coaching.

What was it like mentally traversing that transition period between playing and coaching?

Catherine Cannuli: It was clear, because everything that I’d spoken to the club about they were on board with what I wanted to do and the vision that I had for young girls in the South-West region. For kids in the Liverpool and Fairfield areas, young girls like myself didn’t have the opportunity to be mentored or be coached. They didn’t have an environment where they felt they’d be able to really excel.

For me it was pretty clear from day one that I wanted to make a change. It was hard to transition, because after my first couple of years in coaching I remember going back to some of my coaches that had coached me for a long time and apologising. Because I didn’t realise what it actually took to be a coach. As a player, you turn up; you train; and you go home. As a coach there’s so much planning going on in the background that players just wouldn’t have an idea about.

The transition was definitely difficult, but after my first 12 months of coaching, I chose to dedicate myself to it. I had a business at the time and I stepped away from it to be able to then go into coaching. At the time I was working at Westfields Sports High School and Southern Districts and learning my trade, and it wasn’t easy when I decided to pursue coaching as I felt like I was back at square one again.

But it was really important for me to experience it that way. Even now that I’m at the top of my game as the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers, I feel that as a coach it is really important that you learn your trade, go through different environments and see different things before you actually get there. It shapes you as a person and as a coach.

Cannuli

What have been your key learnings in your role as Women’s Technical Director at the Southern Districts Football Association?

Catherine Cannuli: I think that the main one has been learning to build an environment for not just your players, but your staff and everyone to excel in. I think it’s important that everyone knows what your vision is and what direction you’re wanting to go in within your program and your football. It’s important that everyone understands that if they’re on this journey with you, they have a clear understanding of what the message is and what you want to do.

Whether I’m at Southern Districts or at the Wanderers, having that clear message with your players and your staff of ‘this is what it’s going to take to be successful’, and that we can do it as a collective.

Sometimes you see people saying ‘it’s my way or the highway’, whereas with me it’s about bringing people on the journey with you and making them understand what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it.

Do you feel the partnership between FCA and PFA Alumni will aid aspiring female football coaches?

Catherine Cannuli: I think back to when I did my first C License and how far coach education and support has come. FCA have been a massive game changer in the coaching space, not only for females, but for males.

For any coach that aspires to be better and wants to be helped, even for those A-Leagues players wanting to transition out of playing into coaching, I think it’s important that there’s a mentorship and a process in what we want to do and how we want to do it.

Sometimes when we jump straight into the deep end it becomes difficult to have an understanding of what the role of a coach is. If you are a player, the role of a coach is a very different role to when you’re a player.

The partnership between FCA and PFA is huge. I’ve always said that football needs to come together and we need to work together as one. This is showing that together we can be stronger. And these partnerships are only going to allow our players and people to grow and further develop their skills in that space.

You’ve recently been announced as an addition to the Executive Committee at FCA. What initiatives will you be looking to drive as a part of your work there?

Catherine Cannuli: I think the main one is to give as much coach education as we can for all coaches. Giving all people from all different levels the number of resources that they can get onto. You can already see that with a lot of the workshops that we’ve been running. The numbers that we’ve been getting for these have been fantastic.

For me, the key thing with FCA is to drive its existence for people to understand that FCA is there and what it can do for coaches. Because I’ve already seen how it supported me over the last two years as a member. And I think, down the track, FCA is going to have such a significant impact on the coaching life. It’s going to be amazing to see where it’s going to be having known where it started.

FCA

What changes and opportunities for the women’s game are you hoping to see come to the fore leading into and after the 2023 Women’s World Cup?

Catherine Cannuli: The greatest achievement for me with receiving the opportunity to be the Head Coach of the Western Sydney Wanderers is that other females can look to this and say: ‘Hey, I can be a Head Coach at the A-League Women’s as well’. That’s the most important, that young female coaches can actually aspire to be a coach in the A-League Women’s.

The more that we see it on the TV and the papers that there are female coaches leading the way, there’s going to be even more opportunity for young females to come through NPL clubs and do coaching.

At the moment, the number of coaches in the female space in a professional environment is probably quite low. And that’s something that we need to keep driving change for; changing the dynamics around females not thinking that there are those opportunities for coaching when there are.

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