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Santos Laguna’s Director of High Performance on the art and science of recovery

Santos’ Director of High Performance Gonzalo Rodriguez talks about the club’s approach to helping players come back from injury, both physically and mentally.

Santos Laguna press release

496 days is a long time to not do something. 496 days is an eternity to not do something at an elite level. But 496 days after suffering a fractured leg in practice, Brian Lozano re-took the pitch in the 56th minute of Santos Laguna’s 3-0 win over Necaxa. It was a triumphant moment not only for a player who had once been Uruguay’s national team winger, but for the team at Santos who helped him on his long road to recovery.

The moment Lozano stepped back onto the pitch, “I was crying,” Director of High Performance Gonzalo Rodríguez tells me from his office at TSM in Torreón earlier this week. “I was crying in the game. And I was crying with him, because some people, they don’t know how difficult it is for us, and how it’s difficult to spend the patience that we work with. I spent many, many hours not just myself, (but) all my team working with Brian Lozano. Going to different doctors, doing different treatments. And for us, when we saw that him playing the last day against Necaxa after 15 months, believe me that was like, Oh my goodness.”

Brian Lozano spent 15 months rehabbing from a broken leg, and thanks in part to Gonzalo Rodríguez and the staff at Santos Laguna he was able to play for the first time in Week 1 of the Liga MX Apertura.
Brian Lozano spent 15 months rehabbing from a broken leg, and thanks in part to Gonzalo Rodríguez and the staff at Santos Laguna he was able to play for the first time in Week 1 of the Liga MX Apertura.
Photo by Leopoldo Smith/Getty Images

Rodríguez’ journey through soccer is pretty circuitous. He started in his native Spain as the fitness coach for Salamanca for a year before moving to Liverpool under Rafa Benítez in 2008. He went back to Spain in 2011 taking fitness coaching positions with Real Valladolid and Albacete before becoming the Head of the Sports Sciences Department at Erbil F.C. in Iraq in 2013 and then taking the same position with the Iraqi National Team at the end of 2014. He also worked with Al-Khor in the Qatar Stars League, Aspetar (a sports medicine hospital in Doha), the Iraqi Olympic Team, and Al-Shorta in Iraq before going to Santos in March of 2021.

When I asked about this journey and what drew him to Santos, he replied laughing that “I think that I was looking at the map. I said, Okay, ‘I have to go to the left side.’ This was the only way.” When he arrived however, the situation wasn’t funny. Santos was dealing with a rash of injuries, with injuries to key players like Lozano, Ayrton Preciado, and Diego Valdés being unavailable at a moment when Santos’ grasp on a playoff spot became tenuous. Preciado, Valdés, and some other players were able to get healthy and take Santos into the 2021 Guard1anes Final.

Rodríguez isn’t just charged with taking care of Santos’ star players. He’s tasked with the well-being of all of Santos’ approximately 200 to 250 players, both men and women, first team, youth teams, and any trialists with the club. Rodríguez’ job is to coordinate and manage most of the off-the-field things for players, overseeing the Medical Services Department (“doctors, physiotherapists, and masseuses”), High Performance Department (“strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, etc.”), and the Innovation and Development Department (“neuroscientists, psychologists, etc.”).

“So I have the pleasure to work with more than 30 people,” Rodríguez tells me. ”We are taking care of (the players’) health, of their nutritional habits, their strength programs. If they have any medical problem, any injury.”

Everything you can think of regarding a players fitness and health is under consideration and advice is given to the technical staff to adjust workloads accordingly. And if a player is severely injured, “one of my goals is (that) I have to find the best doctor able to (perform) the surgery. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Mexico, the United States, wherever, we have to find the best option for the player.”

It’s not just the physical aspect of players’ well-being that are under consideration at Santos. The day after my interview with Rodríguez, American Olympic gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the Tokyo Olympic games to focus on her mental health. Rodríguez’ words were prescient with regards to how he and his staff work with players on their mental health.

“Some people think that when a player gets injured, the main way (is) just to recover from the physical point of view,” Rodríguez says. “But (you) also have to recover his mind. It is so important, it’s so important because when one player gets injured, probably one of their weakest points that he has his mind.”

“One thing is to recover from the physiological point of view, but also is the (mental) recovery from this kind of affairs that he has. He’s sometimes afraid to come back. And it’s so important as well. It’s a combination between both.”

Gonzalo Rodríguez (right) has helped with the rehabilitation of Brian Lozano (left), Juan Ferney Otero (center), and other Santos Laguna players.
Gonzalo Rodríguez (right) has helped with the rehabilitation of Brian Lozano (left), Juan Ferney Otero (center), and other Santos Laguna players.
Santos Laguna press release

Shortly after being subbed onto the field, Lozano suffered a rather hard foul in the 60th minute. It wasn’t particularly dirty, but it was the sort of thing that could have rattled his confidence, especially after just entering into the game minutes before. But Lozano was able to get up and continue on, which speaks volumes not only to his fortitude but the work that he put in with Rodríguez and the sports psychologists at Santos.

“One of the weakest points after a big long term injury is that they’re afraid. They are sometimes afraid to come back again,” Rodríguez said, but noted they had worked with Lozano on that eventuality and prepared him for that first hard tackle. It worked, and Lozano was able to finish the game looking a little rusty but a lot like the player he was prior to his injury.

“What Santos Laguna is doing I think that is absolutely new in Mexican football. Of course that we are following, let’s say like the American, North American Way, taking this high performance department. But I think as far as I know, is the only place in Mexico that (has a) High Performance Department, with the infrastructure and process.”

And that spirit of innovation is also something for his profession as well. While people have been playing some variation of soccer for the better part of 150 years (and much longer if you count ancient ball games similar to what we know as soccer from all over the world), it’s only been in the past few decades that players began lifting weights, let alone focusing on things like nutrition, sleep, and the mental aspect of not only the game of soccer but health in general. Rodríguez believes that the next innovations in sports science will be around players’ rest time.

“We are so focused in the two hours that the player is performing the game or the training session,” he says adding that “sometimes, we forget what happened (during) the other 20 hours (of a player’s day). So how can we manage these 20 hours? How we can control how the players sleep? What they do at home?”

Also he believes that the focus on mental health will become more prominent. “How a player is able to recover from the mental point of view between game to game. I think that this point of neuroscience (and) psychology is a big next step. And it’s something that is (currently) so difficult to work toward. There are not a lot of studies about this point. And I think we have to go there.”

“For me, the power of the mind is a key sometimes,” he says, noting that he presents his students a situation with an exhausted player. “For example, (there’s) one player that cannot run at all. He’s asking for a change, saying ‘Please coach I really cannot run.’ But if in this moment, he scores a goal, he is able to run 100 meters toward his family to celebrate the goal. So how can you explain these kind of things? The mental of the power of the of the mind is so important, and we really don’t know a lot about this.”

And while no team wants to give up their secrets and advantages to their rivals, Rodríguez has some advice for clubs in Mexico, South America, and beyond.

“Please try to invest in this kind of department,” he says. While the mindset is often ‘win now at any cost’ and longer-term projects are often seen as riskier, it’s worth it he says. “It’s something that you are not going to see in the short term, maybe. But, it is something that you are going to learn (from) and you are going to get the benefit (of) in the future, to have a proper infrastructure and process.”

Regardless of where on the map the club is, “That will be very good for the for the team in the future.”