Crea’s strength in conditioning Asia

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The moment Anthony Crea finished his playing career, he knew he wasn’t going to say goodbye to football. His passion for sport science and exercise physiology has become his second, and perhaps most important, contribution to the world game.

Crea is so skilled in the area of strength and conditioning that he was recently accosted to Asia. He was asked by the Chinese Football Association (CFA) to provide his methodology and training to coaches in three Chinese provinces: Xi’an, Zibo and Shanghai. The world’s fastest growing major economy wants its football to be world-class.

I sat down with Crea last week to talk football, science and travelling the world. Of course, this was done over several double-shot macchiatos. He began by telling me how he cut his teeth in the field, his experiences and how grateful he is to the people who helped him reach his personal and professional goals.

He launched into his strength and conditioning career under Frank Farina at Marconi Stallions in the National Soccer League (NSL) then followed him when he became Socceroos coach. He started in 2000 and after Farina’s sacking in 2005, stayed on to play an integral part in Guus Hiddink’s staff. It was during his tenure with the Socceroos that changed his life forever.

“It was a great experience. People say to me all the time that I was lucky because I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time,” Crea said.

“Working under Hiddink was a privilege and something that I’ll never forget. He said to us [fitness and coaching staff], ‘I’m Dutch but I don’t expect you to be Dutch. I have done my homework on Australia and I don’t want to change one thing about the Australian mentality’ which made us all relax. He was happy with the staff he had. He trusted us.”

“From me, he wanted three things: speed, mobility and agility in the players.”

Once the Socceroos qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, résumés from strength and conditioning professionals were flying in from everywhere. Crea recalls a conversation with Hiddink where he gave him another perspective on allowing people to see him work.

“The boss said to me that I should let them [applicants] in; to let them see what it’s like to manage the players. They may think they have the qualifications but telling a Lucas Neill or a Harry Kewell to train in a certain way takes more than knowledge, you have to have their respect. They’re trusting you.”

The small but mighty Crea stands at just 163 centimetres (or 5′ 4″). He may have been looking up at the players but they never looked down on him. He has fond memories of his experience in Germany.

“We all felt when the whistle blew after [Francesco] Totti scored the penalty and knocked us out, that we had more to give. There was more in us. But we were all proud to be there; to have achieved what we did.”

After the World Cup, Crea joined Sydney FC to work under former German-midfielder and 1990 FIFA World Cup-winner, Pierre Littbarski. Success followed as Sydney FC were crowned inaugural Hyundai A-League Champions in 2006. At the same time, Crea continued in his role with the Socceroos under interim coach, Graham Arnold.

When Littbarski moved to J2 side, Avispa Fukuoka, Crea went with him. After Littbarski’s sacking, he stayed on but was also sacked in 2009 and returned to Australia.

“It’s been a great cultural experience for me, for my family, to travel around the world with football over the years. I worked in Italy with Parma F.C. for four years and also did some consulting work with Crystal Palace in England. We were like the Traveling Wilburys. It’s good to be back home.”

Crea, a qualified lawyer, spent some time practicing but missed the fix football brought him. He is now involved in player management and consults in strength and conditioning in Australia and around the world. He was scouted by Kewell and Neill’s former Turkish club, Galatasaray S.K. late last year after consulting with leading high performance company, Athletes’ Performance, which never eventuated. However, the US-based company were responsible for his involvement with the CFA.

Australians are renowned for their work in the sport science field. However, football-specific strength and conditioning hasn’t always been so highly topical. Furthermore, what does it mean?

Essentially, strength training involves improving athletic performance. More broadly, it relates to the conditioning of bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles to withstand the demands of competition. It also includes bulking up for protection in collision sports, like football, and the prevention and rehabilitation of injuries (usually soft-tissue), as well as improved functional capacity.

Strength training fundamentals include training movements and core before extremities; building from the ground up. Strength components include physiological (capacity for strength), neural (maximising output of physiological capacity) and skill (conversion to technical movements).

The balance between taking the scientific data gained from testing and transferring it to the methodology, and then onto the pitch is where Crea’s work is more art than science. When in China, he trained 1,000 coaches, on his own. He ran morning sessions that were done by PowerPoint and then on-field visual sessions to apply the methodology.

“The Chinese have an amazing capacity to learn and a professional setup; wonderful facilities. It was a challenge for me to convey the concept of ‘recovery’ as part of the strength and conditioning process. They always want to work; never want to take a day off.”

“Some [strength and conditioning professionals] like to focus on testing and interpreting data. There needs to be a balance; incorporating the ball is my preference. For example, I would do speed and power with the ball or core stability with volleys or headers.”

“Anything I asked the CFA for, they gave me. I had 40 BOSU balls and 40 Swiss balls and the sessions were dynamic, effective and challenging.”

If there were ever an example of how to build a career in football, Crea would be the perfect role model. He has a wealth of knowledge, elite-level experience, and most of all, he’s a people-person.

He echoes the views of many in the game who champion the promotion of Australian players before we import talent. He feels the same way about our coaches and trainers.

“Get the Spanish or the Dutch to come and coach Australian coaches. Then, let them coach in the A-League. How else are they going to learn?”

It worked for him.