The Secret to Everything

Fitness coach Dawn Scott and her holistic 'marginal gains' approach could lead the U.S. to Women's World Cup glory

Dawn Scott, right, with coach Jill Ellis (Getty Images)

EDMONTON, Alberta – “What if?” isn’t a thought that crosses Dawn Scott’s mind.

Scott, the United States women’s national team’s strength and fitness coach, covers all the bases when it comes to her players. Her knowledge of all 23 players on the World Cup roster is intimate. She knows what players are eating, how well hydrated they are and how much sleep they are getting. More than their agents, their teammates or even their spouses, Scott knows all the measurables of the daily lives of these players, with whom she speaks daily.

“Dawn is, like, the secret to everything,” summarizes an exuberant Christie Rampone. Rampone would qualify as an authority on such matters; she turns 40 in less than a week and is playing in her fifth World Cup.

Scott’s secret is in “marginal gains,” a concept that the Newcastle, England, native picked up years ago from Team Great Britain Cycling. It’s an idea rooted in minutiae, that the smallest of things could make the greatest of impacts in the grand scheme, especially if micromanaged from player to player. It’s the 0.01 percent in which Scott and the rest of the U.S. Soccer staff operate.

And it is that 0.01 percent that could be the difference as the U.S. tries to win its first Women’s World Cup in 16 years.

“Can you look at 20 different areas, and if you can make a marginal gain in each area, suddenly you’ve made a five percent improvement in each player,” Scott said. “So it’s kind of been brainstorming, all the staff, and then pulling that all together to then produce some of these machines.”

Scott’s lines of communication are open with the players, the coaching staff and the medical staff, led by head athletic trainer Rick Guter. Scott is something of the middle woman between the players and head coach Jill Ellis, keeping tabs on physical progress in order to help the coaching staff prepare for a match.

Behind the scenes is very much where Scott works, but listen even for a few moments to players and coaches talk and you can see just how many different parts of the team she touches. Scott helped give the green-light on Alex Morgan’s fitness level for Tuesday’s game against Nigeria, Morgan’s first-ever World Cup start (she has seven appearances off the bench) and first start in over two months due to a bone bruise in her left knee. Ellis said after the game that the plan was to have Morgan start by the knockout stage of the tournament, but the 25-year-old striker was ahead of schedule.

And don’t look now, but 35-year-old Abby Wambach, who by all indications was going to be coming off the bench and rotating into the lineup, played the full 90 minutes in two of the first three matches of the tournament.

“Our fitness coach does a tremendous job,” Ellis said after Tuesday’s win over Nigeria, a 1-0 triumph thanks to Wambach’s goal. “I would say Abby is at her peak fitness. Tonight I knew I wanted to get 90 (minutes) out of her and we did that. We’ll work hard on recovery.”

Scott’s job is holistic. She is both proactive and reactive, monitoring players to best predict performance and working with the medical staff

“If you can make her less tight or stronger in a certain muscle group or area, then is that going to make Alex Morgan faster on the field?” Scott wonders aloud. “That is part of it. The other piece is then if you can alleviate any areas of tightness or weakness or range of motion, then suddenly your players are stronger and fitter, they are more resilient in games and over multiple games.”

Morgan said she felt fast in her 66 minutes on the field on Tuesday. “I’ll have to ask the fitness coach about the GPS to see if I really was,” she said after the game.

Each player is monitored individually. Long gone are the days, still so prevalent in the college game, when a thick workout packet got mailed out to the entire U.S. team with the same mundane sprint workouts and lifting drills to follow in the offseason. U.S. players get those packets, but each one looks different for every player now.

Then there is the dreaded beep test, a team-wide competition involving a series of short sprints set to a beeping timer. Miss the beep and you’re out; last one standing is the most fit. There are also hydration tests in the mornings, heart-rate monitors and GPS used to track players’ mileage.

Even in the middle of a World Cup, players are training differently. On days after a match, reserves and starters will separate for portions of practice in order to suit their particular needs. Scott runs the warm-ups, making sure everyone stretches properly. Players who went 90 minutes might need some rest. Reserves who haven’t played may need to be put through strenuous fitness training sessions so that in the event they are called upon later in the tournament, they aren’t winded and out of shape.

“The open communication and the trust that we have in Dawn I think helps,” Rampone says, “because you could be a reserve that may lie because you don’t want her to think you’re sore, but that’s what makes it. She’s real. The communication is there, so we can get stronger and better individually.”

Nutrition is part of the equation, too. The U.S. women have their own chef on the road with them during the World Cup to meet their individual dietary needs. No buffet lines here. Rampone is a perfect example of why no two players should eat the same. She recently switched to a gluten-free diet to “eat to [her] blood type.”

All of these things are harmonized: the fitness, the nutrition, the medicine – they all add up to the big picture, which consists of seven games (should the Americans make the final) in 30 days at the highest level of competition, and on artificial turf this time. It’s a grueling stretch, even on the most physically fit of bodies.

The United States always has been and still is — perhaps more than ever — a tournament team. Is this the most technical and skilled team in the world? The jury is out. They are among them, no doubt. But “The American Way” has long been one of physical and mental superiority over opponents. And while Canada coach John Herdman is similarly detail-oriented and the Australians utilize sports science, the U.S. still appears to be on another level with fitness and their attention to those details.

None of these pieces may necessarily tangibly show on the field, but together the thought is that the nutritional shakes, the recovery drinks, the extra sprints and everything else add up when it counts.

If Wambach is a millimeter off on that famous header against Brazil in 2011, the United States flops out of the tournament in historic, tragic fashion in the quarterfinals. The U.S. has never fallen short of the semifinals at the World Cup, winning it twice.

If Morgan’s header a year later rises just a fraction higher, the U.S. goes to penalty kicks against Canada in the Olympic semifinals, and who knows what would have happened? The Americans are now three-time reigning Olympic gold medalists, winners of four of five all-time Olympic competitions and silver-medalists on the other occasion.

This, like all of sport, is a game of inches. Marginal gains could be the difference to winning a World Cup.