The Tennis Week Interview: Jason Riley By Chris Oddo
Published Tuesday, October 20, 2009, at Tennis Week Magazine
Jason Riley has been blazing a trail in the world of Sports Performance enhancement since 1999. With an eight-year stint as the Associate Director of Performance at the International Performance Institute at IMG Academies under his belt, Jason became the Director of Performance at The Athletes Compound in Tampa, Florida in 2007.
He has worked with world-class athletes in all sports, including Derek Jeter, Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas, Ryan Howard, Carlos Quentin, and John Isner. He has also spent time as the strength and conditioning coordinator for an MLS soccer team, and developed a successful NFL Combine Training Program, as well as an MLB Spring Training Prep program. If I’m leaving anything out (I certainly am) it’s only because he’s done too much to fit on one page.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time interviewing Jason, and while doing so was pleasantly surprised to see how passionate he is about his work. He’s driven to exact as much promise from the athletes he works with as they themselves are, and his open-minded approach to not only helping them, but also teaching them how and why he is helping them is a breath of fresh air in a world that can sometimes become bogged down in it’s own stubborn interpretation of what it believes to be true.
As an underdeveloped and athletically limited writer who is rapidly approaching the other side of the hill, I’ve never had the pleasure of spending time in the trenches with Jason, but having spoken with him at length, I am confident that those who do are very lucky athletes indeed.
Here is some of the text from our recent interview.
Chris Oddo: What does a typical Jason Riley day consist of? What is your day-in day-out?
Jason Riley: It varies from season to season, depending on who is training here at the time. I’ll give you of a breakdown…Individual training with some of our high-end elite clientele starting at about 6:30 in the morning…that usually lasts for about two hours. Then we move into some larger group training for another three hours until lunch (There are 80 academy kids on site that we have here playing tennis in addition to other large groups representing many other sports). In the afternoon we do more of the same with the group training, but the emphasis is more on the weights and strength training rather than on-court footwork or agility. I typically spend the next hour on the phone during my car ride home trying to catch up on all the loose ends that I may not have had time to get to during the day.
Chris Oddo: I know you keep yourself very busy, and there probably aren’t enough hours in the day for you to do what you want to do. What’s making you crazy right now?
Jason Riley: We’re in the process of interviewing about 30 intern applicants for January. I put a lot of stock in the people that we bring into our facility. Not only from our professional staff but also our intern staff. Everyone that comes to work at The Athletes Compound has to meet certain criteria in terms of character and personality, because every one of them is a reflection of what we’re doing as a company.
Chris Oddo: I understand that your all-natural supplement company is getting off the ground. What are your plans for that?
Jason Riley: We’re looking forward to a launch of our product (Elementz Nutrition). Probably the end of December is what we’re looking at now. We’re starting out with just a whey protein. We’ve taste tested it with a lot of the athletes at our facility, and in blind taste tests it has done very well. I would say 90 percent of the time it has won for best taste, but more importantly, the quality of the ingredients is something that we’re really excited about. And the fact that we can give it to any pro athlete without them having to have any worry at all about testing positive because it’s all going to be NSF certified.
Chris Oddo: Tell me a little bit about what Saddlebrook and The Athletes Compound are about. Is The Athletes Compound your baby?
Jason Riley: Saddlebrook brought me into the mix to really generate the elite performance side. They have allowed me to realize and develop The Athletes Compound at a world-class state of the art facility, and I’m really thankful for that. There are so many great things about being at the resort. We are a destination resort so we can have athletes that are from out of state coming here to stay. We have chefs making all the food for them here, we have every training apparatus in terms of field space and court space, and we have all four grand-slam surfaces here…it’s incredible for us to have these resources at our availability.
I developed this plan of what I want to have happen with each and every athlete or group of athletes that we come into contact with, and it takes that process of educating the people that are underneath you until I trust that they can run the program just as effectively as I can. I’m finally to the point where I have help that I have 100 percent confidence in that not only can they perform the program that I have written up for an athlete, but they will also be free to improvise within the realms of our preexisting philosophy to suit the needs of the unique situation that they find themselves in.
Chris Oddo: So you have a philosophy that you’ve built, but you are still into letting it evolve?
Jason Riley: Exactly.
Chris Oddo: It’s an ever-changing world of sports, and when you’re always looking for an edge you have to stay real open-minded, right?
Jason Riley: Yeah, and I think the challenge as a strength and conditioning coach is that you have to know when and why you are doing something. There are hundreds of different of training philosophies and modalities out there. You have to be able to evaluate each athlete that you train, and identify what that individuals unique needs are. You have to ask: Where are we trying to go with this athlete? And you have to be open-minded enough to be able to see other people’s points of view and be able to add something that you’ve never done before because a certain athlete might have some type of compensation pattern of deficiency that you haven’t seen before.
The way I look at it is that every athlete is a blank canvas. We’re not paint by numbers here. We like to have this blank canvas that we can create and mold and develop in a way that is best for every individual athlete.
Chris Oddo: So you spent eight years over at IMG? That must have been huge for you in terms of tennis with so much going on over at Bollettieri.
Jason Riley: It was a great experience. I can’t say enough positive things about it. I met some phenomenal coaches there, both in the performance side of things as well as the tennis side of things.
Chris Oddo: When you first started getting really active in the tennis world, did you kind of act on cue from other tennis coaches or were you just taking the reigns?
Jason Riley: Again, it’s a molding process. I had my views of what each athlete should do. If you just take a general example, if you’re testing 200 kids at a tennis academy, you see patterns of deficiency — 80 percent of the kids could be deficient in rotator cuff stability — so you can test the right things to be able to develop a program that is going to be able to hit the majority of the players, but I always try to remain open-minded so I can learn from other people’s view points.
I think that that’s how the spirit of sports performance enhancement is developing. I’ve always been taught to respect the ideas of the people who have been there before you. I try to be open minded and learn from their angles and their view points. We may have some different ways of reaching that end point, but it’s very important to not let your ego get in the way of the athletes success. I’ve been just trying to be a sponge and gather as much information as I possibly can to give back to the athletes.
Chris Oddo: Can you name some names for me? Who would you say influenced you?
Jason Riley: Loren Seagrave would have to be one at the top of the list. In terms of speed development he’s been the one who has been the most influential in my life. I met him at IMG. He was the director for a couple of years when I was down there. Another one would be Pete Bommarito. He was more of a “get down, get dirty” personality, and he really pushed me to strive to be better every day. He was so intuitive, asking questions and challenging my thought processes, and he really helped me develop my philosophy across all spectrums of performance training because I really had to understand why I was doing the things I was doing, and it’s so good to have that type of person around you who not only encourage you but challenge you in terms of how you are developing your programs.
Chris Oddo: What would you say is the one common denominator, the one thing that is universal that you give all athletes who come through your doors?
Jason Riley: I think it would definitely be education. I believe my role is primarily one of an educator. Getting people to embrace my philosophy and my programming because I am educating them on why they need to be doing it. Anybody can go out there and tell somebody to run a 300 yard shuttle, but if you can relate it back to the sport, and how does it apply to them being on the court during a match, that particular athlete is going to have the extra incentive if they can see and comprehend the reason. That’s the challenge of what we do. Carlos Quentin (Chicago White Sox) for instance, challenges me every year that he comes in on something new that he’s heard from another source, and I have to be able to be on top of my game to understand that perspective and to either agree or disagree with him on it. It’s a good atmosphere because it fosters communication and it encourages respect of one another’s beliefs.
Chris Oddo: So it’s education as the common denominator in the sense that the knowledge provides insight for the athlete as to how they can reach their potential.
Jason Riley: Exactly, to reach their genetic potential. They want to be the best that they can possibly be, and it’s my job to educate them and to push them to where they are doing everything in their power to get there.
Chris Oddo: With Regard to John Isner, at 6’9” it must present a whole set of new challenges for you. Has it been crazy with him?
Jason Riley: It has. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of NBA players, so the big athlete was not new to me, but John is different in the sense that he’s lanky, so our whole goal was to get him in and provide a little more muscle mass and a little more strength so that we could build a base for him.
Chris Oddo: You mentioned that you are doing a lot of shoulders, hips, and core work on John. Can you tell me what exactly you’ve been doing?
Jason Riley: The core of the John’s program is really his core. It’s providing the stability through that midsection of his body to allow for everything else to work more efficiently. Every day, whether he’s on the road, or whether he’s here, we’re doing some type of core training, whether it’s medicine ball training (working on explosive movements through the core), pillar training (focus on hips, abs, and lower back), or just general strengthening movements for the lower back. That’s where we really try to hit home with John. He’s bought into that because he’s seen his movements improve, and because he feels more in balance now. His center of mass is more stable and he’s not leaning as much through his strokes. The other thing that we really looked at with John is posterior chain. By posterior chain I mean the backside of his body. Our goal was to help with his body posture and to strengthen up the backside of his body. But we weren’t making the progress as fast as we wanted to until we started to initiate the hamstring strengthening exercises. From landing on the serve and decelerating to hit balls, he was putting so much stress on his quads and his patella tendon, it was taking a pounding. So when we started focusing on the hamstrings and the glutes, getting them to accept a lot of that stress we started seeing less knee pain and we started seeing John’s movement on the court be more efficient.
Chris Oddo: Much running, or not much running?
Jason Riley: We did quite a bit of on-court movement-based running. It wasn’t really conditioning so-to-speak. More technique. Working on him getting a lower center of gravity, and keeping his knees inside his hips as he moved so he could be quick in either direction.
Chris Oddo: Sounds like more technique of running rather than just running.
Jason Riley: It’s so much technique. Whether it was a shuffle movement or even a split step, it allowed for John to keep his center of mass low and it allowed for him to be quick on the first step in any direction.
Chris Oddo: After Isner’s career-changing victory over Roddick at this years US Open did you run into any surprises?
Jason Riley: So much of being at the Grand Slams is about not overdoing it. It’s about maintaining what you have and playing within yourself. The nervous system is drained after a match like that, and everything to me is about recovery. Massage. Hot-cold compress baths. Stretching. We’ve created templates that we give to Craig (John’s coach, Craig Boynton). As soon as he gets off the court, he’s doing his nutritional shake in the first ten minutes. We’re doing some type of cool-down, usually on the bike, then we go through and do some pre-hab exercises. We’ll tighten the rotator cuff back up, and tighten the core a little — real easy stuff, we’re not doing anything that’s taxing — just trying to reinitiate the firing patterns that are going to now hold over into the next match.
Chris Oddo: It sounds like you’ve come to the conclusion that pre-hab is the most important thing for John, because of his size and the fact that injuries and fatigue are more of a possibility with such a big frame.
Jason Riley: I look at it from a couple different perspectives. Obviously, with John being as big as he is, we try and conserve energy whenever possible. But everybody needs strength in some component. We have to find that balance where we are working for that but not risking injury. The times that we have where we can really build the strength, we take full advantage of them. But with a lot of these tournaments, they don’t have the facilities available. So with limited facilities that John will be exposed to on tour, it typically defaults to pre-hab and core exercises. When they’re leaving for 4-6 weeks at a time, if we know that he at least is doing those exercises, when he comes back, we’re able to push him much faster, and get more out of him faster than if he did nothing.
Chris Oddo: So players will come back beat up and you’ll have unproductive time if they’re not doing the pre-habbing and the core stuff on the road.
Jason Riley: Very much so.
Chris Oddo: With you and John having the Australian Open on the horizon now, is there a pre-Slam routine that you will start to implement?
Jason Riley: We do. Come November, we start seeing a lot of the pros start coming back to our facility, and that’s the one time a year, that we really try to get after it pretty hard. Not only from a weight room standpoint but also from a conditioning standpoint. I’m a big believer that if we can put in six weeks minimum during that time, we’re able to hold on to those results for a much longer time than if they’ve only given me, say, three weeks. What we want to do is provide that foundation. And a lot of the research will show that the fall-off at six weeks is so much slower than it was even if they went really hard for two and three weeks. So my goal is to try to get these guys to commit for six weeks of time for that period before they head over to Australia.
Chris Oddo: Have you ever made John puke?
Jason Riley: I can’t remember…I think John has…
Chris Oddo: So you have seen John puke then?
Jason Riley: Yes…yes.
Chris Oddo: Do you have a nickname for him?
Jason Riley: (laughing) Let me just say he’s probably one of the must fun athletes I’ve been around. He’s such a good guy. We’re constantly bantering back and forth between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Nebraska Cornhuskers. We put wagers on football games and we’ll try to embarrass one another with the bets that we come up with. But my typical name for him, one that I can probably say is “Iz.”
Chris Oddo:That’s one you can repeat? And the other ones you’ll just leave to our imagination?
Jason Riley: (laughing) Yeah. It’s a lot of fun. John’s one of those guys you just look forward to him coming back to work with you.
Chris Oddo: What’s the mood in the camp after his great summer? Is he like “I can win a Slam?”
Jason Riley: All his success is just giving him more confidence that he is deserving of being up there, and even though he doesn’t necessarily say it, you can see more and more confidence in him. Even though you’d never know it if you saw him on the street, because he is such a personable guy and he treats other people so well. But he has something in him, that drive and determination, that allows him to be successful — I think it’s going to be fun to watch him in the years to come.
Chris Oddo: Can he dunk a basketball?
Jason Riley: He can. But I’ll tell you no and you can publish that (laughing).
Chris Oddo: Can he dunk over you, that’s the question really, right?
Jason Riley: Definitely, yeah.
Chris Oddo: Isner has this way of moving on court between points, it’s really mellow and slow. Del Potro, another big man on the ATP tour, seems to do the same thing. Is that something you’re coaching him to do?
Jason Riley: I think that’s actually something that Craig works with him on quite a bit. Allowing those times for him to catch his breath, and think about what his strategy is, I won’t get too much into it, because it’s more about John and Craig, but it is definitely apparent that he does take his time out there, and it’s something that has been advantageous for him.
Chris Oddo: With all these great results in clutch situations, especially in the third and fifth set tie-breakers, is Isner some sort of Zen master or something?
Jason Riley: That’s just the way he is. I don’t think he ever gets too high and I don’t think he ever gets too low. I think that that displays itself on the court as well. He’s calm. He’s collected. He’s going to take his time. He’s very much a routine guy. Not only from what we do on the performance side of things but even with his nutrition. He doesn’t miss a beat with any of our pre-match or pre-practice supplementation, and I think that the routine helps him keep calm.
Chris Oddo: Sounds like he’s an ideal client for you.
Jason Riley: He is. He asks a lot of great questions. I earned his trust early in the relationship and it’s made our relationship productive from the start. I think he enjoys spending a lot of time in the gym. He loves to be in there and he loves to shoot the breeze with the guys and talk some trash about his Georgia Bulldogs. He’s a lot of fun to have in there.
Chris Oddo: One of my concerns about John is the return of serve. As his strength and conditioning coach is that something you look at, the fact that he’s one of the lowest in the top 50 at it?
Jason Riley: I’m not a stat guy at all. I believe in patterns of efficiency. Craig will tell me a lot of these things. My job is not to be a statistician or a tennis coach. One of the things that separate what I do and what Craig does and why we have such a great relationship between the three of us is that everyone is able to give in a completely different way. When I look at movement, like when I’m in his box, I’m not necessarily watching the point — I’m watching movement in general. How is he moving? Is he too high? What was his crossover step looking like? Is he taking negative steps when he approaches the ball? It’s Craig’s job for him to be able to return better, it’s my job to be able to put him into a position to make the returns that Craig needs him to make. That’s why our relationship is such a great one. My role is to do all the intangibles. Improve flexibility. Improve mobility. Improve strength and power, because all that is going to relate into a better first step, a better center of gravity so that he can put his body into position to make the best possible shots, whether it’s a return, a baseline shot, or a volley.
I need to study John’s movements and watch him on the court and to develop those patterns for him because with his height those patterns do change a little bit. Within the framework of speed and agility training, maybe 75 percent is the same across all athletes — maybe 80 percent — but it’s that 20 percent that you can really individualize a program with that really hits home with the athlete. Some of it’s trial and error and some of it is listening to great coaches who know the athlete well.
Chris Oddo: So in John’s case, he gets custom training, based on his unique height and reach.
Jason Riley: Exactly.
Chris Oddo: What are your goals for the off-season with John.
Jason Riley: I’m looking forward to John coming back and really getting started with the off-season. I set up a program for him before he left for Asia so he can maintain the success that he’s had for the rest of the season. When he returns we’re not really concerned about him putting on any more weight, but we’d like to make his movements and his core and posterior strength a little bit better so we can give him some more power on the court. That’s going to be our biggest focus. We’re still refining some nutritional specifics to help with cramping issues for very extreme situations. We’ve made some huge gains in terms of where we were and where we’re at now, but there is still some room for improvement in that area. So I’d like to get that ironed out and continue to help John get stronger as he prepares for another Grand-Slam season.