Success is a choice. I start from this sentence, the title of the last book that Roberto Iezzi has read (Instagram, sometimes, is better than a detective). The author of the text is coach Rick Pitino, an American basketball legend, who in the last two years has also landed in Europe to sit on the prestigious bench of Panathinaikos Athens.
And basketball is at the heart of the story of a man who, although still young, is followed as an example of success in physical preparation by many. Since two years he is the Strength and Conditioning Coach of Hapoel Jerusalem, a team that is currently in second place main National League and in first place in their Champions League group. Born on January 16, 1986 in Pescara, Roberto is an open, available and very prepared person that I had the chance to listen to in more than one speech and that immediately won me over.
I thank him for accepting the invitation to be “interviewed” by video call because I consider him a great inspiration for young colleagues who begin to climb the world of work in sports, but not only. His words are safely transportable in any field of business and teamwork, since they represent dynamics that can be present in any company even at a high level.
Roberto, tell about your connection with sport and how this germ has grown in you to become your professional choice
I have always been a very active child and since I was 5 years old (until last year!) I have played with all my heart one sport, baseball. During my adolescence I moved, because of my father’s job, to Udine and my parents immediately took me to the sports hall to see the basketball games of the Snaidero Udine that played in serie A1. Within a short time basketball became my second passion despite the fact that I was always limited to practicing it with friends at the playground, nothing more.
Where did you attend university and what pushed you to choose Sports Science?
Although it was not considered a “serious” choice in my family and friends (we both laugh) I knew from the moment I started attending high school that my job would be the Physical Trainer, sport is my life and I have always known and felt it. I attended the faculty of Sports Science in Udine, a fortune for me because the didactic level is of the highest level (for three years I had as professor of physiology Pietro Enrico Di Prampero, world-renowned researcher). I then completed my studies at the IUSM in Rome, which turned out to be a great choice; many sports clubs in the capital city turn directly to this University to secure the best students and get them into their staff and I received immediately after graduation the call of the Stella Azzura Roma”
The Stella Azzurra is the basketball company that invests the most resources in the youth sector (around which the whole activity revolves) at the Italian level. It must have been a perfect place for you to “practice”. Summarize the steps of your career from the Roman experience until August 1, 2018…
The first seven years of career at the Stella Azzurra were fundamental; I feel I have grown and improved every single day, after the first two years of assistant for the rest of the time I was the head physical coach and from a practical point of view I always had the run. This is a fortune that few people have, I know, to work with a high-level human material (even if youthful) without thoughts and with the opportunity to experiment everything that came to mind to improve the players. Any ideas or intuitions were supported by the managers of the company and I must say that this was a great advantage for me.
In the summer of 2015 the call of Tezenis Verona, ambitious Serie A2 team, arrived. From the youth you were catapulted full time into a senior team
… catapulted into a whole new world, made of many aspects that I did not know and I did not yet imagine: if at Stella Azzurra I focused all my energies and effort on what was happening in the gym and on the court, from the first day of the pre-season in Verona I realized that my figure was much more, a professional who must range 360 degrees around the life of athletes and staff. At Tezenis I was lucky enough to have Marco Crespi as head coach of the team; he literally turned me around like a sock, I am very grateful to him. Returning to the famous first day of pre-season, I arrived two hours before the start pumped and eager to make a good impression; I carefully prepared mats, rubber bands and everything that would be needed for the training session and as soon as I met Crespi he said to me “the air conditioning is too low, see to remedy”, I smiled at him as if his was an ironic phrase but he remained serious and I realized that from now on it would be my job! Not only of course, preparing drinks for players and having a whole host of extra attentions, relating to the medical staff and making sure everything was in order with regard to any aspect of my work. In short, arrived with so much confidence and a hint of conceit, after a week together with the coach I realized that I knew nothing at all! All these notions are not found in any book, you have to be good at receiving and processing them yourself. For example, which information to choose from players and then how to use them to interface in the best way with the technical staff, management and medical staff? All these things have made me grown exponentially and I have brought them here to Jerusalem, with the aim of further improving them.
The next two seasons you moved to PMS Moncalieri
Yes, where I find as head coach Lorenzo Pansa, disciple of Crespi, with whom I found myself very well from the start. I coached the youth sector and the first team that played in Serie B, rather in the second year we arrived last in championship. In the summer I was with the men’s under 18 national team in Latvia at the European Youth Championships when, on 1 August, I received a call with a capital C. It was Francesco Cuzzolin, coach of the senior national team (the guru of Italian basketball and decidedly not only, ndr) who proposed to me the possibility of having an interview with the Hapoel Jerusalem…
My wife’s hometown brought you luck! How long did you have to think about it to answer?
Time to call my girlfriend and propose to her, she accepted immediately and after an hour I had already answered affirmative to Cuzzo. After an interview I was chosen and moved to the 17th city of my life
Tell about your experience in Israel and how you feel you can still improve as a professional
I’ll answer you right way, I absolutely have to improve the COMMUNICATION with the players. Before leaving for this role abroad I always interfaced with athletes very young and even younger than me so I never had to fully focus on the dialectical and approach modes. At Hapoel I found myself in front of all top-level players and several Americans (9 in the roster this year) with experience at the highest level (Roberto last year worked with Amar’e Stoudemire, for example!) coming from places and contexts of the most different: it takes a completely different approach with a player graduated from Stanford compared to the boy who grew up in the Bronx… and I had both cases. I am healing, improving but I think I still have a lot of margin on the communication aspect and I am convinced that filling it can be another turning point in my career: to have under control what happens in the gym and on the court and at the same time to be able to manage communication with technical staff, medical and management. Focusing on the athletes you need to know and keep in mind what they want and what they need, showing them that you care both about their performance and their career. Also because, unlike youth basketball where a cycle within the same company can last up to 7 years for an athlete, at the professional level is much shorter, often you do not get for two consecutive years, so being able in a short time to “go deep” in the player is essential and from there can program at best the physical work.
Have you had a hard time during your career? How did you get past them?
During my season in Verona, between December and January two of our best players suffered two rather serious injuries; one suffered a muscle sprain due to an accidental slip on a sweat patch on the court and the other a hard ankle sprain during a landing, by relapsing on the foot of a teammate. Although not attributable to errors in the handling of physical loads, since they happen in a short sequence, since they were the two best players of the roster, I felt a lot of pressure on me. At the time I was young, still novice and with “little shoulders” so I spent two really hard months, tough. I was able to overcome them thanks to stubbornness and the ability to continue on my way, keep going my program and my method. This, after asking myself questions, analyzing the situation deeply and realizing that I had not committed decisive mistakes to overturn my belief. Fortunately the support of the head coach also helped me to leave that period behind.
Have you ever had any doubt about your studies or career?
No, with my studies I have always been satisfied and convinced. On a career level, if one day I could work in baseball (which for me means doing it in the States) it would be amazing, it gives me goose flash. But right now it’s not something I’m looking for, I’m completely focused on basketball.
Message for young Coaches, three essential aspects to be successful
- It is essential to apply what you study, starting with self-practice. For example, before proposing a new exercise to an athlete I try it on myself for 2/3 weeks, to experience the sensations and choosing the ideal progressions and angles for him. Be careful not to fall into the trap of the Internet, where you can appreciate beautiful and choreographic exercises that I often see included in the training schedules in a disconnected and random way. An error that must not happen at all; what you study, it must be experienced
- Choose the right and specific sources for your field of action; you can find courses of all kinds now and certainly (almost) everyone can have useful ideas and notions, but you have to be good at selecting and finalizing the knowledge in your area of work
- Have one or (few) more mentors, who don’t necessarily have to be figures to support or do your own job; for example, I consider the aforementioned Crespi and Pansa to be mentors. Therefore not necessarily a mentor is a person to imitate, but it must be someone to follow and learn from. Francesco Cuzzolin is my main reference, I learned everything from him and I aspire to become like him, but I have never been lucky enough to work with him and if we compare our working methods there are still many differences. So find one or a few more people of reference for your independent, personal and professional growth.
What is motivation for you, what makes you find the strength to put yourself on the line every day with so many people who do not remain long references for your life, especially now that you are abroad?
I read many books about motivation and leadership, trying to keep myself always up to date and improving (Roberto also conducts a crazy level podcast, look at the episodes of @sport.vitamins) regarding relationships with other people instead and the new situations is something inside me. Another tip that I want to pass to those who start the journey in sport is that if you do not already have the sacred fire and an immoderate passion for this world, being successful is really hard.
What did you have to adapt to in Israel?
Jerusalem is a very particular city, but you live there very well. One thing that really shocked me is that in Israel nobody can work (and so training) from the sunset on Friday to the sunset on Saturday so I was surprised by it, especially during the preseason, and I had to make important changes in the conditioning plans; although at first reading it may seem like a small thing. If instead a team is planning a match on Saturday evening (after sunset) there are special permissions to train on Saturday mornings, so during the season the problem is more avoidable.
Finally, classic Italian question, how do you eat in Israel?
Very good although I miss my favorite dish, which is raw ham and that I cannot consume here because the pork cannot be eaten!
This section of the site, “Near and Far Stories” is special to me because I thought of it as the inspiring part of my blog. For this reason, in the two and a half years that I published the site, I had written only one article: it must be a story (in this case interview) that involves me and that can pass to those who read the passion and the many different faces of this world.
Roberto’s words are of great value to me, I share them in full and I would hang them on all the notice boards dedicated to freshmen of Sports Science. Those who leave university thinking that only with graduation will find what they want is wrong: in addition to that it takes great passion, courage, resilience and many personal skills. An American colleague I follow as a mentor, Alan Stein Jr. shared a slide that said that success is given by three factors: 15% preparation, the self-selling ability to 25%, and personality at 60%. Although very “American”, in my opinion this concept is really central!
A key passage that I want to emphasize is the awareness of Roberto, already at 14, that his job would be the high-level Physical Trainer and here I hang on to the initial sentence, “success is a choice”. Not all Sports Science graduates (myself too) are so good and lucky to get out of university and immediately find full-time work in a specific area. But for me Roberto’s career didn’t start at 24, but right at 14 and then everything comes back: when you know what is your way, it is much easier to take shape. And even those who are not lucky enough to find a brilliant start, by insisting and giving their best in any situation, they will still have many chances to evolve their passion in a profession.
Roberto also shared in his story a hard moment of difficulty that unfortunately in high-level sport can happen and often refers to the trainer as the unique responsible: injuries; reality is often different. At the end, what matters are facts, he came out of it using his head, his knowledge and his beliefs. I imagine that even the season of relegation from Serie B with Moncalieri had some moments of discouragement, yet it came a surprising call that he was able to make the most of.
It was really a pleasure and a great dose energy for me to chat with Roberto, ad maiora!