Germany finding success with U.S. fitness outfit Athletes' Performance

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WARSAW -- There may not be any U.S. team at Euro 2012, but that doesn't mean the world's most competitive soccer tournament is free of American influence. In fact, if you spend any time at all around the German national team, you'll hear players and coaches talk about Athletes' Performance, the U.S.-based integrated training outfit that has been a key part of the German operation since 2004.

The Germans meet Italy in the Euro 2012 semifinal on Thursday (ESPN/3/Deportes, 2:45 p.m. ET), marking the fifth time in five tournaments that Germany has reached the semifinals since hooking up with the American fitness gurus. But it's easy to forget that the initial German response was skeptical at best.

"In 2004, they were asking: What are the freaking Americans doing in Germany?" said Mark Verstegen, the founder and president of Athletes' Performance. "The first press conference probably had about 150 very angry media asking what we knew."

But Verstegen and his team had the support of Jurgen Klinsmann, the current U.S. coach who had taken over Germany in 2004. Klinsmann had observed Verstegen's individually tailored methods during his time as a consultant with the Los Angeles Galaxy, and he wanted AP to be a major part of the overhaul he was undertaking with the German national team. As Verstegen put it, "We were coming into a culture that Jurgen just shook up."

Even though Verstegen had experience with athletes in the NFL, NBA and other U.S. leagues, many Germans initially snickered when they saw players doing conditioning exercises with thick rubber bands around their ankles. Some of those scratching their heads were the players themselves.

"At first they showed us all kinds of methods, and we didn't quite know whether that was the right way of doing something," midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger said when I asked him about it on Wednesday. "But if you think about it now, it was the right thing. We've become physically very strong. Of course, back then we were also very good, but I think through these American fitness philosophies we've had some plus points there. I hope they'll stay with us a little longer."

Indeed, AP has become something of a phenomenon in Germany since Klinsmann's young team went on a run to the semifinals of World Cup 2006. Verstegen's book became a German best-seller, and he has continued working with the German team after Klinsmann's departure in 2006 and the promotion of his assistant, Joachim Löw, to the top spot. Now Verstegen talks about building a culture with the team called "the DFB way." AP has signed on with the DFB (the German FA) through 2014.

Verstegen was with the Germans during their pre-Euro training camp and will rejoin them in Kiev if they reach the final. But the day-to-day strength and conditioning with the German team is run by AP's Shad Forsythe, who (like Verstegen) is an alum of Washington State University.

What do the Americans actually do with the German players? A lot of it is similar to the AP tests and monitoring that I wrote about with Klinsmann and the U.S. national team in a recent SI magazine article.

"On a working day, we heart-rate monitor them, and we also have GPS monitors," said Forsythe. "So we're looking at the amount of work they get done over time on the pitch. We have a kind of fingerprint: We do one similar drill every week so we can monitor how much work they're getting done. If they're getting more work done in the same amount of time, then that's better fitness and we hope to see over the course of the tournament.

"Also on recovery, after these bouts with their heart rate, if their heart rates are dropping fast, then we know our players are getting recovered and are ready for the next match."

Forsythe started the preparation phase for the tournament with the team on May 10, but he had to tailor programs to individual players, not least because some were able to arrive at the start while others couldn't join the team until much closer to the tournament. (Bayern Munich played in the Champions League final, while Real Madrid had a Chinese exhibition tour.)

"Some players had a full preparation of nearly a month before our first real game here in Poland," said Forsythe, "but others had seven to 10 days. It's important that we monitor them through communication with the clubs. Then the tournament starts, and when you play your first game you have two teams: a team that plays and a team that doesn't. So you look to keep the guys who haven't played fit to play 90 minutes if called on. And recovery is the key for our guys who are playing."

Forsythe was particularly proud of German player Lars Bender, who had to come in for the suspended Jérôme Boateng against Denmark at right back, an unfamiliar position for Bender. But he was ready to play 90 minutes and showed his stamina by scoring the game-winning goal in the 80th minute.

Forsythe, who has been working with the Germans for almost eight years, now lives in Munich with his family and speaks passable German. He has also taken on additional roles with the team thanks to Löw, an anti-diva of a coach who happily delegates tasks to his staff.

In fact, Löw gives the American, Forsythe, the last word with the German team before it takes the field. At the 2010 World Cup, the team motto was "Power Within," and so Forsythe led a "Power ... WITHIN!" chant. At Euro 2012 he takes the Germans through a rousing call of "We are ... READY!"

So far they have been, winning every single game here. If they're ready again this week, Germany's first major trophy since 1996 is within reach.