In October 2021, the greatest fear of every River Plate fan came true: Marcelo Gallardo, former wonderkid and later star coach, announced his departure from the club. Gallardo led an extraordinary revival for the millionarios during his eight-year tenure, lifting 14 trophies (7 of them international) under his leadership.
Gallardo’s revolution was not purely about football. His project brought continuity, long term planning and innovation to a league marked by raw talent but also high doses of short-term planning and volatility. In this article, we take a look at one of the aces in River Plate’s sleeve during this period: Sandra Rossi, the first female assistant coach in South American football history and the woman who brought revolutionary innovations in neuroscience to Gallardo’s River Plate.
‘Training the brain is like training any other body part’
Sandra Rossi, a sports physician by profession, has a background in research as the head of the National Center of High Performance Athletics in Buenos Aires and has worked for high performance athletes and teams such as the Argentinean Olympic team, the national rugby team, and the Polish men’s volleyball team. In 2014, her friend and soon to be River Plate head coach Marcelo Gallardo called her up. Sandra was to bring her expertise in neuroscience to her childhood club, an absolute first in Argentinean club football.
Sandra’s work is incredibly ambitious. Her focus is on brain plasticity. This is the ability of the brain to be moulded and changed through experiences and training. She is interested in enhancing brain function in players from a functional rather than psychological point of view. For this, she uses specialised software to train the brain, tailored to every single player’s needs. What does she aim to improve? Reaction times, peripheral vision, predictive thinking, decision-making, attention and last but not least, how the players sleep.
For example, when defending a free kick, a player has to pay attention to many things at once to react well. There’s a ball to keep track of, but also their own teammates, their position for the offside, and the rivals’ advance. Most of this is happening on their peripheral visions. For these situations, Rossi introduced object tracking and reaction time exercises where, fixing their gaze elsewhere, players train their brains to identify and tap flickering images of balls on a screen. These exercises result in improved cognition, as players process all this information more and more efficiently the more they train. They also result in rich metrics and statistics, which are very useful for studying and better understanding player performance. In just one year after Rossi’s and Gallardo’s arrival, River Plate won four titles. The formula was evidently working.
South America’s first female assistant coach
The start of her club journey was a bit rocky. “Many thought that I was going to last two months, if I was lucky,” Sandra told the Guardian. “Many thought that I could not take it; that this was not a place for a woman.” Gallardo also admitted it would be challenging to expose Rossi to a traditionally chauvinist environment such as club football. Her previous experience in the world of professional athletics, though, had prepared her well. She had experience working with men, and with great egos in highly competitive environments. In no time, and helped by the incredible performance of the team, the players and the rest of the institution grew very fond of her. Players often speak about the positive impact she’s had in the changing room, bringing discipline to the group but also a constructive, conciliatory attitude. In late 2022, Rossi announced that she is staying on at River under new head coach Martín Demichelis, to the delight of the fans.
Sandra arrived at River at a turning point in the club, and made history. Her expertise helped further professionalise the game at River, bringing it up to snuff with major European clubs which already had dedicated departments for neuroscience training. In a broader sense, she played a key role in modernising the club, a process that granted it its most successful period in history, and in doing so, became a fan favourite.
Technological progress keeps gaining ground in football. The beautiful game has seen the introduction of many cutting edge technologies in the last years. Some of them, like the VAR, have been heavily criticised for reducing spontaneity in the play and for allowing for new kinds of inaccuracies in refereeing. Is the introduction of scientific insights in football, like cognitive training, a positive development? Does the increasing professionalism and use of technology damage the spontaneous and fun spirit of football? And how can positive, cutting edge tech be made accessible for all and not just the top clubs?