Managing The In-Season Work in Professional Football: Controlling The Chaos!

Managing the training process of 25 to 30 football players during a competition could be a very complex job. The whole team is usually divided into several working groups according to individual needs, health status and the amount of playing time. At the same time, the groups are very changeable and are constantly separated and merged back into teamwork. That’s not all, as the football game represents chaos – an unpredictable activity with a lot of possible outcomes, even within the same activities, players are exposed to a very different training stimulus. Taking this into account, no training is the same for every player, nor should it be. Also, a very similar training stimulus will not produce the same results for different players. Various factors, including current fitness level, trainability and age, will significantly affect the effect of each individual session. Things got messy, right? That’s because they are. With a clear goal, to bring each player closer to their genetic ceiling, but at the same time stay healthy and fresh to compete, in a situation where each individual is very unique with different abilities and needs, the best we can do is to minimize “mistakes”. It is now very clear that there is no perfect training process, but sure there is a bad one. Chaos by definition can never be completely ordered and such attempts can be very frustrating. That is why I personally prefer the term Controlled Chaos, in an attempt to explain the training process. Therefore, the job of a S&C coach would be: to find and control a large number of smaller parts of the whole chaos.

While I was digging through the scientific literature in an attempt to partially control certain parts of the whole process, one article left a very positive impression – Structuring a Program in Elite Professional Soccer by Walker & Hawkins from Manchester United football club. I highly recommend it to coaches working in professional football clubs, taking care of team’s physical performance on a daily basis. As the topic is very extensive, in this blog I want to focus on a very few specific problems that coaches face every day, as well as to offer potential solutions, which are certainly not the only way to successfully implement the training process.

Modern football is best described as a series of high-intensity, explosive events, interrupted by periods of recovery composed of rest and low-intensity activities. Although it is a long-lasting activity that requires players to function efficiently for up to 120 minutes, short and intense activities are the ones that differentiate between winning and losing. Therefore, the training process should focus to a good extent on these activities that make a difference. Upon further analysis, we can easily conclude that variuos aspects of muscle strength, precisely rate of force development and power, which are manifested through jumping, sprinting and change of direction ability, represent the important part of total training process during the season. It was not difficult to understand what we need, but the questions of when, how much and in what form represent a real challenge for S&C coaches in football. This leads us to Problem no. 1, which this text deals with: How to improve strength and power qualities in-season with very limited time, congested fixture and high level of fatigue? To answer this question, I want to offer a few ideas to consider:

  • Maximize the use of daily warm up. The first part of the session offers time to develop a large number of qualities. Accumulation of training time filled with quality content strongly influences long-term athletic development. It would be a huge mistake to view this period as a time to increase body temperature and use content whose sole purpose is to prepare for the main part of the session. Later parts of warm up offer time to develop different qualities through speed drills, change of direction drills, landing mechanics, etc., which largely develop the abilities we have identified as key. Daily exposure to key fundamental movement patterns highly increase movement efficiency. To do the simple math – 20 minutes of work in the initial part of the team session multiplied by 6 training units per week brings us up to 2 hours of high quality work per week! Therefore, warm up must be well planned, precisely structured and progressed. I would dare to say that this part of the training can be of the same importance (sometimes even more important) as the following parts of the training. Taking care of this detail allows us valuable time necessary for further development, so invest energy and knowledge in your warm ups – they are invaluable.
  • Maximize the use of rehabilitation process. With a tight competition schedule and a large number of players, it is a real rarity and privilege to have all the players in full training. Chronic conditions and minor contact injuries are common and can take a player away from full training for a period of 3 to 14 days. Regardless of whether the mentioned players are partially or completely removed from the team session, this seems to be the right moment to individualize the training and significantly increase the volume of overall work. This process is often seen as a period in which it is possible to work on activities that are often neglected when a player plays 2 games in 7 days (of course, depending on the type of injury). It is a very common situation that players coming from rehab process show increadible improvements in some abilities. During this process, S&C coach has multiple roles: 1. Ofcourse, to strengthen injured area (continuosly, after return to play), 2. As mentioned, to use the time smart to make gains in other areas of physical performance (each condition allows adjustment of the training process and situations in which total rest is required are very rare – head trauma and similar), and finaly 3. In the late stage of rehab process, to train the player to tolerate demands of the match. This is exactly the period in which it is necessary to include the activities that we mentioned as key to successful participation in elite football. Along with aerobic capacity, players work on accelerations/decelerations, change of direction drills, reaction and starting speed, curve-linear and linear speed, with introduction of plyometric training with proper progressions.
  • Look for other “time-gaps” and use them wisely. In elite football, the season is very long and top teams usually use large rotations, using a larger number of players in the game. A clear relationship between the number of injuries and the size of the playing staff and the results (position on the table) is shown. Taking this into account, a number of players are periodically excluded from the competition process for several reasons: the quality of the competition performance, suspensions, national team breaks, general fatigue, chronic conditions, etc. This is exactly the period in which it is possible to focus on different aspects of strength. However, it is necessary to understand that the focus remains on the intensity of work with a reduced volume within a single session. Focus on rate of force development and power through VBT principles with very low number of reps within set. Higher volume is still possible for upper body strength work. Also, it is always necessary to understand the context, because general guidelines cannot predict real-world situations. In such situations, in addition to knowledge, common sense plays a major role in workload dosage. Along with diagnostic procedures, the subjective feeling of football players still remains one of the main tools.
  • Gym work 6 to 12 hours before the match. With a large number of matches, crossed with a lot of time spent in traveling, maintaining strength can become a seriously difficult job. The outdated model meant increasing the volume of strength training during the off-season, but also almost completely excluding this kind of work during the season. Thank God these days are behind us. A very popular model in other team sports, such as basketball, almost regularly includes short workouts in the gym on game day. Complete exclusion of strength training from the training process during the season can have a negative effect on team performance and the number of injuries. For that reason, in addition to the previously mentioned “time gaps”, very short lifting session on the match day can be another option, taking into account all its benefits. Given the training timing, the question of minimum effective dose arises. It is briefly explained as the minimum amount of stimulus leading to the desired response. Without going deeper into the choice of training content, such units are usually very short, high in intensity and with very low volume. In our practice, after the short warm-up routine, we usually perform 2 to 3 basic lifts, in 1 to 2 sets and no more than 3 repetitions, with a constant focus on the maximal bar velocity. Considering this topic, I recently came across a great article written by Roberto Iezzi, S&C coach of Basketball club Hapoel Jerusalim. Taking into account all the differences between football and basketball, the basic principles can still be generalized. For that reason, I share with you the basic arguments that support a short strength training on the match day (we prefer to call it “hit and run”):
    Pre-warm up. Especially after long traveling where the team is relatively passive. Get the team going after arriving at a destination or in the morning after traveling and sleeping can be very beneficial for later performance.
    Mobility. In traditional game day training units, most coaches choose basic mobility drills (which is good). However, working with a load through the full range of motion has a very clear impact on the mobility of the joints and surrounding structures.
    Central Nervous System. Activating neural pathways, especially big motor units, to stay arousen for upcoming activity can highly impact performance.
    Subjective feeling. Players who regularly spend time in the gym often feel better and significantly raise their self-confidence on the match day.
    Hormonal priming. A number of studies show positive effects on the hormonal status of the organism. In addition to high-intensity training, other methods have a positive effect, such as watching motivational and aggressive videos, usually from previous competitions.
    Additional volume. Performed session enters the cumulative workload during the microcycle, therefore short training can play a significant role in the accumulation of total weekly workload.
    NO DOMS. With well-trained athletes, there is no fear of delayed onset muscle soreness with a very small volume of work and with loads to which the players have previously adapted.
    All things considered, subjective feeling remains a key factor. Players who find it difficult to accept this idea should not be forced to do this kind of work. However, with the gradual introduction and good education, it is still possible to change old habits.

In order to successfully use the time in the above situations, we at FC Vojvodina are guided by two very clear principles that would not be bad to mention. These principles are guidelines and certainly could be interpretated differently. Understand them through the prism of your context:

  • Individualization – An individualized approach plays the most important role in creating content. In addition to different requirements in the game, different positions in the team and the way of playing, of great importance is age, training experience, the environment from which the player comes, injuries history, strengths & weaknesses, etc. This list can be further expanded (like sex or level of competition), but I think that we all got the point. In order to successfully apply this principle, it is first of all necessary to have a good understanding of the requirements of the football game. In addition to following the scientific literature, using the GPS system, we notice very clear differences in the requirements that the game places on defenders in relation to wingers, midfielders in relation to full backs or goalkeeper. This is one of the reasons why UEFA requires S&C coaches to actually be football coaches specialized in physical preparation. When there is a good understanding of football nature, coach moves on to an analysis of players’ physical qualities in relation to the requirements. Without further digging into this very extensive topic – assess and individualize. Although we work in team sport, overhere we believe that individualization is the key to success and future (present) of high quality training process.
  • Micro-dosing – Involves the aforementioned minimum effective dose. Increasing the volume of work through an increased number of short training units with the achieved minimal stimulus leading to the desired results. This makes it easier to keep players’ competitive and day-to-day freshness, while increasing the overall workload. This approach requires significantly better organization with sufficient coaching staff available. However, we believe that these two principles significantly contribute to higher quality work, better spent training time, greater degree of individualization and finally better long-term athletic development (regardless of the current team results or the position on the table – since we as S&C coaches try to see the bigger picture).

During the season, playing a competitive match, especially for players who spend all 90 minutes on the pitch, is the most important training stimulus. When a team plays 2 games in seven days, additional work on physical performance becomes almost impossible. At the same time, players who have not played lack the most important stimulus. This situation creates distinctive groups that have very different training needs after the match day. We have come to Problem no. 2 which this text deals with: Squad management. With good organization, it is necessary to balance the amount of work of three separate groups: 1. Starters, 2. Substitutes (travelers) and 3. Non-playing squad (non-travelers). This further complicates situation, especially during away games where one part of the team travels while the other stays in the training center. A large coaching staff will alleviate the situation, with communication being of great importance, so that each player can meet their training needs.

Playing Squad. This group is exposed to a large amount of physical and psychological stress that a competitive performance brings, especially in matches of great importance and during the result uncertainty. During a tight schedule, the game meets most of the training needs (on-field conditioning) of players who play regularly. Periods between matches are reserved for developing game readiness, tactical preparation and player freshness. It is very important to enable adequate recovery 48 hours after the game. The amount and quality of sleep, as well as quality nutritional support are the main factors in a player’s recovery. Simple tools for monitoring fatigue can be of great help, since the game, like any other training, will not affect everyone the same. Some of the biggest training errors happen during this period. It is necessary to observe not only the individual match, but also the accumulation of matches. Position in the team, players age and genetics play a big role in the duration of recovery from the game. Some players can fully recover after 48 hours, while individuals may require an additional recovery period. Therefore, such an emphasized individual approach must exist in 2 to 3 days after the match. Following the players’ subjective feeling, through conversation and regularly filling out the wellness questionnaire will help you to get to know your players and their capabilities. There are no very clear protocols, as there is no “one size fits all” approach. The best advice would be: take your time to get to know the individual characteristics of the players. Important questions that arise during this period are: Should we have a day off after the match? Or should we schedule a formal recovery session and maybe have a day off on “Match day +2”? Unfortunately, we already understand that there are no simple answers. Although they are professionals, players need a balance between work and private life. Finding a balance between focusing on training and competition and quality time with family is a delicate job. Several factors influence our decision – number of consecutive days without a day off, traveled distance, time to next match, stage of the season, decision from Head coach based on his experience and knowledge of the wellness status of the team. Some players have difficulty with the amount and quality of sleep after a game, especially when it comes to late evening games. With an understanding of the importance of sleep on recovery, we suggest avoiding early morning recovery session. Players need to be allowed time for extended sleep, and to ensure quality meals after the game and the next day.

Substitutes and Non-playing Squad. No training can completely replace a competitive match. The competition creates a very specific context and a certain psychological stress. However, in order to maintain a high level of physical fitness, day after the match (MD+1) is of great importance for non-playing squad and substitutes who played less than 45 minutes. In order for the players to stay prepared for the next matches, it is necessary to keep the high level of conditioning work. Training error in which players who do not have enough playing minutes are neglected can lead to a huge decrease in their performance during the season. In this case, these players cannot adequately replace the starters when necessary. They could not be ready for 90 minutes of play at the competitive level and could be more susceptible to injuries. This could lead to a decline in overall team performance and reduced options available to the Head coach. This problem can be solved by playing for the Reserve Team/U23/U21 if possible. Unfortunately, this option is often not available, since a large number of National leagues do not organize Reserve team competitions, so the high-intensity training becomes the best option. This training usually consists of Small-sided games (SSG) that have been proven to affect the aerobic capacity of the players. Additional work on speed and speed-endurance is included according to individual needs, through runs or football specific drills. This moment can also be used for additional gym work. The use of GPS technology helps us to understand the requirements of different positions in the team. Match data can (and should) serve as a guideline for creating compensatory training. It is necessary to compensate for high intensity actions, which primarily refers to the amount of high-speed runs (usually over 20 km/h) and sprints (usually over 25 km/h). Also, for non-playing squad, the day before the match (MD-1) and the match day (MD) can be an opportunity to further increase training volume and work on qualities they would not be able to train when playing. Although it is often difficult to find motivation, this group of players must see it as an opportunity for extra work on the conditioning aspect and their weaker sides. If the starters had recovery session the day after the game (MD+1), MD+2 is often a day off, which matches the needs of non-starters that had high-intensity session the day before. On the other hand, if starters had a day off on MD+1, on MD+2 team usually go for a low intensity work, and it is important to remember that the focus is still on the recovery from the game (48 hours rule). With adequate training, which partially compensated for the lack of a match, these two (or three) groups can be merged together for the team session on the third day after the match (MD+3).

S&C coaches face various issues during their in-season work. Organizing the training process of 30 different individuals is a demanding job. Although the literature offers guidelines, decisions are influenced by a huge number of factors. The initial idea of this blog is to point out certain problems and offer a different point of view, along with some potential solutions. The mentioned ideas and principles should encourage thinking directed towards a very unique context. With a deep understanding of the players’ needs, S&C coach must find a way throughout the season to keep the high level of whole team’s physical performance, to make the players available to the Head coach, and with as few injuries as possible.

If you have new or different ideas, a different view of a particular topic, question or any other comment, feel free to contact me. I will be glad to hear different opinions and discuss further.

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