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Training secrets of the worlds greatest footballers: How science is transforming the modern game

9 Oct '2019

It was with great pleasure that a copy of ‘Training Secrets of the World’s Greatest Footballers’ by James Witts landed at Football Fitness Federation headquarters as it was a title I’d been looking forward to reading since I saw its announcement on Twitter. With so many contributions from the most respected Sports Scientists and Coaches in the game it was always going to be high on the ‘must read’ list and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

 

The first thing that strikes you about the book is that it’s both extremely well researched and very easy to read (I’ve come across many books in this subject area that are extremely hard going and should come with a warning that it may not be suitable for those without a doctorate in certain scientific area). It must be pointed out that the fact it’s so concise and simple to read it doesn’t detract from the books quality, in fact it’s strength lies with being able to explain its complex content in a simple manner that makes this publication suitable for all involved in football (not just Sports Scientist) players and coaches included.

 

The intention of the book is clearly illustrated from the outset, the author seeks to fill the hole between theory and application (which, I’m happy to report it does with great success). A standout line from the books introduction demonstrates its intention to produce a text that has an ‘accessible narrative that will open your eyes to footballing science, not blind you with it’. Indeed this moniker could be applied to a wider context highlighting exactly the problems faced by both practitioners and writers who can sometimes fall short when communicating the value of sports science support in developing performance in a way that’s understood by its target audience (namely those involved in playing and coaching).

 

The author hasn’t just decided to write masses and masses of text regarding complex biological processes or biochemical pathways like some ‘Sports Science’ books, instead concepts are skilfully segmented and accompanied by expert insight from leaders in the field of each individual area. Names like Buchheit, Bangsbo, Bradley, Burgess, Drust and many others all contribute something extra to their particular specialism and each does a great job of adding value to the book and it’s concepts.

 

James has done well to cover a good range of topics within the Football training sphere from the use of data to the choice of players equipment via nutrition, recovery, managing injury and of course those training methods used by the top clubs around the globe. A great contextual example is the chapter covering Barcelona and their training level of specificity (looking at Positional data and using it to inform training) with some good commentary from Paul Bradley. By maintaining a level of plain speaking language it’s surprising how easily the information can be used in all settings, which is quite unique. James ability to explore the detail that these elite practices require and still engage the reader is to be applauded.

 

The book also address those claims, practices or approaches that are unsubstantiated by empirical evidence but are included to give balance and insight from practical experience in a way that allows the reader to draw their own conclusions rather than drive an ‘acceptance’ of what’s been researched in labs but not on the field. No stone is left unturned the complete range from marginal gains to integration of technical and tactical training in a complete approach to training is analysed and discussed with interest.

 

Given how easy its was to understand I was a little surprised at the use of some language such as ‘energy systems’ and ‘by products’ in an otherwise flawless Football context. This does not in anyway detract from what is an exceptional text. What I personally enjoyed about the book was the implication of both research and practice on the future game and how players will need to adapt if they are to be prepared successfully to develop and perform in the Football matches of tomorrow. I also found the Recovery section particularly interesting, right down to the detail of bedding and sleep wear, truly remarkable.

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it was not only easy and engaging to read but it had me constantly looking forward to what would be revealed next the further into it I got. I certainly found it insightful and not only is it a book that can be used to inform Practice immediately, but it will also be one of those books kept on the shelf handy to be referred to time and time again.

 

 

Get your copy of the book here http://bloomsbury.com/trainingsecrets

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How You Can Train Athletes with Minimal Technology

24 Jul '2019

Imagine a world where instead of swiping right on a dating app, you initiated a conversation with someone you found attractive at the supermarket. Or a world where instead of sending a passive aggressive text, you confronted someone face-to-face. Or a world where instead of looking down at your phone, you walked with your head up and admired your surroundings. Or a world where instead of relying on Facebook to remind you of a friend’s birthday, you used the hippocampus in your brain to remember it. Or a world where instead of staring at data and charts, you made eye contact with your athletes and asked them how their day is going. Maybe I’m an old soul, but I miss the days of when glowing screens didn’t run our lives. If you’re an avid reader of this blog, you’re either a sport scientist, soccer coach, or strength and conditioning coach who has dabbled in the use of technology, or who uses it full-time. But before I dive in, I’m going to a take a wild guess you chose this career path to help human beings. To coach. To teach. To connect. To communicate. To that end, technology has its way of making these things wane if we aren’t cognizant or aware.

 

And in the sports world, athletes are becoming numbers, data, equations, rankings, avatars, and so much more. More flabbergasting to all of this, athletes are humans just like yourself, who want to be heard, supported and encouraged through their sport and life pursuits. They need conversation. They need active listening. They need actionable solutions. They need critical thinking. They need creativity. They need sweaty high fives. They need hugs. They need good old-fashion coaching.

 

Now before all of the science guys come at me, hear me out: this article is not to poo-poo on sport technology. If I had $10,000 of cash collecting cobwebs in my closet, I would buy GPS units with the bat of an eyelash. For one, I see value in using technology as ammunition against coaches, and to ensure they’re not idiots and don’t program endless sprints the day after a game as punishment. I see technology as a valuable load monitoring tool to tweak strength sessions and volume for the week. I see it as helpful information to make sure players who play less have the chance to work out harder during a micro-cycle and not get deconditioned.

I see it as a way to elicit a high intensity conditioning effect during my anaerobic, speed endurance sessions and to call players out if they’re not going hard enough. I see it as an insight into my players’ top speeds, mileage coverage, change of directions, eccentric loading statistics, souls and so much more. Okay, let’s shift gears for a second. As much as technology in sport has helped players stay healthy and improve their performance on the pitch, I’d argue if you don’t have access to it, you can still help them immensely. Look. I’m an American youth soccer strength and conditioning coach in the private sector, and after the seven years I’ve been at this, I’ve had no ACL injuries, no hamstring strains, and a roster of athletes continue to D1, D2, D3 and into professional programs. Better yet, they’ve become amazing humans with fulfilling careers and lives when their soccer careers came to an inevitable end. I guess I’m doing okay for using printed paper and ripped binders as programs:

Or, who uses an obsolete vertical jump mat:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fN6mwaUWn8M

Or, who uses, not hi-tech machines, but the burly lacrosse athletes as added chaos for my soccer players: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9zf9RFV10k

Yeah. I don’t use any technology. I don’t have the privilege to use it. Admittedly, the furthest I’ve gotten as a soccer performance coach is using heart rate monitors.

 

It’s nothing grandiose. It’s nothing that will shout, “look at me! I have fancy gadgets!” It’s nothing that will impress people on Twitter. It’s nothing that will get clicks and followers. It’s nothing that will make reality tv.

It’s simple. Just like a handful of other private sector performance facilities, we are a successful business that has flourished for almost two decades at the youth, academy, college, and professional levels for both lacrosse and soccer athletes. And with minimal technology, we’ve made one hell of an impact. So how do you train athletes with minimal technology? Let’s do this: 1. Use time-based or Ratings of Perceived Exertion methods. Without GPS trackers, how do we know our players are receiving a desired conditioning effect? Enter time-based training and Ratings of Perceived Exertion. For the sake of brevity, here’s a nice breakdown of conditioning under a time-based model: - Maximal Speed Endurance: 30-40 seconds of work, 1:5 work-to-rest - Maximal Repeated Sprint Ability: <10 second of work, 1:5 work-to-rest - High Intensity Aerobic: 1-4 minutes of work, 1:1 work-to-rest - Maximal Speed: <10 second, 1:10 work-to-rest If you find that athletes are not eliciting these conditioning effects under these time standards, it may be best to move to Ratings of Perceived Exertion, where they rate their feeling of intensity on a scale of 1-10:  

Of course, this is a tougher one because athletes might not always be telling the truth. But given you’re a professional who instills hard work and autonomy in your players, they will be honest when it comes to RPE. Better yet, when they’re saying their RPE out loud after a conditioning run in front of their teammates, they feel much more held accountable. I highly recommend trying this. Okay, story time. This summer, I had all of my athletes work up to 9/10 on the RPE scale for a continuous 50-yard shuttle run, and when one athlete finished I asked their score and they said, “9/10.” However, they weren’t out of breath, able to hold a conversation, and were cracking jokes. The best part? One her teammates called her out and said, “no! You’re a 4 at most!” So what happened the next go around? The girl who lied then pushed herself because her teammates took notice and held her accountable. When using RPE, I suggest you have everyone announce their personal rating because when the rest of the group is listening, there’s no hiding. I’d be remiss not to mention there’s tremendous value in competing, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FSdR95qOcA

One more thing: if you’re lucky to snag yourself some heart rate monitors, awesome. Here’s a nice breakdown of what to look for in the energy systems: - Maximal Speed Endurance: > 90% HR max - High Intensity Aerobic: >85%-90% HR max - Moderate Aerobic: 75%-85% HR max 2. Communicate for load monitoring. Because sometimes, it’s easier to have this conversation:  

Me: “How many minutes did you play this weekend?” Athlete: “80 minutes.”

 

Me: “How do you feel today?” Athlete: “Extremely sore.” Me: “Okay, then you should stay away from the eccentric single leg deadlifts and change of direction in a few days.” Athlete and I high five. To give you another example with a totally different athlete, here you go: Me: “How many minutes did you play this weekend?” Athletes: “80 minutes.” Me: “How do you feel today?” Athlete: “Not sore. Ready to lift.” I then dug deeper in that conversation to figure out why she wasn’t sore after 80 minutes of playing. They played an easy opponent, won 5-0, and played possession the majority of the match. Chances are, this athlete did not change direction, reach maximal speed, or cover that much mileage this match since the style of play was very composed and nonchalant. So what did we do two days after the game? Deadlifting, pull-upping, lunging, single leg squatting, and small-sided playing. But, what about lying about soreness? Ah, yes. Good one! Again, it’s all about observing and knowing your athletes. If they’re looking lethargic in the gym, form is declining on strength lifts, their focus is off, then something may be whacky. Always communicate and observe. That’s what coaches are meant to do.

 

That’s all that needs to go down. When in doubt, communicate with questions that showcase how the athlete is feeling mentally and physiologically. Also, observe their body language, exercise technique, and demeanor. Taking the conversation beyond athlete-to-coach, it’s critical to communicate with team coaches as well. Some of the best coaches I have worked with on load monitoring and strength and conditioning training are the ones who blast out their schedules, tournaments, ID camps and practice sessions to me, and update me by the hour of what is going on. You bet I’m tweaking my programs weekly and hourly.

 

Tournament on the weekend? Monday will be yoga and mobility. No games for two weeks? We are using this in-season “window of opportunity” to speed train, lift heavier load (80-90% 2-3 sets, 1-5 reps), and add in more eccentric work. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhMNu5qCNUw

Last night’s practice was 1v1, 2v2 and 3v3 drills on a large pitch? The gym session the next day will be only sub-maximal strength with nice, graceful deadlift pulls.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wnf-ros3VOM

This is where soccer specific knowledge of the game from the performance specialist comes into play. Knowing what drills produce what physiological effects is paramount to monitoring load and tweaking your gym programs. Have common sense. But moreover, think deeply about the game, and simply about gym training. 3. Change behavior with nutrition. Newsflash: you can toss all your meal plans in the trash. Are you handing your players food measurements, portion sizes, macros, and calories on Excel sheets and graphs and pie charts? Well, aren’t you cute! Of course, it is wise to educate them and break down the numbers, but nutrition needs to be an ongoing conversation, too. The problem with nutrition nowadays is people know what’s wrong, yet still fail to execute a radical solution. We all know greens are better than fried food. We all know water is better than alcohol. We all know apples are better than potato chips. We all know 1,000 calories a day is not ideal for a soccer athlete. No amount of hypothalamus brain tests are going to solve whether your athletes love or hate themselves, and tie what they eat to these deep emotions. Here are some tips for behavior change: - Provide your players with samples of healthy snacks - Eat in front of them (lead by example). - Ask them, “what foods bring you to life?” - Ask them, “what foods bog you down?” - Ask them, “are you eating out of love or hate for yourself?” - Really have them get clear on the above questions. 4. Write down and progress load. On the first day of off-season here, my athletes get their programs in a thick binder.

“This looks like an encyclopedia!” they exclaim with smiles on their faces. Receiving their programs is like getting a gift during the holidays: not only is it infused with novelty, written with care, but it is filled with love and customized movement prep to fit what they need extra help with:

Too, in order for athletes to progress load on their own terms, they need their own pen and program. If an athlete has to do 3 sets at 8 reps for an exercise, and by the 8th rep they feel they can do a several more (Reps in Reserve Method), I always tell them to go up 5-10 pounds. If they feel on that 8th rep they only could squeak out only one more, then they may be at a great weight that allows them to do good form, but it is still a grind. There’s power in writing down load each week. It allows athlete to be autonomous in their progress and hold themselves accountable with their feats of strength.

5. Use your eyes to look for imbalances. There’s a ton of high-tech machines floating around the sport science space that tell us if our athletes have asymmetries, weaknesses, faulty biomechanics, excessive knee valgus, or a left earlobe smaller than the other. And many of them are tremendously accurate. But again, not all of us are privileged to have these all-embellishing toys, so what do we do? Use our eyes. It’s not hard to see excessive knee valgus that makes you want to bang your head against a wall. In fact, if an athlete is performing a movement and I’m cringing even just an itty bit looking at form, something needs to be fixed. And you as the professional has to be able to catch this. As strength coach Michael Boyle says, if it looks like sh*t, it probably is. To that end, if I see an athlete shifting their hips to the right when coming up from a squat, you bet I’m adding in extra unilateral glute medius work to their program:

If I see an athlete not grooving hip mobility enough during a lateral squat, you bet I’m adding in the slideboard and increasing their lever arm by having them extend their arms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEyMnsHgdV8

If I see an athlete collapsing their posture in athletic stance, you bet I’m adding in Chaos Ball Hugs to hone in on this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sDi1VIvG0MU

Or, if hip shifting and favoring of one side is apparent, I may switch completely from bilateral to unilateral movement:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVjXGHVAoUo

 

Erica Suter is a soccer strength and conditioning expert in Baltimore, Maryland and has been working with youth soccer players across the world for over seven years. She works as a full-time strength coach at JDyer Strength and Conditioning, where she designs in-season, off-season and pre-season programs for soccer players in Maryland. In addition to being a tenacious and passionate in person coach to hundreds of athletes, she consults with youth coaches, clubs and players worldwide in the realms of strength and conditioning, load monitoring, and mental skills training. She is a published writer and the author of the Total Youth Soccer Fitness Program, which has sold copies to soccer coaches in over 20 different countries across the world.  Blog Twitter Instagram

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Simple (P)Rehab For Footballers - Better Prevention & Less Damage Control

15 Feb '2019

“Coach.” I turned around to face one of my newest soccer players behind me, standing awkwardly with both hands on her left hip. “My hip has been hurting since my game on Sunday.”

We ran through a brief assessment. I asked about the game, what happened, and what she had done the previous week that may have triggered this flare-up.

“There was nothing. It just started hurting after the match,” she said. “But it’s funny - now my ankle, knee, and my hip on my left side hurt!”

She was new to our gym, and we couldn’t run individual assessments on players who came for team training, so we had never addressed previous issues, nor had the coach said anything. We ran through her injury history quickly.

“It feels like ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’”, she laughed.

“Well,” I shrugged. “Maybe it’s Back, Hips, Knees, Feet… Knees and Feet. They all go together!”

She looked shocked, but we finished our assessment and I assigned her a set of five exercises to be completed each morning and each evening for a total of five minutes per day for one week.

One week later, she came back to team training, looking even more stunned. “Coach,” she said this time, hands open in front of her this time. “I feel so much better!”

————

The human body is an absolute master of adaption. This means that, when something in the body is amiss, it can easily overcompensate for this… for a short time. If issues carry on for any length of time, they may take a toll on the body, especially in high-impact, high-volume, and contact sports like football.

In my role as a Return-To-Play specialist, I have seen all kinds of injuries - contact/non-contact, neurological, severe, acute, chronic, joint problems, bone breaks, tendonitis and -osis, biomechanical issues out the wazoo…

But it all comes down to this: instead of focusing on rehab and damage control when athletes are injured, we need to get better at foreseeing and correcting problems before they can even crop up.

In football, there are three main contributing areas that require respect and extra awareness from coaches and athletes: feet/ankles, knees, and hips.

Let’s go!

 

1) Your feet matter… a lot!

Excuse me for geeking out, but our feet and ankles are pretty AWESOME.

We run with them, we kick with them, we change directions with them, jump with them, land on them, pivot on them. They absorb force and then re-generate it at wicked speeds against the ground.

But what happens to our bodies when our feet don’t function as optimally as they should, especially because we rely on them so much? What’s really happening when we cannot properly absorb and create force?

Pronation vs. Neutral vs. Supination As compensatory masters, sometimes our feet and ankles overwork themselves in order to make up for something else in the body. This leads to vulnerability and the possibility of more serious problems.

One common issue I see is in the feet themselves, due to a lack of ankle mobility. The athlete begins to strike the ground while walking or running on the outside or inside of the foot, instead of the center of his or her mid-foot. This is called Pronation (in) or Supination (out).

Ultimately, the foot compensating one way or the other can lead to additional problems, such as shin splints, achilles discomfort, and unspecific knee or back pain. So how do we ensure that our feet remain neutral?

Barefoot training is a great tool, especially during single-leg and balance exercises. Strengthening the feet and gaining proprioception (or awareness) in the ankles is also vital.

Here is one of my favourite exercises for warding off an uncanny foot strike:

https://youtu.be/fnPbFTcW4OY

 

Poor Ankle Mobility & Stability This is a touchy subject for many coaches, because it’s riddled with misconception and Instagram fads.

Should you use a BOSU Ball? Do we need to train on a balance pad? Must we test single-leg jump height? Should you single-leg jump 400 meters? Does stretching help?

The quick answer to all of these things is “um… no”.

Ankle training is actually more simple than we often make it out to be. Because, in football, we never encounter uneven or wobbly surfaces like the BOSU or pads on the actual pitch, those exercises can be left in Rehab Phase 1 at the PT’s office.

Believe it or not, nearly every exercise, especially single-leg exercises, promotes ankle mobility and stability.

My go-to protocol for promoting ankle health includes the following:

Train without shoes Maintain ankle dorsiflexion (foot can flex toward shin at more than 90 degree angle) Single-leg (unilateral) squats   Bilateral THEN unilateral landing from jumps, then from drops Re-acceleration via multiple-jump sequences or tempo sprints  

Generally speaking, athletes who can successfully upkeep those movements with quality and without pain have great ankle mobility and stability… and I didn’t have to buy a BOSU!

 

2) It could be your knees… but is it really?

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard the phrase “I have bad knees!” uttered begrudgingly more than once.

You’ve also probably noticed the incredible rate of knee injuries in the sport of football, and how ACLs, MCLs, and Meniscus issues tend to come suddenly, unsuspected, and indiscriminately. A quick Google search will clue you in to the ridiculously high rate of ACL injuries in this sport on a regular, non-contact basis.

So what can we do?

As is so often the case, “where it hurts is likely not where the problem is”.

Although I promised to keep this article as lively, non-scientific and un-boring as possible, research and practice have begun to inform us of some possible solutions to this Knee Injury Crisis in football. Accordingly, I recommend all football players add these moves to their (p)rehab repertoire:

Your stability matters = single-leg squat, single-leg jumps and landings, skater jumps (the ankle protocol will help you here!) Learn to decelerate quickly = literally! Practice decelerating from different speeds and directions of running Game-specific running translates = in training, run forward with the head and torso looking another direction Strong hamstrings win the long game = hamstring curl, glute bridges, deadlift/RDLs, and hip thrusts  

Also, if you’ve got nagging knee pain, check your feet, your hamstring strength, and your hips… more on that next!

 

3) Hips don’t lie.

If the musical queen of football Shakira said it, then it’s true, right?

Think of your hips and glutes as your engine. Although your legs function as your wheels, motion starts at and is largely controlled by your pelvis. The hips also connect your lower body to upper body, which, as you could guess, is a pretty important job for any type of moving!

Here’s the thing: hips are foundational and need a lot of upkeep.

Your hips keep your knees and lower back safe, among other things. Think of them as a buffer for absorbing and generating force toward your powerful movements and as essential for speed.

If you lack the ability to recruit your hips of to rotate internally and externally, for example, that can impact the speed of your sprint or heigh or your jump, how you push off the ground with every step, and your ability to change direction efficiently and in less steps.

Additionally, poor hip mobility and glute strength will reduce the strength and efficiency of your lateral movements. Ever had your knees dive inward on a squat, sprint, or side-step? Ever taken an extra second to change directions because your knee wobbled? GLUTES!

As your glutes are made up of a heap of rotational muscles that essentially control your ability to move side-to-side and open and close your legs, you owe it to your pelvis to keep it in check.

To keep your hip and glute health up to speed, incorporating the previously listed exercises will help - especially glute bridges, RDLs, deadlifts, and hip thrusts - but lateral lunges, lateral jumping, and abduction/adduction exercises can also maintain your pelvis’ integrity and help you get the most performance benefits from your hips.

Here’s one exercise I use for my athletes in their warm-up, especially before training and games:

https://youtu.be/YBgcOawgOso

 

Bio:

 

Julia Eyre (cand.MSc, CSCS, USAW) is a soccer strength coach and sport psychology consultant. 

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