Principles of Training

Most coaches intuitively understand that a training exercise won’t improve sport performance unless the exercise is similar to the sport. But, what does it mean to be similar? In the science of training, the similarity between an exercise and the sport is called specificity.

By achieving specificity, we guarantee a more “direct” relationship between the exercise and sport performance. In other words, the exercise will have a positive influence on sport performance. The degree to which an exercise influences sport performance is called training transfer.

Once we find an exercise that is specific and leads to training transfer, we then need to progress the exercise. It is well understood in the science of training that every exercise abides by the “law of diminishing returns”. In other words, the more you do something, the harder it is to improve that something. The “law of diminishing returns” is why youth players and young professional players make larger improvements from game-to-game and season-to-season compared to older players. It is much easier for an Under 17 player to improve than a 29 year old professional player. First, because the Under 17 player has much more “room for improvement”. Second, because the 29 year old has been exposed to almost every imaginable training stimulus. He has effectively “squeezed” all the juice from the orange.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

This point is often ignored in sport. If you read between the lines, you can see that nearly anything you do with a youth player will make them better. An under 16 player can do nearly any type of strength training, from Nautilus Machines to Physio Balls, and make improvements. However, what is often misunderstood, is that these “gains” are very short-lived. In fact, the only time that the law of specificity doesn’t apply to strength training is with beginners. Unfortunately, many coaches fail to acknowledge this fact. As a result, they develop a false association between the strength training exercises they use with youth players and universal performance improvements. They ignore the fact that the reason for the performance benefits is not the exercises, but the characteristics of the people doing the exercises.

Nevertheless, we are still interested in improving players, regardless of their “training age”. Once we have satisfied the principle of specificity and the principle of training transfer, we then need to find ways to progress a player through an exercise. In order to make progress, a high demand must be placed on the player. This demand is typically referred to as a training stimulus. In order to make progress, the training stimulus must exceed previous training stimuli. This is known as overload. If the training stimulus is too large, then the player will be over-overloaded, which can result in injury. If the training stimulus is familiar, then the player will be underloaded. If the player doesn’t train at all, then he will be under-underloaded. This can also lead to injury.

Overload isn’t solely achieved by doing more. It can also be achieved by doing different. Changing the exercise is also a means of overload. In the science of training, this is known as variation. In many ways, variation and overload are two words for the same idea. In order to make progress, we must do something we haven’t done before. This is traditionally achieved by adding more load to the bar. However, it can also be achieved by altering the exercise in certain ways or doing a different exercise entirely.

Of course, not every player is the same. Within a professional team, you will have 30 players with 30 different characteristics. Older players, younger players, previously injured players, fresh players, fatigued players, etc. Because of these differences, applying identical training stimuli to each player will not result in identical training responses. Some players will be over-overloaded, some will be overloaded, some will be underloaded, and some may be under-underloaded. This makes planning training extremely difficult and, frankly, unpredictable. Nevertheless, these individual differences must be taken into account. This is called the principle of individualization.

Overloading a player one-time is not sufficient for progress. If only it were that easy. Imagine if we could reach our goals by going for one run, or working out at the gym one time. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Performance improvements take time. There is a reason why teams are given 6-weeks for pre-season. Because improvement takes time, we need to systematically apply overloads and underloads over a given period of time. In the science of training, this is called periodization. Periodization is the planning of all training sessions and matches. Coaches use periodization as a tool to organize and apply training overloads and underloads in a way that minimizes ‘damage’ and maximizes performance.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the results from a periodized 6-week program lasted forever? Well, they don’t. This is called the law of reversibility. Just like a gallon of milk, performance improvements have an expiration date. If players fail to stimulate certain performance characteristics frequently enough, then performance will suffer. Eventually, milk goes bad.

Takeaway

In this short post, we defined a few training principles. These training principles apply to football action training, basic action training, movement training, conditioning, and reconditioning. In other words, they are universal rules that help us develop and apply training protocols to our players and teams. Ignoring these training laws can have major consequences. At best, we will be wasting our time. At worst, players will become injured.

The training laws discussed in this post and that will guide future posts were:

Specificity – whatever we do in training should be similar to what we have to do in the game. This law has many layers which will be discussed in future posts. This is an extremely important law for understanding the remainder of our series on football strength training.

Training Transfer – exercises that satisfy the law of specificity will have a more guaranteed chance of transfer. Exercises that are not specific will be more, or less, a waste of time.

Law of Diminishing Returns – the better you get at something, the harder it is to keep improving. This is why nearly any type of training will work with beginners. More advanced players require a much more thoughtful training protocol.

Training Stimulus – This is the actual training session. Both the content and context. Content like the actual exercise, actions performed, work to rest ratios, total duration, intensity, etc. Context like the training type (football, basic actions, movements, reconditioning, strength training), day of the week, part of the season, proximity to the next match, proximity to the last match, participants (substitute players or first team), etc.

Overload/Variation – This is the term used to describe a training stimulus that exceeds previous stimuli. In other words, the player has to do something he has never done before. If the training stimulus exceeds previous stimuli too much, then the player will be over-overloaded and risk injury.

Underload – This is the term used to describe a training stimulus that is familiar to the player. In other words, the player has to do something he has done before. Sometimes, the load can be too familiar, like laying on the couch for weeks, in which case the player is under-underloaded. After a period of under-underloading, the player will be at a higher risk for injury.

Individualization – Players are different! A 30 year old player that has a previous history of Hamstring injuries will respond differently to a training stimulus than a 20 year old player that has never had a bruise. It is unrealistic to develop thirty individual training sessions, but there are some ways that the overall training session will need to be adapted to suit the individual needs of specific players. Examples of these will be discussed in future posts.

Periodization – One overload session is not enough. Players need to put together a string of overload sessions over a period of time in order to make progress. As a result, coaches need to apply overload sessions to their players in systematic ways. Applying overload sessions every day would obviously lead to over-overload. Applying overload sessions once a month would obviously lead to under-underload. Therefore, an approach must be taken that finds a balance between applying overload and underload sessions in a consistent fashion. This consistency can allow for gradually increasing training stimuli to be applied week-to-week and month-to-month.

Law of Reversibility – Training gains do not last forever. If a performance characteristic is not stimulated by training, it will get worse. Eventually, it will spoil like a gallon of milk. This is why coaching is such a difficult endeavor. First, coaches need to identify what performance characteristics are important (like football ability and football capacity). Second, coaches need to develop a training approach that effectively stimulates these performance characteristics consistently enough to keep them from going bad.

Basic Fitness

Basic ability is what most coaches are referring to when they use a term like “athleticism”. Basic ability means that someone can sprint, stop, jump, and land at a high level. Importantly, this doesn’t mean they play football at a high level. Basic ability can contribute towards football ability, but they are not the same thing because the context is different. Someone with a high level basic ability makes high quality actions in a basic context. Someone with a high level football ability makes high quality actions in a football context.

Of course, basic actions are still part of football actions, but this only means that basic ability can contribute to football ability – it doesn’t define it. Nevertheless, basic ability is still important to the training process.

The ultimate goal of football training is to improve the football ability and football capacity of a player. However, this cannot always be accomplished via the direct route. Sometimes the “weak link” in a player’s game exists outside the football context. Other times, a player becomes injured and is unable to perform actions inside the football context. However, it is still possible to contribute towards a players football ability and football capacity via the indirect route. We can contribute towards a better football ability indirectly through a better basic ability.

Basic ability is a small part of football ability. But, sometimes it can be the “weak link” or the only training option (injury)

Basic Capacity (Fitness)

In the science of training, how well someone can do something is called ability. How much and for how long they can do something is called capacity. In football, how well someone can perform the CDE cycle is called football ability. How frequently they can perform the CDE cycle and for how long they can perform it is called football capacity (fitness).

Every football player will make basic actions with a certain quality. This is called basic ability. And obviously, players will also have an ability to make basic actions at a certain frequency and for a certain amount of time. This is called basic capacity (fitness).

When a player is reconditioning from an injury, the medical staff doesn’t only focus on a players basic ability, but also his basic fitness. A player must not only regain his ability to sprint, change direction, and side-step at top quality, but also his ability to sprint, change direction, and side-step at a certain frequency and for longer. Regaining basic fitness is a crucial first step towards regaining football fitness.

Football fitness is a players ability to play football at a high tempo (quantity of actions), and to play football for longer by both maintaining the quality of his actions and maintaining the quantity of his actions. The football fitness characteristics are described in detail in the football capacity post and summarized in the graphic below.

The football fitness characteristics

The only difference between the football fitness characteristics above and the basic fitness characteristics is the context. Football fitness can only be improved by learning to interact with the football context more frequently and for longer. Basic fitness can be improved by interacting with a basic context more frequently and for longer. Basic context is another term for a non-specific, or general, context.

The basic fitness characteristics are the football fitness characteristics without the football context. As a result, the first basic fitness characteristic is more actions per minute. Practically, this means that players make basic actions in a non-football context at a relatively high frequency. The second basic fitness characteristic is maintain good actions. Practically, this means that players will need to execute basic actions with top quality over a longer period of time. This is usually done by adding more blocks to the training exercise. This overloads a players ability to maintain basic ability. The third basic fitness characteristic is maintain many actions per minute. Practically, this means that players make basic actions at a high frequency over a longer period of time. Once again, this is usually done by adding more blocks to the training exercise. The basic fitness characteristics are more (basic) actions per minute, maintain good (basic) actions, and maintain many (basic) actions per minute.

The basic fitness characteristics

When to develop Basic Fitness?

In basic ability, we explained that sometimes the weak link in a players football ability is his basic ability. For example, the “weak link” in a pressing action can be the sprinting action. Does this also apply to fitness? Can the “weak link” in a players football fitness be his basic fitness?

When a players match tempo drops and there is more time between actions, the player is described as fatiguing. You could also say that this player lacks football fitness. He has a low ability to maintain many actions per minute. However, this same conclusion does not automatically apply to his basic fitness. If it did, then we would effectively be saying that the context in which a player fatigues is unimportant. But, the context is not beside the point. It IS the point.

There is a big difference between maintaining pressing actions in the last 15 minutes of a match, and maintaining running actions during an interval workout. Maintaining pressing means the player has to maintain his communication with his teammates and maintain the quality of his game insight. He needs to continue making correct decisions about when to press, which player to press, in which direction to press, and at which speed to press. These two components are a big reason why the player gets so tired.

On the other hand, maintaining running only requires focusing on one thing – running. There is no situation to deal with or decisions to make. It is only execution. In other words, basic fitness doesn’t overload a players ability to maintain communication nor top quality game insight while fatigued. It only overloads a players ability to maintain executing basic actions.

As a result, football fitness is not a players basic fitness expressed in the football context. A players football fitness something wholly different. Here is a question to consider. If something has three components (communication, decision, execution) and you remove two of those components (communication and decision) is that something still that something? Or, is it something else?

Basic fitness is part of football fitness. But, football fitness is more than just a players basic fitness.

With that said, there is no doubting that a players general fitness can play a limiting role on performance. This is especially the case when a player is reconditioning from an injury. For example, many players will get to the reconditioning stage where they are participating in the football context, but are still doing most of their training in the basic context. The player is still limited in his ability to maintain many football actions. As a result, the reconditioning coaches simplify the context so that the player can develop his ability to maintain actions. Developing basic fitness can serve as a bridge to developing football fitness.

Developing basic fitness during reconditioning can serve as a bridge that helps the player develop his fitness inside the football context more safely.

Reconditioning is just one example of developing basic fitness rather than football fitness. Developing basic fitness can also be used in conjunction with developing football fitness.

Take the following as an example. Imagine you have a player that continually needs to be subbed out in the 60th minute. When the 60th minute arrives, the player drops his tempo (maintain many actions) and his quality (maintain good actions). However, let’s say that the football conditioning session you have planned this week is 5v5 games. Due to the low number of players, players in the 5v5 will need to make more actions per minute. However, this isn’t your strikers “weak point”. He struggles to maintain many actions per minute. What can you do?

In order to maintain the football context as long as possible, you could add more blocks of 5v5. This way, by the 6th or 7th block, your striker will begin struggling to maintain his tempo. However, because of the design of the exercise (5v5) he will have no choice but to play at a high tempo. However, maybe the rest of the team isn’t ready for more blocks. Maybe the extra blocks will lead to an over-overload. One solution is that you could add the extra blocks with the substitute players. These players haven’t been getting a lot of exposure to 11v11 (maintain many actions), so this could be a good way to develop their ability to maintain many actions as well.

Let’s say that the substitute players aren’t available. They have a reserve game tonight and aren’t available at training. This is where basic fitness could be used in conjunction with developing football fitness. For example, you could put the striker through an interval training exercise prior to the start of the session, or while the rest of the team is doing a passing warm up. This way, the player begins the 5v5 games already fatigued. Right from the start, he will feel like he is in the 60th minute. However, the session has just begun. As a result, the player will need to play at a high tempo. This can improve his ability to maintain many actions late in the match. So, basic fitness training can be an integral part of football fitness training.

Takeaway

The overall training goal is to improve our players football ability. Of course, this alone is insufficient to make a good football player. Players also need football fitness.

Basic actions are part of the execution of football actions. In addition to a football ability and football capacity, players will also have a basic ability and basic capacity. This latter characteristic is what we call basic fitness. Fitness inside a basic, or general, context.

Since basic actions are part of football actions, the only difference between football fitness and basic fitness is the context. Basic fitness is fitness expressed in a non-football context. In other words, there are no opponents, teammates, goals, etc. Nevertheless, the basic fitness characteristics and football fitness characteristics are identical save the difference in context. Basic fitness is developed by making more (basic) actions per minute, maintaining good (basic) actions, and maintaining many (basic) actions per minute.

Basic fitness is an integral part of football fitness. However, football fitness is more than just a players basic fitness expressed inside the football context. Most coaches and players know intuitively that regardless of how dedicated a player is to his off-season basic fitness program, there is nothing like playing football again. The first time a player experiences 5v5 again during the pre-season, he usually experiences first-hand how little of his off-season program actually transfers. In fact, is often the case that players returning from injury make the following comment. “I just need to get games now.” Once again, players and coaches seem to know something that physiologists don’t. Football fitness and basic fitness are different.

But, of course, basic fitness certainly plays a role. During the reconditioning process, basic fitness can serve as a bridge to help the player ready himself for football fitness training. In addition, basic fitness training can be used intelligently in session design to create more realistic training environments for players to develop their football fitness.

Basic Ability

Football actions can be broken down into one, or several, basic actions. For example, pressing might require a starting action, a sprinting action, and a stopping action. Basic actions underly every football action. They are a necessary building block, or what we have called precondition. Because basic actions create motion of the body, ball, and opponent, basic actions are part of executing decisions. In other words, the ‘E’ in the CDE cycle.

In basic actions, we described eight categories of basic actions and the relevant actions in each category.

Every player performs football actions with a certain quality. This is called football ability. Since basic actions are part of every football action, players will perform basic actions with a certain quality too. This is called basic ability. More concretely, every player will start, sprint, stop, change direction, jump, land, kick, throw, push, and pull with a certain quality.

This quality is what most people mean by “athleticism”. Tiger Woods, Rafael Nadal, and LeBron James have all been described as “athletic”. However, Nadal can’t dunk a basketball, LeBron can’t make par at Augusta, and Tiger can’t return a serve from Roger Federer. In other words, the term “athleticism” is completely non-contextual. It assumes that the context is unimportant. But, if LeBron competed at Wimbledon, or Nadal for the 76ers, they would both learn just how important the context actually is.

Athletic ??

What do the athletes above have in common? They are very good at their sport. What most people mean by the term “athletic” is that the player is good at their sport. They are describing sport action ability. However, because most people are unfamiliar with a concept like football ability, they use a general non-contextual word to describe something they don’t understand. The average football fan might describe Sergio Aguero as “athletic”, but hopefully the majority of football coaches would describe Sergio Aguero’s football ability. In other words, they would describe the quality of his CDE cycle.

Of course, there are occasions when people use the term “athletic” while NOT trying to reference a player’s sport-action ability. They are trying to reference a persons ability OUTSIDE of their specific sport. In other words, outside of the sport-context. They are referring to a general context. This is what we call a basic context.

Basic ability is a persons ability to make actions inside a basic context. In a basic context, LeBron has a high level jumping ability, Nadal has a high level stopping ability, and Aguero has a high level starting ability. While I won’t argue with these descriptions, I will argue that the term basic ability is more meaningful than the term “athletic”. The biggest reason being that not every athlete is strong at every basic action. Is Rafael Nadal elite at jumping? Is LeBron James elite at stopping? Not necessarily. Therefore, nobody is “athletic”, because “athletic” doesn’t mean anything. Alternatively, describing someones ability to execute certain basic actions is much more meaningful. “He is good at sprinting, but not so good at stopping”. Already, this gives us a much better starting point than “athletic”.

While this might seem like an unnecessary point, this confusion has led to many athletes undergoing random exercises for the sake of building “athleticism”. In other words, they are training something without a clear definition. Should a tennis player practice sprinting at “top speed”? Is this a necessary precondition for playing tennis at a high level? Or, is developing both starting and stopping actions more worthwhile?

Not to mention the fact that the training priority is developing sport-action ability, not “athleticism”. In football, our primary objective is developing a players football ability. A secondary objective is developing a players basic ability. Football ability is the starting point. A well developed basic ability can contribute towards a better football ability, but it cannot guarantee that a player will deal with the football context better.

How many of of you have coached a player, or know a player, that has high basic ability, but low football ability? One of my teammates growing up was the New York State Champion in the 100 meter. As a result, his sprinting ability was off the charts. Unfortunately, he only played soccer a few months out of the year. As a consequence, he couldn’t capitalize on his sprinting ability. He was always getting in behind too early. In fact, I think he led our league in offside calls. He was also unable to control the deep passes we did play him. In the rare occasions he managed to stay onside, he would often fail to control the ball and nullify his own chance to score. Needless to say, he wasn’t a very good player.

Football ability and basic ability are not the same thing. Basic ability is part of football ability, but not synonymous with it. A high level basic ability can increase the chances of a high football ability, but it never guarantees it. See Usain Bolt for a perfect example.

Basic Ability

Nevertheless, the “weak link” in a players football ability can be his basic ability. It is entirely possible that the limiting factor in a players pressing ability is his sprinting ability. Basic ability is of particular interest to the medical team, physiotherapists, strength coaches, and even fitness coaches.

Since basic actions are part of executing decisions, a players basic ability will show up during execution. In addition, since basic actions assume a basic context, rather than a football context, we can ignore the presence of any miscommunication between players or a lack of game insight. In other words, we can focus on the ‘E’ in the CDE cycle. If we identify the “weak link” as the execution, then we can say with confidence that the player made a correct decision, but an incorrect execution.

The problem is the execution. But, what aspect of the execution?

The next question is: why did the player make an incorrect execution? Which factors negatively impacted the execution of the action?

Basic ability is focused on the ‘E’ in the CDE cycle. In particular, we are focused on finding the “weak link” during basic action execution. As a result, we have identified the “weak link” in general, but we need to do a bit more digging to find the specific problem. This is comparable to fixing a car. Our initial analysis rules out the braking system and the exhaust system, but identifying the electrical system as the problem only gets you so far. Within the electrical system, we need to find out if the “weak link” is the starter? The battery? Or, the main fuse?

In actions versus movements, we explained that the building blocks of a football action are basic actions, movements, muscle interactions, and muscle actions. To more precisely identify the “weak link” during execution, we need to consider all of the building blocks that support the execution of a basic action.

Just like football actions are broken down into several basic actions, basic actions can be broken down into several movements. For example, a person that is stopping will flex their knee, hinge their hips, and extend their trunk.

Every football action can be broken down into several basic actions. And, basic actions can be broken down into several movements.

As a result, once we determine that a players problem isn’t acting inside the football context, but acting inside the basic context, we can further describe basic actions using movements, muscle interactions, and muscle actions.

The problem isn’t the football context. The problem is the basic context.

In addition to these building blocks, we can also analyze the execution using the four space-time characteristics: position, moment, direction, and speed.

Position

Every basic action will be executed from, and with, a certain position, at a certain moment, in a certain direction, and with a certain speed. However, ‘PMDS’ in this case is viewed independent from the football context. It is viewed from the basic context. As a result, we are not analyzing the execution of a decision, but the execution of an action.

Every basic action will be executed with a certain body position. More specifically, with certain movements. By paying attention to the movements that a player makes during execution, we can identify his form (technique)For example, a player that is sprinting will do so with their pelvis in a certain position. When adopting the form view of technique, we are like Gymnastics judges. We are ignoring the outcome of the action and paying attention to the process. How is he moving his body parts? By observing the position of the body parts (movements) during execution, we can get a good idea of his form.

Every movement can be broken down into several muscle interactions. As a result, these could also be the “weak link” during execution. For example, poor muscle interactions around the trunk can be the “weak link” in sprinting with a neutral pelvis.

The form a players uses can reveal movements that are “weak links”. Meaning that they are either inefficient or ineffective. Identifying inefficient movements relies heavily on knowledge from the biomechanics world. Inefficient movements and “weak” muscle interactions can both contribute to low basic ability and a higher chance of injury.

Of course, every muscle interaction can be broken down into several muscle actions. As a result, the “weak link” could also be the timing or strength of an individual muscle. For example, the abdominal muscles might be too “weak” to help keep the pelvis neutral during sprinting. As a result, the pelvis rotates forwards during the push off, which can compromise a variety of muscles and tendons around the hips and pelvis.

Moment

Every basic action will begin at a certain moment. In the science of training, this moment occurs when the brain, or spinal cord, sends a signal to the muscles to act. In football, we want this signal to be sent and received as quickly as possible. In the science of training, this is referred to as rate of force development. In other words, how quickly can a player produce the force necessary to act?

At a higher level of play, there is less space and less time to make football actions. As a result, the speed of action must go up. One way to improve the speed of action is to improve the rate of force development during that action.

As an example, let’s imagine that two players are sprinting to a 2nd ball. One player produces force in 1 second. The other player produces force in 1/2 second. The second player has a much higher chance to get to the ball first because he began his action sooner.

Direction

Once the action begins, it will be executed with a certain direction. Once again, particular attention will be paid to the form a player uses. In order to maximize the quality of a basic action, the player will want to apply forces to the ground in an optimal direction. For example, a player that sprints by placing his stance leg in front of his hips won’t be acting very efficiently. This player will essentially be applying force in a negative direction even though he wants to continue acting forward.

Speed

Finally, every basic action will be executed with a certain speed. This often refers to the absolute speed that a player is capable of during the execution of basic actions like sprinting, stopping, and changing direction. Since football is a ‘speed of action sport’, speed is an influential characteristic in a players basic ability.

Of course, speed is relative in football. Therefore, although we might train to improve the speed of a basic action, we always want football actions to be executed with the correct speed for the situation, rather than always maximal. A player that presses at the highest speed possible will be dribbled around quite easily. Conversely, a player that is played into a 1 versus 1 with the goalkeeper might encounter his absolute speed as a limiting factor. As a result, both are necessary. In fact, this is another demonstration of the difference between football ability and basic ability. Basic ability can put the right ingredients on the counter. But, you still need a Chef to use them correctly.

Players with a high speed of action are often called explosive, or powerful. In the science of training, power is force produced multiplied by the speed of action. This is commonly referred to as force times velocity, or strength times speed.

Explosivity versus Efficiency

To make the ‘PMDS’ characteristics more practical, we can group them into two categories: efficient and explosive.

The explosive category refers to the moment and speed characteristics of a particular action. The efficient category refers the position and direction characteristics of a particular action. To use a reference introduced in the technique post, the efficient category is concerned with the form view of technique, whereas the explosive category is concerned with the result view of technique. The form view is concerned with “HOW” the action is executed. The result view is concerned with “WHAT” the action does. Both are key components of a players basic ability.

For example, a player that sprints with a flexed back has an inefficient sprinting technique. It is much more efficient to sprint with an extended back. However, a player that sprints with a flexed back could still be very explosive. And a player that sprints with an extended back could still be very slow.

Most coaches understand this intuitively. Have you ever coached a player that is capable of very high sprinting speeds, but always injured? In this case, the player has a strong explosive ability, but a weak efficient ability. In other words, the movements he makes during the execution of his sprinting actions compromise certain muscles, tendons, and joints. As a result, the player over-over loads these tissues during sprinting.

During basic action training, coaches can address the explosive component and/or the efficient component. Using the eight categories described earlier, coaches can identify which basic actions are “weak links” in the players football ability. Let’s say that a players sprinting is identified as a “weak link”. Next, the coach can ask himself the question, “is this an explosive issue or an efficient issue?” Depending on the answer to this question, the coach can use a number of different exercises and protocols for the intended purpose.

Efficiency before Explosivity?

Imagine someone came to you and wanted help improving their 5k time. During the first training session with your new client, they show up drunk. Here is the question. Do you throw them on the treadmill at 12 mph? Or, do you sober them up first?

Let’s say that a players “weak link” is his sprinting. His maximal sprinting speed is considered too low. What is the starting point? Is the starting point sprinting maximally? Or, is it sprinting efficiently? Just like the client above, we should probably check to make sure the player isn’t “drunk”. In other words, we need to determine how this player sprints before we make him sprint faster. If we make a player sprint maximally while he is “still drunk”, that is like throwing our drunk client on the treadmill at 12 mph. They might be able to stay on the treadmill for a few seconds, or even a half-a-minute, but eventually they are going to fall off.

Now imagine that I ask you to help me sprint faster. You watch me sprint, and notice that I sprint without bending my knees. It’s like I’m sprinting on stilts. What are you going to do first? Are you going to ask me to sprint faster? Are you going to ask me to perform 5 maximal sprints with 5 minutes rest in between? Or, are you going to do something about my knees?

Intuitively, we know efficiency comes before explosivity. And interestingly, one can mean the other. In many instances, they are synonymous. For example, helping me to sprint while bending my knees IS also helping me to sprint faster.

Let’s say that you want to improve the sprinting action of a player. During execution, the player plantar-flexes his ankle upon ground contact. His toes are the first body part to make contact with the ground. This is poor technique. Due to the position of his ankle, the players calf muscle is in a shortened position as it contacts the ground. As a result, the calf muscle is unable to maximally use the forces generated from contact with the ground. As a result, the forces from the ground are absorbed (disappear) rather than used for the next movement.

We can have this player perform maximal sprinting actions all we want, but it isn’t going to change the fact that the “weak link” in his sprinting ability is his technique. Not to mention that each time his foot touches the ground, especially during maximal sprinting, he is compromising the health of his muscles and tendons.

Because of this, we seek to improve the efficiency of the action (form) before we improve the explosiveness of the action (result).

Takeaway

Football players are primarily focused on the football situation. Players deal withe football situation by making football actions. The quality of football actions determines a players football ability. The football ability of a player ultimately determines their playing level.

Football ability is determined by three components: communication, decision making, executing decisions. This is what we refer to as the CDE cycle. Basic actions are part of the ‘E’ component. In order to execute a decision, players need to make certain basic actions.

In basic actions, we described the eight basic action categories. Sometimes, the basic action is the “weak link” in a players performance. As a result, the quality of the basic actions needs to go up. The quality of a players basic actions is typically referred to as “athleticism”. “Athleticism” is a non-contextual term that refers to the quality of someones actions in a basic context. A more accurate term for this is basic ability.

Like football actions, basic actions also share the four space-time characteristics: position, moment, direction, and speed. However, because basic actions are defined in a basic, or general, context, these characteristics are less influenced by the environment, and more influenced by the person performing the action.

The position refers primarily to the movement of body parts during the action. Traditionally, the biomechanics world has created knowledge regarding the most efficient and effective movements during an action. The positions of the body parts during the action can also be called technique. In particular, a form view of technique.

The moment refers to the beginning of the action. In the science of training, many refer to the moment as the signal from the brain, or spinal cord, to the muscles. Since football is a speed of action sport, we are primarily interested in how quickly this moment can occur. In the science of training, this is referred to as rate of force development – how quickly force can be developed in the muscles to generate movement, and subsequently, action.

Once an action begins, it will have a certain direction. The focus here will once again be on the movements during the action. Does the chosen technique allow this player to act as effectively and efficiently as possible in the chosen direction? Sometimes, the technique a player uses to change direction, or sprint can make it more difficult for them to act in the intended direction.

Once the action begins in a particular direction, it will have a certain speed. Most players and coaches are keen on improving this characteristic. It is commonly accepted that speed can be a performance defining characteristic. Some of the best footballers in the world have a high speed of action. However, as we have explained in other posts, a high speed of action is not sufficient to make a successful football player. There are plenty of fast players that aren’t good at football. A players basic ability can contribute towards their football ability, but ultimately it is their football ability that will determine their final playing level.

In order to improve the quality of a basic action, we need to know the characteristics that make up a persons basic ability. The quality of a basic action has two main components. There is an explosive component and an efficient component.

The explosive component takes a results view of technique. The space-time characteristics moment and speed primarily contribute towards an explosive action.

The efficient component takes a form view of technique. The space-time characteristics position and direction primarily contribute towards an efficient action.

During basic action training, efficiency comes before explosivity. A player that sprints with a pelvis that is rotated forward during the push off will compromise the health of different muscles. As a result, efficieny is the main limiting factor. Addressing the explosivity before the efficiency is like training for a 5k while still drunk. It is more advisable to ‘sober up’ first, and then push your endurance boundaries. During basic action training, coaches will address both the explosiveness and efficiency of a players basic ability.

The ultimate goal of football training is to improve the football ability and football capacity of a player. However, this cannot always be accomplished via the direct route. Ideally, we use football action training to improve the football ability and capacity of a player. But, sometimes a player’s “weak link” exists outside the football context. Other times, players that suffer injuries are unable to ‘directly’ improve their football ability. As a result, we must take a more ‘indirect’ route by addressing the basic ability of the player. A players basic ability refers to the quality of his basic actions.

Football (Thinking) Fitness

In the football fitness (capacity) post, the football fitness characteristics were defined. A “fit” player is a player that can execute his football ability (100%) more frequently and for longer.

The football fitness characteristics

Obviously, there are a number of supporting characteristics that contribute to a players ability to make more actions per minute, maintain good actions, and maintain many actions. This makes it considerably more difficult to ‘pinpoint’ where a player is hitting his football fitness limits. Is the player struggling to catch his breath between actions? Is it his ability to think next action? Some other component? Even this presents a false dichotomy. A players football fitness has many contributing factors including his physiology and psychology. In other words, there isn’t just one component, but many components that contribute to a players football fitness.

In the (maintain) think action post, a practical example concerning football sprints with minimum rest was described. In that example, it was proven that maintaining maximum actions is a byproduct of thinking action. If a player thinks about how tired he is, or thinks ‘I can’t get to the ball first’, he will slow down during his maximum actions and make a sub-maximum actions instead. As a result, the training adaptation is compromised.

Overloading Football Physiology only happens if football psychology (thinking) is not an obstacle

Similarly, a player that is still thinking last action has no chance to make his next action regardless of his breathing. Therefore, it is entirely possible for a player to have fully recovered between actions, but still be thinking about the last action. In the (maintain) think next action post, an example was given of a striker that makes a maximum action in behind. The striker is so fed up with the fact that he wasn’t given the ball that his thinking actions become his primary way of interacting with the football context. Rather than making football actions, he is thinking. Sometimes, these thoughts even become words, or gestures. He might start shouting at his teammates to ‘give me the ball!’ rather than focus on playing football. Obviously, if the player can shout at his teammates, he has no problem catching his breath. However, he is making less actions per minute due to his thinking.

What these examples prove is that the football psychology characteristics are of a higher order than the football physiology characteristics. It doesn’t mean that quicker recovery between actions is unimportant, it means that a player that is thinking about the referee cannot play at a high tempo. One comes before the other.

Of course, it was also explained in the (maintain) think action post that there is a limit to this idea. The football psychology characteristics are the first limiting factor that a player needs to overcome in order to stretch his physiological boundaries. But, once this is a given, and the player is able to think action and think next action, then his ability to catch his breath between actions can finally be overloaded. A player that is too busy yelling at his teammates during a 4v4 is not going to be overloaded in terms of more actions per minute. How can he? Instead of getting open and transitioning, he is shouting at his teammates.

A player that thinks next action will automatically stretch his quicker recovery boundaries. A player that thinks last action will never stretch his quicker recovery boundaries.

A player that thinks next action automatically overloads his recovery between actions. A player that thinks external factors, stays in his football fitness comfort zone.

Takeaway

Football fitness is the ability of a player to execute his football actions more often and for longer. The three football fitness characteristics are more actions per minute, maintain good actions, and maintain many actions. There are a number of components that influence these characteristics. There isn’t just one component that is the “be all, end all” for fitness. Many fitness coaches think fitness is predominately physiological. However, this is clearly not the case. A player that thinks external factors will never stretch the boundaries of his physiological limits. His thinking will keep him in his comfort zone so that he doesn’t have to push his boundaries.

As a result, the football psychology characteristics are the starting point during a football fitness training. The players need to think action, think next action, and maintain those for the duration of the session in order to have a chance of stretching their fitness boundaries. Of course, the psychology characteristics are only the starting point. Once it is a given that players are not thinking last action or thinking external factors, then close attention can be paid to the breathing of the players and the maximum of the actions to determine when the training session has stretched the boundaries sufficiently enough.

Football Psychology: (Maintain) Think Next Action

In the first Football Psychology post, the football psychology characteristics (maintain) think action were described.

Players have brains and these brains allow them to think, amongst other things. The thinking actions of a player can be a limiting factor in their performance. In other words, the weak link in a players football ability or football fitness (capacity) could be their thinking actions. These thinking actions can contribute towards or detract from the football performance.

Think Next Action

When thinking actions occur during the execution of an action, they can impact the quality of the football action. In other words, the quality of the action can go down. If this occurs early in the game, then we can say the player struggles to focus on football and think action. If the player demonstrates the ability to focus on football in the first half, but becomes increasingly interested in the external factors (like the referee) late in the game, then it can be said that this player struggles to maintain think action.

Of course, players don’t only make thinking actions during the football action, but also in-between actions. In other words, while players are recovering between actions and maybe catching their breath, they could also have thoughts.

Let’s say that a striker makes a maximum action in behind the opponents back line. He sprints as fast as possible and shouts for the ball. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Play me!” The ball doesn’t arrive. The player throws his arms in the air and cannot believe his teammate didn’t give him the ball. The player is know thinking “Oh my God…I cannot believe he didn’t give me the ball.” While the player is having this thought, another opportunity has presented itself for him to get the ball. However, the striker is now offside. His teammate looks for the striker, but he is walking offside gesturing to the sky cursing his luck. As a result, his teammate loses the ball and the opponent makes a transition.

What just happened? The striker made an action. While recovering from that action, he thought about the last action. He couldn’t believe the ball didn’t arrive. As a result of this player thinking last action, he is unavailable to make an action seconds later. As a result, the frequency of this players actions has gone down. In other words, his thinking has led to less actions per minute.

Think Next Action? Or, Think Last Action?

We want players that perform more actions per minute. From a physiological perspective, this means catching their breath quicker between actions. This striker wasn’t out of breath. So, why did his frequency drop? His frequency dropped because the brain also plays a role in the football fitness of a player. A player that can make more actions per minute is not just a player that can make quick recoveries between actions. This player also must think next action. Rather than thinking about the last action, or other external factors while recovering, players that make more actions per minute also think about the next action. Therefore, the football psychology characteristic think next action is a critical component of the football fitness characteristic more actions per minute.

Players that make more actions per minute have a higher quality of thinking in-between actions. Rather than thinking about the last action or other external factors, they think next action.

Maintain Think Next Action

We want players that not only think next action in the first half, but for 90 minutes.

Picture the striker in the previous example. Imagine him making the same action to get in behind except this time the action occurs in the last minute. The player has the same low quality thinking in-between his actions, but this time it occurs in the final moments. The second opportunity for a pass presents itself, but the striker is once again in an offside position. This is forgivable in the first half, but this second opportunity is the last of the match. As a result of the lower tempo of his teammate, the player on the ball has to turn back and pass to his goalkeeper. Moments later, the referee blows the whistle to signal the end of the match. If the striker had been able to maintain think next action, then he could have gotten one more opportunity at goal.

Usually, the longer the match continues, the more likely it is that players (and coaches) struggle to think next action. It is easy to think next action when the game has just begun, but not after 80 minutes of situations. During a football match, there will be many situations like the one above. There will be mistakes, your team will concede goals, you will score goals, and there will be yellow cards, red cards, abuse from spectators, abuse from opponents, off the ball abuse, missed calls by the referee, etc. These situations accumulate in the brains of the players and it becomes a challenge to think next action. As a result, the playing tempo will go down. This is less than ideal if your team is chasing the game or hanging on to a lead. This is why the ability to maintain think next action is a critical component of the football fitness characteristic maintain many actions. Players that think external factors or last action in the later stages of a match will appear “less fit” even if they have no problem catching their breath. This is why physiology is only part of a players football fitness. It is only a piece of the puzzle. The actions of the brain, must also be considered.

Players that make maintain many actions per minute have a higher quality of thinking in-between actions. Especially in the later parts of the game. Rather than thinking about the last action or other external factors, they maintain think next action.

Takeaway

The brain is a critical component of a players football fitness. The ability to make more actions per minute and maintain many actions per minute is not only dependent on the physiological characteristics of the player, i.e. (maintain) quicker recovery between actions. It is also dependent on the thinking actions of the player. The football psychology characteristics think action and maintain think action refer to the thinking actions of a player during an action. The football psychology characteristics think next action and maintain think next action refer to the thinking actions of a player between actions. These characteristics are critical components of the football ability and football fitness (capacity) of a player.

Football Psychology: (Maintain) Think Action

In the football physiology posts on (maintain) maximum actions and (maintain) quicker recovery between actions, it was explained that the heart and lung only partly contribute to football fitness. As a result, (maintain) maximum actions and (maintain) quicker recovery between actions are only components of football fitness, they are not the same thing as football fitness. At best, they can contribute to a players football performance. The reason they can only partly explain a players football fitness is because there are other body parts that also play a role in the football ability and football capacity of a player. One particularly important body part is the brain.

Imagine a striker that is responsible for pressing the central defenders of the opponent.

The central defender receives the ball and the striker begins pressing him. The striker is making a maximum pressing action. As he gets closer to the central defender, the central defender easily passes the ball to his holding midfielder that is totally free. The striker recovers back behind the ball.

A few moments later, this same sequence repeats itself.

And again.

And again.

The fifth time the central defender receives the ball, the striker is fed up. Instead of making a maximum pressing action, he makes a sub-maximum pressing action.

By the eighth or ninth time, the striker stays in his position and doesn’t even bother pressing.

The coach begins shouting at his striker from the sidelines and cursing him towards the bench players. “Keep Pressing!” “How is he already tired!?”

The coach begins warming up a substitution while the assistant coach addresses the attacking midfielder. The assistant coach says, “You have to mark their holding midfielder tighter when our striker presses the ball.” He then encourages the striker to keep pressing.

The tenth time the central defender receives the ball, the striker makes a maximum pressing action. This time, the attacking midfielder player has taken away the opponents holding midfield player. As a result, the central defender makes a pass that is easily intercepted by the attacking midfielder. They then make a transition forward towards the goal.

For the remainder of the 1st half, the striker makes maximum pressing action after maximum pressing action.

The coach, still upset about the earlier pressing actions, continues to curse the striker, “He waits until I start warming someone up to keep pressing…”

What happened in this situation? Did the striker become less fit and then more fit moments later? Or, was something else going on?

The striker had no problem with his lungs. He had quickly recovered between each pressing action. The reason why he stopped pressing was due to another body part: his brain.

Every player has a brain. This brain allows them to think, amongst other actions. During a football game, these thinking actions will influence a players football actions. The striker didn’t all of a sudden grow a bigger heart or achieve greater lung capacity during his 10th pressing action, his thinking had changed.

During pressing action number five, the striker was thinking, “I’m not pressing anymore. Their midfielder is open every time.”

During pressing action number eight, the striker was thinking, “Not again. I’m just going to stay here and cover the midfielder.”

But, during pressing action number ten, the striker thought, “Thank God, our coach has fixed the problem. Now, I can press again.”

Obviously, this is a fictional story, but the point is that the thinking of a player can also play a role in their football ability and football capacity.

At the beginning of the match, the player was 100% focused on his football actions. Particularly, his pressing actions. As the game continued, he realized that his pressing was pointless. He wasn’t causing any miscommunications in the opponent or creating chances to win the ball or make interceptions. Therefore, the thinking of this player became his primary focus.

In the actions versus movements post, the difference between primary, secondary, and tertiary perspectives on motion were described. In addition, it was said that players are primarily focused on interacting with the football context. These are football actions like passing and pressing. Simultaneously, players also make actions that support their football actions, such as breathing, walking, and thinking.

Usually, these other actions stay in the background. However, there are many situations that occur in a match. Sometimes, these situations will cause certain actions to move to the foreground rather than the background.

For example, a player that is fouled and kicked hard in the shin will spend the next few minutes primarily focused on walking. He is no longer primarily focused on getting open or passing, but on his walking actions. He will be seen “hobbling” around the pitch as he regains his walking actions. If he cannot switch his focus back to football, he will eventually need to be substituted.

No longer focused on football, but on walking.

Another situation that can occur in football is a red card. During a red card situation, players may primarily focus on their thinking actions. Some players may think, “Oh no, now we are going to lose” or “are we fit enough to play man down for 83 minutes?”

These thinking actions can “take-over” and lead a player to only secondarily deal with the football context. In other words, his focus is no longer maximum football actions, but thinking. As a result, he makes sub-maximal football actions and the performance of the team and that player will drop.

Sometimes, game situations overload a players thinking and he no longer is focused on football, but on his thoughts.

In our example above, the ‘tactical’ situation led the striker to primarily concern himself with his thoughts. As a result, he made sub-maximal pressing actions. From the outside, it appeared as if the player couldn’t catch his breath, or was being “lazy”. Oddly, the moment he stopped thinking ‘what are my teammates doing?’ or ‘this isn’t working’ and instead, focused on his football actions; the player appeared to have miraculously recovered his ability and fitness. All of a sudden, he could ‘catch his breath’ and his ‘laziness’ had disappeared.

These examples demonstrate that shifts in a players thinking actions correspond with shifts in their football ability and football fitness.

Anyone that has coached or played football is all too familiar with situations where the team appears to fall into a ‘negative spiral’. For example, a team that gives up one goal, all of a sudden gives up two or three goals in succession. Conversely, a team that scores a goal, all of a sudden goes on to score two or even three. These moments demonstrate that the thinking actions players make can have a considerable impact on the quality and quantity of their actions.

A player that is ‘fed up’ with his task, like the striker above, will make a lower quantity of actions because he is thinking ‘this sucks’. A player that is thinking, “there are a lot of scouts at this game, I hope I play well” might make a lower quality of action because he is primarily thinking rather than playing.

Football Thinking

What these examples teach us is that the brain also plays a role in the football ability and football fitness (capacity) of a player. We are primarily concerned with the football fitness of players on this website. Therefore, let’s consider the brains role during a football fitness session.

Let’s say that we are doing football sprints with minimum rest. Football sprints are 1v1 situations in training where the players must sprint inside of the football context. This exercise is intended to overload a players ability to maintain maximum actions. This football physiology characteristics can contribute towards maintaining good actions.

During football sprints with minimum rest, players must sprint at a maximum. After about 10-30 seconds of recovery, the players must sprint again. During this exercise, the players will experience discomfort in their body. Their muscles will burn and they experience very heavy breathing. If the players begin paying more attention to their muscles and lungs rather than out-sprinting their opponent, the training effect will decrease. The players that focus on their lungs will sprint sub-maximally as the discomfort from the training overload is “too much” for them to handle. As a result, this player will not be training to maintain maximum actions, but training to maintain sub-maximum actions. Obviously, this is not the intended training effect.

Think fatigue or think win the ball

This example shows that the exercise only creates adaptations “in theory”. On paper, the players are improving their ability to maintain maximum actions. In practice, if their thinking and attention is primarily concerned with their tired muscles and burning lungs, there will be no training effect. In these situations, the limitation begins with the thinking of the player, not their phosphate system.

To create a training overload, the players need to focus on their task, not external factors like fatigue. In other words, the thinking of a player is a prerequisite for improving the football performance. During a match, players that think about external factors like the score, the referee, or the spectators will perform at lower levels of football ability and football capacity. During a training session, players that think about external factors like fatigue, heavy breathing, or discomfort will perform underloaded versions of the training session rather than overloaded versions.

Obviously, there is a limit to this concept. The thinking of a player is only a limitation to a point. For example, a person that runs 10 miles a day may need to overcome their thinking in order to overload themselves by running 11 miles. However, overcoming their thinking wouldn’t allow them to all of a sudden run 30 miles without severe consequences like muscle tears, or severe muscle breakdown.

Think Action

The brain plays a critical role in the football ability and football capacity of a player. In the post on football ability, a players ability to perform the CDE cycle contributes to the football performance through better actions. When discussing the football ability of a player, we are discussing the action itself.

During the execution of the strikers pressing action from earlier, what was the player focused on? Was he thinking about pressing? Or, while he was pressing was he also thinking about external factors. Did he have a thought like, ‘this is a waste of time, they’re just going to pass around me.’ If the player is thinking about external factors, the quality of their action will go down.

At a higher level of play, the quality of an action needs to go up. As a result, players need to learn to think action not think external factor. This is the first football psychology characteristic.

The football psychology characteristic think action

Maintain Think Action

We don’t want players that only think action in the first half, but for 90 minutes. In fact, many games are lost in the last moments of the match. Players that think “the game is over” can make lower quality actions at critical moments of the match like during late game set piece situations. In the football world, many coaches refer to this as “switching off”. What this basically means is that players are no longer thinking action. Instead, they are thinking external factor.

In our earlier example, the striker was thinking action during his initial pressing actions. As a result, his pressing actions were maximal. As the game continued; however, the player began to make sub-maximal pressing actions. Instead of thinking action, he was thinking external factor. During the execution of his pressing actions, the striker was concerned with the actions of his teammates, how open the holding midfielder was, and how his coach was yelling at him for something that had nothing to do with him. The player could not maintain think action.

Obviously, the quality of his initial pressing actions demonstrates that the player has the ability to think action. But, the lower quality of his following pressing actions demonstrated that the player cannot maintain think action – another football psychology characteristic.

The football psychology characteristic maintain think action

Takeaway

The brain plays a crucial role in the football ability and football capacity of a player. The player can either think action or think external factor. If the player thinks external factor, the quality of his football actions will go down. If the player thinks action, the quality of his actions can remain at 100%. Therefore, the football psychology of a player also contributes to the football performance. The football psychology characteristic think action can contribute to the football ability of a player by contributing towards better actions.

Players that only think action in the first half or when things are going well are not in control of their thinking. Therefore, players need to learn to maintain their ability to think action. The football psychology characteristic maintain think action can contribute to the football fitness of a player and his ability to maintain good actions.