Football Physiology: (Maintain) Quicker Recovery Between Actions

FOOTBALL PHYSIOLOGY

In the football principles postwe explained that football principles should be used to study scientific principles and not the reverse. Based on the football ability and football fitness characteristics, we can ask the scientific discipline of physiology if any scientific principles can contribute towards better actions, more actions, maintain good actions, and maintain many actions.

In Football Physiology Part 1, we discovered two physiology principles that can contribute to the football performance. At a higher level of play, there is an increased demand on the speed of action. Players occasionally need to execute actions at an absolute maximum. Cristiano Ronaldo has a very high maximum action. By comparison, a player like Sergio Busquets has a lower maximum action. If Cristiano Ronaldo makes an action in behind and Sergio Busquets has to track him, there is a very good chance that Cristiano Ronaldo will get to the ball first. However, we all know that Sergio Busquets is a top level football player. As mentioned in part 1, there is a difference between a players overall football ability and his maximum action. A maximum action only refers to the speed characteristic of an action, not the communication between players, or the position, moment, and direction of the action. In other words, a maximum action is only a small contributor to the overall quality of an action. Just ask Usain Bolt.

The football physiology characteristics Maximum Action and Maintain Maximum Actions can contribute to the speed component of better actions and maintaining good actions.

Nevertheless, we learned in Part 1 that there are, in fact, some physiology principles that can help players make better actionsmore actions, maintain good actions, and maintain many actions. In part 1, we learned that players that have higher maximum actions and can maintain their maximum actions for longer can also make slightly better actions and maintain good actions.

In the football fitness (capacity) post, we learned that there are three football fitness characteristics. Football fitness is a players ability to make football actions at 100% more frequently (higher tempo) and for longer. Players that can play at a high tempo and maintain that tempo for 90 minutes are very football fit. Next, we can ask if there is any scientific knowledge that can contribute to a players ability to play at a high tempo and maintain that tempo for 90 minutes.

Recovery Ability

The first football fitness characteristic is that at a higher level of play, players need to make more actions per minute. In other words, players need a higher quantity of actions. A higher quantity of actions means that players have less time to recover from their previous action. As a result, players have less time to ‘catch their breath’ between actions. In order to make actions at a higher frequency, players need to catch their breath more quickly between actions. 

Players that can make more actions per minute will raise the tempo of the match. A match that is played at a higher tempo means that players have less time to recover between football actions. Less time to recover means less time to ‘catch their breath’. A player that can ‘catch his breath more quickly’ will have less of a limitation on his ability to make more actions per minute.  In the science of training, a players ability to recover between actions is called recovery ability.

Players that want to raise the level of their recovery ability need to train themselves to catch their breath more quickly between actions. In order to have the chance to make more actions per minute, players need to learn to catch their breath more quickly. Therefore, the football physiology characteristic quicker recovery between actions can contribute to a players ability to make more actions per minute.

The ability to quickly recover between actions can contribute to the football fitness characteristic more actions per minute

Recovery Capacity

Of course, we don’t want players that can only play at a high tempo in the first half. We want players that can play at a high tempo for 90 minutes. One of the football fitness characteristics is maintaining many actions per minute. This means that players with a high level of football fitness can play football at a high tempo for 90 minutes. In Physiology language, playing at a high tempo in the last stages of a match means maintaining the ability to ‘catch your breath quickly’. This is called recovery capacity. A player that is limited by his recovery capacity will be unable to maintain many actions per minute. 

Players that want to raise the level of their recovery capacity need to train themselves to catch their breath quickly between actions for longer. Players need to learn to maintain their ability to recover between actions. The football physiology characteristic that can contribute to maintaining many actions is maintaining quicker recovery between actions.

The ability to maintain quick recovery between actions can contribute to the football fitness characteristic maintain many actions per minute

The Football Physiology Characteristics

Improving a football players performance means improving his football ability and football capacity. Improving a players football ability means helping the player make better actions. In other words, it is helping the player start each game with a slightly better 100%. Improving a players football capacity means improving his football fitness. A players football fitness is his ability to make more actions at 100% per minute, maintain 100% actions for longer, and maintain many actions at 100% for longer.

Football Physiology is not the same thing as football fitness. Physiology is only part of a players football fitness. At best, improving a players physiology can only contribute towards the football performance characteristics, it cannot guarantee their improvement. In this two part series (Part 1 here), the four football physiology characteristics were defined. A players maximum action can contribute to better actions by improving the speed of action. A player that can maintain maximum actions for longer can contribute to maintaining good actions by learning to maintain the speed of his actions. A player that can recover more quickly between actions has a higher chance of making more actions per minute. A player that can maintain his ability to recover quickly between actions has a higher chance of maintaining many actions per minute throughout the match. Together, these football physiology characteristics can contribute to the overall football performance.

The football physiology characteristics

Why Football Physiology and Not Football Fitness??

In the football performance post on football fitness (capacity), football fitness was defined as how frequently and for how long players can make football actions at 100%. This is different from a players football ability. The football ability of a player says something about how well they can perform the CDE cycle (communication, decision making, executing decisions). The football fitness (capacity) of a player says something about how frequently, how close to 100%, and for how long someone can play football. It doesn’t determine the quality of communication, decision making, or execution. Nevertheless, the football ability and football capacity (fitness) of a player determine his overall football performance.

This two part series on the football physiology characteristics has stressed that the physiology components are only part of the definition of football fitness. Why is this the case? The reason why improvements in football physiology are only part of a players football fitness is because there is more to physiology than the heart and lungs. The brain, and even the muscles, are also part of a players physiology. In upcoming posts, the role of the brain in football fitness will be described. The brain is also part of a players physiology which is why quicker recovery between actions is only part of the definition of football fitness. It is not the same thing as football fitness. At best, improving a players ability to catch his breath between actions can only contribute towards more actions per minute, but it cannot guarantee it. As a result, football fitness is more than the contribution of the heart and lungs inside a football context. The role of the brain is also important.

Football Fitness (Capacity)

What is the difference between a lower level and a higher level? When a player moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team, do they suddenly play with two balls? Is the offside rule no longer valid? Does the team stop defending?Is the pitch now in the shape of a circle? Are their 4 goals instead of 2?

In the football ability post, we answered these questions with an emphatic “No”. The difference between a lower level and a higher level is not found in “WHAT” is played, but in “HOW” it’s played. All across the world, the same game is played.

In football ability, we took the universal game characteristics as the starting point in our endeavor to precisely define the football performance. In other words, what does it mean to play football better than someone else? What separates Lionel Messi from Jamie Vardy? Virgil Van Dijk from Arsenal’s Sokratis? The answer is football ability. Football ability is a concept that describes the quality with which a player executes the CDE cycle. A players football ability determines how his 100% CDE compares to another players 100% CDE.

In and of itself, football ability is insufficient to explain the entire football performance. For starters, the CDE cycle isn’t performed just once in the whole game. Players need to make multiple actions throughout the entire 90 minutes. In the end, a player with high football ability won’t be very good if he only makes one action per game. The characteristics of football mean that football players need to make multiple actions during a match. In other words, in addition to making actions with a certain quality, players will also make a certain quantity of actions. Every player performs their quantity of actions with a certain frequency. In football language, this is what we call match tempo.

At a higher level of play, not only will football ability be higher, but match tempo will also be higher. However, even with the introduction of match tempo, our definition of the football performance is still incomplete. For starters, playing with a high match tempo for just 20 minutes is not enough to make you a good player, or a good team. Players, and teams, also need to maintain this tempo for the whole match – 90 minutes.

As you can tell, there are a number of characteristics that players need to develop in order to become top players. Primarily, players need to develop their football ability. However, in order to support their football ability for 90 minutes, players need to develop other abilities as well. These will be discussed now.

Football Capacity

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 maintain this frequency, and their ability, is called football capacity. In football language, these latter characteristics are what we refer to as football fitness.

The football fitness of a player is an integral part of their football performance. Even top players, with a high football ability, will perform poorly if they lack football fitness. If you have ever watched a world renowned player during the pre-season, then you know exactly what I am talking about. Even the best players can’t get away with low football fitness. Football ability sets the bar. But, football fitness is what keeps the bar high.

As an analogy, consider Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods golf ability is very high. He can drive a ball nearly 300 yards. While doing this on the 1st hole demonstrates where the bar is – his 100%. It is his ability to do this throughout 18 holes and over the course of 4-days that truly makes him great. In other words, his “100%” is not sufficient. He also needs the ability to maintain his 100% for as long as possible.

Football players need both. They need a high football ability, but also a high football capacity. Lionel Messi’s ability to dribble past defenders means nothing if he can only do it once. Conversely, being able to make passing actions throughout the entire game means nothing if you always pass to the other team.

In a nutshell, players need to develop their football ability. This means that they continually try and “raise the bar”. They want to push their 100% CDE to 101% CDE. They want to begin each match with a newly improved 100% – a higher bar.

Players also need to develop their football capacity. This means that they continually try and “keep the bar high”. They want to make actions at their 100% as frequently as possible and for as long as possible. This means that even in the final moments of the match, players are still making actions at, or as close to, 100% as possible.

High Football Ability, but Low Football Fitness
High Football Fitness, but Low Football Ability
High Football Ability AND High Football Fitness

To develop their football capacity, players need to develop their ability to make more actions per minute, maintain good actions, and maintain many actions per minute. These are what we call the football fitness (capacity) characteristics.

More Actions per Minute

The first football fitness (capacity) characteristic is more actions per minute. Football actions are not only made with a certain quality, but also a certain quantity. At a higher level of play, football is played with a higher quantity of actions. A higher quantity of actions means that the match tempo goes up. When the match tempo goes up, players have less time between each action. When players have less time between each action, they need to make more actions per minute.

The tempo that Ajax needs to build up with is significantly higher during the Champions League than it is during the Eredivisie. In order to create gaps in the defensive organization of a team like Real Madrid, the Ajax players need to pass at a higher tempo. If the Ajax players only make five passing actions per build up attempt, it is unlikely that they will build up successfully and create chances. The tempo of play (five passing actions per build up attempt) doesn’t place a significant enough demand on the defending actions of the Real Madrid players. The Real Madrid players can easily keep compact, block passing options, and make pressing actions. As a result, we can say that Ajax is attacking at a lower level than Real Madrid is defending.

In order to increase their playing level, the Ajax players need to make attacking actions with a higher frequency. More specifically, this means passing, getting open, and creating space more often. In other words, making more actions per minute – an integral component of a players Football Fitness.

The football fitness characteristic – more actions per minute

Maintain Good Actions

In football ability, we explained that the quality of a football action depends on the quality of the CDE cycle. Football ability refers to how ‘good’ a players actions are. However, players don’t just express this quality one time, but many times throughout the course of the game. Because of this, there is an increased demand on a players ability to maintain their football ability.

Imagine if this were true for a 100 meter sprinter. Every sprinter has a certain sprinting ability. However, they only have to express this ability once. One can imagine how the results of the Olympic 100 meter would differ if they had to express this ability multiple times. Imagine if instead of winning one race, sprinters had to win the best of 20 races. Sprinters would no doubt need to develop more than just their sprinting ability. They would also need to develop their ability to maintain their sprinting ability.

Football players don’t need a high football ability for the first 20 minutes, or the first half, but for the entire 90 minutes. Football ability needs to be maintained for 90 minutes. 

As the game continues, players will eventually struggle to maintain their football ability. In other words, their 100% goes down. For example, towards the middle of the 2nd half, players will begin to make actions at only 90%. A little bit later, the quality might drop to 80%. In the final 10 minutes, maybe only 70% is possible. To make this more concrete, let’s say that 100% represents completing 10/10 passing actions, but 70% represents only 7/10.

This isn’t ideal. We want players to maintain 100% passing accuracy for as long as possible. Therefore, we need to develop their ability to maintain football ability. This requires two things.

First, players need to delay the drop in football ability for as long as possible. Second, players want to limit the drop in football ability as much as possible.

Let’s say that a player’s passing ability begins dropping in the 60th minute. To improve his ability to maintain football ability, this player will want to delay this drop for as long as possible. This means that training should target this players ability to maintain his passing ability for 65 minutes, then 70 minutes, and eventually as close to 90 minutes as possible. Practically, this means demanding quality football actions under fatigue.

Let’s say that this same player’s passing ability not only drops, but drops from 100% to 60%. In other words, not only have the quality of his actions gone down, but they have gone down considerably. Because of this, the player has become a liability and needs to be substituted. To improve his ability to maintain football ability, this player will want to delay this drop as much as possible. This means that training should target this players ability to maintain his passing ability as close to 100% as possible. Practically, this means demanding top quality football actions under fatigue.

In order for a player to maintain football ability for as long as possible and as much as possible, they need to learn how to maintain good actions – another integral part of a players football fitness.

The football fitness characteristic – maintain good actions

Maintain Many Actions

Lastly, we want players who can not only maintain the quality of their actions, but also the quantity of their actions. A fit player can manage a high playing tempo not only during the 1st half, but for 90 minutes. In order to play football at a high tempo late in a match, players need the ability to maintain many actions per minute – the final football fitness characteristic. Practically, this means placing a training demand on your players that forces them to play at a high tempo while fatigued.

In a sense, learning to maintain good actions and maintain many actions are specifications of playing football for longer. Training sessions aimed at improving these football fitness qualities will necessitate a higher volume of training and a higher training duration.

The football fitness characteristic – maintain many actions per minute

Takeaway

How do I get better at playing football? Traditionally, if you ask this question to 10 different people you will get 10 different answers. Alternatively, by taking the universal game characteristics as the starting point, we have been able to answer this question more precisely. There are two main characteristics that separate one player from another: football ability and football capacity, also known as fitness.

In football ability, we explained that the level of play is partly explained by the quality of the football actions.

In this post, we have explained that the level of play is also explained by the quantity of actions, and the ability of players to maintain both the quality and quantity of actions for 90 minutes.

Together, these characteristics explain the football performance.

Football fitness has three sub-characteristics that must be equally developed. 1) At a higher level of play, players need to play football at a higher tempo. In other words, they need to make more football actions per minute. 2) At a higher level, players also need to maintain their football ability for as long as possible. Of course, even the best players in the world will have a drop in quality in the final moments of the match. Nevertheless, players need to develop their ability to maintain good actions. At a higher level, players want to play football as well as possible and for as long as possible. 3) Players need to maintain a high tempo until the final whistle. When defending a 1-0 lead, the defending team will need to maintain their playing tempo for 90 minutes in order to continue disturbing the build up of the opponent and take home 3 points. To do this, they need to maintain many actions per minute.

Improving football ability is not the same thing as improving football fitness. Improving football ability means helping a player perform the CDE cycle at a higher level. It means stretching the boundaries of their communication, decision making, and execution from 100% to 101%. Conversely, improving football fitness means helping a player perform his CDE cycle at 100% as frequently as possible and for as long as possible. Getting ‘fitter’ does not necessarily make you a better player, it helps you express your quality more frequently and for longer. Getting ‘better’ means developing your quality. Getting ‘fitter’ means expressing your quality. Both are necessary for performing at a high level.

Football Ability “sets the bar”. Football Capacity (fitness) “keeps it high” for 90 minutes.

Football Physiology: (Maintain) Maximum Action

In the football performance posts (ability / capacity) the four football performance characteristics were defined. The football ability of a player determines the level at which he can play football. In order to raise the level of play to an even higher level, the quality of the action must go up. This means that the player needs to make better actions.

Football performance isn’t just determined by the quality of the actions, but also by the quantity of the actions. The level of play is also determined by the tempo of the match. At a higher level, players don’t only make better actions, but more actions. Of course, a description of the football performance is not complete until we also discuss for how long players can maintain both the quality and quantity of their actions. At a higher level, players can make football actions at 100% for 90 minutes and play at a high tempo for 90 minutes. The tempo of football and for how long football can be played determine a players football capacity. In football language, this is what we call football fitness.

Football Ability and Football Fitness determine the overall football performance

En route to trying to increase their football ability and football fitness, players will experience certain limitations. The job of a coach is to determine where these limitations exist and raise them to a higher level. The two types of limitations that exist in football were described in the ‘football conditioning’ post. 

Football conditioning is the overall process of raising football to a higher level. A coach can either condition the football ability or the football fitness of their players to a higher level.

Conditioning the football ability of a player means raising the level of the CDE cycle from 100% to 101%. This can be accomplished through “sub-conditioning” processes such as football tactics conditioning, football game insight conditioning, and football technique conditioning.

Football (Action)Ability Conditioning: Making better actions

Conditioning the football fitness of a player means placing higher demands on the tempo at which they play football and playing football for longer. In other words, football fitness is playing football at a high tempo and for longer.

Football Fitness Conditioning: Making more actions, maintaining good actions, and maintaining many actions

Football Physiology

In the football principles post, we explained that football principles should be used to study scientific principles and not the reverse. Based on the football ability and football fitness characteristics, we can ask the scientific discipline of physiology if their scientific principles apply to making better actions, more actions, maintaining good actions, and maintaining many actions.

There are, in fact, some physiology principles that can help players make better actions, more actions, maintain good actions, and maintain many actions. These principles are a component of the football performance characteristics.

Explosive Ability

At a higher level of play, players need to make better actions. Players need to communicate with their teammates sooner, make decisions faster, and execute more precisely. They need a greater football ability.

At a higher level, there is also less space and less time to make football actions. Not only do they need to communicate sooner, make decisions quicker, and execute more precisely, players also need to execute with a higher speed. Players need to a higher speed of action. In physiology language, players need to execute their actions more explosively. 

Creating a passing option more explosively means creating separation from your opponent in less time. At a lower level, players might have one second to create separation. In that one second, they create five yards of space for themselves to receive the ball. At a higher level, players might only have half-a-second to create the same separation. In that half-a-second, they need to create the same five yards for themselves to receive. This is only possible if the action is executed more explosively. 

In the ‘what is a football action?’ post, the three components of a football action were described. A better action is the result of better communication between players. It is also the result of better decision making and better executing decisions of an individual player.  Coaching at team level means coaching the communication between players. Coaching at individual level means coaching the decision making and executing decisions of a player. Together, coaching at team level and individual level increases the football ability of a player. As a result, the player makes better actions.

Coaching at individual level means improving the position, moment, direction, and speed of the action. Executing an action with a maximum speed can help the player learn to make a more explosive action. In the science of training, this is termed explosive ability. 

The explosiveness (speed) of a football action is only a part of the football action. This means that improving the explosive ability of a player does not automatically translate to a better action. A player that can get in behind with a higher speed might only run offside more quickly. This doesn’t mean that a player’s explosive ability is unimportant, but rather that it is insufficient. Playing football better is about much more than being more explosive. Improving the speed of an action cannot be viewed independently from the other three space-time characteristics: position, moment, and direction. Therefore, improving the explosiveness of an action can contribute to a higher quality action, but it does not guarantee a better action.

A higher speed of action does not mean the entire action has improved. The position, moment, and direction must also improve.

Absolute Speed vs Relative Speed

In football, the speed of an action is relative. In Downhill Skiing, the speed of an action is absolute. In skiing, the position, moment, and direction are standardized. Everyone begins from the same position (top of the hill), at the same moment (starting signal), and in the same direction (the course). Speed is the only variable. Obviously, the snow and the mountain need to be dealt with, but more or less, getting down the hill faster than everyone else is the primary concern.

Imagine if the position, moment, and direction were variables? Imagine if Olympic Champion Marcel Hirscher could pick where he wanted to start on the mountain (position)? Imagine if he got to choose when he started the race (moment)? And, imagine instead of having to slalom down the hill, he could go in a straight line (direction)? How much different would skiing be if every skier could manipulate their position, moment, and direction?

In football, this is exactly what happens. Players get to choose where they begin their actions from, at which moments, and in which directions. As a result, speed is only relative, not absolute. Having the fastest absolute speed is less relevant in football. If you have a higher absolute speed than your opponent, but he positions himself outside your vision and begins his action before you, you will fail to mark him tightly enough regardless of how fast you are.

In fact, for youth players especially, learning to position yourself better, act sooner, and act in the correct direction is much more important than maximizing your speed of action. Being 1% faster matters very little when you are positioning yourself in front of your opponent, acting too late, and acting in a straight line when asking for the ball.

Of course, there is a limit to this idea. There are situations in football where speed is a decisive factor. This is particularly true at the highest levels of football. At the highest levels, there is a smaller difference in football ability between players. The communication, decision making, and execution of each player is at a very high level. As a result, improving a players maximum speed of action could add the extra 1% to his game that makes a difference. As a result, explosive ability is important after all.

Maximum Action

In the science of training, explosiveness is also called power. Power is the combination of speed and force. In order to make a football action with a higher speed, the force of the action must be delivered in less time. In order to do this, players need to execute football actions at their maximum. 

Players that want to raise the level of their explosive ability need to train themselves to execute football actions with a higher speed. At a higher level of play, there is an increased demand on the ability of players to execute their actions at an explosive maximum. Therefore, the scientific discipline of physiology can contribute to a better action after all. By improving the explosive ability of a player, he will be capable of a higher speed of action. In football language, this means that the player has a higher maximum action.

At a higher level of play, players need to make actions with a higher maximum speed

A greater maximum action does not automatically mean a better action. Therefore, a maximum action and a better action are not the same thing. As a result, a maximum action is not a football performance characteristic, but a football physiology characteristics. The maximum speed of an action is only a small part of a players football ability. Nevertheless, improving the football physiology characteristic – maximum action – can contribute to a better action.

The football physiology characteristic Maximum Action can contribute to a better action. But, a better action is much more than the speed of the action.

Explosive Capacity

Players don’t need to make maximum actions only in the 1st half, but also in the 2nd half. During the game, the maximum action of a player will decline. In other words, they will begin to make sub-maximum actions. Actions with less explosiveness. In the science of training, the ability of a player to make explosive actions for longer is explosive capacity. In order for players to maintain their maximum for longer, their explosive capacity needs to go up.

Like explosive ability, the explosive capacity of a player refers only to the speed component of an action. This is why the football fitness characteristic is maintain good action. A player can struggle to maintain the quality of his actions because he is communicating less with his teammates, or executing his actions from the wrong position, at the wrong moment, in the wrong direction, and at an incorrect speed for the situation.

In fact, it is entirely possible for a player to make low-quality football actions in the final 15 minutes of a match, but still demonstrate a good explosive capacity. The lower quality of their actions can be explained by other factors. Even if the speed of the action is maximal, if a player explodes in behind the defense at the wrong moment, he will be offside. Even in the last moments of the match, the football context is not beside the point. It is the point. That is why the football fitness characteristic is maintain good action and not maintain maximum action. Football fitness is about maintaining the football ability, not a small part of the football ability – in this case, speed.

Of course, this has its limits too. A player that chooses the correct position, correct moment, and correct direction for his action could still fail to execute his action with a maximal speed. For example, a player that is sprinting on to a pass in behind that puts him 1 on 1 with the goalkeeper could lack the explosiveness he had in the first half, which means that the goalkeeper gets to the ball first. Therefore, explosive capacity is important after all. 

A player that wants to raise his explosive capacity needs to learn to execute football actions with a maximal speed in the final moments of a match. At a higher level of play, there is an increased demand on the ability of a player to execute his action at the explosive maximum, especially in the second half. Therefore, being able to make a maximum action in the 2nd half can contribute to the quality of an action in the second half. As a result, physiology can contribute to maintaining good actions after all. The world of physiology tells us that players can contribute to their ability to maintain good actions by improving their ability to maintain maximum actions – a football physiology characteristic. 

The football physiology characteristic Maintain Maximum Action can contribute to the football fitness characteristic maintain good actions. But, the quality of an action in the 2nd half is about much more than the speed of the action.

Basic Actions

Previously, we have written about the two main perspectives in football: the action perspective and the movement perspective. The starting point in football is always the action perspective. Gradually, coaches can “zoom-in” and say something about the building blocks of football actions. These are the basic actions, movements, muscle interactions, and muscle actions. These building blocks are necessary components of football actions.

Describing motion in football has many layers

Basic Actions

A football action is a description of how a player is interacting with the football context. A player making a football action needs to communicate with his teammates, making a decision, and execute that decision. In order to execute his decision, the player will need to make one, or multiple, basic actions. Basic actions are part of the execution of a football action.

Executing basic actions are necessary to execute football actions. In order to press, you will have to sprint, or at least run. However, the basic actions are only a part of the execution. They are not the same thing as the execution.

Basic actions are part of every football action. A player that is creating a passing option might have to push off his defender, change direction, and sprint. In other words, the execution of a football action can include the execution of several basic actions.

Universal Basic Actions

In the football principles post, the universal football actions were described. All across the world, players that are attacking must protect the ball, pass without interception, create passing options, and reduce cover. These are what players are doing. Players all across the world share this same what. On the other hand, how a player executes these actions is dependent on the individual player, level of play, and the football situation. 

An under 19 player and Lionel Messi will both need to protect the ball and pass without interception during a football match. What they are doing is the same. How they execute these actions will be different. The what’ is concerned with those characteristics of football that are the same for everybody regardless of the level, age, gender, or country. We can consider these characteristics universal. They are shared by everyone that plays the game regardless of how tall they are, or how old they are. These latter characteristics are external factors and are only relevant in determining to what degree someone can do something.

Old or Young, Male or Female, Champions League or Sunday League, what players are doing is the same. How players do something is always different.

In this post, we will attempt to identify the universal basic actions. In other words, what are those basic actions that every football player across the globe must be able to do in order to play football. Which basic actions are preconditions.

By watching football, certain basic actions become obvious. We know that players need to jump, sprint, land, change direction, push their opponent, stop, kick, and throw. Even actions like backpedaling, side-shuffling, walking, and standing seem to play a role. However, this is a rather incoherent list. It is hard to make sense of these different basic actions without some sort of structure. Without a certain structure language becomes meaningless. As a result, we need a way of organizing the variety of basic actions pertinent to football.

Speed

In actions versus movements, we identified football as a game of motion. In the world of Physics, motion is created by overcoming something called inertia. In 1687, a man named Isaac Newton had quite a bit to say about inertia (and motion more generally). Most people know his very famous ‘1st Law’ of motion which has been termed the Law of Inertia. The Law of Inertia states that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 

When a player makes an action to “lose his mark”, he usually needs to fake a deep run, change direction, and sprint back towards his teammate. This action perfectly illustrates Newton’s 1st Law.

Initially, the player must go from a standing action to a sprinting action. In other words, the player needs to start motion. While making a standing action, the player is effectively ‘at rest’. Therefore, the player needs to overcome this resting position. Per Newton’s Law, this is done by generating and applying a force. For the player, this force is generated by his body and applied towards the ground. As a result, motion is created.

The starting action that a player makes is referred to as acceleration. Newton’s 1st Law states that this player will continue to accelerate until acted upon by an unbalanced force. In order for the player to successfully change direction, he needs to overcome his inertia once again and slow down. This process of slowing down is what Physicists call negative acceleration and what coaches know as deceleration. In order to decelerate, the player performs a stopping action.

The two speed components of a basic action: speeding up (acceleration) and slowing down (deceleration)

In football, most actions require a change in inertia. This change is best observed by the change in speed of the actions. A player that is speeding up is accelerating and a player that is slowing down is decelerating. Therefore, we can refer to acceleration and deceleration as the speed components of basic actions. These two components give us a starting point for creating a meaningful structure for our rather incoherent list of basic actions.

Direction

Overcoming inertia requires the body to produce force. In physics language, force has an amount and a direction. In football, players also act in specific directions. Player’s can act in multiple directions, but there are two primary directions in which players act. First, players will act over the pitch. Second, players will act above the pitch.

Players will make actions parallel to the ground. Actions that are parallel to the ground are made horizontally.

Acting over the pitch involves motion made parallel to the ground, or horizontally. Active above the pitch involves motion made perpendicular to the ground, or vertically. These directions give us two additional basic action characteristics: horizontal and vertical. 

Players primarily act parallel to the pitch (Horizontally) and perpendicular to the pitch (Vertically)

Basic actions have two speed components: acceleration and deceleration. And two directional components: horizontal and vertical. These four components are the starting point for describing basic actions in football language. 

Actions have two speed components and two directional components.

When we combine the two speed components and the two directional components, we get four categories.

  • Horizontal Acceleration
  • Horizontal Deceleration
  • Vertical Acceleration
  • Vertical Deceleration

Football is a very unpredictable context. The position of the ball and the flow of play is constantly changing. This means that players will constantly need to change speeds and change directions. In fact, it is very rare for a player to be standing totally still prior to an action. Players are usually acting in a certain direction already, even if that is by walking, running, or side shuffling. And, when the context changes, they need to either change speed, change direction, or both.

Therefore, we can add two additional characteristics to include the constant changing of direction. There are horizontal changes of direction and vertical changes of direction. Together, we get the following basic action categories.

Horizontal Acceleration

The primary way that players act over the pitch is by using different variations of running. Standing, walking, running, and sprinting. As coaches; however, we aren’t very interested in improving walking. Football is a speed of action sport. This means that players at the highest levels have less time and less space to make actions. As a result, the speed of the actions becomes a performance defining characteristic. Players that can act sooner and act faster will have a better chance of playing at a higher level.

As a result, we are interested in those basic actions that are under time pressure and, thus, explosive. Primarily, players act across the pitch using two basic actions: Starting and Sprinting.

In order to initiate an action from a static position, players will need to make a starting action. This is more commonly referred to as acceleration. However, because acceleration is not specific – could easily refer to a vertical acceleration – I prefer the action word starting. During a starting action, players need to make a high change in speed by going from a minimal speed (walking or standing) to a maximal speed (sprinting) in as little time as possible.

It is actually rare for players to reach top speed on a frequent basis during a match. Because the football context is constantly changing, there are very few opportunities for players to reach their top sprinting speed. Usually, the situation changes before the players reach top speed which forces them to slow down.

Contrary to popular belief, starting actions are not made at a players maximal speed. The players intention might ‘feel’ maximal, but it is impossible to reach top speed while the player is still accelerating. It takes a few seconds and considerable distance for a player to reach top speed. Gradually, the player must transition from a starting action to a sprinting action in order to maximize his speed. Sprinting is one of the most crucial and performance defining basic actions in football.

Although maximal sprinting actions are few and far between in football, they are often performance defining actions. If a player is able to reach his top speed, then there is a good chance the football situation is critical. Nevertheless, players must be able to make starting actions and sprinting actions as a precondition for football actions.

Horizontal Deceleration

The unpredictable football context places a high demand on a players ability to change speed. At the highest level, players don’t just need to accelerate at a higher speed, but also decelerate at a higher speed. The primary action that players make to slow themselves down is stopping.

Horizontal Change of Direction

Stop & Go

Football is a multi-directional sport. Although the game is played with a clear vertical direction, play often circulates in 360 degrees. As a result, players need to change direction quite often. Changing direction is an umbrella term for a variety of different actions. For example, some changes of direction are extreme and players need to be able to make a complete 180 degree turn. Other changes of direction are less extreme. During these slight changes of direction, players need to learn to maintain as much of their speed as possible while making a slight change in their direction of action.

The most extreme change of direction is what Biomechanist Frans Bosch refers to as a “stop & go”. During this basic action, players need to come to a complete stop before quickly starting again in the opposite direction.

This change of direction action is the most synonymous with “agility” training. Most exercises dedicated to ‘changing direction’ are variations of the “stop & go”.

Side-Step

Sometimes players need to change direction while maintaining as much of their speed as possible. Think of a NFL running back making a cutting action to fake out an opponent. He needs to slightly change direction, but without losing any speed. If he were to lose speed, he would surely be caught from behind by the recovering players. This action is what we can call a “side-step”.

Many football players make this action while they are dribbling. A side-step is part of a football action that includes feinting and getting past an opponent.

Swerve

Football is not played in straight lines. Players often need to sprint or start while bending their run. In fact, many coaches will correct a players action to get in behind by instructing him to “bend his run”. By bending their run, players can avoid being caught off-side. However, sprinting while curving or bending is not an easy skill. In future posts we will discuss the compensations that players make when sprinting in this way. I refer to this action as a swerve. An easy way to refer to sprinting on a curve.

Sideways Actions

Sometimes players need to change direction by acting sideways. For example, when defending near the top of the box, defenders will often perform a very rapid side-shuffling action in order to stay close to the attacker. In these situations, they will avoid big steps that can make it more difficult to adjust to rapid changes in direction or speed by the attacking players. Being able to act laterally, or sideways, is a precondition for many football actions.

Vertical Acceleration

Players don’t only act over the pitch, but also above the pitch. For example, in order for a midfield player to challenge for a header, he will need to make a jumping action. A goalkeeper that tries to collect a cross will also need to jump. As a result, the universal basic action for accelerating vertically is jumping.

Vertical Deceleration

What goes up, must come down. Players that perform jumping actions also need to make landing actions.

Vertical Change of Direction

It is extremely rare for players to vertically accelerate without doing so from a change in direction. For example, how many times does a player have to jump from a standing position? Usually, a player jumps by changing directions from horizontal to vertical. Players primarily do this in two ways.

Run-Jump

First, players need to go from a running action into a jumping action. A good example of this basic action was demonstrated by Cristiano Ronaldo during his header goal for Juventus last year.

Run-Jump
Stop-Jump

On other occasions, players will need to slow themselves down in order to be in the right position to head the ball. As a result, the players need to stop before they jump. Once again, Ronaldo provides a perfect contrast between a sprint-jump and a stop-jump.

Players don’t only need to change direction prior to a vertical acceleration, but also following a vertical deceleration. Primarily, players do this using two basic actions.

Land & Go

Because the football context is always changing, players can rarely afford to relax following an action. As a result, they must be prepared for a next action following a landing. For example, let’s say that a player jumps for a header, but the goalkeeper makes a save. There is now a new situation on the pitch that the player must react to upon landing. As a result, this player immediately needs to make a starting action upon landing. We can refer to this as a land & go. As soon as the player lands, he must make a starting action as soon as possible and with as much speed as possible.

Land-Jump

On very rare occasions, players will need to make a second jumping action immediately after their first jumping action. For example, imagine a goalkeeper coming out to punch a cross. He punches the cross, but at an angle that causes the ball to go straight up in the air. The goalkeeper now needs to land and immediately make another jumping action, maybe with a few steps in between, before making another action to collect, or punch, the ball.

Basic Actions with the Ball

The six categories above refer to basic actions that create motion of the body. However, football also requires actions that create motion of the ball. For example, in order to make a deep pass, or shoot the ball, players need to perform the basic action kicking. However, this is not the only means of passing the ball in football. Players, especially goalkeepers, also need to use their arms to pass the ball. Field players need to throw the ball in dozens of times every match. Many people in the football world are starting to realize the importance of these throwing actions.

Goalkeepers also need to throw the ball. Usually, goalkeepers throw the ball using one-arm while field players must use two-arms. Nevertheless, players all across the world must be able to throw as a precondition for certain football actions.

Basic Actions with an Opponent

Finally, players also need to occasionally create motion of their opponent. Football is a contact sport and as long as these actions don’t cross the line, players must be able to make actions that can change the position of their opponent. For example, think of a deep punt from the goalkeeper. As the central defender and striker wait for the ball to drop, they both duel for position. Whoever can win this duel often has a higher chance of winning the header. In order to make a dueling action, players need to perform pushing and pulling actions against their opponent. These basic actions are a precondition for successful dueling actions.

Takeaway

Basic actions are a key part of every football action. The success of a football action is determined primarily by a players communication with his teammates, his game insight, and his football technique. In other words, his ability to deal with the football situation. However, basic actions are key components that can influence the quality of a players execution.

We know that football players need to jump, stop, sprint, accelerate, change direction, and kick the ball. However, without a structure, it is hard to organize all of the relevant football actions.

Football is a speed of action sport. At the highest level, there is limited space and time for players to make actions. As a result, the speed at which players act needs to go up. Because of this, we are interested in those basic actions that can make the difference at the highest level. This means that we are interested in the more explosive basic actions.

Football is a very unpredictable context. The football situation is always changing and football situations never repeat themselves in exactly the same way. As a result, players are constantly speeding up, slowing down, and doing so over the ground and above the ground. When combined, these four characteristics give us six basic action categories.

Players accelerate horizontally by making starting and sprinting actions. Players decelerate horizontally by making stopping actions. Players change directions horizontally by making a variety of actions including: stop & go, side-step, swerve, and sideways actions.

Players accelerate vertically by making jumping actions. They decelerate vertically by making landing actions. However, players often act vertically by changing direction first. For example, players will jump after a run up or jump after a stop. Players must also sprint after a land, called a “land & go” and players must occasionally jump after a land.

Football is not only about creating motion of yourself, but also the ball and the opponent. In order to create motion of the ball, players need to kick and throw. In order to create motion of their opponent, players must push and pull.

Together, these basic actions form a key set of building blocks that support football actions. Basic actions are a necessary precondition for football actions. However, improving these basic actions should not take on a life of its own. A player that learns to sprint faster cannot automatically play football better. For example, he might only sprint offside even faster. Nevertheless, basic actions are an integral part of football actions and an important building block to address in the football training process.

The Universal Basic Actions

Football Ability

All across the world, the same game is played. Regardless of age, sex, or ability, the characteristics of football are the same for everybody. Both teams begin a football match with the same goal: to score one more goal than the opponent. Both teams must achieve that goal in the same way: by attacking, defending, and transitioning. In other words, WHAT we play is the same for everybody. HOW we play can be totally different. For example, some teams attack using many passes, but other teams attack using very few passes. This doesn’t change the fact that they both need to attack for football to be played. WHAT we play is the same. HOW we play can be different.

The characteristics of football are the same for everybody. As a result, one would expect that the football world would share a fairly precise definition of what it takes to play football better. However, if you ask one-hundred people what it takes to get better at football, you will get one-hundred different answers. Some people think that getting better at football is all about technique. Other people think that it is about getting faster. Others think that fitness and strength play a role.

Currently, the football performance has one-hundred different definitions. These definitions are based on different interpretations. The fitness coach believes that football performance is all about aerobic and anaerobic capacity. The strength coach believes that football performance is all about getting ‘stronger’. The psychologist believes that football performance is all about ‘resilience’. Without a clear definition of the football performance, players will continue to train based on interpretations of football rather than football principles.

If you are skeptical that we can define the football performance with precision, consider the following. The purpose of football is to score one more goal than the opponent. Based on this; surely, we can already theorize that getting better at football will have something to do with improving a players contribution towards this purpose? Or, am I mistaken in the fact that football teams around the world try to sign players that will help them score one more goal than the opponent? Knowing that this is the case, then it should be possible to define the football performance precisely. We can do this by taking the game characteristics – the football principles – as our starting point.

Unfortunately, most people define the football performance based on extrinsic characteristics. Rather than taking the intrinsic characteristics of the game as a starting point, they take their culture, personality, and prior experiences as a starting point. So, instead of improving a players contribution during the build up, the club dedicates training time to improving agility. In other words, the person “in charge” determines the club methodology rather than the characteristics of football. Good luck!

Alternatively, we can form a definition of football performance using the principles of football. This leaves us with an intrinsic definition of performance, rather than a definition based on a particular persons attitude, preferences, or opinion. As a result, the quality of the club methodology will no longer hinge on the quality of an interpretation of football, which can be ‘hit or miss’, but on the coaching staff’s ability to analyze the football performance itself.

Football Performance

What is the difference between a lower level and a higher level of football? When a player moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team, do they suddenly play with two balls? Is the offside rule eliminated? Does the team no longer defend?Is the pitch now in the shape of a circle? Are their 4 goals instead of 2? Of course not.

Regardless of the level of play, the characteristics of the game are the same. All across the world, the same game is played. As a result, the difference between a lower level and a higher level lies in how the game is played, not what is played. An under 19 player needs to pass, press, and transition. When he signs with the first team, he still needs to pass, press, and transition. The difference is not WHAT he needs to do, it’s HOW he needs to do it. Based on this, we can formulate the first football performance characteristic. At a higher level of play, players need to make the same actions as in their previous level – only better. In other words, the quality of their football actions needs to go up. They need a better action.

Better Action

At a higher level of play, there is less space and less time for players to make football actions. The playing area is significantly reduced. There are higher demands placed on the execution of football actions. In order for players to execute football actions at a higher level, the quality of the football action needs to go up.

A central defender that moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team needs to improve the quality of his football actions. But, what does it mean to improve the quality of an action? How do we do that?

Improving the quality of an action (the x) from 100% (under 19’s) to 101% (1st Team)

To answer this question, we need to revisit what a football action is? A football action has three components: communication, decision making, executing decisions. We have referred to this as the CDE cycle. At a higher level of play, the quality of this CDE cycle needs to go up.

So, when the central defender moves from the Under 19’s to the 1st team, he needs to perform his CDE cycle at a higher level. In other words, he needs to communicate with his teammates and perceive (game insight) his surroundings better. He needs to make better decisions. And, he needs to execute his decisions with a better technique.

Better Communication

Based on the definition of a football action, we can see that the quality of a football action starts at team level.

Consider our young central defender mentioned earlier. During his first session with the 1st team, he begins dribbling up the pitch. He see’s the striker create a passing option by acting towards him. The central defender thinks that the striker wants the ball to his feet. As a result, he passes the ball deep to the feet of his striker. Just prior to the pass; however, the striker makes an action in behind as he wasn’t asking for the ball to feet, but luring his defender out of position in order to ask for the ball deep.

Interestingly, the quality of his passing action from a decision making (D) and execution (E) standpoint were top quality. There was nothing wrong with his decision to pass to the striker. And, the pass itself was perfectly weighted -with good speed, over the ground (no bounces) – beautiful.

The reason the ball was intercepted was due to a miscommunication between the central defender and the striker. As a result, improving the quality of this players football action starts by improving his communication with his teammates. Better communication contributes towards better passing.

Better communication between players will result in a better action

The quality of a football action begins at team level. As a result, the starting point for analyzing a football acton must begin at team level. The first question we should ask during analysis is, “was there a miscommunication between players?

If the answer is yes, then better communication will result in a better football action. If the answer is no, then we can say something about an individual players decision making and executing.

Decision Making & Execution

For a football action to improve, not only must the quality of communication go up, but also the quality of decision making and execution. Let’s revisit our central defender. Later on in the training session, the defender makes a passing action to his strikers feet. This time, the striker actually did ask for the ball to feet. However, the pass is still intercepted. Clearly, the quality of the passing action needs to go up. But, what went wrong?

There isn’t a miscommunication ‘in the way’ this time. The central defender and the striker are on the same page. So, was it a decision making problem? Or, an execution problem?

To answer this question, we need to introduce a coaching/analysis tool called ‘PMDS’. PMDS is an acronym representing the four space-time characteristics in football. Every football action takes place from a certain position, at a certain moment, in a certain direction, and at a certain speed. These four space-time characteristics have a decision making component and an execution component. 

Position

Every football action starts from a certain position. The player will be in a certain position on the pitch. The player will also have a certain body position, or orientation. When analyzing an individual football action, the first question we ask is if the action began from the best position. For example, did our central defender begin his passing action from too far away? Perhaps, he should have dribbled closer to the opponents defensive block? This would decrease the length of the pass and make the pass easier. By improving his starting position by having him act closer next time, the quality of the action will go up.

However, we still don’t know if the problem is due to a lack of game insight or poor football technique. Therefore, an additional question needs to be asked. To assess the players game insight, we can check his awareness of the fact that he was passing from 30 meters away. Perhaps the player doesn’t know that this is a problem. In this case, it is the players understanding that is the “weak link”. As a result, we should focus on the game insight and decision making of the player.

Conversely, if the player knows that he is passing from too far away, then we have an execution problem. Maybe he knows he should pass from closer, but doesn’t trust his dribbling technique. Perhaps we need to improve the players ability to dribble the ball with more control, so that he can pass from closer to the opponents block. In this case, the “weak link” is the players ability to execute on his game insight.

Moment

Every football action will also occur at a certain moment. At a certain moment, the player will decide to act. The player will also execute this action at a certain moment. Ideally, these occur at the same time. But, anyone that still plays football at an older age knows that the body doesn’t always listen to the brain. You might recognize the moment to act, but the moment your muscles and body parts respond to that recognition doesn’t always occur as quickly it once did.

In other words, the moment of decision is not always the moment of execution. As a result, if a player acts “too late” it is not necessarily because of their decision making. Some players recognize the right moment to act, but their body lets them down. For example, the signal from their spinal cord to the muscle could be slow. Or, maybe the player has mostly slow motor units. I am sure that if Pep Guardiola hopped into training at Manchester City, he would have no problem making decisions at the correct moment. However, the time between making his decision and executing his decision will be much slower than Kevin De Bruyne, or Sergio Aguero.

In practice, this means that coaches need to consult with the player first in order to determine if the player has a decision making problem or an execution problem. Are they deciding too late? Or, are they executing too late? In the case of the former, players need to develop their game insight in regards to the correct moment. “Should I deliver the cross early, or is it better to wait for the defenders to drop closer to their goal?“Should I press the central defender as soon as the goalkeeper passes him the ball, or should I wait for him to turn his body and commit to one side of the pitch?” By improving a players understanding of the right moments, he will make better decisions. As a result, there is an increased chance that the quality of his action goes up.

Ideally, the moment a player decides to act corresponds with the moment of execution. However, as was just explained, this isn’t always the case. Since I stopped playing professionally, the moment between my decision to act and my actual action is getting larger and larger. I can still recognize when I should get open for my teammates, but this recognition takes a bit longer to act upon. Due to this fact, coaches should always take the time to find out why a player acted too late. Are they unaware of when they should act? Or, can they not execute their action soon enough? If the latter, then we have an execution problem.

Direction

Every football action will have a direction. The moment that I execute a pass, it has a certain direction. For example, it will either travel towards the left foot of my teammate or towards the right foot of my teammate. Once again, coaches need to play detective in determining if there is a decision making problem or an execution problem. Is the player unaware of which direction he should pass towards, or is he unable to pass accurately?

Once again, ideally, decision making and execution should correspond. However, this is not always the case. I can’t tell you how many times during my career that I made the decision to pass TO a teammate, only to execute that pass TO an opponent. My decision and my execution were different.

Speed

Finally, every football action will have a certain speed. When I press the opponent towards his left foot, I will do so at a certain speed. In football, maximizing this speed is not always ideal. For example, pressing with the highest speed possible makes it very easy for the defender to dribble past me. Passing with the highest speed possible makes it more difficult for my teammate to control the ball.

Speed of decision making and speed of execution are also different. Today, my game insight is just as good, if not better, than my playing days. However, my ability to execute on that game insight has changed. When I hop in to training with my players, I often know which speed of action is required. The problem is that I cannot execute my actions with the required speed. In other words, I can make the decision to get in behind as fast as possible, but I can’t actually get in behind as fast as possible. My execution is the problem. My decision making is perfectly fine.

Once we diagnose the space-time component, we can diagnose the football action component.

Every football action has a position, moment, direction, and speed. A player that lacks game understanding will have many decision making problems. The coaching of this players game insight should be emphasized so that he can better interpret football situations. A player that cannot act on his game understanding has an execution problem. The coaching of this players football technique should be emphasized.

Football Ability

The quality of a football action is determined by the entire CDE cycle. Top players perform this CDE cycle better than other players. Top players have strong communication with their teammates, good game insight that contributes to good decisions, and an ability to execute on those decisions.

All across the world, players need to perform the CDE cycle. The quality of their CDE cycle determines their playing level. The difference between a Real Madrid player and a U19 player is how well they can perform these cycles. However, what these players are doing is the same. They both perform the CDE cycle.

The level at which a player can perform the CDE cycle is his football ability. The Real Madrid player has a higher football ability than the U19 player.

Every player performs the CDE cycle at their relative 100%. Obviously, the 100% of Lionel Messi is better than the 100% of a U19 player. However, Lionel Messi and the U19 player both perform CDE to the best of their ability – their relative 100%.

Football training is primarily about improving this football ability. Improving a players football ability is synonymous with helping them to make better actions.

Takeaway

What does it mean to play football better? Many people have interpretations and opinions with which they use to answer this question, but the answer should be based on the characteristics of football itself.

All across the world, the same game is played. Teams, and the players within them, must attack, defend, and transition. They must build up, score, disturb the build up, prevent scoring, act before & after an interception. Players contribute to these team tasks by making football actions.

The quality of a players football actions is determined by the quality of their CDE cycle. We can refer to this as their football ability. Football ability is the level at which a player can communicate, decide, and execute inside the football context. The question: what does it take to play football better? can now be answered.

Playing football at a higher level means raising a players football ability. As a result, the football training process should primarily be concerned with improving the football ability of their players. This requires paying attention to the level of (mis)communication between players, and the particular position, moment, direction, and speed of the individual football actions. After identifying the “weak link” in the football action, training time and coaching emphasis can be more precisely allocated towards developing the C, D, or E in the CDE cycle. This is what it means to learn to play football better. An under 19 player only becomes a 1st team player by improving his ability to play football – his Football Ability.