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