Each one of us enters the world under certain conditions. We don’t choose these conditions. We just get them. We enter the world with a particular set of economic conditions, cultural conditions, social conditions, and genetic conditions.

Likewise, football players enter the football world under certain conditions. While economic, cultural, and social conditions certainly have an influence on their football development, the most relevant condition is their genetic condition. Whether a player is male or female, tall or short, fast or slow is largely based on their genetics. Coaches and trainers often argue about the influence of these conditions on football success. Which conditions are dominated by genetics? Which can we change through proper training?

Previously, we have written about the two main perspectives with which we can view motion 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. The action perspective does not exclude the movement perspective.

Describing motion in football has many layers

In fact, the movement perspective is integral for identifying performance limiting factors. A football player that is pressing is also sprinting. A player that is sprinting is also flexing his hip and extending his knee. A player that is flexing and extending his knee will also have to control his trunk and contract his hamstring.

What happens if a player can no longer contract his hamstring? Or, bend his knee? While the movement perspective isn’t the starting point when coaching football, it certainly plays a key role.

A player that can’t bend his knee won’t be able to jump or sprint. When players are unable to perform certain movements, they are subsequently unable to perform certain actions. Movements, then, are a precondition for Actions.

While we usually analyze football “top down” from the football actions to the muscle actions. Football actions are actually built from the “bottom up”: from the muscle actions to the football actions. If the preconditions towards the bottom of the hierarchy are not met, then the actions at the top of the hierarchy will not be possible.

As an example, a person that is born with one leg won’t be able to run, unless certain preconditions are met. To satisfy this precondition, the person could be given a prosthetic leg. If a football player cannot stretch his hamstring muscle without pain, then sprinting won’t be possible. When necessary preconditions for football actions are not met, players experience what we call a lower limit. 

A player that can’t contract his hamstring without pain is experiencing a lower limit. This lower limit prevents the player from being able to perform the movement and actions higher up the chain.

Reconditioning

In order to stand up from a chair, the muscles need to produce a certain amount of force. If the muscles cannot contract strongly enough, then standing up won’t be possible. This is a lower limit commonly experienced by the elderly. At a certain age, a person’s preconditions change to such a degree that certain movements become increasingly more difficult and eventually impossible. Wheelchairs, crutches, canes, and walkers were each invented to overcome this limit. 

The example above demonstrates that movements and muscle actions are preconditions for action. In this particular case, there is a lower limit concerning the person’s ability to produce muscular force. If this was a young football player, rather than an elderly person, then training would be dedicated to raising this lower limit. In this case, something like maximal strength training could prove useful.

In football, the process of raising lower limits is what we know as rehab. A player has to learn to perform football actions at his pre-injury level. A better word for this process is reconditioning. Reconditioning is the re-establishment of preconditions.

During the reconditioning process, a player needs to regain his ability to make muscle actions, muscle interactions, movements, basic actions, and eventually football actions. In a way, the reconditioning process is a “bottom-up” process from muscle actions to football actions.

Reconditioning is a “bottom up” process from the movement perspective to the action perspective

Let’s take a knee injury, for example. The reconditioning process wants to regain, and even improve upon, a player’s ability to make maximal quadriceps and hamstring actions. It also seeks to regain and improve the interaction between the quadriceps and hamstrings. Together, these can contribute to a better hip hinging movement. A better hip hinge can improve the ability of a player to make a stopping action. And eventually, the player can return to the football environment with better preconditions. These preconditions have been successfully reconditioned.

Of course, players that suffer an injury are at an increased risk for future injuries. As a result, the reconditioning process must continue even after the player has returned to playing matches. Many people refer to this process as “prehab”. “Prehab” is basically the continuation of reconditioning exercises after a successful return to play. The goal is to maintain a certain level of precondition. In this regard, a better term would be preconditioning.

Preconditioning

People that take good care of their vehicles are said to have good “car maintenance”. They get the oil changed regularly, they rinse the salt off of the exterior once a week, and they visit a mechanic for regular “check ups”. This “car maintenance” goes a long way in maintaining the condition of the car. In other words, the preconditions for being able to drive are kept at a high level.

In order to keep their performance consistently at a high level, especially as they get older, very “professional” players will also undergo a kind of “maintenance”. An example of this was given in the previous section. Players that continue with preconditioning after an injury have a much better chance of avoiding future injuries than those players who only take part in the necessary reconditioning.

“Player maintenance” is a way to keep preconditions at a high level. “Maintenance” is just another term for preconditioning. It is a way of reducing and removing ‘damage’. Today, most clubs engage in mandatory preconditioning in the days after a match. Players will go through a variety of exercises and receive additional support through massage, ice baths, and cryotherapy in order to help their preconditions return to a sufficient level.

However, some players take it a step further. Rather than just maintain their preconditions, they participate in an active process to improve their preconditions. Cristiano Ronaldo is a great example. He has been preconditioning regularly throughout his entire career. As a result, his muscle actions, muscle interactions, movements, and basic actions have improved and stayed at a very high level throughout his career. As he approaches 36 years of age, he is more concerned with maintaining his preconditions. Earlier in his career; however, he was concerned with improving his preconditions. Preconditioning can improve or maintain the building blocks of football actions. Appropriate preconditioning can increase the chances that a player executes his football actions at a high level and avoids lower limits (injury).

Preconditioning as a means of “player maintenance”
Preconditioning as a means of improving preconditions

Football Conditioning

In the image above, you will notice that while the preconditions continually get better over time, the football actions stay the same. This is because improving preconditions only increases the chances that a player plays football better. For example, there is no guarantee that a player who learns to sprint faster will also sprint at the right moment in the match. While movements and basic actions are building blocks and a necessary part of football action execution, there are other components that contribute to the quality of a football action. This will be discussed in future posts.

Most of the time, players are concerned with improving their ability to play football. They also want to improve their ability to play football for longer. This is what we call football fitness. In other words, coaches and players are concerned with improving their condition for football. This is what we call football conditioning.

Football conditioning is concerned with the quality and quantity of football actions. Often, football actions are not performed ‘well enough’, ‘frequently enough’ (tempo), or for ‘long enough’. In this case, the conditioning of the players is posing a limit to their performance. These conditions place a limit on the maximal performance. We can call them upper limits. This is in contrast to the lower limits presented earlier.

Lower limits occur when a player can no longer play football. Certain preconditions have not been met and must be dealt with before football can be played. Upper limits occur when there are question marks regarding a players performance. There is nothing preventing this player from playing football, but how he plays football is deemed insufficient. In this case, the player needs to learn to play football at a higher level.

The starting point for raising an upper limit, and improving performance, is the football context itself. Players need to learn to deal with the football context better by improving the quality and quantity of their football actions. Occasionally; however, the “weak link” in a players football ability can be found lower down in the hierarchy. For example, perhaps a players “weak link” is his sprinting speed. In this case, his basic action ability is posing a limit to his football ability. Likewise, an underdeveloped movement can compromise the quality of a football action. In these cases, the quality of the preconditions needs to go up. If this is the case, then the player will engage in a preconditioning process that seeks to raise an upper limit. Even a “weak” movement can prevent the player from a higher level of performance. This was discussed in the previous section.

Football conditioning is about improving the quality and quantity of the football actions. As a result, football conditioning takes a “top down” view of performance. Football is the starting point and only as an exception on the rule will the coaches resort to preconditioning. The game analysis process is fundamental in identifying the correct “weak link”. Preconditioning will not improve the condition with which a player plays football directly. Preconditioning can only contribute towards a better football action indirectly.

Football Conditioning takes football as the starting point. It is a “top down” process starting with football actions and developing preconditions as an exception on the rule. Ideally, players spend the majority of their training time learning to deal with the football situation better.
In this fictitious example, a player’s football action ability is stagnant. The coaching staff has identified a “weak link” in his basic action ability. They work to improve this underdeveloped action in hopes that it can raise the level of the football action.

The most obvious example of football conditioning occurs at the beginning of every season. Players come into their clubs with a low level of football conditioning. In other words, both the quality and quantity of their football actions are low. As a result, the football performance is compromised.

This is why every team is afforded a 4-6 week period to develop the football condition of their players. The purpose of pre-season is to gradually develop the players football conditioning. Ideally, this process can be managed completely inside of the football context. By learning to deal with the football context better and for longer, players automatically improve their football conditioning.

Sometimes; however, exceptions need to be made. For example, in the American University system, players are limited in the amount of hours they can train with the ball. In the spring, for example, they are only allowed 4 hours with the ball per week. As a result, University players have no choice but to use preconditioning. In other words, they try to raise their preconditions to a higher level so that the players have a better starting point for when they begin conditioning football.

Takeaway

The ultimate goal of football training is to help players learn to deal with the football context better. In other words, players need to learn to make better football actions. However, for football actions to be possible, certain building blocks must be developed to a sufficient degree. These building blocks are what we can refer to as preconditions.

When players become injured, certain preconditions are no longer satisfied. For example, a player that suffers an ankle injury can no longer contract the muscles around his ankle or make specific ankle movements. As a result, he cannot make football actions. In these situations, a player must regain his previous conditions. This is what we call rehab, or reconditioning. Reconditioning is the process of re-establishing preconditions for football.

Of course, players aren’t given contracts because of the quality of their preconditions. They are rewarded based on how well they play football. As a result, preconditions shouldn’t take on a “life of their own”. Some players can become obsessed with preconditions to the point that preconditions take priority over their football conditions. Sometimes these players would prefer to get really good at Olympic lifting, or Marathon running, rather than football.

This doesn’t mean that preconditioning is unimportant. Players that have returned from injury need to keep their preconditions at a high level to avoid future injury. Older players need to keep their preconditions at a high level to maximize the last few years of their career. And, some players have “weak links” in their preconditions that limit their maximal football ability. In these situations, preconditioning is an integral part of the football training process.

Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is to improve a players football conditions. Besides the notable exceptions above, the majority of the training process should be dedicated to football conditioning. Rather than improving preconditions, or prerequisites, football conditioning is concerned with improving the conditions themself. As an analogy, preconditions are like the prerequisite courses you take during your first year of college. They teach you the basics; how to read, write, and do basic research. Conditions are like your “core” courses. These courses determine your chances of graduating, getting a job, and having career success. During your career, it is always good to brush up on your preconditions, but this should always be in service of the ultimate objective – improving your conditioning. Inside the football context, this is what we call football conditioning. Raising football to a higher level.