An expert guide to football conditioning. Professional coaches demonstrate the best football conditioning workouts, and how to add them to your sessions.
What is conditioning in football, and why is it important? Advances in sports science have seen academies place a greater emphasis on football conditioning coaching in order to reduce injuries and support the development of their young players. But this vital area of coaching is relevant at all levels of the game, from professional clubs to grassroots environments. Below, we consider the value of football conditioning coaching and explore how to incorporate it in our sessions.
In This Article
- Why are Football Conditioning Sessions Important?
- The Role of Traditional Football Conditioning Workouts
- Coaching Football-Specific Movement Skills
- Combining Technical and Conditioning Coaching
- Remembering the Individual
- Managing Our Players’ Workloads
- The Key Points
Why are Football Conditioning Sessions Important?
Perhaps most importantly, effective conditioning work helps children to stay fit and healthy. As Matt Depledge, a strength and conditioning coach with experience in both Premier League academy and youth tennis environments, explains: “the role of any strength and conditioning session is to keep the players on the pitch, fit, and able to train well, so that the tactical and technical coach has the opportunity to develop those skillsets.”
Secondly, targeted conditioning training for football helps to prepare players for the increasingly physical demands of the modern game. “Research has shown huge increases in the high-speed running and distance covered in Premier League fixtures,” says Lewis Bramley, Former Lead U9-16 Strength and Conditioning Coach at Nottingham Forest FC. “I think the physical stuff is a prerequisite now. There are going to be fewer opportunities (at the highest level) for players who don’t display the physical side of the game.”
Beyond helping them to stay match-fit, conditioning work provides a foundation upon which players can develop and thrive. “Football is developing so much as a speed and power sport,” adds Depledge. “So developing the ability to reproduce those sprints, jumps, and changes in direction, over the course of 90 minutes, is critical. Strength and conditioning can help with that.”
The Role of Traditional Football Conditioning Workouts
So how can we introduce conditioning work to our practices? And is there more to it than traditional line-driven sessions such as sprint tests and other football cardio workouts?
“I wouldn’t be tracking every speed test, but I think there’s a place for it,” says Depledge. “Take the example of agility: it’s multifaceted, so you need to understand what you want out of your session. Are you working on improving the change-of-direction mechanics and the physical component of agility? Then absolutely, there’s a place for cone drills to really work on those mechanics.
“But there’s also a reactive element; how you perceive something and react to it is a big component of agility. I’ve seen many children whose physical agility is really good, but who struggle with their perception and ability to read the game. Being able to differentiate between the aspects that a child needs to work on at a particular time (is it more cognitive, or is it the physical element?) is key.”
Coaching Football-Specific Movement Skills
As such, we should try not to rely on generic conditioning drills, and instead aim to coach both fundamental movement skills, which are complex and wide-ranging and movements that are specific to football. “We base a lot of our conditioning sessions on the players’ maximum aerobic speeds,” says Bramley, referring to the maximum speed that a player can run at while primarily using their aerobic energy system. “But it’s not just straight-line running with no purpose; we design the practice to reflect the outcomes of the football session.”
For example, we might use 1v1 agility drills where the player’s task is to get away from a defender. Similarly, if the players are going to go into a pressing session and we’re doing speed work, we’ll look at acceleration so that they’re fast over five-to-ten metres and are able to press the ball. We ensure that the physical syllabus is always aligned with the football syllabus.
“I’d also look to train different movements on different days,” concludes Bramley, who recommends varying factors like the intensity of practices and the size of practice areas to give players a range of different challenges. “That way, you’re covering all of your bases in terms of the movement that they’re getting.”
Combining Technical and Conditioning Coaching
We can also create football conditioning exercises that give our players time on the ball, applying the principles of representative design in order to work towards technical and tactical, as well as physical, outcomes.
“If you’re looking to bring it all together and provide a sense of realism, there’s certainly a time and place for ball work amongst conditioning drills,” says Depledge. “In fact, for player engagement, it’s pretty key.”
Similarly, research has found small-sided football games to be highly effective in helping children develop physical attributes such as endurance, with some studies even citing them as a potential alternative to conventional endurance training. By replicating the intermittent activity profile of matches and requiring players to practice skills while fatigued, small-sided games provide players with both physiological and skill-related challenges, enabling them to develop physical, technical, and tactical skills simultaneously.
PDP’s library of session plans includes a number of football conditioning practices that combine time on the ball with fitness work, giving us a range of football field workouts that we can use to complement our technical sessions while helping our players develop their fitness. Games like Rotation and Conditioning, which requires players to constantly move for short, intense periods of activity, and the 1v1 Sprint and Duel, which develops players’ 1v1 attributes in both attack and defense while testing their reactions and speed over short distances, can encourage a diverse range of movement patterns while also providing valuable time on the ball.
Elsewhere, we find sessions that combine fitness work with defensive transitions, and a practical example from Newcastle Jets Coach & Analyst, Riccardo Marchioli demonstrates how to coach football-specific fitness within a tactical practice.
There are countless ways to design sessions that creatively provide technical and tactical challenges alongside football conditioning work, and resources like these can be an invaluable source of ideas and inspiration for coaches of all levels.
Remembering the Individual
When incorporating exercises into our sessions, we should be flexible and adjust the parameters based on factors like the age, stage of development, and physical and technical capabilities of our players. We must also remember that every individual on our team is different and that everyone’s developmental journey is non-linear, and account for this in our planning. Coaches should seek to understand the impact of growth and maturation on player performance, particularly children who are changing through their teenage years.
“Each child is probably at a varying stage of development — be that physically, tactically, technically, or psychologically,” explains Depledge. “So getting to know your players is massive.” Kids in the Youth Development Phase (from the ages of 12 to 16 in the UK) will often experience growth spurts, which will, in turn, affect things like their coordination, speed, and endurance levels. As coaches, our job is to recognise these changes and support our players through this part of their developmental journey, by both offering reassurance and tailoring our sessions according to their needs.
“Coaches’ eyes are brilliant,” says Depledge. “For example, if you can see that a kid is a little bit uncoordinated or, for a boy, that their voice is a bit deeper, then you know they’re probably going through puberty and their growth spurt. If they’re struggling a bit as a result, it’s not that they’ve suddenly become unfit or become a bad player. Just stand by them and be patient with them. Nine times out of ten, they’ll come out better than they were before.”
Managing Our Players’ Workloads
When working on strength and conditioning, we should be especially conscious of the workload we’re giving our players. “Load monitoring is really important,” says Depledge. “We’ve potentially got kids in the system for ten years before they even reach adulthood, so appropriate loading at the right stages is critical to helping them get through the pathway.”
Effective load-monitoring enables us to ensure that children aren’t being under or over-trained. And avoiding over-training, particularly during the years that children are experiencing growth spurts, is especially important in avoiding overuse injuries.
RP monitoring, which tracks players’ rate of perceived exertion, can be an effective method of tracking training load, and is accessible to coaches at all levels. “Just print out a questionnaire, asking things like how hard the players found the session, with answers on a scale of 1-10,” suggests Depledge. “Across the week, take your RP number and multiply it by the duration of the session in minutes to get an arbitrary number. Then put that data in a spreadsheet to work out what constitutes a hard session, or a hard week, based on the accumulation of those numbers.”
Not only is this approach simple, but it enables us to see if a player is finding our sessions too easy or too hard and individualise our approach accordingly. “Some kids might find certain sessions easy when you thought they were hard, and vice versa,” says Depledge. “It can provide a good viewpoint of whether you’re striking the right balance between pushing the kids forward and giving their bodies enough time to recover.”
The Key Points
- Conditioning is essential to helping players avoid injuries and stay match-fit, and to giving them a foundation of physical proficiency upon which to develop other skills.
- As the modern game increases in physicality, strength and conditioning training becomes more important.
- We should try to coach children a range of different movements, with and without the ball, combining technical and conditioning coaching where possible.
- Remember the individual; development is non-linear, and players will experience growth and maturation at different times during their journey in football.
- We must be careful to avoid under- or over-training our players and try to monitor perceived levels of exertion. This can be key to avoiding burnout and overuse injuries.
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