Contemporary football is a very complex discipline as regards developing talent. Over the years it has changed diametrically, so that when you watch the game of Pele, Cruyff or Maradona nowadays, you feel like you’re watching slow motion game. That was the time when the result of the game depended on individual technical skills and the pace of the game was certainly much slower than in today’s football (although there is no objective evidence of that). Such change of the pace of the game gives rise to completely new challenges in the training process, in which motor skills of a player become extremely important.
The four pillars of training
Today’s football training process is based on 4 pillars: technical, tactical, physical and mental preparation. Each of them is extremely important: similarly to a table which lies on four legs – here, too, lower level of any component will have a negative influence on the final result. Let’s take a look at Robert Lewandowski – he is a very fit player, he looks like a gladiator, he has a great overview of the situation and top level technique. Moreover, in many interviews and in everyday life Robert presents himself as a poised, focused man with the nature of a champion and a leader. Such complex development of a player is based on professional training in the world’s best football academies.
This process always starts from selecting the diamonds – that is, looking for young players who have the features and parameters that predispose them to play at the top level in the future. Their capabilities should certainly be developed by adapting a long-term plan, appropriate stimulation and working on their strengths and weaknesses. In the end you need to look for that 1% difference in preparation, which makes them “The Special One”.
In order to develop a future Lewandowski or Messi, you start training at academies at a very young age, which is not strange from the perspective of the material covering the aforementioned 4 pillars. This process, however, results in very early specialisation, due to which children aged 4-6 focus nearly all of their energy on one sport. Hours of training spent on improving technique aim at providing the young player with as many skills as possible so that he stands out on the pitch and becomes the king of dribbling. But is this the correct approach? I am far from answering that question. However, the facts and my own 7 years’ experience let me put forward my own theory, which I am going to lay down in 4 items.
- Early specialization stands in the way of developing motor skills.
When you look at the Canadian Long Therm Athletes Development model, the so-called LTAD, based on sensitive periods in human development – the windows, in which specific motor skills are developed, it is hard not to notice that early specialization prevents us from fully developing motor skills. According to this program, children aged below 12 should do as many different sports as possible so that their motor skills develop as harmoniously as possible. After that period the player can concentrate on one discipline, when they have fully mastered the motor alphabet. This is when you start developing their technical skills and when their motor skills are already very good. Bringing more variety to the exercises players perform prevents overload and injuries in the long term.
- Development of motor competences should start very early – in the kindergarten.
Everything would be simpler if we came back to the “good old times” when physical education classes offered a full spectre of exercises.The sports menu included track and field, gymnastics and games. With as many hours of physical education as players spend training the effects would probably be even better. Many of today’s football schools and academies try to make up for the motor deficit by organising judo, acrobatics or boxing classes. Large clubs such as Ajax ensure special areas dedicated to other sports. All this is, unfortunately, only a partial solution to the problem, which starts as early as in nurseries and kindergartens. These places frequently fail to provide children with various forms of physical activity. The age between 4 and 6 is the first apogee of motor skills, in which motor competences develop.One-on-one babysitting produces in even worse results. Guarded by grandmothers and nannies, children are enclosed with apartment walls and have no opportunities to develop their balance, mobility, strength or courage. I jealously admire the physical education in American schools, where school sports are very well developed, with a fantastic infrastructure, which makes everyone find something for themselves. Children experience many sports and recreational activities at every stage of education.
- A player needs to move, not only on the pitch!
This is going to sound a bit nostalgic, but today’s civilization shows a disturbing trend: a decline in daily physical activity. This is what a young player’s day looks like:
- In the morning, they are driven to school by their parents.
- During a break at school they usually use their smartphone.
- After school they are taken home and for training – by car.
- During training they receive maximum training stimuli.
- After that, they are driven back home.
Looking globally, you can clearly see that the lack of the transitional zone between training and other activities produces many negative results. Joints, tendons and muscles are either cramped in a sitting position or subject to sprints, jumps and shots during training or a game. Observing pedometers in my players’ cellphones I see clearly that their everyday activity is really low. At the same time, when I monitor their training with GPS, I see that the training we apply is really intense.
- Resistance to fatigue should be built in adolescence.
Adaptation of sports training to the fast-paced lifestyle is another phenomenon I observe in the everyday life. Everything is extremely intense, but very short. Training usually lasts 60-90 minutes, 3-5 times a week, which is not enough to build capacity and resistance to fatigue. The phase of intense growth is the perfect moment for the so-called “Work Capacity Training”, when the length of training should be increased to 90-120 minutes and the number of sessions should be 4 to 6 per week.
How should young players be trained?
We cannot stop the the progress of civilization, a reform of physical education also lies beyond our reach – but how can we train to enjoy injury-free sport for many years and be able to listen to the Champions League anthem – not in the spectator grandstands or in front of the TV?
- Use research results and make use of sensitive periods to shape motor and technical skills at the optimum age.
- Exercise as many sporting disciplines as possible from a very young age to ensure harmonious development, prevent overload, injuries and early burnout.
- By observing pedometer in your cellphone you can set intermediate goals such as the famous 10 000 steps. You can choose stairs instead of an elevator, bike instead of a bus etc.
- When you’re already in the specialization period at the age of 13-14, you can use GPS system to track training load so as to prevent overload, in particular in the period of intensive growth.
- Never underestimate the role of rest, nutrition and healthy lifestyle. Here you can also use smartphone applications: to monitor hydration, sleep or HRV.
Where did the phenomenon of Robert Lewandowski come from?
At the end, let’s return to Robert Lewandowski. If you keep track of the individual stages of his career, you can easily spot the elements that had influence on his phenomenal physical preparation. Robert comes from a family of athletes. It’s highly likely that he did many different sports as a kid. The official news include judo and cross-country running.
Let’s look at the start of his football career, too. His first club was Varsovia Warszawa, where he started playing when he was 9 years old (he already had motor competences from other sports disciplines). Interestingly, he was a boy of slight build, so there are reasons to believe that he matured relatively late, which probably protected him from excessive exploitation by provincial and national teams.
The facts listed above show some analogies: exercising many different sports disciplines, late specialization, late maturing and correct proportion between training and matches. The effects can be seen now, as the name Lewandowski is on everyone’s lips. Could this be the optimal development path, or can technological and scientific developments give us more reliable information, which provide us with the answers?