Pre-season preparation periods in football are vital in terms of motor improvement. Most often they can be divided into the longer winter period, which focuses on building up the "engine" (strength, oxygen base, special endurance and locomotion technique), and the shorter summer period, when more time is devoted to technical and tactical tasks, which means that the coach should mainly focus on controlling training loads through monitoring systems such as GPS, heart rate measurement and motor tests.
Preparation for the season is largely dependent on the league (country), level of play and age group. In the strongest European leagues, break periods are limited due to tight schedule (league matches, national and European cups), players' vacation periods and commercial games in the United States, Asia, etc. Therefore, such teams require all year round work, depending on scheduled matches, and regulating training loads mainly by individualization of training in 30-40-member groups.
The situation is slightly different in leagues such as Polish Football Premier League, lower sports leagues or junior leagues, which is why the plan below is based on experience in working with this type of teams.
The players are usually given from 7 to 14 days of break, during which time they implement individual training plans. After that time, there normally comes 5 to 8 weeks of preparation.
I. Transition period
Although the name might sound slightly obsolete, it is an extremely important and practical moment for motor preparation coach and physiotherapist, especially when it comes to junior teams. Personally, I define it as the time from the last match to the start of the player's break. Lower training intensity and the lack of championship matches gives us about 2 to 3 weeks to focus on the elements which there is usually no time for.
- Functional defect correction - individual work, or work in small groups aimed at improving movement patterns, depending on testing methods - FMS, orthopaedic tests - this is an ideal moment for everyday work on weak links of the kinematic chain.
- Individual work on the acceleration techniques, running at maximum speed, changing direction. Improving movement technique requires individual work with precise tips and feedback necessary for any corrections, for which there is usually no time in everyday work with the team. Since even one 45-minute session can be enough for the player to understand the nature of movement, it is worth devoting a transition period to this.
- Muscular hypertrophy - For players with poor response to strength training, spending the transition period in an active way is the only time that interference can be avoided. Too much technical and tactical training interferes with increase in muscle mass gains. 6 weeks of efficient work-out in the gym and a high-protein "Christmas diet", however, can give spectacular results.
II. Preparation period
A - Planning
It is worth to take an objective look at several key issues: training and previous round match load assessment, diagnosis of strengths and weaknesses, OBJECTIVES for the following weeks. With objective data from the GPS system, we can statistically summarize a given round: distances covered in micro cycles and those in a match, running at speeds greater than 19-20 km/h (HSR) in a match, as well as greater than 25 km/h (sprint running). The main objective of training is to prepare the players for the "worst-case scenario" that they may encounter in a match, such as a 120-minute game, performance at 120% of the average HSR, or more sprints. A well-planned preparation period "stretches" the players' adaptation windows, preparing them for such scenarios every week, and sometimes every 3 days.
A well-tested golden rule proposed by Dr Tim Gabbett states that:
“A player who manages to go through the entire pre-season period without any injury is much more resistant to injuries during the season than a player who, due to some injury, is unable to participate in several preparation trainings”.
B - Motor Tests
Regular motor tests conducted in a repeatable and reliable way can be great tools to obtain a lot of information about the initial condition of the player in 90 minutes. Some of my favourite ones include:
- Beep Test, YoYo test
- CMJ, SJ
- 10m, 30m sprint
- 505 Test
In addition, by filming the tests we can obtain important information about movement efficiency and possible shortcomings. Observation of, for instance, CMJ and SJ jumps can show typical dysfunctions such as crooked knees or lack of mobility in the ankles.
C - Work Capacity
In the first weeks, we are building work capacity in a gradual way in order to improve the players' tolerance for long-term work. For example, in a period of 3 weeks, we can:
- extend the time of training units 60-90-120 min
- increase the number of training units 4--6-8
- increase the distance for the 19-25 km/h sector
To be avoided at that period:
- a large amount of sprint running
- a large amount of playing in a small field
- control matches over 45-60 min per player
What is vital in that period is GPS monitoring of the players, which allows to correct the loads on an ongoing basis, check whether the set goals are achieved, as well as avoid accumulating sprints and decelerations.
With a large volume of aerobic training on the LT threshold, other components, such as maximum speed and power are regarded as secondary. Strength and plyometric exercises here focus on the optimal exercise technique, so that you can increase their intensity in the next stage.
D - HSR tolerance
Building up training intensity and sprint tolerance> 25km/h - which is what distinguishes weak leagues from the best ones - is the goal of the second part of the preparation period. During 2 to 4 weeks, while maintaining a constant HSR level around 19-25km/h, we are gradually increasing adaptation to sprints at maximum speed. This is a period when no compromises are allowed, in which planning and monitoring are crucial for preventing muscle injuries, especially of the ischiocrural muscle group. During the week we should try to gradually increase the volume of sprint training to achieve 2.5 - 3x the average distance of sprints performed in the match.
During that time, we focus on:
- planned maximum speed training progression
- implementing large volume of plyometric training
- moderate volume of maximum strength training
- preventive exercises for the ischiocrural muscle group.
E - Acceleration - Deceleration
The final stage of preparation is focused on multidirectional movement, namely acceleration, braking and turning. Training in this period consists in 80-90% of exercises with the ball: position games, technical and tactical tasks. Isolated motor skills exercises are mainly focused on plyometrics in various planes, relearning body posture and playing “worst-case scenarios”.
Constant monitoring allows for good balance of one- and multidirectional work, which allows to fully prepare the players for the upcoming season. A large amount of eccentric training (braking) requires constant control of muscle soreness. What is recommended here is using questionnaires in the form of applications, e-mails or on paper that will allow us to have a better picture of the impact of training on our players.
The main objectives for this period include:
- reduction of aerobic training volume
- maintaining training intensity
- maintaining the assumed HSR mileage
- permanent exposure to maximum speeds
- preparation of quadriceps, adductor and abductor muscles for multidirectional work
- careful regeneration planning with a large volume of eccentric training
III. Final Tests
Although adaptation processes are not linear phenomena, I believe it is worth to do a final objective check. Pre-planning and informing the players in advance that the preparation period will begin and end with tests is undoubtedly motivating. The biggest changes are expected in endurance (Beep Test), Power (CMJ) and agility ( 505). In my experience, acceleration and maximum speed (10m and 30m sprint) are parameters that require slightly more time.
Fitness – Fatigue Model
Preparing a player for the season is an extremely difficult but also highly interesting period for a motor preparation coach. While during the season all training sessions are focused on one goal - the optimal form for the matches, in the pre-season period we can allow ourselves much more. By planning exactly what we want to achieve, and adhering to the basic principles of training and physiology theory, we can prepare the team for the season in an optimal way, and - what is especially important for young players - greatly improve their motor skills. Testing and monitoring players during this time allows to look at the training in an objective way, evaluate it and, most importantly, promptly introduce corrections. For a motor skills coach it poses a challenge on the one hand, but, on the other, despite the stress and pressure experience by players and coaches alike, it is a veritable paradise for us.
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