8-weeks soccer pre-season plan - Part 1

Introduction

Since the soccer is the most important secondary thing in Europe and pretty popular in Serbia (it is beyond me why, because we suck), and since I started working for the first time as physical preparation coach in soccer I decided to write down this 8-weeks pre-season template.

I have also summed my work experience and preparation philosophy from 2007 in the 200 pages long manual entitled Physical Preparation for Soccer, so I suggest checking that one first if you haven’t already. The truth is that I have ‘evolved’ from writing that manual and the reason for writing this template is to actually see where did I evolved in my philosophy. The periodization info from the manual is confusing and during that time I was in the pro-interval camp (bitching on aerobic training).  There were also some questions that bothered me during that time period that I hope I have solved and provided some answers (or at least more questions), mostly by following more pragmatic, contextual/ecological and complementary philosophy and ditching dogma and either/or thinking.

Another thing that the readers should check before reading this template is my analysis of sport games structure (soccer is included) available here along with the short rant about endurance development in this one (make sure you read excellent series on endurance development by Lyle McDonald).

Why 8-weeks? It is usual in Serbian competition calendar that there is a transition period between two halves of the season, and usually the 2nd preparatory period before the next half of the season is around 8 weeks long. Because I am using Western terminology I am calling this preparatory period a pre-season since the soccer club is organizing preparations and training camps with the whole team.



            It is important to mention that this 8-weeks pre-season plan is pulled from the bigger picture of annual plan and that’s why it is lacking certain context. So to plan it, I will assume couple of things:

1.      First game of the rest of the season is happening in 9th week and the team should be in certain peak (sport form) during that time. Why, you may ask. Because starting the rest of the season with a good performance and a win is really a good thing for building up the confidence of the team (especially depending on the previous half of the season performance). Sport form (peaking) will fluctuate during the rest of the season based on competition calendar (opposing teams and importance of the match), peaking index (for more info see Usage of subjective indicators in monitoring and programming of training) and the results, but it is important to start and finish strong. Everybody is waiting for the performance on the first game. Let’s give them something to think about.

2.      It is important to have at least 3-4 full time friendly games (90mins) in the weeks preceding the first game, so it is important to plan them accordingly and progress to full game over certain period of time

3.      I am assuming the lower level of the athletes in the strength training (as it is normal with soccer players), no injuries, and a little bit of de-training in the transition period
                                            
4.      I am also assuming availability of all the equipment, fields and facilities necessary to run this template. Of course in most of the cases that is not going to be the case and the template need to be tweaked.

5.      I am assuming a lot of other things that I can’t remember at the moment, so please note that this is ONLY a template, pulled out of the bigger context of annual plan and it is questionable if it fits your specific situation, need and goals. I will not go into annual planning in this blog entry especially not into the in-season planning and how to progress from pre-season plan to in-season plan. Maybe next time. 



Training components

Since the preparation system involves (1) training, (2) recovery and (3) competition, training components represent subgroups of training and include:

1.      Technical preparation
2.      Tactical preparation and decision making
3.      Physical preparation
4.      Psychological preparation and mental toughness
5.      Athlete character and communicational skills
6.      Strategy and game plan
7.      Theoretical preparation

Each training component has even more subtypes and I will get into physical preparation component deeper a little bit later. Please note that recovery procedures could also be listed, along with nutrition and supplementation which can be subgroup of theoretical preparation.

Goal setting

Before setting goals for each training component we need to go through three-level analysis system that I have been mentioning in recent articles:



Although we are using only the first two levels, the third level is also important. Third level of analysis (Training load analysis) should give us some insight into the previous work done by athletes, so we can have certain starting point in terms of types of training they are accustomed doing and the level of stress they tolerated which may indicate working capacity of the players, along with injuries tendencies and types. This could be helpful in designing of the training program.
 
I am not going into the game analysis and the game demands in this article. A lot of research papers could be found online that goes into the analysis of the game and provide concise numbers and needs for all training components. In the picture below you can find demands for each position from FIFA manual and this is only a glimpse and very simplistic, so use it only as a starting point and as an example.



Second level involves evaluation of the players’ characteristics based on the game (and position) demands (thus the test needs to be specific in a certain way) so we have their strengths and weaknesses for each training component, for an individual, sub-group or whole team in general.  We can evaluate this from watching the players in a game (game is the best test, especially for assessing technical and tactical skills), or by devising testing battery (especially for physical preparedness).  I will expand on physical preparedness testing battery a little later.

Training component
Strengths
Weaknesses
Technical preparation



Tactical preparation and decision making



Physical preparation



Psychological preparation and mental toughness



Athlete character and communicational skills



Strategy and game plan



Theoretical preparation



So, now we have game demands and we have evaluation of the athletes in terms of their strength and weaknesses. In other words we now have what is needed and what do we have.



Taking context/environment into account (we can do SWOT analysis of the context) we have all three constraints for goal setting. Context could also include time limits, opponents we are facing and the important periods for peaking.


Goals should be set for each training component for a certain time frame (in this case for the pre-season and the rest of the season) utilizing SMART principle.


Mission statement:


GENERAL GOALS





Outcome goals



Performance goals




TRAINING COMPONENT


FACTORS (Sub-Types)

GOALS
Technical preparation



Tactical preparation and decision making



Physical preparation



Psychological preparation and mental toughness



Athlete character and communicational skills



Strategy and game plan



Theoretical preparation




The question that arises and that is usually given to me by soccer coaches is whether one should organize training based on the game (and position) demands, in that case fitting the players to the games demands and playing system, or organize training based on the athletes’ evaluation (his strengths~weaknesses) in that case fitting the training and the playing system to the athletes? If the life gives us lemons, should we make the lemonade? This can be depicted with the concept of the asymmetry of the constraints influence on the goal setting:



Answering this question with either/or logic will put you in a certain philosophical camp, but using both/and logic the answer is rather obvious. It is both. The question is when and in what degree. Let me expand.

From the standpoint of team building and playing system building, one should try to hide individual and team weaknesses and bring up individual and team strengths, but in a way that emphasize opponent’s weaknesses and suppress his strengths. This is a process that demands some time and this is why we can start working on weaknesses early on, and later on working on strengths. This can fluctuate during the longer time period (preparatory period) or shorter time period, like one week in the competition period. In the latter case, one can work on weaknesses displayed in the previous match during the first part of the week, and during the later part work on strengths for the next match.



From a physical preparation standpoint, do we individualize training based on the individual characteristics or based on the position played? Do we give and/or group players based on their characteristics (for example vVO2max for intervals) or position they play (forwards do certain type of conditioning and middle fielders another)?

You guessed well: it is both. Why should we pick a certain ‘philosophy’ and stick to it? We can change how we organize the training during some training blocks and that is what I am going to do. We can base training load on individual characteristics during some time period and base training load on position played during another time period.

The philosophy that I will follow during this 8-weeks pre-season plan is that during the first part we are going to base (individualize) our training on individual characteristics and provide ample time for the players to fix them and develop. Later, as the playing system is developed, it is going to be demanded from the players to be accustomed playing certain position. In senior selection development of the players is of secondary importance compared to winning games. Sad but true. If they can’t play certain position, maybe someone else can.





It is questionable whether should one follow this philosophy with developmental athletes. In the senior selection clubs buy players to play certain positions and they better be ready and already developed to play it. But with younger developmental athletes one should spend more time on working on individual characteristics and developing players rather than developing playing systems. This is usually not the case. This situation can also be depicted with the asymmetry of the goal settings toward contextual constraints.



This asymmetry of goal settings is in the favor of the context constraints. When do you want results? With the kids we are all falling on the marshmallow test by looking for the results immediately and forgetting the long term development. Expert development is really a complex problem (I have talked about it in this blog entry) and it is questionable whether being successful as a youngster is a secure way to be successful as an adult, and whether the training should be specialized from an early age or more multilateral. How much time do you have with the team? In Serbia we are changing coaches every 6 months, thus the coaches don’t have time to emphasize long term development that includes developing soccer intelligence (decision making/tactical skills), creativity and explosiveness, but rather focus on things that yield short term success to maintain their job and money income, like glycolytic conditioning and set plays (pre-set tactical pattern), along with developing training system with what you already have rather than developing what you have.  This is exactly why I wanted for the team to be pretty fit for the first game. That could cost me a job. Now, you see how goals can be context dependent and how factors outside of soccer can constrain goals and soccer development (we can talk on the level of the country, even world). I am sure this is why Serbian soccer sucks, because even with all that talent, outside factors like management of the club and their business policy affects what happens on the field and soccer in general, without expanding this to country culture, economic situation, political situation and other.   Just to mention that Serbia doesn’t have sport laws on the level of the country.  Someone is rather lazy or making money out of it, and I think it is the latter. Ok, I am done with my ‘complex system theories’ rant.  For now.

Hopefully I did explain how the complex interplay between context, athlete evaluation and game (position) demands affects goal settings and thus planning process. Another thing I want to deal with before writing something more practical is the topic of following the fixed template or really working on strengths and weaknesses. What do I mean by this? One player lacks aerobic power, one lacks strength and third one lacks speed. In the period when we are working on players characteristics are we going to plan the training so we are addressing individual weaknesses or following certain pattern and let the weaknesses be addressed by good planning and individualized training load? To be honest, soccer is a team sport and the pre-season should follow the template, but the athletes should be allowed some individual training sessions to fix their own weaknesses (especially in the off-season). So, even if we have players with different weaknesses, they are going to follow the same template, but the workload is going to be individualized based on their own characteristic. For example, athlete that is lacking speed will still do aerobic power intervals (in the certain block), but the intensity is going to be based on his vVO2max as it is going to be the same for an athlete lacking aerobic power.  This is why working with team sports it is important to make compromises between individual goals and team goals. Sorry, but the world is not perfect.

To summarize part one:

1.      It is important to have a big picture or annual plan before going to plan certain smaller periods.

2.      Coach should have the results of the (1) game analysis (game and position demands), (2) player evaluation (his strengths and weaknesses based on the demand of his position), and (3) context analysis since this is constraining goal setting and planning process

3.      Depending on the level of the play constraints can have asymmetrical effect on the goal settings and training in general. Remember developing teams and senior teams (pro athletes) and their goal settings and planning differences.

4.      Goals should be set for each training component and it’s subtype, and done for an individual player, sub-team (defenders, forwards, middle) and team in general

5.      There is a certain compromise between individual and team goals and their emphasis might be different at different phases of the long term development and the annual plan

6.      Training should be based both on game (position) demands and athlete’s needs, and this fluctuates over the players career and the annual plan

7.      Since soccer is team sport, training plan should follow the general template, yet the workload should be adapted to athlete’s characteristics (when we are doing training based on them) or position played (when we are doing training based on that). 


Stay tuned for part two….

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