Pre-Season training, a vital few weeks to prepare for the upcoming season. The importance of getting it right cannot be underestimated. Get it wrong and it has serious consequences for the season.
My first pre-season was as a 16 year old apprentice professional footballer at Tranmere Rovers. I've experienced what its like as a player to undergo pre-season training and I've also had 10 years experience as the Physiotherapist at Scunthorpe United doing pre-season. I've had experience as a Manager in the Premier League, the Championship and League 1 of being in charge of pre-season and the man with the final decision.
As a Manager I want to be able to select from all my players for the 1st game of the season. I require the players to be fit to play the way I want my teams to play. Athletic with high energy, the ability to outrun your opponent. Quick. Technically brilliant to pass the football quickly and calmly. To react quickly to the transition of the ball changing possession. To be strong, robust to play consistently weekend, midweek, weekend. To have a mental resilience and warrior spirit.
As most football clubs have reported back for pre-season training this week its interesting to see how they go about it. There is no right way and there is no wrong way, however there needs to be a plan, a method behind what you're doing. I've had 35 years of pre-seasons and have at some stage tried all the ways possible to do pre-season. As a player at Tranmere Rovers and Wigan Athletic, and as the Physiotherapist at Scunthorpe United we would go to an Army barracks during the first couple of weeks of pre-season. I also still have vivid memories of running on the sand dunes on the Wirral.
Whilst in my role as Physiotherapist at Scunthorpe we provided the Football Association with injury information for its first Audit of Injuries research programme in English football. Fascinating feedback when put together with all the other clubs as to the high rate of injuries during pre-season.
It was beneficial for me being the physiotherapist. The experience gained with screening players, providing individual off season training programmes, controlling on field and gym based training sessions, individual and group prehab sessions. Supporting the Manager in getting and keeping the players fit.
When I took over as Manager at Scunthorpe United I took the players on the first 2 days of Pre-season to the University of Hull. Here under the supervision of the Head of Sport Science, Ric Lovell, who is now Doctor Ric Lovell and working in Australia, we would undergo a series of physical tests, one of which was a VO2Max running test on the Treadmill. Isokenetic strength tests of the legs was another. This was a starting point as to the levels of fitness the players reported back in. We then had the opportunity to re-test the players after 6 weeks of pre-season training to evaluate the affects of the training we had done.
We worked closely with the University and Ric for several years of research. We had firstly linked up when I was the Physiotherapist at Scunthorpe and I would take their students on placements. I was very pleased to then be able to offer young interns from the University full time work at Scunthorpe. John Noonan was the first Strength and Conditioning Coach, S&C, and I have been so pleased to see how his career has progressed and he is now working in the Premier League.
Following the couple of days testing I would then take the whole squad to Champneys Springs in Leicestershire for 5 days of pre-season training. A superb football pitch to train on, a swimming pool - excellent for recovery, great food - vital to get the nutrition right and good beds - the importance of sleep is massive. Vital requirements in my opinion to get the players back in the mindset of training and off holiday mode. Exercise, Nutrition, Team meetings, Sleep, Repeat.
When I joined Southampton I followed the same routine. We linked up with Solent University and under the expert supervision of Dr. Stewart Bruce Lowe we continued with a series of testing. The VO2Max was taken to another elite level with Blood Lactate taken whist on the treadmill. The University students that assisted Dr.Bruce Lowe were brilliant and I'm sure they benefited from the experience of dealing with elite professional players.
The psychological benefits of pushing yourself to a true VO2Max also provided a good indicator as to how hard you would push yourself and your team mate when the going gets tough during the season.
On the back of the VO2Max testing the players Heart Rate Monitor and GPS System that they wore in every session, could be set. This provided daily feedback for our training.
Nick Harvey was the 1st Team Head of Sport Science at Southampton and I cannot speak highly enough of him as a person and as a professional. His input was invaluable and I was delighted I managed to get him to join us at Reading after leaving the Saints.
We followed the same procedure at Reading as we had at Southampton. Two days of screening the players with the medical department, body fat analysis and nutritional advice from the excellent Mike Naylor who is Head of Performance Nutrition at the English Institute of Sport, and then fitness testing at Southampton Solent University. Followed by 5 days at Champneys Springs and plenty of football fitness training.
We would re-test the players again after 6 weeks, usually during the International break in the season and assess the benefits of training. We worked very hard as a staff, Assistant Manager Andy Crosby, 1st Team Coach Dean Wilkins, Head of Sport Science Nick Harvey, in putting together a periodised training programme to maximise the time we had with the players for the maximum results. We worked long hours and had many a good debate however we divised a plan that worked, and data proves it worked very well.
When I took over at Sheffield United, we attempted to follow the same plan however we quickly realised we couldn't, for several reasons which I won't go into here, and had to change plan. Devastating consequences as we lost heavily on the opening day of the season and it took until November before we started to get the players anywhere near the physical level we had at previous clubs.
Pre-Season training sets you up individually and as a team. You have to be smart in how you work however you must work. Find a way that works, do the basics well to an elite level. We used to play inspirational videos at different stages of pre-season. One we used had this quote in it.
"All men are created equal, Some work harder in Pre-Season"