In the world of strength and conditioning for football, the true definition of “conditioning” has been lost. A lack of understanding for the true demands of the game runs rampant, as these prehistoric prescriptions of “conditioning” fail to solve the problems of fitness that are associated with robustness and performance in the sport. How many 110 tests and 300-yard shuttles does it take to see that we, as S&C coaches, are not coming close to the metabolic or mechanical demands that sport will determine as fit?
As Tony Holler says, it’s easy to get someone tired, but does it serve the purpose of preparing the athlete for the game?
Let’s look at the root of the problem and acknowledge that most S&C coaches don’t truly comprehend the definition of the word “conditioning.” According to Webster, conditioning is to: “train or accustom (someone or something) to behave in a certain way or to accept certain circumstances.” The key words in this definition are accept certain circumstances, as this idea that coaches are conditioning for games is insane!
Football players practice four times the amount that they play. It is naive to think that the full residual effects of our summer training will still be in place five weeks post-summer. S&C coaches have a responsibility to bring these athletes into a desired state where they cannot only withstand a practice but thrive in it!Coaches recruit speed, but then encourage training programs that not only dampen speed and power but increase injury risk by not preparing the player for the speed & violence of the game. Click To Tweet
Many components of training are missing in the traditional run them into the ground approach. Football is a game of repeat speed bouts and repeat explosive bouts, yet we don’t identify these abilities as “conditioning.” Games are won with explosive plays by explosive athletes. Coaches recruit speed, but then encourage and welcome training programs that not only dampen speed and power but increase injury risk by not preparing the players for the speed and violence of the game. Plyometric exercises are as much conditioning as running 110’s, and a modern approach will consider two crucial factors for each position prior to prescription of conditioning means:
- Metabolic demand of the position.
- Biomechanical demand of the position.
Key Factors to Assess
To know how to condition, the S&C coach must know what is happening in practice. An in-depth analysis of the specific practices your organization conducts must be performed. Communication on the ebb and flow of practice from the head football coach is a necessity prior to planning out a training program.
The following general components will give the S&C coach the perspective they need:
- Duration (total time on the field)
- Time of day (determine sun exposure)
- Dress of the day (collisions increase stress)
- Type of offense/defense (main factor determining metabolic stress)
- Tempo of practice (two spot: running plays with the ones and twos simultaneously/recovery times between reps in individual periods)
- Depth of position groups (how many athletes will determine rep count)
This alone will only provide the S&C coach with a piece of the puzzle. Remember, it’s the S&C coach’s responsibility to elevate the athlete into a desired state to perform at a high level, not just survive. Understanding positional differences is crucial in the preparation process. Football is a game of many games. The demands are not the same throughout—in fact, they are very different. O-linemen and D-linemen play in a 10-yard box, whereas a DB may cover up to 80 yards on a given play.Remember, it’s the S&C coach’s responsibility to elevate the athlete into a desired state to PERFORM at a high level, not just SURVIVE, says @CoachJoeyG. Click To Tweet
The problem manifests itself in the fact that there is a disconnect between general off-season training and skill development. A great painter paints every day—meaning, if you want to become better at any activity, there must be deliberate practice of that activity.
As a reminder, the definition of conditioning is to become accustomed to certain circumstances. How can a player become accustomed to the demands of their position if they only practice the skill in camp and in-season? The strength and conditioning coach must develop the underlying abilities of sports skill such as speed, strength, and power. Just developing general abilities and hoping that they transfer is like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey in the dark. Have periods of planned skill development through exposures to game movements and situations.
S.A.I.D. and Energy System Development
The beauty of programming is that there are scientific principles that govern decisions (or there should be). One of these gives us the answer to the question in the above scenario: the S.A.I.D. principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands). In its simplest form, the S.A.I.D. principle holds that the athlete’s body will adapt and become more robust to the training element it is most frequently exposed to.
So, in the absence of exposure to the most important training element, coaches can’t expect their players to be “in shape” for the actual training stimulus. S&C coaches are scared to give up “their” time to increase specific skill development for fear of feeling less valued. There must be a harmonious relationship between all coaches, as the end goal is to produce better football players and win more games.
Having an open mind to ideas and advice from the sports coaches themselves will only benefit the S&C coach and the players. Alex Bliss and Rob Harley stated, “Strength and Conditioning Coaches are encouraged to work closely with skills-based coaches in the development and implementation of appropriate small-sided games to help enhance and maintain aerobic fitness while affording physical and technical benefits.”
It’s the S&C coach’s responsibility to not just elevate general athletic qualities, but also increase robustness for the game—and the only way to do this is by exposure to regressed versions of the game. Most coaches have experienced that moment when they’ve looked around practice at the players looking gassed on day 1 and wondered how do we look out of shape with all that running we did during the summer training phase?
This all comes back to the fact that conditioning is more than just volume. Intensity can crush players. Coach Tom Myslinski, longtime NFL S&C coach for the Jaguars, has said: “the intensity and deliberate practice of NFL practices crushes rookies because they have never been exposed to these elements.”
This basically states that small-sided games provide growth in specific skill development and in specific fitness levels of the sport. Start with general modalities and work toward specific modalities. The puzzle becomes how to incorporate small-sided games (conditioning for specific energy system development) and technical/tactical development into your micro cycles to be compatible with the speed and power training performed in the week.The puzzle becomes how to incorporate small-sided games and technical/tactical development into your micro cycles to be compatible with the speed & power training performed in the week. Click To Tweet
We utilize a high/low approach where we stack our conditioning days (small-sided games) on Tuesday and Friday prior to off days. Though the volume is higher on these days, the intensity is lower, which gives great complementary training stimuli throughout the week and does not cause interference with speed and power training being performed on Monday and Thursday.
Conditioning is not just to increase the aerobic state of the athlete. Yes, aerobic capacity will play a huge part in the replenishment of ATP throughout the duration of practice, but if the coach focuses solely on this biomotor ability, several other issues will arise. Fatigued is defined as one’s inability to maintain a desired intensity, or the body’s ability to replenish energy sources for a given rate of work. If the preparation lacks intensity, the athlete will not be prepared for the degree of stress and will look unfit when exposed to intensity in competition.
There are many examples of this, as the start of camp yields a plethora of cramps and soft tissue injuries. Conditioning supports the athlete’s ability to be explosive repeatedly, but the athlete must train explosive to raise power and speed abilities as fitness rises. You are what you train most, so depleting metabolic resources solely on conditioning will have a negative effect on what wins games: explosive ability.You are what you train most, so depleting metabolic resources solely on conditioning will have a negative effect on what wins games: explosive ability, says @CoachJoeyG. Click To Tweet
The practice of building a base has been around since the creation of training, but a base is the foundation of something: meaning it is a remedial version that lacks the intensity of the event one is working toward. Due to its lower intensity, the base can be performed at a much higher volume. This is applicable as the S&C coach starts to program and prescribe volume to specific training elements.
Understanding the Two Factors Affecting Fatigue
Fatigue is multifaceted, as there are two types of fatigue: CNS and peripheral.
“Central nervous system fatigue, or central fatigue, is a form of fatigue that is associated with changes in the synaptic concentration of neurotransmitters within the central nervous system (CNS; including the brain and spinal cord) which affects exercise performance and muscle function.” (Davis J. M., Bailey S. P. (1997)). This is the intensity! To prepare the athlete for practice and be conditioned is to expose them to similar levels of intensity that will stimulate the nervous system in a way that will cause similar fatigue levels.
Looking at the chart of Al Vermeil’s hierarchy of athletic development (figure 6), training, speed, reactive strength, and explosive strength should hold more importance when planning the buildup of sport-specific fitness levels. Injuries happen at fast speeds, not at a jogging pace. Training speed and explosive abilities conditions the athlete for the tissue stresses of practice, serving as a multi-purpose function of the training process.
Video 1. Speed training is conditioning (an accumulation of high-speed demands).
It’s extremely important to understand the intensity requirements of each position group, because this is more important than just accumulating lower-intensity volumes. The athlete must be accustomed to these stresses before they set foot in the practice itself. Creativity in training comes from researching the actual demands of the game for each position. There can be no purist when it comes to increasing the durability of a football player.Creativity in training comes from researching the actual demands of the game for each position. There can be no purist when it comes to increasing the durability of a football player. Click To Tweet
During the course of a single practice, football players are exposed to all three elements in the above chart from Charlie Francis (figure 7). Saying it is only alactic is missing the boat—alactic abilities can determine performance, but only if they are sustainable throughout the game. Aerobic development and glycolytic development are paramount for football players to thrive in practice. To say a football player will not be exposed to extreme levels of lactate is to not understand practices. Lactate training isn’t the devil and is unavoidable in the sport. Take a player’s mmol levels after a no-huddle, 10-play drive and see if lactate training is necessary.
The second type of fatigue to consider is one S&C coaches are very familiar with: “Peripheral fatigue results from an overactivity-induced decline in muscle function that originates from non-central nervous system mechanisms” (Randall E. Keyser). This is the volume! Football S&C coaches must know and research what movements are being performed with high volume and what the average volumes are. These will be accounted for in the total volumes accumulated throughout the training week and are not limited to just yardage. Total load in the weight room will build up the body’s ability to cope with peripheral fatigue. Targeting potential injury areas that have overuse injuries will be a high priority in the weight room.
Know the Demands, Condition Accordingly
The only way to be prepared for the rigors of football is to play football. Take the demands of each position and reverse-engineer them to the remedial versions and train them. Stop doing things because someone else did it or you think it may work. If it’s not close, it’s not close!
Intensity and volume of each position group will give the S&C coach the map to proper preparation. Train general qualities, but do not neglect specific skill development.
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