One of the toughest jobs of a performance coach in professional soccer is keeping the players who are not in the match-day squad, match-day fit. The match is the largest stimulus (in terms of volume, intensity, and specificity) the players get each week; meaning that the players who do not participate in it are missing out on a huge part of the weekly training load. Therefore, it falls on the performance coach to make up for that missing stimulus by conducting match-day sessions for this group of reserve players.
This already important session was elevated to a higher level of pertinence this past year with the COVID-19 pandemic. The implications of the pandemic were twofold: first, the shortened season caused increased fixture congestion, meaning more players were being rotated, which required more players to be moving in and out of the match-day squad. Second, to prevent bubble contamination between the USL and MLS teams, the players who were not in the match-day squad were not able to play with the USL team, which would usually be the case. This resulted in an increased number of players participating in the Reserve Group Session as well as an increased importance on these sessions being as intense and as specific as possible.
In this article I outline how we at Real Salt Lake attempted to make our match-day reserve group sessions as beneficial as possible. We established a framework that we could easily modify based on the needs of the players in the session, as well as the total number of players participating. The example session given in this article is based on having six players, which was a common number we had in the sessions this year.As a framework for our match-day reserve group sessions, we wanted to first address the physical outputs missed by the players by not participating in the match—volume, intensity, specificity. Click To Tweet
When deciding on a framework, we wanted to first address the physical outputs that the players were missing by not participating in the match. As mentioned previously, the main variables we want to take into account are volume, intensity, and specificity. From a volume perspective, while the numbers will inevitably vary by position and are also heavily predicated on your team’s playing style, we can assume the players not participating in the match will miss out on 9,000-11,000 total meters of movement. While it is not often feasible (an optimal versus practical dilemma) to replicate all of that volume, we aim to accumulate around 75% of it, or approximately 6,500-8,500 meters.
In terms of intensity, we look at this variable through the lens of high-velocity intensity, which tends to be more taxing on the hamstrings, and acceleration/deceleration intensity, which tends to tax the anterior chain (quads and hips flexors) to a higher degree. These metrics are much easier to accumulate over the course of a session and, depending on the player/time of year, may even be overloaded in a Reserve Group Session. Again, speaking in broad strokes, players can accumulate 500-1,000 meters of high-speed running (meters covered >19.8 km/hr), 50-300 meters of sprinting (>25.2 km/hr), and 30-50 high-intensity accelerations and decelerations (defined as a change in velocity +/- 3 m/s/s) in a match. Therefore, we can use those numbers as benchmarks (and can be more specific based on which players are in the session) to guide our session design.
After accounting for the total physical output in the session, we wanted to make sure we used this day to elevate players’ physical capacities through more intense training methods that are only dosed in small levels during the week in team training (i.e., max-velocity sprinting, plyometrics, and strength training). Since the majority of these sessions fall on a Saturday, it is the perfect time to really push the envelope with these training modalities, being that Friday is an easy day of team training and Sunday is generally an off day.
Finally, we wanted to try and make the sessions as specific as possible from a soccer standpoint. This not only keeps the players’ motivation high (not very many players enjoy coming in on Saturday just to run and lift) but also helps mitigate the risk of injury by stressing the same muscles and movement patterns that they are missing out on from the match, and it is conducive to the players continuing to develop technically.
- Physical Warm-Up – 20 minutes
- General circulation and joint mobility.
- Running technique drills.
- Change of direction/Agility.
- Technical Warm-Up – 6-10 minutes
- Passing and receiving over short distances.
- Maximal Velocity Sprinting – 8-12 minutes
- Technical Drill 1 – 10-15 minutes
- Passing and receiving over medium/large distances.
- High-Velocity Conditioning – 6-12 minutes
- Technical Drill 2 – 10-15 minutes
- Passing over long distances and shooting.
- Small-Sided Games – 10-15 minutes
- Repeat Effort Conditioning – 10-20 minutes
- Total Body Strength Training
1. Physical Warm-Up (20 minutes)
The session starts, as all sessions do, with a dynamic warm-up. Five minutes of jogging, back pedaling, and other light dynamic movements to increase the muscle temperature and circulation to the working muscles. Next is five minutes of mobility-based dynamic movements both moving and on the ground. Then we move on to some traditional track-based technique drills. I am a big fan of Derek Hansen’s A-Skip and A-Run progressions1, so we take the players through each of those to reinforce running technique and slowly increase the intensity of the warm-up.
Now, as we are approximately 15 minutes into the warm-up, we move more toward the performance end of the spectrum with plyometrics (horizontal, vertical, or a mixture of both). These drills may vary over the course of the year, but generally include various skips and bounds over 30-40 meters and/or different hurdle hop drills. The warm-up concludes with some longer distance build-ups (25-40 meters) and some high-intensity change of direction drills, reinforcing good acceleration and deceleration positions.
2. Technical Warm-Up (6-10 minutes)
The technical warm-up is generally an activity where the players execute simple passing and receiving maneuvers over small distances (5-15 meters). Despite the simplicity of the exercise, small distances, and short work periods, athletes should still perform these drills with maximal intensity to replicate the speed of match play. This drill serves as an extension of the warm-up and does not have a physical emphasis other than warming up the muscles and movements involved in soccer-specific actions.
3. Maximal Velocity Sprinting (8-12 minutes)
Maximal velocity exposure is something that we train during the week as a team, but we want to make sure we replicate the missing stimulus of the game as well, as we know more exposure to high-velocity sprinting may have a preventative effect against future injuries.2 We generally will do a few reps of straight-line fly-in sprints as well as a few reps of curvilinear sprints (figure 2). The fly-in sprints make for easy filming and reinforcing top-end speed mechanics.Maximal velocity exposure is something that we train during the week as a team, but we want to make sure we replicate the missing stimulus of the game as well, says @CoachCotter2. Click To Tweet
Curvilinear sprints also play an important role for soccer players, as they are the most common type of sprints performed in a match.3 They stress the leg musculature differently than straight-line sprinting4 and therefore are beneficial to train in addition to traditional straight-line sprinting. We perform the sprints at this point of the session in an attempt to thread the needle between being sufficiently warmed up for such an intense exercise and not being so fatigued as to diminish maximal output. Again, the exact style and distances of the sprints will vary depending on a number of variables (what players are in the session, preceding and upcoming schedule, etc.), and it is up to the practitioner to determine what is appropriate for the players on that day.
It is important to note that this is a sprinting exercise and not a fitness exercise. The players are given 2-3 minutes of rest between reps and should feel like they have recovered before the next rep. Typical track and field guidelines would suggest that you take a minimum one-minute rest for 10 meters sprinted to ensure complete recovery between reps. While that is physiologically optimal (another optimal versus practical dilemma), it can be difficult in practice to require non-track athletes to take 4+ minutes of rest between 40-meter sprints. We have found 2-3 minutes’ rest between reps is sort of a sweet spot in terms of still getting quality repetitions and not having this portion of session drag on for too long.
4. Technical Drill 1 (10-15 minutes)
After sprinting, we move on to a second technical drill that requires the players to play passes over larger (10-25 meter) distances. Usually, we incorporate some sort of finishing on a mini goal at the end of the drill and make it a competition either between the players or against the clock (e.g., first player to score three goals, the drill ends when the team scores 15 goals, etc.). The competition element may seem like a small detail, but in my experience, it goes a long way toward keeping the effort and energy high.
Figure 3 is an example of a passing drill that requires quick combination play between players and ends with a well-timed run-in behind the theoretical back line and finish on a mini goal. As with every drill in this session, you can modify the demands and objectives based on the positions of the players in the session and the style of play of the team.
5. High-Velocity Conditioning (6-10 minutes)
Our first block of conditioning is of the higher velocity nature, usually being some variation of strides/tempo runs. The benefits of tempo runs are well known in the track community6, and we believe those benefits carry over to soccer players as well. First, it allows the athletes to condition aerobically without becoming too lactic, which could dampen their ability to complete the remainder of the session with high quality. Second, tempo runs give the athletes the opportunity to work on high-speed running mechanics more so than slower-paced aerobic drills. Third, it exposes the athletes to higher velocities than they often see during normal team training, which is frequently dominated by small-sided games in small spaces.The benefits of tempo runs are well known in the track community, and we believe those benefits carry over to soccer players as well, says @CoachCotter2. Click To Tweet
6. Technical Drill 2 (10-15 minutes)
Our last technical drill of the day involves hitting balls over the largest distances (20-40 meters) and finishing on goal. Obviously, not every player gets the chance to shoot on goal during a match, but we want to make sure that it is a skill the players continue to develop regardless of position. Out of all the drills, this one requires the longest periods of continuous time on the ball (10-20 seconds), the highest intensity actions (jumping/shooting/sprinting), and incomplete rest periods. This allows for some lactate accumulation and helps prepare players for the “worst-case scenario” in a match, when they might be required to perform a lot of demanding actions in a short period of time. Additionally, lactate accumulation, toward the end of a session, can be beneficial in inducing an anabolic hormone response.7
7. Small-Sided Games (10-15 minutes)
Despite the players already getting a healthy dose of this type of training during the week, it still has the merits of requiring quick decision-making and serves almost as a carrot toward the end of the session that the players enjoy. The space is kept intentionally tight to require a lot of high-intensity actions and ball involvements per minute.8 The coach puts another ball in play as soon as one goes out of bounds to keep the pace of the drill high (figure 6).
8. Repeat Effort Conditioning (10-20 minutes)
Our final on-field drill of the day is a repeat acceleration/deceleration conditioning drill that I stole from Derek Hansen’s excellent “Running Mechanics Professional” course.1 This drill requires constant repeat acceleration efforts over a short period of time, which again, helps our players be prepared for the “worst-case scenario” and helps accumulate the number of accelerations that they would typically see on match day.9
There are a few different versions of this drill that you can run based on what physical metrics/actions you are after. The version that we use most often can be seen in figure 7, with 10-meter accelerations every nine seconds, for 90 seconds. However, if you wanted to elicit some higher velocity accelerations, you could push the distance out to 15 meters and change the duration to every 12 seconds. If you are after more decelerations in this portion of the session, you could add a 5-meter deceleration zone at the end of the acceleration zone, or even make it a 10-meter out and back drill with a full change of direction.
9. Weight Room (30-45 minutes)
After the on-field session is completed, we also have a strength training session. This day represents a great opportunity to do some more intense strength training (heavy and/or eccentric-focused) since the following day is off. Again, our goal for this day is not only to expose the players to a match-like stimulus but also train to improve their physical capacities.Our goal for this day is not only to expose the players to a match-like stimulus but also train to improve their physical capacities, says @CoachCotter2. Click To Tweet
Keeping Players Match-Fit
In conclusion, the above template is what we utilized this (unconventional) year to try and keep our players match-fit. It allows us to easily swap out different drills while still making sure we hit all of the physical and technical parameters that we want. It is definitely not perfect (many ways to skin a cat) and remains a work in progress, but hopefully it is something that other coaches might take some inspiration from and tweak to their needs.
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1. Hansen, D. (n.d.). In Running Mechanics Professional. Retrieved from https://www.runningmechanics.com/
2. Malone, S., Roe, M., Doran, D.A., et al. “High chronic training loads and exposure to bouts of maximal velocity running reduce injury risk in elite Gaelic football.” Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 2017;20:250. Doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2016.08.005
3. Filter, A., Olivares-Jabalera, J., Santalla, A., et al. “Curve Sprinting in Soccer: Kinematic and Neuromuscular Analysis.” International Journal of Sports Medicine. 2020;41(11):744-750. doi:10.1055/a-1144-3175
4. Churchill, S.M., Salo, A.I.T., and Trewartha, G. “The effect of the bend on technique and performance during maximal effort sprinting.” Sports Biomechanics. 2015; 14 (1):106-121.
5. Jouaux, T. (2015). “Technical Warmup: 50 Exercises Handout.”
6. Francis, C. The Structure of Training for Speed (Key Concepts 2008 Edition)(p. 18).
7. Godfrey, R. J., Madgwick, Z., and Whyte, G. P. “The exercise-induced growth hormone response in athletes.” Sports Medicine. 2003;33(8):599-613.
8. Owen, A., Twist, C., and Ford, P. “Small-sided games: The physiological and technical effect of altering pitch size and player numbers.” Insight. 2004;7:50-53.
9. Russell, M., Sparkes, W., Northeast, J., et al. “Changes in Acceleration and Deceleration Capacity Throughout Professional Soccer Match-Play.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016;30(10): 2839-2844. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000805