Trust me, one of the worst things you can do as a player is to NOT be ready for the season!

     In Australia, we’re currently starting to slide down the back-side of winter, but Old’ Man Winter still has his finger pressed down firmly in place.  The days are short, the weather is cool and the skies are cloudy.  Winter is in full swing and as happens every year, when the days are shorter and the weather turns cooler, professional footballers in both the Hyundai A-League and the Westfield W-League are preparing for the upcoming season full stride.  On the other-side of the world, in the beautiful summer of the European Alps, Tour de France cyclists are climbing and sprinting, then eating and resting, then racing again towards the finish on a summer’s day at Paris’ Champs-Elysees.  On the other side of the world on a groomed green court, under sunny, summer skies at Wimbledon, a player quiets her mind and concentrates on her next serve. On the other side of the world on diamonds across America, the Boys of Summer warm-up for the first pitch of an afternoon game….AND…this year, more than 10,000 top athletes (almost all amateurs) in 36 sports, from all around the globe, are culminating years of training to perform at their personal best in London against the back-drop of a blazing Olympic torch and the world’s waving flags – yet again, on the other-side of the world and yet again, during the summer.

     A full-time footballer’s lifestyle may seem to have little in common with yours.  The closest your routine may come to a professional athlete’s could be when you see one onESPN or when you settle into a stadium seat to watch a match. These are professional football (soccer) athletes who have genetic gifts and possibly sponsorship deals; you have to spend the day at school, work in the evening or you have a day job or maybe you’re retired from one.  So, why are you reading this?  I don’t know.  Maybe because I’m going to offer a perspective on training and preparing for a football season at a level that only a select few ever have the privilege to actually experience.  Maybe because I’m going to not just tell you it can be done, but I’m also going to show you how you can train and prepare at the same-level the professionals do.  Thus, this blog entry might just hold some value for players, coaches and even parents, maybe?!

     Trust me, one of the worst things you can do as a player is to NOT be ready for the season!  Very few things disappoint me as a coach – THIS WAS ONE OF THEM!  A player who doesn’t come in fit is a disappointment.  Honestly, I look at it as a sign of disrespect, not only for the team, their teammates and coaches…but also, also for themselves.  More importantly, though, many times I look at players who don’t take the time to prepare themselves properly and just shake my head and say, "what a waste of talent.”

     Like that old phrase goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, this is especially true when you report for the first session of the season. Trust me.  The number of athletes that have suffered injuries because they were not ready coming in…the number of athletes who were cut from a team because they were not ready coming in…the number of athletes who were never able to work themselves into quality playing time because they were not ready coming in…the number of athletes who were passed up on the depth chart by a teammate because they were not ready coming in and their teammate was…is staggering and quite disappointing to see.  Even more so, whether it’s pre-season, open fields or even try-outs, your level of fitness and your skill-set will determine the direction you go from that point forward.

To-Do List  

     A professional footballer’s off-season to-do list revolves around conditioning, competition strategy, technical work, watching film, nutrition, rest and weights. On the other-hand, you feel good, and rightfully so, if you’re able to get to a Zumba or InTenSity class consistently and go for a jog a few times a week.

     Professional footballers devote their attention and energy in the off-season to reaching their highest potential in their fitness-level and reciprocal level of technical skill – as they should, because it’s their job.  But, what if you started using a pro player’s approach to meet your fitness and technical goals? While you may never make it to “the Show” or have the opportunity to jubilantly raise your arms overhead and applaud the stadium fans after a match, everyone has a personal goal, an inner champion waiting to claim victory.

     Ready to try to train for your winning season?  Ready to try to train for your “professional” experience?  Let’s see what we can do.

Enjoyment  

     Let’s start off by evaluating the enjoyment factor of the training program you currently follow or want to begin.  Even the most elite athlete’s program starts with their passion for the game of football.

     We mortals (re: not professionals) have access to that emotional clubhouse, too.  The same love of participation unites players at all levels of the game writes former Indiana University soccer player Cam Tiltland in his upcoming book (release date: 4th quarter of 2012) titled, Training on Your Edge, co-authored by his former teammate Greg Moucher of Seattle, Washington. “One of the great things about soccer is that almost everybody can play it,” Tiltland says. “It does not matter what size, shape or color; it doesn’t matter your age, speed or gender.  As soon as you step between the lines and onto the pitch and begin, you are a player.  You are one of us.”

Assess  

     You not only want to make the team, but also play?...right?  Great!  One of the first steps in professional-type training is to accurately assess your current level of fitness, strength, speed, skill, etc…  Be sure to get a health-care provider to check you over and clear you to change your training or if you’re uncertain whether a new aspect of your training is appropriate based on your health history.  Once your doctor clears you, an exercise physiologist or certified personal trainer should test and determine your condition in specific areas of fitness such as muscular strength, cardiovascular endurance and body composition.  A dietitian should also perform a complete nutrition assessment.

     With measurable data, you can work with these professionals, like a professional, to create a personalized program to get you ready.  Any professional style program should incorporate your lifestyle and goals, vary your activities and balance higher-intensity sessions with rest or “recovery days.”  To adopt a more professional training method for improving your fitness and performance in the sport of football, Clay Nicton, a strength-and-conditioning coach who specializes in the sport of soccer and works with the National Training Centresthrough the Football Federation Australia recommends “periodized” training.

“Athletes periodize their training, meaning they perform certain workouts based on the time of year and their competition schedule.  Every one of two months the focus of their workouts will change depending on their needs in relation to where they are on the calendar pertaining to their football schedule, Nicton said. “This keeps the body constantly adapting and reduces the likelihood of overuse injury, whereas doing the same general workout over long periods of time ceases to cause the body to adapt and progress.”  

     This training style can also lead to bigger gains in motivation and confidence, Nicton says.“Providing more of a professional-type workout not only improves overall fitness and performance, but can increase a player’s self-efficacy, or belief that one is capable of reaching a certain set of goals.”  

Practice  

     Another way to rise through the ranks and train more like a professional is to practicebasic skills and learn more about your chosen training activities: movement patterns, timing and specific abilities such as balance or hand-eye coordination.  This is why baseball pitchers throw pitch after pitch in bullpens and golfers hit buckets of balls at the driving range.

     It also helps to bring in an expert.  When we sign new players, especially young ones and even more so when we are their first real professional experience, we always assign them an assistant coach or a trainer to evaluate their technique and teach them drills they could practice on their own.  For you, without the resources that a professional athlete has, it still should be a relatively small investment of money and time that will help things like your technical proficiency, power, speed, etc… your club or another local club, a health club, local gym, places that offer activities like yoga, etc… are all viable options to review or learn more advanced techniques. Nothing takes place of live instruction, but even books and video tutorials can effectively teach fundamentals.

Focus  

     To be successful, athletes require focus.  Despite constant noise and visual distractions, NBA players learn to stay present at the free-throw line, their minds fixed on nothing but getting the ball through the hoop and a tennis player’s attention during a volley is focused on returning the coming shot.  Practice training your focus to the here and now by not thinking beyond the current phase of your workout, whether it’s a high-intensity interval or your next lap in the pool.  Many athletes also employ positive self-talk to persevere through tough training-sessions and competition, says Marina Abrams, Ph. D., a sport and exercise psychologist at the Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.  You can similarly choose a short but powerful phrase to remind yourself of a workout’s purpose, trading self-doubt for belief in yourself. “Review the kinds of things you say to yourself.  Be able to recognize, stop and replace negative self-talk with positive affirmations that are also based in reality,” Abrams says.

Competition  

     A full-time athlete trains to prepare for competition, but you don’t need to be a pro to compete.  A friend of mine, a very successful collegiate women’s basketball coach (she’s won over 200 games in 12 years), used to teach a college weight-training course.  At each semester’s end, she and another instructor would organize a friendly contest between the two classes in push-ups, sit-ups (crunches), chest presses and bicep curls.  Each time they held this low-stakes match – winners got small trophies and bragging rights – I watched, amazed, as what were sometimes-lackadaisical students morphed into gung-ho teammates.

     Entering appropriate level competition, such as summer-leagues, semi-professional leagues, playing overseas, amateur leagues, open-fields, etc… presents you with a similar positive, achievable challenge to how professional athletes deal with the competition component of their training. Sign up, and play for, an event for the general public like an amateur adult-league to test your skills or a more competitive college-aged playing environment to also test your fitness.  Many “recreational" level organizations and clubs have leagues organized by skill level or experience and some stage post-season tournaments. I play in an amateur adult-league that organizes an end-of-season tournament. In this amateur league teams still score points based upon how they do in league play and where they finish in the league ladder.  Though my team, most recently, didn’t earn enough points to qualify for the post-season tournament, our goal of finishing the season in as high a spot on the ladder as possible kept us dedicated and focused all season long.  The same experience can take place for you.  You can also reap the multiple benefits of this competitive aspect to your training.

     Regardless of what level of football you are preparing for, approaching a training program with the mentality of a professional footballer can increase motivation, self-confidence, pure enjoyment and the best preparation for your upcoming season.  This kind of personal victory may not lead to the Olympics podium or the World Cup, but even better, it scores you a win on the playing field of your own game.