Strength & conditioning support for football (soccer for us North Americans) has evolved over time. The evolution of the “fitness coach” has, in part, coincided with the increase in game demands alongside the proliferation of tracking devices and sport science research over the last two decades (1,2). As a result, the integration of S&C coaches to ensure the physical preparation of the team and support coaches with training load management has become the standard. This phenomenon has quickly translated to younger levels – which was precisely my job as the physical preparation coach with the Vancouver Whitecaps academy. I later realized that my role was about much more than training, it was about setting the groundwork for good training habits and educating players and coaches on how physical preparation could influence match performance.
In my role, I was tasked to support the health and performance of developmental athletes by improving physical capacities and movement skills, while also supporting coaches with practice loading. I was fortunate to come into an environment where coaches were supportive of the physical training we provided – they understood that it was necessary for the players physical development and to minimize injury risk. When it came to practice planning and training load, it was a process with many growing pains. Fortunately for me, I had incredible support from our technical directors who believed in integration and sport science, in addition to ongoing guidance from the head of physical preparation and his lessons from first-team football. While it can take some time, integrating effectively is paramount to delivering a complete physical preparation program.
How I’ve helped Players
When it came to delivering the programming to our footballers, everything came back to education. As a coach to developmental athletes, we are preparing athletes to perform for another 10, or more, years. A priority is to develop good training habits that will carry them forward. I encouraged the development of these training habits through consistent programming, coaching, and communicating clear expectations.
Consistency, as a principle, is paramount above all else in preparing athletes and developing good habits. I applied this principle to every facet of my interaction with players – from session delivery, programming, and education, to my communication with individuals and the team (Figure 1). Players understood that every exercise in our programs were selected for a reason and had applied to football – I would remind or quiz them on these items. By educating players about how our training programs were preparing them for game demands, we drew links to how preparation would lead to improved performance. This helped gain buy-in and autonomy in performing the fundamentals consistently.
Warming up is a daily habit for athletes which is why we delivered a consistent warm-up structure. We would start with an activation routine targeting commonly injured sites and core and hip musculature, followed by dynamic stretches which would lead into multi-directional speed and power work. As the year progressed, players grew to perform their activation exercises individually and lead their teammates through dynamic stretches and cool downs. When it came to multi-directional speed and power warm-ups, players understood the role that speed and plyometric training played in both preparing for game demands and injury reduction.
Ultimately, my goal as a coach was for the athletes to not rely on me to direct them through training. Everything in my approach had this end in mind – to develop and support informed, autonomous athletes with good training habits.
How I’ve helped Coaches
Fundamentally speaking, the approach taken to support our coaches was rooted in education in the same way it was with our players. That went both ways. I learned about football tactics and principles to better understand the physical demands of their game model. Based on these discussions, I was better able to support in microcycle planning and provide practice loading suggestions. With weekly planning meetings and regular debriefs, an informal education process occurred whereby principles of training (e.g. adaptation, overload, recovery) and the prescription of key items such as plyometrics, sprinting and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) were discussed.
This level of integration took time to establish; it wasn’t a linear process. While developing and delivering warm-up and conditioning protocols during training was easily adopted, a different approach to the discussion of practice design and loading was required. Humility and education on both sides were paramount, specifically on my end. As I began to learn more about each team’s game model and trust was built, the level of integration with our technical coaching staff evolved – eventually I was viewed and labelled an “assistant coach” with a specialization in fitness.
One of the challenges we faced as a staff early on was the balancing act between four pillars of the game – technical, tactical, physical and mental. Coaches felt constrained with the session parameters suggested to achieve the target physical outputs. In order to regain the trust of coaches, we asked if we could augment their sessions with short protocols to achieve the necessary physical qualities we were looking for on certain days of the microcycle such as sprinting, high-speed running, volume top-ups and change of direction work. This flexibility increased their interest in having discussions around practice design and challenged my ability to adapt and adjust. These informal discussions progressed to regular weekly planning meetings where we reviewed the weekly microcycle, training plans, and augmenting physical components where needed.
As I evolved in my role, so did our academy which added more teams and tracking technologies. Serving as an assistant coach to multiple teams with varying schedules, I was unable to be on-field for each session. Though having objective data from the sessions was helpful, the importance of educating our coaches and empowering them with the knowledge that I used to make decisions was underscored. Through multiple iterations, we developed feedback cycles that fostered a high-level of integration with each team and autonomy on the planning process for each coach.
How I’ve helped the Club
Our academy and the club at large have always had a strong training culture and sport science department. Our academy players have had a reputation for being fit, fast and strong. I was tasked with building on this culture by developing a physical development pathway for our academy teams players. The goal of the physical development pathway was to outline a quadrennial training model (Figure 2). The purpose was to have a guiding physical preparation framework to work within for movement, speed, power, strength and energy systems development that would thoughtfully progress at each stage of their physical development. In doing so, we were able to establish clear expectations for their training and physical benchmarks for our key performance indicators (yo-yo score and sprint speed) for each stage of their physical development, including the first-team level. This was helpful in having both coaches and players interpret testing results and setting a target to aim for within their stage of development and for first team football.
This training model was the culmination of many years of training young footballers and lessons learned along the way, in particular from the head of physical preparation and other mentors. Through these years of iterating and coaching, specifically during my time with the club, I was able to refine my process and test these training models. One example that comes to mind is the improvement of yo-yo scores with the first intake group at U15. Many of those players saw the benefit of our energy systems development and practice loading approach going on to achieve the first team yo-yo benchmark 2 years later.
In creating the physical development pathway, we helped to clearly define training strategies to prepare our footballers for first team football, providing them with the physical tools, habits and education to flourish at the next stage.
During my time, I witnessed players progress from the U15 ranks to becoming professionals, along with many others who graduated from the academy into first-team football. Working in a professional academy setting was an incredible experience that gave me insight into the developmental process of young athletes – specifically those aspiring to be professionals. The biggest lesson from my time was that the most important part of my job was not the physical outputs or training program, but the education of both players and coaches and consistent training exposures.
My mindset at the outset was that of an eager S&C coach, spending hours deliberating on minutia and looking to collect data and validate their training methodologies. While this was a necessary part of the job, through conversations with those who came before me, I learned that my role was to steer the ship – by providing education and a consistent training program with the goal of instilling good habits. These became the cornerstones that I built my coaching philosophy on. In a developmental setting, the bedrock of your coaching process should be education. We are preparing athletes to perform for another 10 years or longer, if we keep this end in mind, it will be easier to adhere to this principle. Adopting this perspective puts the responsibility of the coach to focus on education and adhering to the fundamentals. With consistent quality training and coaching, we will both improve performance and their understanding of the training process. Over time, the product of this approach is autonomous athletes with good habits.
Springham, M., Walker, G., Strudwick, T., & Turner, A. N. (2018). Developing strength and conditioning coaches for professional football. Professional Strength & Conditioning, 50, p.9-16.
Bush, M., Barnes, C., Archer, D. T., Hogg, B., & Bradley, P. S. (2015). Evolution of match performance parameters for various playing positions in the English Premier League. Human movement science, 39, 1-11.