Premier League

SSA Blog: Warm Weather Training

This weekend sees the Premier League make way for the 5th round of the Emirates FA Cup. Only 7 Premier League teams have reached this stage leaving a number of clubs with the opportunity for a winter training camp.

England hosts the only major European league without a winter break, for those teams no longer in the competition FA cup weekends are increasingly used for that role.

Liverpool, Southampton, Newcastle and West Ham have taken advantage of the extended break before their next fixture, while Everton, Tottenham and Manchester United are considering a trip to sunnier climbs in the next few days.

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For Liverpool this will be the second warm weather trip since the turn of the year. Jurgen Klopp justified the getaway when saying “There’s nothing good about going out of competitions, but if you are out you can suffer or you can use the time”. So why do clubs value these mini camps so highly and what are the supposed benefits?

There is very little direct research on the topic in Premier League Football. However, the proposed benefits can broadly be broken down into 3 categories, Mental, Physical and Tactical.

Mental

In 2016 a study by Smith et al, showed mental fatigue having a negative impact on running, shooting and passing performance in football. A training camp, even for a few days, allows players to remove themselves from the pressures of performance and possibly wider lifestyle concerns which can support mental recovery and therefore performance.

As we all know a change of environment can be enough to help impact our mood. When that change includes a perceived benefit, such as sunny warm weather, the response is often positive.

A training camp also offers a controlled environment with less distractions. Players and coaches can benefit from extra focus and use it to reinforce positivity among the group, remove negativity and deal with stress in order to prepare for the final few months of the season.

Physical

In 2012 a study of Premier League players found that 65% of the sample were deficient in Vitamin D in the winter months (Morton et al 2012). A warm weather training camp with greater exposure to sunlight will help alleviate this problem and the related decrease in performance almost immediately.

The increased sunlight and warmth also helps maximise training times. With less time needed for warm up, more time can be devoted to training with the goal of improving or maintaining players fitness levels. Linking back to the mental benefits, it is often easier to run double sessions, players being motivated by warmer conditions. With longer daylight hours, less warm up time, the quantity of work can be improved.

When away on these trips the club has greater access to the players, for example, they are not driving home after training. This gives the club enhanced oversight of players’ recovery, ensuring they are maximising the value of training.  

Tactical

Southampton Manger Ralph Hasenhuttl, pointed to better weather conditions making it easier to train tactically because “you can work in a good atmosphere”. If players are not distracted by trying to keep warm and dry, they have greater mental capacity to take in tactical messages. The warmer weather also makes it easier to spend time on relatively static or slow-moving blocks of tactical drills.

Developing team cohesion also plays a large part in training camps. Research has consistently shown a link between cohesion and performance (Filho et al 2014). For new players coming into a side via the January transfer window or players stepping up to first team level, these camps provide an opportunity to create bonds at a personal level and adjust to the tactical demands of a new team in a less pressurised setting.

Warm weather training camps are much more than a chance to get away and top up a tan. For clubs, they provide a chance to prepare players for the remaining months of the season. For players it’s a welcome relief from the pressures of Premier League life and for staff they create a conducive working environment aimed at maximising performance needs - whatever they maybe.

With the Premier League introducing a winter break from next season, expect to see all clubs jet away for an extended break in the sunshine. With the need removed to find an artificial gap in fixtures, hopefully it will be a catalyst of more than 7 Premier League teams to make it through to the 5th round of the Emirates FA Cup…     

 

Sport Science Agency uses its insight and expertise to tell performance stories and unlocks their value for brands, broadcasters and rights holders. If you want to know more about what we can do for you, drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy vitamin packed drink. 

SSA Blog: VAR and the physicality of football

Last week saw the introduction, into competitive English football, on a trial basis, of the video assistant referee technology system (VAR). It follows last season’s successful implementation of goal line technology and is the latest in a growing number of virtual, tracking or predictive technologies introduced to support officials and referees across sport.

Arguments as to the benefits and drawbacks have been well reported. What has gained less coverage is the potential impact regarding players’ physical load during a game.

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Throughout sport, rule changes and the introduction of technology have affected how the game is played and the nature of the players playing it. Tennis is a prime example.  Players often use the challenge system tactically, in an attempt to break opponents’ momentum or gain extra recovery time following a high-intensity rally.

Football at the highest level requires players to combine a number of fitness elements. It involves high intensity sprinting, accelerations, strength, an endurance base as well as the application of skill and mental agility to deal with tactical demands.

In the English Premier League, the average 90 minute game sees the ball in play for 56.17 minutes. Players are covering distances of nearly 11km per game of which over 10% is covered at high speed. But the biggest increase in activity levels has come in the number of high intensity runs players now make. Data from Barnes et al, back in 2014, showed that players were making 49% more high speed runs than in 2007 and the total distance and intensity numbers are expected to have continued to rise.

The game is undoubtedly speeding up though many have argued VAR may slow it down. What they actually mean is, VAR will impact the ball in play time. But can VAR actually increase ball in play time? Or could it lead to changes in player load and even greater physical demands?

A recent study examining the evolutionary changes in activity and recovery in Rugby League, published by Gabbett & Hulin (2017) in the Journal of Sport Sciences, showed the greatest impact on ‘ball in play’ time resulted from video referee stoppages. It also showed that ‘in game recovery’ time actually increased. So, while video referee referrals reduced the ‘ball in play’ time, it also produced greater recovery time for players, which can enable greater player load/exertion levels to be reached during games.

Could the same be a consequence of the introduction of VAR in football?

There are two areas to consider here:

  1. Will VAR reduce ball in play time?
  2. Will VAR effect in game recovery (and therefore training practices to address this)?

Until the system has been fully trialled and evaluated it is difficult to answer either of these questions. However anecdotal evidence from goal line technology points to more ball in play time as players no longer challenge the referee during breaks. This leads to play being resumed without incident. Evidence from Rugby League and Rugby union on the other hand, suggests that ball in play time has been reduced by the introduction of video technology as game time is lost during those time on and time off moments during referrals.

The really interesting analysis will be the impact, if any, on the players physical demands. Will, as we have seen in Rugby League, increased in game recovery time allow players to compete at even higher intensities once play resumes? Will more effective decision making mean less stoppages and a reduction of in game recovery? And what impact will this have regarding player preparation in order to cope with the potential physical challenges VAR might bring.  

It’s too early to know how VAR will impact player load and the physical demands of the Premier League.  As the system’s adoption increases, sport science teams will evaluate how its introduction impacts areas such as ball in play and in game recovery. If it does, as in both codes of Rugby, start to alter the physical demands of the game, the challenge for clubs will be to adapt training, ensuring players are prepared for these new demands. 

Sport Science Agency works with brands, broadcasters, rights holders and agencies to create insight, experiences and content from the latest sport science research. If you want to know more just drop us a note via info@sportscienceagency.com and we can arrange to go for a healthy performance boosting drink. 

 

SSA Blog: The value of talent

Last week Sport Science Agency supported Clifford French by running a mini NFL Combine. This was part of a project to promote the release of EA Sports Madden NFL 18. For those who don’t know, the NFL Combine was developed to centralise player testing so NFL scouts could compare and contrast players mental and physical attributes with previous and current draft prospects. It is now, without question, the most high profile talent identification event in the world.  

Talent identification is the Holy Grail of sport science. Being able to apply scientific understanding to spot and develop young athletes and turn them into future champions is the goal of every major sporting organisation. But it is not only sport science that cares about talent development. With the huge transfer fees now being applied across European and particularly Premier League football, fans, agents and owners are now very aware of the value of talent identification. Yet the number of home grown players taking to a Premier League field each week is falling, so what can be done to arrest the decline?

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Researchers have often highlighted the multi-disciplinary nature of sport and athletes, meaning any single theory or model of identifying and nurturing talent is practically impossible. One of the major issues professionals face is the differing development trajectories of young athletes due to their differing maturation states.

A wealth of research has shown selection bias towards early maturing players in youth football. It is easy to understand why this preference exists. Buchheit & Mendez-Villanueva in 2014, showed how early maturing footballers cover greater distances at high speed, achieved higher speeds and are involved in greater high intensity actions. As football becomes more physical, speed and power based, these attributes are key to success and often mistaken as talent in young players rather than the benefits of early maturation.

Robert Malia is a leading voice in youth development and has pointed out that despite all the advantages these early maturing players receive, in the form of better coaching and access to higher quality experiences, long term, they might actually be at a disadvantage as they rely on their physical strengths during their development stages to the detriment of acquiring additional technical and tactical skills.     

To combat the impact of differing maturation rates, the Premier League organised its first bio banded tournament last year featuring four clubs. Bio banding offers an alternative option for grouping players, using growth or maturity rather than chronological age. The first review study investigating player experience and perceptions following this bio banded tournament has just been published by Cummings et al, 2017, in the Journal of Sport Science.

The authors highlighted a number of positive outcomes among both early and late maturing groups. The physically mature players felt they needed to develop their skills whilst focusing on tactics and teamwork as well as working on quicker decision making to cope with a game that they were used to dominating due to their size. Bio banding provided these players with greater learning and developmental challenges more in line with late developers, interestingly the players felt it offered “an essential step in preparing them for future competitions against adult and/or more physically able opponents” (Cummings et al, 2017).

Late maturing players were also positive about playing within this new structure. They highlighted benefits such as greater opportunities to demonstrate and develop technical, physical and psychological attributes, exert influence on the game and adopt leadership roles together with having greater confidence and composure on the ball (Cummings et al, 2017). However, these players also recognised the benefits of playing age group games to expose them to greater physical challenges, the same benefits early maturing players identified with bio banding competition.

Cummings and his team conclude that bio banding offers a number of benefits to developing players. Late developing players receive greater opportunities to showcase their potential. Early developers obtain the learning challenges needed to create essential technical and tactical skills. However, the authors do not argue for the current system of player developed to be overhauled or replaced with a bio banded structure. Instead, they propose a hybrid approach mixing bio banding and traditional age groups to “enhance the talent identification process” via reducing the number of bigger, but less talented players and increasing the opportunities for late developers to catch up and showcase their potential.

As Premier League clubs search the globe for talent and the transfer fees linked to that talent continue to climb, could a relatively simple administrate shift in the existing academy structure prove to be the best investment of all...?