Football training: the importance of testing for players and coaches

Testing is an objective way of confirming a coach or manager's thoughts

By: Simon Thadani

I have had the privilege to work with several top managers and coaches. I have also talked to many other conditioning coaches, managers, coaches and visited several other clubs over the years, and many of them have different opinions on testing players. Some were not convinced about the benefits, whereas others would be, and would have a whole battery of tests. And then again, there would be clubs that perhaps used only one or two tests.

Basically, the extent of testing and monitoring usually reflects the manager’s and coaches’ philosophy on how players should train and play and how their condition should be measured. Conditioning coaches will also try to educate them on the importance of having some measurable standards in place to back up/confirm what the manager and coaches see in training and games.

My opinion is simple: testing is important but it should be kept simple and, just as crucially, should be specific to the game. Testing is not only evaluative, but also about educating the players about the importance and the benefits of being tested (i.e. so that they can strive for higher levels of condition). Testing is also an objective way of confirming the manager’s/coaches’ thoughts.

What tests should you do?

Several years ago I went to a course run by the Football Association. There were around 20 conditioning coaches on the course, from the Premiership and the Championship. The tutors asked us to compile a list of the tests we do at our clubs - both past and present. Most of us were expecting maybe a total of 12 to 15 tests. When the combined list came back, there were 30-plus tests, several of which I and many others had never heard of! The point I am trying to get over is that there are so many different opinions in the game regarding testing.

Football is a multi-directional and multi-paced explosive game, primarily anaerobic, but with an aerobic foundation. We should therefore test those components, more specifically as aerobic endurance; speed; and speed, agility, power and recovery rate.

Testing amateur players

When testing amateur teams, ask yourself two very important questions: how much time does the team have to train, and why does the team play? If your team plays Saturday to Saturday (or Sunday to Sunday) and does not train between games, then it will be very difficult to test players, therefore testing might not be feasible. This is because you will not specifically be working on developing improved football condition. If your team plays for the fun of playing and the social side of football, then I think testing is not relevant, it’s important that players to continue to enjoy and love the game. However, if your players are more serious and regular training does take place, or they are at a higher level, then testing becomes more relevant and appropriate.

Difference between professional and amateur players

Subject to your standard of play, you are looking at (subject to the tests used) a difference of 10% to 25% between amateurs and professionals. However, you should be less concerned with this variance and more with past testing history. This will give you a better indication of fitness levels and the effects of the playing and conditioning programme.

Testing is important for the following reasons:

  • To assess fitness levels
  • To set programmes and schedules
  • To study the effect of training programmes and matches
  • To turn weakness into strength (team and individual)
  • To motivate players and give them objective feedback
  • To educate players
  • To assess rehabilitation work and post-injury condition
  • To create future standards and a player condition database
  • To monitor over-training
  • To advise the manager of any issues
  • To make players better
  • To give players the confidence to perform well
  • And finally - and often highly underrated – for the mental benefits of telling a player they look and are fit.

A very practical look at monitoring and testing, based on my opinion and experience

Generally speaking, what follows are examples of what professional clubs (subject to financial status) would monitor in training from Mondays to Fridays. They may use one or more of the following:

Heart rate monitors

If you are looking to improve a player’s aerobic fitness, research indicates that you need to work players three times a week for 16-20 minutes in the top heart rate zone, ie, 90% to 95% of heart rate max. Heart rate monitors are widely used in the professional game.

Resting heart rates and questionnaires

Measuring players’ resting heart rates (RHR*) and using a questionnaire (‘Perceived training loads’), designed to measure the way the player is feeling about their physical condition, can evaluate training status and inform the coach as to whether they need a rest or some lighter work or are OK to carry on at the current intensity. Some clubs use this system, but in my experience it is more widely used abroad. You need to trust your players because they can manipulate the questionnaire answers!

* RHR is taken a few moments after waking. A variation from the ‘norm’ can indicate that the players are in an over-trained state.

Omega wave system       

Again, only a couple of clubs have this system, due to its cost. It measures the time between heartbeats over several minutes - which in theory, using past history, would give you some feedback on training status.

Player tests

Laboratory tests    
The only two lab tests I would use would be the VO2* and possibly the Wingate test*. I would consider other tests if there were specific individual player issues, for example a need to determine hamstring strength, due to a player’s propensity to sustain strains. The average professional player’s VO2 max is approx 60ml/kg/min (this indicates a high aerobic capacity on a par with a male elite 400m runner, but allows for a significant anaerobic contribution to their ‘energy system power’ - Ed). In terms of anaerobic power and the Wingate test, you are looking at player’s power levels not declining by more than 15-20% between the first and tenth effort.

* The VO2 test measures a player’s maximum aerobic capacity; the Wingate test measures anaerobic power endurance and ‘fade’.

Field tests            
These form the bulk of your tests. Keep them simple and specific. ‘multi-stage bleep’ or ‘Yo Yo’ tests can fall into this category. They are popular all around the world in many different sports. Top international manager Guus Hiddink wants his players to achieve level 14 on the bleep test. The average in the professional game is between 13.8 and 14.2. The 12-minute run is also a test I use – although there are numerous versions (different durations). At Ipswich, players achieve distances of 3.35km/2.06 miles outdoors and 3.41km/2.1 miles on treadmills.

Game analysis      
ProZone or Amisco analysis system (see monitoring section above).

Recovery test              
There are numerous examples in use that have been designed on an individual basis by different clubs. Ours is simple and easy to do.

8 x 45 second multi-paced efforts on a pre-set circuit. The players’ heart rates are monitored. The (active) recovery between the circuits is used to monitor their training status. Thus, if a player’s heart rate is dropping and stabilising more quickly than it did during previous tests during the active recovery, then their fitness has improved (active recovery involves gentle CV exercise, eg walking/slow jogging). We look for players to not fatigue by more than 8% in terms of heart rate recovery values, across the circuit.
 
Power - vertical jump test
Players’ leg power can be measured using a force plate or the much more low-tech sergeant jump. Players use a countermovement jump – they bend and then extend their legs to jump. This utilises the stretch/reflex capacity of muscles.
Max jump height is recorded in cm. Professional players average approx 57cm.

Speed - linear
There are many ways to test for speed. To be 100% accurate, speed gates with infra-red beams that time the start and finish and any intermediate points should be used. Players perform a flat-out sprint over 20m, with splits at 5m and 10m to assess acceleration. Static and rolling starts are used.

Speed - multi-directional
For example, the ‘T agility sprint test’ – where the player has to move forward, laterally and turn.

Speed - endurance
There are numerous variations to this test. We might do 8 to 10 sprints over 30m or 40m, with a short recovery of 20/30 seconds. We are looking for professional players to not fatigue more than 15% to 20% from effort 1 to effort 10.

Strength/local muscular endurance tests                   
Again there are many possibilities. These include using machines (isokinetic – that measure a muscle’s constant force expression over a designated path) or everyday free weights or body weight exercises.

Selected scores from professionals:

Number of press-ups - 65
Number of clap (plyo) press-ups - 19

Squat – 1.5 times body weight.

A word of caution: any testing is only accurate if the players’ attitude and effort toward them are 100%.

The final whistle on testing

Choose the right time to test. Avoid testing players when they are tired, or during a hectic schedule of games.

Try to produce the same environment for each test as previously done, eg, after a couple of days off, or always outside on a dry day (professional players are usually tested two to four times a year).

I believe that any test with a ball is testing skill. This makes it very much a coaching issue – therefore, in my opinion, you should avoid testing with a ball.

Over the years I would say that the manager and coaches’ observations with reference to conditioning issues in games and training are right 75% of the time. The surprise and food for thought comes with the other 25% of the time! This is when test results could just make the manager and coaches think a bit! And, perhaps, rest or change playing and conditioning in regard to a specific player/players.

Having the fittest team in the league will not win you the league. As an ex-international and world cup player once told me (as have many other top coaches), conditioning is a very important aspect of today’s game BUT more importantly, it’s the players’ ATTITUDE, DESIRE. SKILL and ABILITY that matters first and then, and only then, the coaching and conditioning they receive.

About Simon Thadani

After serving in HM Armed Forces, Simon became a professional football conditioning coach some 20 years ago, with the last 9 years spent at Ipswich Town Football club. Simon has overseen the conditioning of the squad during Ipswich’s promotion and successful Premiership and European campaigns and thereafter the tough and demanding Championship campaigns.

 

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