Pre-Game

I try not to speak to anybody, really. I just like to keep my head down, concentrate – get my shinpads on at twenty to three, get taped up and ready.” (Steve Bull)

“What people don’t realise when they see me sitting at breakfast wearing my ‘cold’ and ‘aloof’ blank face is that I am already in golf mode” (Nick Faldo)

Ask several players what they like to do before kick-off and you will probably get a whole range of completely different answers. Some like long or short warm-up routines, some like to talk to the coach, some appear to spend most of the time walking to and from the bathroom. Your job as a coach is not only to recognize how your players all differ from one another, but to construct a plan to help them all with whatever they need to be ready when the game begins. While this might really start several hours or days before the game, we will focus here on the period where you have your players at the field with you.

The warm-up period has several distinct components. These could include communication between coaches and players, physical exercise designed to raise the players’ heart rates, activities designed to replicate the game (or parts of it) they are about to play, and some form of muscle stretching. Here we will assess all four areas to see what helps and hinders, and suggest a few approaches to refine each.

Communication

What you choose to say before a game can have a lot of impact, particularly on the confidence of your players. If they believe that you are confident, and that you have confidence in them, it is likely that their own self-confidence will rise. How you communicate this to players can be tricky, as some need it more than others. Where some need reassurance, others may even need the opposite: –

“He has got everything in his game but there are times when he just needs a big hug.” (Phil Scolari, on Nicolas Anelka)

“John needed that ‘well done’, he needed that pat on the back. I couldn’t give two monkeys whether he said ‘well done’ to me, and he knew that and he used to go the other way and give me a rollicking. Clough knew I used to fall for it, and running through that tunnel, my attitude was I’ll show that big so and so.” (Larry Lloyd)

Your job as a coach is first to work our which of your players respond best in which way. Some may need support, others are fine on their own. Find out which ones can help you to help others, and which ones need help themelves. How you then communicate the message is also important. Terry Venables says that he used to do it “individually, on the quiet, and just give them little reminders of their specific jobs.” This approach can be very successful, particularly if you do it during the physical warm-up. As players go though activities and/or stretches, you can walk around, ask players how they are feeling, give them a little instruction and tell them how much confidence in them. The personal touch can really help a player to see that you care about them and want them to do well.

Other coaches prefer to bring the team together to talk about confidence and how well they believe they will play. This might have the benefit of appearing to treat everyone equally, but remember that not all players react in the same way to what you have to say. Also, as Real Madrid’s Helanio Herrera says “warming up the hearts of some players only serves to cool the muscles of the whole team,” so keep whatever you say concise and to the point. To do that you will need to plan ahead. Very few people can get it right without planning what they are going to say, so write down a few bullet points to help keep you on track.

Instructions

This part is simple: whatever you plan to say, keep it short. Most coaches like to go over their formation and lineup so that players know who is going where. Others may do all this at the last practice. Usually there are some instructions regarding how the coach wants their team to play, what danger specific opposition players might present, or information about the playing conditions. Some coaches like the talk right before the team goes on the field, others might do it earlier. We recommend experimenting, finding something that works with your team, and then sticking to it. Whether players like it or not, having a routine before the game will help them subconciously to realize that the game is about to start and that they need to be prepared for it.

Warm Up

I’m sure we’ve all been in a practice, when a group of players from another team came running past, endlessly lapping the field at their coach’s request. Read any book from 50+ years ago and this was the approved method to start a practice. Even the most enlightened coaches of the time – Herbert Chapman at Arsenal or Matt Busby at Manchester United – started every practice with some laps of the track. By the 1980’s the professional coaches had realized (or been educated!) that jogging laps was wasting valuable practice time. When during the game do players jog at the same speed for 20 minutes? The answer is obviously never.

“I scrubbed those dreadful, monotonous laps from the training routine. I put the ball down and we played football – five-a-side, six-a-side, anything that enabled them to practice the way they were expected to play as a team.” (Brian Clough, 1975)

Also, with every minute of time being so valuable, they began to question why so much of it was spent without the ball. A commonly accepted theory of the 1890’s was that training should never include a ball, so that players thirsted for it during the week and were extra-motivated to get to use it at weekends. In the professional game this was debunked long ago, and yet if you go to youth practice fields, it is still common to see players jogging around without a ball. A counter argument would be that for the majority of the game you do not actually have the ball, so you should do some training without it, which may be valid as long as what you are doing is still relevant to the game.

From the above debate we have come up with some guidelines for creating warm up plans for youth soccer: –

  • Movement and speed of movement should increase over the warm up period. Start slow and simple, increase pace, changes in direction, ball movement etc as you go.
  • Where possible, use balls in your warm up. This is the phase with the most repetition of technical skills that players will see all day. A warm up gives them an environment to practice control and technique, without worrying too much about pressure or direction of play.
  • Activities should be designed to raise the heart rate and body temperature to appropriate levels. A 30-60 second run to a fence and back will not do this. Warming up takes 10-15 minutes of activity, in any environment. Your goal is to raise total body and muscle temperature by 3-4 degrees farenheit. Each 1-2 degrees speeds up the process of energy production by 13% and increases elasticity of muscles, joints and tendons.
  • Rest breaks are important but should be regulated. During breaks you can do dynamic stretching routines and/or make brief coaching points, but be sure to get back to the activity to keep your players warming up.
  • Control what clothing is worn. Particularly in Colorado winters, you must make sure your players dress appropriately. In cold weather, players will warm up quicker if they are wearing their sweats/warmups. The idea that it is more ‘hardcore’ to wear only shorts and t-shirts in this weather should be strongly discouraged.

Dynamic Stretches

Picture yourself at the fields again, right before the start of a game. Across on the other side of the field, the other team are all in a circle, holding a static stretch and counting to a number at the furthest extremes of their numerical ability. Again, this is a legacy of a bygone era when it was thought to be important to lengthen (“stretch”) muscles before exercise. During the 1990’s it was found in a wide range of research that statically stretching muscles before exercise actually increased the risk of injury and decreased muscle eccentric strength for up to an hour afterwards. So as you watch the other team reducing their muscular strength by 9% or more, why not consider whether your own routine is helping or hindering your players.

Current general concensus is that stretching before activity should take place during motion, and that that movement should be specific to the flexibility requirements of soccer. We recommend that you achieve this by incorporating dynamic flexibility work into your warm up routines. Several examples are included below: –

  • Butt Kickers
  • Walking Knee Stretch
  • Butt Skips
  • High Knee Butt Kickers
  • Lunge Walk
  • Calf Stretch
  • High Knees
  • Twisting Lunge Walk
  • Knee Stretch
  • Reverse Lunge Walk
  • Arm Circles
  • Sideways Skip
  • Skip Across Body
  • High Knee Skips
  • Side Skips
  • One Leg Skip
  • Hurdler Stretch
  • Crossover Step
  • Knee Across Body
  • Tapioca
  • Trunk Turns
  • Leg Extensions
  • Drop Steps
  • Carioca
  • Volleyoca
  • Skipioca
  • Foot Slaps
  • Heading leap
  • Back skip

If you are not sure how to do any of the above exercises, you can type them into a search engine to find videos and images explaining. For more detailed information, we recommend reading: –

  • Warm-Ups For Soccer – A Dynamic Approach by Mick Critchell
  • Soccer Fitness by Alan Pearson
  • Fitness Training in Soccer – A Scientific Approach by Jens Bangsbo
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