How to achieve a balance between physical and tactical training in football
Team sports, including football, have often been described in the context of the complex systems theory, where a complex system is a system composed of many components that interact with each other. It has been adopted by coaches in team sports to move away from a reductionist model of training different physical and tactical elements separately to overloading different physiological and tactical elements of the game through tactical iterations, such as manipulating player numbers and pitch size in small sided games (SSG).
This complex systems theory approach to training in football has been adopted by highly successful coaches such as Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, and has been aptly named tactical periodization, which is essentially a concept of training in team sports with a specific game model outcome in mind. It is a non-linear dynamic process that evolves based on the capacity of the players, and is often thought of as a concept that conceives training as a process of teaching and learning, rather than incorporating closed drills that do not deliver context to the player.
While many team sports coaches have enjoyed much success with this type of approach, the question is where does this leave the strength and conditioning practitioner in terms of their contribution to player and team development from a physical perspective? One role that has been evolving steadily is that of the sports scientist who monitors load within the team setting and advises the head coach on load management, player wellness and fatigue status, yet in an environment that applies a tactical periodization approach, has the strength (and conditioning) coach become redundant, considering that the very nature of strength and conditioning is general physical preparation, and are these roles now becoming the domain of tactical team sport specialists? I would argue that the strength and conditioning practitioner has an important role to play within a team setting, as long as there is an integrated approach to the development of on-field tactical application of physiological load and complementary strength, power and mobility work in the weight room or on the field.
While the actual load, both on the field as well as in the weight room, should depend on the training age and maturity of the playing squad, there is a need for the strength and conditioning practitioner to become more involved in on-field practice, and vice-versa when it comes for head coaches and the weight room. In such an environment, there will be fewer situations where strength and conditioning practitioners and sports coaches will distinguish between “our time” and “football time” respectively. As a starting point in this type of methodology, all coaches will need to agree on and use the same language and identify the desired traits and characteristics to develop in their players and teams. Perhaps the best starting point for discussion between the strength and conditioning practitioner and the sports coach would be “What does good movement look like?” Once agreed on this concept, the coaching staff can then decide on which gaps need to be closed in terms of athletic ability and design a training template that achieves an optimal relationship between physical and tactical training, where one is not neglected at the other’s expense.
In his book Game Changer, Fergus Connolly introduces his concept of the morphocycle, which is the training cycle between two games. The game itself is the starting point for planning all training load, including tactical/technical, psychological, emotional and physical elements, which essentially all represent stressors and are thus considered as training load. An example of this type of planning structure is provided below, and I have tried to implement a similar type of approach to planning at the academy level in football. I have found that while tactical periodization concepts can clearly be used to develop the specific physiological qualities required by the sport, there will often be a lack of overload of general athletic qualities, such as speed, strength and power. While the argument of how strong team sport athletes need to be is beyond the scope of this article, a physically well-developed player will be more robust and less prone to injury, and complementing on-field work with contextual weight room work, particularly at the academy level, seems like a reasonable choice.
So when balancing tactical and physical training at an academy level, how involved should we be as strength and conditioning practitioners? In my view, we need to be involved in planning the morphocycle together with the technical coaching staff, setting themes for training days with respect to the competition schedule, and monitoring training load and response. With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves how many opportunities we have during the morphocycle to perform traditional strength training, keeping in mind the relatively low training age of the academy players. With low training age comes lower levels of skill, so choosing the appropriate exercises is paramount in order to avoid lingering fatigue, which is contraindicated to maintaining high intensity in tactical training. The table below provides an overview of my current model of the morphocycle, with weight room activities aimed at complementing the daily training theme. Contextual overload of specific physical abilities is provided on the field, while the weight room is reserved for development of fundamental athletic performance, which includes the ability of players to express, absorb and transmit force quickly and efficiently.
I have tried a couple of different iterations of the morphocycle, but the basic premise of my thinking is to overload one physical ability that has been identified as a key performance indicator (KPI) on matchday +3, matchday +4 and matchday -2, respectively. The themes or targeted KPIs are thus acceleration, maximum speed and change of direction performance. The organization of the cycle is to introduce the overload before the small sided games or the tactical training so as to illicit the maximum adaptation. We try to make the overload sport-specific, although I’ll avoid including the ball during these overload elements and rather use the competitive nature of the players to ensure maximum effort when facing off against each other. The stimulus is then changed every 3 to 6 weeks, depending on the players’ response, which we track with a subjective RPE score following each session.
The second iteration is to use a high-low approach and apply the overload elements on every other day to avoid fatigue, which means that we would also cycle the themes of the overload sessions over more than one morphocyle. That would mean we would target acceleration on matchday +3, maximum speed on matchday -2, then change of direction performance on matchday +3 in the following week or morphocycle etc. This would obviously change when there are two games within a week, when recovery modalities would replace themes overloading the identified KPIs. No overload of physical abilities is programmed on days when on-field sessions are extensive, meaning that the pitch is close to full size and players are involved in scrimmages, as we consider these days as very specific in nature and don’t like overloading further in an attempt to minimize redundant fatigue.
Weight room training is targeted to complement the overloaded physical ability on the pitch on the given day, and is kept short to anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes following an individual warmup and movement preparation protocol. This way, the players have context for all their off-field activities, keeping them engaged and motivated, which is sometimes challenging to do at the academy level where training age and skill may be low and the environment is not yet fully professional.
Connolly, F. & White, P. (2017). Game Changer: The Art of Sports Science; Las Vegas; Nevada: Victory Belt
Tee, J. C., Ashford, M., & Piggott, D. (2018). A tactical periodization approach for rugby union. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 40(5), 1-13. doi:10.1519/SSC.0000000000000390