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The Best Fitness Test is the Game (No, I’m Not Saying Just Play!)

Two years ago, I wrote a very popular blog about how it was time to do away with Max-Out Aerobic tests in team sports. You can read that blog by clicking here, but my reasons were that most coaches (not all) just use the test as a scare tactic to keep players moving during the offseason, and they rarely used the data to adjust training load (if they did, they actually made the unfit players do MORE fitness, which is backwards, but an argument for another day).

The other issue I had with max-out tests is they are very difficult to repeat in season, especially in a short season where every training session matters and developing your team’s playing style is of greater importance than the level that you can reach on the beep test.

Anyways, one of my suggestions in that blog was to play 11v11 with your team on the 2nd or 3rd day of preseason and use that to assess fitness. I’m going to dive deeper into why I think this is a better, more effective, and REPEATABLE test that you can do with your team.

For starters, let’s examine what fitness is. If you ask 10 different coaches, you might get 10 different definitions, but for the sake of this blog, let’s define fitness as the ability to maintain a playing style for 90 minutes. Great! Now what?

Well, now we need to define what playing style is. Again, if we were to ask 10 different coaches, we might get 10 different answers, but we’ll define playing style as the demands of your game model in attack, defense, and transition. The game (specifically YOUR game model) is always the starting point.

Why? I’m glad you asked.

Imagine Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho for a moment, standing across from each other on opposite benches. Imagine how Jose’s team is playing when they are in possession, when they are out of possession, and when they are in transition.

Now imagine how Klopp’s team is playing in possession, out of possession, and in transition. What are the specific actions that each player makes?

When Jose’s team loses the ball, what are the demands of his game model on his players? How does this differ from Klopp's game model?

  • Does he want them to run back behind the ball or sprint after it and press immediately?

  • Does he have midfielders sprinting into the box late after an attack down the flank or hanging back to prevent the counter?

  • Are his full backs constantly overlapping to create 2v1 chances in wide areas or just occasionally?

All of these actions have a different energy demand on the players. Klopp’s players will be pressing higher, moving more often, and performing more attacking actions than Jose’s players are, thus requiring more energy to maintain his style of play.

You can really see how playing style impacts training load when coaches come in mid-season. When Klopp first took over from Brendan Rodgers mid-season, he suffered many soft tissue injuries as he quickly changed to a style that his players were not adapted to. He was able to solve these injury problems the last 2 seasons with a full build up during preseason.

There was a similar circumstance when Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over at United and they suffered an injury crisis in February (you can read my blog about that here).

Just for argument, let’s say that to maintain Klopp’s style of play for 20 minutes required 2x more ATP than maintaining Jose’s style of play for 20 minutes (just a guesstimate).

When our players come in for preseason, what might be the most specific test we can perform to know how long our players can maintain OUR style of play?

Playing the game, in YOUR style, is the best and most specific way to know how long they can maintain YOUR style. Your style is going to be different than the styles described above and the styles that your players may have played in the past.

If a player gets to level 35 on the yo-yo test, how long can we expect him/her to be able to maintain OUR style of play? There’s no direct conversion, so you’d be guessing, based on their V02 Max.

However, if we played 11v11 in blocks of 10 minutes, and by the 2nd set in the 8th minute, the majority of players are no longer able to press and instead are walking, we now know that our players can maintain our style for 18 minutes.

The next week when we overload them, we will push them to maintain it for 20 minutes. By the end of the season, we’ll be (hopefully) maintaining our style of play for close to 90 minutes.

The nice thing about these types of zero-point tests is that it IS the game. They are easily repeatable in season and they don’t require you to sacrifice a session to obtain a reading.

But remember, this is to see how long they can maintain YOUR style. If our style is going to be sitting deep and trying to counter, but during the "test", we instruct our players to press off the goal kick, we are not actually going to know how long they can maintain the "sit deep and counter" game model. Just because it is a "fitness test" doesn't mean we just let the players play any way they want.

It has to be YOUR style of play!

Some tips for performing this test to make sure you are really pushing the players to their capacity…

  1. Have balls ready on the endline and touchline so that play can quickly be restarted to minimize stoppages.

  2. Coach the players to perform the actions required for YOUR playing style.

  3. Observe and record the moment when your players are unable to maintain your style of play.

For number 3, it’s helpful to have someone else run the session so that you can observe, or you can run the session and have someone else taking notes on specific players and look for when they are walking instead of performing the proper action.

Best of luck to all coaches and players in your upcoming seasons!

About the Author:

Matt Danaher is the creator and developer of SoccerPulse, a mobile app that allows coaches to monitor how their players are feeling, find the intensity of training sessions, give players feedback on their performance and create detailed evaluations. Click here to learn more.

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