Its a strange time for the majority of the world’s population at the moment with the current widespread crisis taking its toll on the vast majority. Footballers are no different when it comes down to those having to change up their daily routines and adapt to restrictions that have been put in place.
Whilst many of those in professional sport will likely have some sort of gym set-up in their homes when doing extra-curricular work, it would seem there is no substitute for staying match fit – a popular buzz term that has started to rear its head once again as the Premier League looks to get the 2019/20 season back up-and-running following a lengthy postponement.
Whilst fitness levels amongst footballers should be expected to be of a top-level, West Ham United’s Ryan Fredericks has revealed that there is a huge difference between being fit and healthy and being primed to take to the field in tip-top shape.
“The difference is huge,” says the West Ham defender. “You can spend as long as you want – years, even – running up and down the pitch or running around cones, but 10 minutes in a Premier League match is 100 times harder than any of that.
“You can’t fake anything on a Premier League pitch. You have to react to so many things – mentally, as well. If you get caught out, you’re stuck.”
There is the old saying about how difficult is it really to run around a field of grass for 90 minutes, however there is more one side to being considered fit – with the physical element clearly being considered just one side of things.
“There are different aspects to it,” says Richard Collinge, Head of Medical Services at West Ham United.
“The science behind it all is now a major guide as to objectively clearing a player to return to training and then to return to a match, but the player has to also be psychologically ready.
“Those two things have to match, otherwise that player is not going to be ready to play.”
For the science to work to its full potential, Collinge details that they have previous data on the playing staff that they look at and use it to work out where each individual should be, whilst revealing how they use GPS data to guide them.
“We have benchmarks and training data over several seasons so that we know what each player has got to achieve,” says Collinge.
“How fast he needs to sprint, the number of accelerations and decelerations he makes, the distance he covers.
“You also have to break that down into positional analysis. Match fitness is very different if you’re a goalkeeper from a modern-day wing-back. Using GPS data and distances covered, if a player has had a six-week hamstring injury we can tell what we need to prepare them for based on their position.
“We do some change of direction testing, too, because they have to be able to pivot acutely. They have to be able to withstand the force of an opponent and strike a ball.
“The rehabilitation period is not cleared until we can match as best as possible the loading of the tissue that will be required for full training and then a 90-minute match.”
Fredericks is a big believer in the science and agrees that it is far more complex for a footballer to be ready to play a competitive match than just being able to go the distance and by being able to run long distances for a period of time.
“The hard miles in games don’t really tire you out,” he says. “Sprinting up and down isn’t really what we find hard.
“The hard stuff is the short bursts of pace, when you’ve got to quickly get tight to someone. Nobody can tell you that you’re match fit unless you’ve been in the scenario where you’re having to struggle in the last 10 minutes and you’ve got to grind out a game.
“That’s when you find out about yourself, not doing runs in training.”
Playing football for one of the developmental sides can often be a good way of building match fitness, especially following a lengthy period on the sidelines, however there might still be someway from getting the full preparation that they need to return to competitive football, with their state of mind being a factor.
The mental aspect of being fit is considered a major element of determining whether a player is ready, with both Collinge and Fredericks in agreement that the individual needs to be as comfortable and confident as possible when they are expected to perform.
“When placed in front of spectators and a worldwide audience then the anxieties of the player come into play as well,” explains Collinge. “That can affect the tissue tone. It’s all interwoven. The player needs to feel comfortable that he can play a game.”
“Match fitness comes from confidence,” Fredericks added.
“Going into the game knowing that you’re at a higher risk of injury or that you might blow up after 60 minutes isn’t ideal. You need to play two or three Under-23 games or training-ground games to get that. It’s unheard of to have a long time out and then go straight into the Premier League.”
Of course, managers will need to know that their playing staff are as fit as possible and prepared to take part in an upcoming match and Collinge has stated that the communication channels between his department and David Moyes and the West Ham United backroom staff speak on a daily basis, insisting that dialogue is clear.
“It’s all about clear dialogue,” says Collinge. “The process is one of joint decision-making.
“We might look at the frequency of games coming up and pencil in particular players for particular games. Then we discuss what that player needs to do to prove himself fit and available for that game.
“We as medical staff and coaching staff want the player to be confident, ultimately. We want to make sure that the psychology and feedback from the player is positive, so that they can feel primed for competitive action.”
Indeed, with clubs perhaps being forced into a rather abnormally quick return to competitive action than they have ever experienced before and at a time that could be vital regarding their league status, communication about players’ fitness may be no more important now than ever before.