Breaking Down the Football warmup Part 1: Philosophy and Fitness

Within the game, physical preparation is essential and the first step of on-field practice both in training and matches. Whilst the on-field performance from a tactical perspective is heavily looked at, this article will explore how the warm up both in training and for matches can contribute to on-field success. This is part 1 of an article series as to how the warm up in football can be broken down, with this article analysing the fundamental principles to help maximise the movement efficiency of the players. Subsequently, a greater efficiency of the players’ movement, the better they are able to execute tactical movements, such as utilising hip rotation to switch the play and create overloads and so forth. This article will further underpin the execution of the warm up from the perspective of the practitioner, introducing motivational psychology theory and the terminology of “football coaching philosophy”.

Introduction

The warm up is seen as an essential part of the beautiful game. To put it simply, it allows physical and mental preparation for the players for the coming training or game. Many institutions and organisations, including FIFA (who introduced the FIFA F-Marc 11+ protocol) have outlined a specific set of principles that should be closely adhered to minimize injury and prepare physical performance. The one missing ingredient away from the fitness related principles is the integration of tactics. 

The warm ups always generally start with basic raising of the blood temperature, followed by muscular activation or stabilization, then flexibility or suppleness related dynamic stretches and occasionally neural recruitment for the muscles to stimulate the body. Following on from that, what can then be regarded as the potentiation phase of the warm up is to introduce football-specific movements or technique that provides technical preparation. This is then naturally extended into tactical preparation on the field. 

The one argument I always raise as a practitioner who generally focuses on the initial fitness aspect of the warm up is how the structure can be blended together or is structured in a comprehensive way that all aims are being achieved simultaneously. In other words, can tactics and fitness be integrated to aid eachother, or can the initial fitness phase be made more football-specific and not just general.

In part 1 of this article series, I will introduce the terminology of “football coaching philosophy”, it’s application to the warm up and how this can be underpinned with significant motivational psychological theory so the players as well as coaches can become more invested in the topic at hand. Afterwhich, the physiological principles will be discussed for injury prevention, followed by tactical games that can be theoretically applied with a smooth transition from the fitness phase of the warm up to the games themselves both in training and in game day scenarios. The tactical games will be addressed in part 2 of this series. This will be finished with a review on how we can create a warm-up philosophy that can address both fitness and tactics simultaneously and whether this is achievable.

A Warm Up Philosophy?: Can we develop one?

As part of my master’s thesis, I looked to define the term “philosophy” in a football specific manner. Whilst I hope to get this published one day to further delve into the theory behind this, a simple explanation from my study was generated. A philosophy is a set of values and beliefs, specific to a particular context. The context itself can be coaching, whereby a “coaching philosophy” is created. In other words, a set of values and beliefs specific to coaching, irrelevant to the requirements of a specific sport. If our values and beliefs are tailored towards coaching in a specific sport, in this case of football, then we have a “football coaching philosophy”.

The extension from this argument is, can we have a “football coaching philosophy” specific to the warm up? The warm up should always have the same principles in order to fulfil its purpose of physiological and psychological preparation to respectively increase game readiness and injury prevention as well as increase in motivational levels. But it’s natural and reasonable to assume that each practitioner within the warm up will have a set of values and beliefs or a “football coaching philosophy” as to how they fulfil those principles. It is certainly an area in literature that has very little understanding. Within this article, the aim is simple. Can we develop a philosophy that is comprehensive and holistic, bridging the gap between fitness preparation and tactical understanding for both games and for training? 

Psychology Theory within the Warm Up

How often do we see a warm up beginning with a few rondos before the execution of the warm up itself? Very often, and I have never personally been part of a footballing environment where this isn’t apparent. It is perfectly reasonable to understand as to why this is an essential part of any warm up, even if it’s not exactly a fundamental part of it’s structure. 

Ultimately football players have psychological needs, primarily related to the aspect of motivation. There are three distinct motivational theories from some magnificent academics which I was introduced to within my studies at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences in Oslo, when I specialized in Sports Biology.

  • Self-efficacy theory: This was developed by Bandura in 1977. The primary concept of this theory is how an individual compares themselves to the performance requirements of the task at hand. In other words, the individual’s sense of comparison creates a behaviour, a physical manifestation of their conduct. This is measured with efficaciousness. The better one’s efficaciousness, the more control they have within their ability, resulting in greater confidence levels to execute the task more efficiently. 
  • Self-determination theory: First developed by Deci and Ryan in 1985, this theory promotes the concept of individuals having three distinct needs. From the context of “football coaching philosophy”, the argument is that coaches (being the external factor within what’s known as a motivational climate) must fulfil these three distinct needs in order to maximise athletic potential. These three needs are: autonomy, competence and relatedness. If these are fulfilled, then the athletes’ motivation will be perceived to be at it’s full potential. If we don’t fulfil these needs, we as coaches are then seen to be “thwarting” these needs. 
  • Achievement goal theory: Nicholls in 1984 first introduced this concept. This introduces the idea as to how athletes will align themselves towards the task at hand. If they are “task-oriented” towards the goal (which can be seen as winning the game, or specific tasks to win the game, or just being game ready), then they are purely focused on the task with an underlying perception that accomplishing this goal isn’t about themselves, it’s about succeeding for the team. On the flip side, being ego-oriented would demonstrate a behaviour from the player’s perspective that they are motivated only towards themselves. Forget the team! I’m in this for myself and this will be seen to be self-motivated. 

Essentially, the warm up is the start of on-field performance. It shouldn’t just be seen from the physical perspective. Certainly by reflecting upon these theories, optimizing player motivation can be seen as a key underlying component behind any warm up. Certainly within training, there is more freedom for this due to less tension and a more private atmosphere being created. For games, this can be seen as more of a challenge, though theoretically speaking, player motivation could purely be fulfilled from factors within the environment which in turn provides greater amounts of sensory information to increase motivation. Examples could the stadium size through sight, or the crowd noise through hearing. 

There is a challenge within the training to increase psychological motivation. How do we as coaches fulfil these theories within the warm up and increase motivation to stimulate the players for the main body of the session and even beyond? This is where the need for a “football coaching philosophy” can be useful. For example, placing a value in motivation itself can create considerable byproducts within the coach’s behaviour, producing warm ups that can be considered more engaging and less routine based. 

By developing a “fresh” approach with variations in the warm up, whilst the same principles are addressed, doing so in different ways such as stretches that work the same muscles, different speed, agility and quickness patterns and different potentiation games is a great motivational tool. Why? The player becomes interested in the change, there curiosity is therefore raised and they will put more effort into the warm up itself. The challenge for the practitioner within their “football coaching philosophy” is how they do this. 

Therefore, applying psychological theory to the warm up within a “football coaching philosophy” is a big fundamental because more effort is gained from the players which maximises the productivity of the warm up itself. Players must be invested in our values and beliefs. As previously stated, aspects such as “freshness” is a tool to manage this, but this ultimately comes down to discretion from the coach. This is further underpinned with common language between player and coach. Therefore suitable alignment is created so investment in the philosophy is created. 

The Initial Part of the Warm Up: Fitness

Warm ups should always have the same principles within the phase of fitness. As mentioned, if we can do so in a way that is “fresh”, this becomes a significant advantage. The challenge once again presented is how this can be done?

In my opinion, first understanding the principles in this section of the warm up is paramount because ultimately this is about initially readying the body both physically and mentally. Yes, we want to develop that motivation but we also are doing this for injury prevention. This is about readying our soft tissue such as our muscles, ligaments and tendons to be able to cope with the forthcoming stress of the game or training which will envoke sets of movements that will be tough on the body should this be ignored.

This section will take a step down to the molecular level of football physiology. This phase of the warm up generally covers both training and game days. 

Phase 1: Running 

Are we running for the sake of it? The answer is simple and most people understand that the reasoning behind this is to get blood to the muscles. But why? Our blood stream is divided into two areas, intracellular which are properties within the cells and extracellular, properties in the bloodstream but not directly into the cells. Haemoglobin is a binding protein which oxygen is able to attach onto within the red blood cells (intracellular). We inhale oxygen within our respiratory system which is picked up by our blood whilst dropping off carbon dioxide, waste collected from around the body from various chemical reactions, otherwise known as our metabolism. We are now essentially describing the cardiorespiratory system as the heart pumps the now oxygenated blood around the body to significant muscles and organs for them to work efficiently. This is also known as the oxygen transport system. But why do we need the oxygen at all? 

Let’s look at this from a different perspective. If we go down to the lowest layer possible within human anatomy and physiology this brings us to our genetics, which are strands of our DNA. There are claims from several authors that 50% of our ability or talent is inherited from our parents (Wackerhage 2014). The other 50% comes from our training and our nutrition. We do train, but we need fuel to optimize that and macronutrients such as protein, carbohydrates and fats provide the foundations to create that fuel, or energy. Once we consume these foods and they have been broken down to the molecular level via diffusion in the cellular membranes of our digestive organs, we have molecules from these foods that can be used for energy. However, we require oxygen to break them down. The metabolism of these nutrients is broken down into the following:

  • Proteins – Amino acids
  • Carbohydrates – Glucose
  • Fats – Lipids

Running recruits oxygen via haemoglobin in our red blood cells and delivers them to our muscles so we can break down glucose derived from carbohydrates to produce that energy, commonly referred to as adenosine tri-phosphate or ATP. This is done via a process known as the Krebs Cycle, a series of metabolic chemical reactions that transforms glucose into ATP. In other words, we are producing ATP for our body to use or recruiting oxygen to later produce ATP for the session. 

Generally speaking, we are raising the body temperature. Running helps enforce this and helps increase the blood flow of oxygen to the working muscles. 

Additionally, running gives our joints the chance to loosen up and reduce stiffness. If this is ignored, then our risk of pulling a muscle due to tightened ends of the muscles (known as origins and insertion points) is increased. This means that our chances of developing cramp, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) or a torn muscle is also increased. By having looser joints, this slowly readies our joints to cope with more dynamic movements in later stages of the warm up. Footballers these days are constantly evolving and learning against newer tactics such as recognizing when to switch the play, sharp changes of direction in situations such as overloads and changes of pace in the events of counter-attacks both on and off the ball. Our joints enforce all of these movements but we should never aim to do complex movements immediately because of what we have previously discussed. The range of motion always needs to be gradually progressed so the fibres within the muscles can get used to the movement of the joints in a controlled manner. Anything too quick or sudden can result in an injury. 

It is important that we loosen up as many joints within our body. The body in fitness terms can be termed as the upper extremity (the arms, chest and abdomen) and the lower extremity (hips and legs). After starting with some basic running to loosen the body etc. we can then start to increase the range of motion at the joints and start to work all appropriate joints required for football performance which is generally all of them. Arms need to be loosened up so we can produce sufficient force production in movements that require acceleration or change of pace. This will help us with our balance in sharper movements, allowing us to in footballing situations to turn more efficiently on and off the ball against defenders and attackers. We can progress into some dynamic movements at this point such as lunges with hip rotation, skips with arm drives, walking on our tip toes, opening up the gates etc. The goal here though is to make sure that range of motion at these joints is gradually increased throughout.

Phase 2: Activation and Stabilisation

Now we have raised the body temperature to increase blood flow, the next logical step is to stabilize the body with full body exercises that focus on the core. Imagine the core as an anchor, once that is stabilized and engaged, then this provides the foundation for joints, primarily the hip joints to perform more complex movements. Additionally we are also developing our centre of gravity. With the latter, having a suitable kinetic chain produces more alignment throughout the body. Once again, by having this we are able to produce more sufficient movements as a whole because we are allowing the joints to work together. In other words, we are not isolating any particular joint, core exercises such as this allow cohesion to be developed between the joints.

Core based exercises such as a “glute bridge”, or “squats” can be a useful exercise to perform as this engages all the joints whilst also engaging the abdominal muscles and the gluteal muscles as well. Why work these muscles? The glutes themselves are muscles designed to stabilize our body, predominantly or pelvis and our spine. These are essential facilitators for functional movement patterns within football such as acceleration within situations such as counter-attack, power for heading ability and even our running mechanics to facilitate stride development (how many steps it takes us to break into speed). We can also develop efficiency of the hip joints, even if it’s basic such as facilitating hip extension for a controlled pass and even kicking power. 

As a physical preparation practitioner, I did a comprehensive review of a range of studies as to how this approach can be executed to prevent injury. Adding activation bands to exercises such as squats help stimulate nerve recruitment to the gluteal muscles as well as the hamstrings and quadriceps. They also provide resistance to help build up strength within smaller muscles lower down in our soft tissue layers. That’s then all well and good, but how do we execute this? After cross-checking the FIFA F-Marc, there is a preference to execute more controlled contraction based exercises, in other words concentric and eccentric contractions to be more specific. Personally, I would perform squats with an activation band at the knees to stimulate the lower extremity muscles and would perform each squat very slow so the fibres can work together in a controlled manner and the muscle. This allows gradual lengthening of the muscle, facilitating smooth sliding of the muscle fibres at microscopic level and avoiding any abnormal movements at this level. This also helps establish a range of motion at the joints. Once these controlled squats have been executed, the range of motion can be seen to be established and then we can break into more regular squats so the joints can work more freely. 

There are multiple activation band exercises we can do for specific muscle groups. But this is more convenient in training scenarios when time is on the side of the practitioner. Whilst it will be extensive and exhaustive to list the possibilities, in more extensive warm ups where we would want to establish a whole body approach (this is common in pre-season preparation), we can perform specific activation band exercises the build on from full body activation exercises. This can be a nice-to-have primarily because it works the smaller muscles more efficiently that work as synergists and fixators to muscles like the hamstrings and the quadriceps. 

Phase 3: Flexibility and suppleness

Now the muscles have been activated and are primed and ready to go, we have additionally established the foundation for flexibility. Going straight into flexibility based exercises is ill-advised as full extension and flexion of the joints immediately within a warm up can lead to over-stretching of the muscles. Bare in mind tight joints can also mean tight muscles and too great a movement at a particular joint can cause significant stress on muscle groups. 

The activation (as well as the controlled contractions of muscle groups) solves this problem and this allows our joints to be able to move more freely. This is when this phase comes into play and when we can maximise this. 

From the perspective of the “football coaching philosophy”, my value and belief within this section is simple and pretty much an echo from my previous points, still using gradual range of motion. I would always initiate this phase with lunges in different planes of motion. In other words, I would a clock as a reference point with both of my legs acting as the hands. I would do a lunge on each side at twelve o’clock, one thirty, three o’clock, four thirty and six o’clock. Therefore we are working in different directions to facilitate change of direction in footballing scenarios. Now our hips are able to help us turn on the spot more efficiently, facilitating us in situations such as being closely marked by the opposition, or turning to switch the play. This again provides a suitable building block to help us perform other stretches around the body, but it’s important to understand that we stretch as many muscles as possible. In other words if we do the quadriceps, the hamstrings are done as well as the isolation of one set of muscles creates an uneven balance, risking the unstretched side to be pulled or torn. 

Another area that has to be addressed is the ankles. We have addressed the knees and the hips but I see the leg as a chain of three joints that should work in harmony. We have many ligaments in our ankle and our feet contain 25% of our bones, so more ligaments are present to stabilize this as well as our achilles tendon connected to our calf muscles. Loosening up the ankles with rotations, spelling of the alphabet with our toes and landing on our heels and transitioning to our toes help loosen these areas. Our ankles are the primary joint of contact with the ground, so loosening this will reduce subsequent load of the other joints within the lower extremity chain. 

Bonus Phase – Phase 4: Football-Specific Plyometrics Theory

This is a section of the warm up that can be utilized if we do have the convenience of time, but plyometrics themselves provide a huge benefit for football performance. However, based on critique of plyometrics and cross-checking it with football specific movements, such as step overs and subsequent drives with the outside of the foot, I believe that we can help improve footwork mechanics, power and muscle memory at the same time with this bonus phase. Ideally it would be for training.

What are plyometrics? They are a set of movements that aim to develop power by loading up energy in the joints, such as a jump and then using that energy to perform a more explosive jump. A basic example is a jump into a squat position followed by a jump from that same squat position. We are developing something known as elastic energy to improve power and subsequent force production. My argument is that footballers on the field perform power based movements such as change of pace, so can we practice plyometrics that replicate on field movements. Here is a proposed theory.

Bonus: What is elastic energy? – Think of pushing down on a spring and then releasing the spring, all of the energy is released when it pushes up, the same principle applies to joints. We can load up the energy within the joints and then spring off them to develop power.

Let’s take the football step over as the example. A basic plyometric drill is to load on one ankle with our opposite leg off the ground in an acceleration position, with our arms also at an angle to facilitate acceleration and force development. We would then jump sideways off that ankle and land on the adjacent ankle. Here is a way of improving step over mechanics in a proposed manner whilst developing that power.

Sub Phase 1 – Load on the ankle

Start on the loaded ankle (on the right ankle) as previously described with the following posture.

  • Stand on the ball of the feet, load on the tip toes and the area of the foot just behind it. This allows sufficient weight distribution.
  • Make sure there is a 45 degree angle on the loaded leg with an engaged core and squeezed glutes to stabilize the hips.
  • The opposite leg should be flexed backwards at a 90 degree angle.
  • The arm on the side of the loaded leg should have an extended shoulder backwards with a bent elbow at 90 degrees. The opposite arm should have a flexed shoulder forwards with a 90 degree bent elbow.

This is our starting position. 

Sub Phase 2 – Step Over into Explosive Power

In this position, slowly bring the leg off the ground towards the standing leg so your big toe is next to the inside of our ankle bone. Always keep in the same position with the rest of the body.

Once it reaches this point, start rotating your leg away from the loaded ankle in a counter clockwise motion. Once this action is being performed, facilitate this motion by inverting the loaded ankle so your body is slightly tilting in the direction of the foot performing the step over motion. Additionally, slightly bend the knee and the hip (so you are almost crouching down) on the loaded side of the body.

Once the foot performing the step over (the left foot) motion passes the alignment within the left hip, explode off the loaded ankle and land on the adjacent ankle and then repeat the process immediately. 

Progressions? There are progressions to this. When we land on the opposite ankle, we can do so with our leg almost at a 45 degree angle with an inverted ankle. So we perform the step over jump, land on the opposite ankle away from our body and then once we perform this, replicate a push away with the ball with our laces.

When we perform the progressed landing, we immediately point our opposite foot down towards the ground as if we are controlling a football. We would facilitate this with a flexed knee. Once our pointed foot moves past the hip on the same side, we would then push away sideways back the way we came.

Combined with the step over jump, we have theoretically recreated the footballing scenario of a step over followed by a push away with the ball.

Phase 5: Neural recruitment

This can also be defined as speed, agility and quickness training (SAQ). Below is a basic set of drills that we have seen players use.

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But why do we do it? We have stabilized the body, mobilized the joints, so what is missing? We now need nerves in the muscles. We have to now tell the muscles that we need them to work in short and sharp capacities. This comes from our nervous system. Essentially we are training our brain to make our muscles work faster, in physiological terms, developing the “firing frequency”, how quickly we can recruit nerves to the muscles. This can also be termed as “neuromuscular conditioning”. 

The idea is that we are developing these movements to be subconscious. In other words, the players should be aiming to perform these exercises without interference from our senses such as sight. We don’t want to be focusing on our feet when we do this, we need to face forward so the complex movements can be solely controlled by our subconscious mind. The benefit would be that within the game, these movements will become more natural. 

Players at the elite level I would say can do this with a ball as a progression. Make it football specific. But this is a progression. So what does each equipment within this section actually achieve?

  • Hurdles. When we take steps, we are always transitioning from one leg to the other. Hurdles basically help and quicken the transition between our steps because they provide a barrier. We would start with one step in between each hurdle followed by two steps. We can then progress into performing these at different planes of motion such as going sideways or even backwards. We are essentially improving our strides and telling our nervous system to step more quickly.
  • Ladders. This improves our foot balance and strengthening our soft tissue such as our ligaments and tendons. Think of our normal standing body as a straight line, short and sharp movements forwards, sideways or backwards away from that support means great reliance on the soft tissue. Performing these short and sharp movements in patterns such as one foot in, one foot out, two feet in and two feet out strengthens our ligaments and tendons and allows our muscles to cope with the movement outside of our base of support. The idea is that we start with limited plantations of the foot and slowly progress to more complex movements so our ankles can cope with the loading more efficiently.
  • Cones. We can great creative here and enforce similar principles and movements that the hurdles and ladders create. To me cones provide a good foundation for explosive agility. For example, if we perform a cone drill with basic diagonal in and outs and then immediately transition to side steps through another set of cones, the transition is explosive movement as we move from one plane of motion (forwards) into another (sideways). This helps us in situations such as change of direction and subsequent bursts of speed replicable to counter-attacks or recognizing space off the ball. 

We can perform these in a circuit with all of the principles being enforced. We can perform it extensively in training to develop aerobic endurance at a working rate of around 60-70% and go a step further and periodise this into blocks with each block progressing onto a more complex set of movements or simply lengthening time or adding footballs. This should be judged in conjunction with the players ability to perform these movements. With games, it should always be intensive to ready the muscles for the following phase, potentiation.

For goalkeepers, we can finish each of these circuits with a catch or diving save.

The Transitional Phase of the Warm Up: Potentiation

Potentiation aims to re-create the movements we have performed but in a game related scenario. This can be seen as the link between fitness and tactics. Let’s look at some examples and justifications.

  • Handball: If we are focusing on the principle of switching play, handball can be ideal. The movement byproducts of handball are hip rotation from when we receive the ball and look to play, a squat when we receive the pass in that very moment and jumping to intercept the ball or catch the ball. This makes it a very good game for goalkeepers as well as part of their warm up. Plus it brings out that motivation within the players as previously discussed. It influences the motivational climate and develops team cohesion.

For goalkeepers, we can progress this game to go to rolls on the ground, bounced                                 passes, or chest passes to enforce different types of catches.

  • Touch rugby: Great game if we want to improve or are working on counter-attacking or playing in overloads. Touch rugby requires evasion as well which further builds upon the ladder drills previously discussed, this time against an external stimuli.
  • Futsal: If we are playing small sided games as part of our session, or are re-creating certain footballing situations with a certain number of players, getting the same players such as defenders against attackers in a 4v4 environment can greatly develop team cohesion and communication, allowing them to understand eachother’s movement. This is derived from Raymond Verheijen’s periodization model and development of communication to non-verbal communication, allowing players to read body language.

This can always be naturally progressed to a small sided game in a “football coaching philosophy” that replicates the “play-practice-play” methodology. I personally place value in this as I like going from potentiation to small sided games to condition the players physically and mentally, albeit at a less intensive pace, implement my curriculum for the day and then we go again. Adding a constraints based approach can provide psychological overload within the games such as a limited number of passes. This produces a greater reliance on our body’s shape to improve overall efficiency within the gameplay, allowing our fitness based movements to take effect and to be utilized under pressure. 

We can also alter the pitch dimensions as well such as cutting off the corners or breaking down the pitch into sections. This can be created against the demands of the principles being taught in the main body of the session. For example if we are looking to build through the thirds, then we can create three thirds of the field with each player being restricted to replicate a game scenario. 

Another example can be looking to play through the middle third. Players will be motivated to break the middle third with a penetrative pass. Therefore, can we increase that motivation by adding goals to this area and strengthen this as a target?

As you can see I’m now expressing my creativity as a coach in this phase, albeit pinned down with underlying principles of the main body of my session. This is down to the coach’s discretion, or their “football coaching philosophy” with a solid level of engagement from the players’ perspective. This further promotes the “freshness” of the session and smooth transitioning.

That’s part 1 of this article series finalized. The aim was to create a suitable and basic foundation of the initial part of the warm up and what logical steps and progressions are require to facilitate on-field performance from a psychological and physiological perspective. By adding theory to this as well, I believe there is a gap that we can exploit between injury prevention and football performance. But this is a start because it is theory. It’s application can be a case of trial and error, but it’s worth trying because we can always achieve that extra 1% for training and for games. 

In the next article, I will be addressing the tactical games post-potentiation phase in greater detail, whilst also expanding on potentiation itself with some added bonuses as I have used here.

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