Following a break of an extending period of time, i.e. the summer months in England, a player can normally expect a period of between 4-6 weeks (on average) whereby they can get themselves up to speed and prepared to take on another arduous campaign.
Obviously, 2020 has been far from the norm and everything that was ever considered routinely normal has been thrown out the window, including the kitchen sink.
With the Premier League looking to get ‘Project Restart’ off the ground and up-and-running in the imminent future, footballers have been asked to do things far from the book that they would normally be reading from and are, perhaps, being rushed back into cutting corners in order to get the current campaign done and dusted before some form of normality can return with the commencing of the 20/21 campaign.
Of course, ‘match fitness’ is a popular term used by those in the game as it is pointed out to be an entirely different level of fitness to those required on the training field and the ideal way for players to be able to get that is by playing fixtures – for example, after a hiatus, many go on to play for the developmental sides to get back to optimum condition during the season, whilst friendlies are scheduled in pre-season to ensure they are raring to go at the beginning of the football calendar.
However, with the current global situation, those exhibition games now appear to be a luxury of some-sort and one that a certain professional footballer believes are an important part of the process of being ready, especially to be competing at the top level in the Premier League.
“The difference is huge,” says West Ham United defender Ryan Fredericks. “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.”
Indeed, that is a sentiment that is echoed by one of the Hammers’ top officials when discussing what the difference is between being ‘match-fit’ and being ready to play at the top level, including their psychological state.
“There are different aspects to it,” says Richard Collinge, Head of Medical Services at West Ham.
“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.”
“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 also appears to suggest that there is not a substitute for match practice when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, as he hints that the intensity that can be involved in the finals stages of a game can not be matched on the training pitch.
“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.”
Fitness might well be one of the more obvious things footballers need to have in order to make a successful transition back to elite competition, however the mental aspect of the game is something that can not be disregarded either, as this can help them to reach the levels they need to be in order to compete.
“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.”
Fredericks agrees, as he says: “Match fitness comes from confidence.”
“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.”
Daily conversations between management and the medical department are also just as important in helping build the confidence that Fredericks speaks about. Collinge speaks with David Moyes and the Hammers’ coaching staff on a daily basis in order to set realistic targets and assess the levels of fitness their players are at.
“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.”