Words from Jamie Thomas.
Over the past couple of years, Raymond Verheijen has become one of the most outspoken and talked about fitness coaches in the football world. Verheijen has worked with some of the world’s top clubs and coaches and hasn’t pulled any punches when discussing the failings of certain Premier League clubs. He spoke in-depth to us about the importance of pre-season.
Seems an obvious place to start, but just how important is it for clubs both at the top and the bottom of the leagues to get it right in pre-season?
What is important for a coach in pre-season is that he has his priorities right and that he has an understanding of what objective is most important. The most important objective in pre-season is to develop your time so that your players can develop an understanding amongst themselves, to learn to communicate verbally and non-verbally.
That is the most important objective in pre-season. To reach that objective you need all of your players available on the pitch – what you don’t need is injuries as they are the biggest hindrance to developing a team; that is the last thing you want. Unfortunately what you see is a lot of coaches overtraining players with double or triple sessions daily and as a result players develop fatigue during sessions but it is impossible to recover between sessions because the next session starts while you’re still trying to recover. If you keep doing this from day to day, week to week in pre-season, you accumulate fatigue and as a result the nervous system becomes slower and injuries become more likely because they’re still having to make such explosive movements in football training. So the one thing we should avoid in pre-season is accumulation of fatigue and by doing that you will reduce the injury risk significantly and when you reduce injuries you train and play with your strongest XI as often as possible and as a result you have maximum development of communication and teamwork.
You’ve worked with some of the biggest clubs and nations in world football, do you see a lot of varied methods in pre-season and what would you personally say is the best thing for players during pre-season training?
What is important when you talk about pre-season is that you don’t talk about opinions, that is one of the biggest problems in football that coaches train their players based on subjectivity, based on opinions and experiences.
Players deserve better, they don’t deserve coaches who train a certain way because it is their opinion, they deserve coaches who train a certain way because it is a fact. When you’re in a plane you want the pilot to stick to the protocols and not to fly it the way they believe the plane should be flown, the same with a surgeon, you want them to operate on you properly and not the way they think you should be operated on. Pre-season is no different, players should expect that from a coach – football is not a matter of life and death of course – but players should expect coaches to stick to the facts, the facts about the characteristics of football. What I’ve just told you is not my opinion, those are facts, and what we need in football is that coaches are educated based on facts so that we don’t have all these subjective grey areas where coaches can do whatever they want.
You’ve been very critical in the past, particularly of Premier League teams, regarding pre-season training; West Brom have come under criticism from yourself this time around, do you think it’s a wide-ranging issue with Premier League clubs to overwork their players? Does this add to the argument for having a winter break in the Premier League?
Well all you have to do is analyse the facts. When coaches let players do one-tempo running you are destroying your fast muscle fibres, you’re making them slower, so your first objective problem is that when players do one-tempo running, you make them less explosive. Secondly, if players have to do uphill running like the West Brom players have had to do then they are running at a very slow tempo and as a result you are training your players to sprint with a low frequency, making the nervous system send signals to your muscles slower because of the slower stride frequency during uphill running. The third objective is that football is an interval sport, you make an action, you are out of breath, before the next action you need to catch your breath. You make your action, then you recover, you make your action and you recover. So football fitness means quicker recovery between actions which uphill running doesn’t allow, you’re not training your body for those things if you’re doing uphill running.
Another mistake is that when you want to go to a higher level of play in football, the one characteristic of a higher level is that there is less space and less time, and as a result the players have to make their actions quicker. As a result football is an intensity sport, a speed of action sport and not an endurance sport. With intensity sport you don’t train the quantity, you train quality. You don’t train more, you train better, so the fourth mistake UK coaches especially make is that players accumulate fatigue in these double and triple sessions and haven’t recovered by the next day when you’re doing it all again, so what you’re doing is conditioning your players to play slow football. This is an argument for better coach education because the coach education in England and Scotland is very, very poor and as a result you have football coaches who don’t understand fitness because they don’t get the proper education and then they recruit fitness coaches or sport scientists who don’t understand football. These two people obviously have to work together and as a result you get all of these ridiculous non-football exercises.
You were particularly critical of Arsenal and Manchester United around Christmas last year, what was it particularly you thought those clubs were doing wrong?
Well if you look at the injury statistics of the last 10 years in the Premier League then, together with Newcastle United, Manchester United and Arsenal have by far the worst injury record in the Premier League so that means that something is going wrong obviously. If you want to know in detail what is going wrong then you must be there every day watching the training sessions. If you only want to identify that something is going wrong then you don’t have to be there because the injury statistics speak for themselves as these two teams have by far the worst injury record in the Premier League. You can objectively conclude that those two teams are doing something fundamentally wrong.
Arsenal brought in Shad Forsythe and things seem to have improved, but Chelsea picked up almost no injuries throughout the season and it showed. What are they doing differently? Your good friend Damian Roden has done a good job at Stoke too hasn’t he?
Jose Mourinho has a very deep understanding of periodization, together with his assistant Rui Faria, so that is the most important reason – the coaches have a deep understanding with periodization which is of stark contrast to other coaches. Secondly, they have a football-specific approach so they develop fitness as an integral part of football and football training. Mourinho doesn’t do any isolated training, it is all just a part of playing football, so these two reasons are the most important reasons why Mourinho and Chelsea are doing so well. They can play and train with the same XI almost every day and as a result the team can develop good communication and understanding, which only boosts your chances of winning trophies. Damian Roden is another person who has a deep understanding of periodization so as long as he is involved in the planning of Stoke City training sessions then that explains why they have so little injuries.
Ideally you want the coaching staff to have a deep understanding of periodization, as Damian is Head of Sports Science at the club but the coaching staff is supposed to be in charge of the football training. In the context of Stoke City, what you see now is Damian advising the coaching staff about periodization and as long as they listen to him everything will be fine but if the coaching staff decides to do something else to what Damian is suggesting then the injury risk will increase because they don’t have the same understanding of football periodization.
Going into pre-season once again this summer, what would you tell the likes of Harry Kane or Alexis Sanchez if you were working at their clubs, particularly given some players have been at Copa America or the Euro U21s?
First of all what you should do is give them at least three weeks off after their tournament; as a result they will start pre-season later than everyone else but that is just something you have to accept. Some coaches can’t accept that and only allow their players one or two weeks off after summer tournaments but the problem with this is that these players are lacking freshness at the start of pre-season, they are still fit because they played a tournament recently but they are also still tired because they didn’t have a proper off-season. For these players, the main objective is to regain freshness while retaining fitness. They don’t need fitness because they’ve only just played a tournament but unfortunately some coaches do the same fitness work with these players as they do with the ones that haven’t played at summer tournaments, but as a result you make these players even more tired. The more tired they are, the higher the injury risk is and as a result then they will get an injury in September or October which ends up in coaches blaming summer tournaments when in fact they should be blaming themselves for not managing the players properly.
I don’t know if Angel Di Maria is an example of this because he had the three-week off-season so the injuries and the poor performances from him have a lot to do with what I just described. I think it has to do with the overall problem at Manchester United that the players did not get an opportunity to gradually get used to the more demanding training methods of Louis van Gaal. Louis van Gaal is much more demanding in training than any other coach, which is his strength as long as the players get the time to get used to it but they didn’t – the players were just thrown into the deep end.
Do you think clubs struggle to manage the rehabilitation of their players after summer tournaments, such as this year or even last year after the World Cup, and why? Have clubs improved in this regard over the last 10-15 years?
Obviously there are exceptions but in general I think there is still a lot of room for improvement and the main reason is that coaches don’t know enough about periodization because of insufficient coach education and as a result the fitness training and the recovery and the planning is done by sports scientists who don’t have a deep enough understanding of football. The problem in the Premier League is that football and training is hijacked by sports science – clubs spend millions on it and think they are very professional but in reality it is very amateur because most sports scientists don’t have a deep understanding of football and as a result they are doing a lot of non-specific football training with players.
Is age as much of a factor with regards to players getting injuries as some coaches and managers might imply it is, or is it just a case of them needing a specific level of conditioning training that they might not be getting? You in particular have helped some players edging towards thirty find some of their best ever form such as Craig Bellamy, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben – what is the secret?
What is important is that as players get older obviously they need individual periodization. First of all as a coach you should develop a team programme for the team to follow but within that there should be an individual programme for individual players, some of whom might be older players. What you should do with older players is reduce the volume of training, but not the intensity. Players should train with the maximum speed of actions but the duration of training sessions should be less and the frequency of training sessions should be less for older players.
Final question; who would you say, whether it be a club, a player or a national team, is at the forefront of the game today in terms of conditioning? Who looks after themselves the best, or which club looks after their players better than others – who is the one leading the way so to speak?
Like I said before, Chelsea and Jose Mourinho are the benchmark in terms of football periodization. That doesn’t mean they are perfect because if you look at Diego Costa he struggled with hamstring injuries almost throughout the season. So that proves that nobody is perfect but if everybody would apply the same principles as Jose Mourinho and Chelsea then the number of injuries in football would decrease dramatically.