After a tournament-free summer Premier League players have returned to earth in a wheezing heap this past week with the start of pre-season training. Ahead of them lies a gruelling six weeks of bleep tests, sweat and pain.
Yet for some top stars such as Crystal Palace’s Yannick Bolasie, Spurs’ Danny Rose and Newcastle’s Rolando Aarons their preparation for 2015/16 began almost as soon as the nettings were taken down last May. Not for them an exotic getaway or time off relaxing at home with the family. Instead, showing a dedication to self-improvement deserving of their pay packets, they have spent their off-season committed to a comprehensive training regime run by sports performance consultancy ,Back 2 Action.
Based in Bristol, Back 2 Action have enjoyed significant successes with their emphasis on encouraging game intelligence, movement analysis, and breaking down the mechanics of sprinting courtesy of a partnership with Olympic gold medallist Darren Campbell.
Flying winger Bolasie has been working with the duo for four years and has subsequently developed from a Championship bench-warmer to recently being tagged a ‘£40m man’. This is not coincidental. Neither is the rise of Danny Rose, another Back 2 Action alumni who made the left-back position his own at White Hart Lane last season.
The programme run by Chris and Ray, tailors a structured approach to each individual and focuses surprisingly little on actual physical fitness. Instead, as Ray explains, it is about “helping them achieve whatever their overall career goal is whether that’s to get into a top four club or one day be nominated for a Ballon D’Or.” “Whatever your goal we assist you in performing better so you have the best chance of putting yourself in the top three per cent of athletes.”
So what are the methods used and what is the psychology behind it all? Firstly credit is due to Ray himself whose motivating passion shines through to the extent that the Rocky theme was playing in the 888sport.com office when we starting writing this piece.
On the subject of pre-season he is adamant that ‘beasting’ a player for forty days back into fitness is simply no longer sufficient when faced with the multifarious and strenuous demands of nearly a year of top level football. He cites the example of recently retired legend Rio Ferdinand and how often a player’s capacity to “run all over the place” is only a basic requirement of the modern player. “Would getting him fitter necessarily make him a better player? Maybe not because his game evolved around his experience and ability to navigate himself around a pitch”.
For Back 2 Action improving a player’s strength, speed, power, game awareness and a positive mindset when approaching each game is far more beneficial to his development and offers that player a far greater chance of enjoying a successful campaign. “Re-energise these aspects and kick on and you almost look like a brand new player but you’re not. It’s like a car that’s been serviced.”
The service begins the moment a new recruit walks through the gates, always with the full backing of his club.
“We look at how the person responds when we ask them to do something,” he explains. “Can we increase their bravery? Can they motivate themselves or others around them? Following on from that we assess their movement. Are there any dysfunctions that need to be ironed out?”
From there a comprehensive training regime is planned that factors in assessing a player’s fatigue index to teaching them how to run efficiently. Ray points out that footballers cover ten thousand metres per game which is equivalent to a middle-distance athlete yet all-too-rarely do they train their running techniques, step-forward Darren Campbell who needed no credential checking with the Premier League stars.
Continuing the motoring analogy he says, “We take them outside of that environment and assist them – like a manual car – to have that first gear of acceleration, that second gear to give you a bit more kick, that third gear to maintain, and fourth and fifth gears to really hit their top-end speed. These are vital components for any professional footballer.”
These are attributes that will be applied week in, week out in the pursuit of personal and club glory and Ray once again stresses the importance of utilising the off-season to strengthen weaknesses and further hone strengths for the trails and tribulations to come.
“I believe that pre-season is about trying to get ready for a football season not getting fit for it. That means asking how confident are you? How expressive will you be in the role you need to play? How open is your mindset? That’s more important than how tough are you or how tough is pre-season.”
Sports science and the appreciation of it has come a long way in recent times yet still players blessed with undeniable talent put on a newly designed kit and sprint onto a lush green August pitch clearly under prepared. Granted we’ve probably moved past the times when a Premier League player turned up for pre-season two stone overweight with a fractured foot from a holiday mishap – mentioning no names of course - but when Ray insists he can easily spot players who “haven’t done enough” on the opening day we are not out of the woods yet.