DOHA, Qatar – Watching the players perform their pre-match warm-ups on the pitch is one of the most delightful rituals of the World Cup. They hop, they rush, they sashay. They stretch and sprint. Some do drills or throw balls towards the goals (or the goalkeepers). Others play what looks like a backyard drive away, throwing one-touch passes around a small circle as two players in the middle dodge and flex to try and win the ball.
It may seem as random as recess at the local elementary school (even if the kids were professional athletes), but there is organization in the chaos.
To help us understand what’s going on, we turned to Andrew Clark, the high performance coordinator for the Australian team, known as the Socceroos. (Currently No. 38 in the FIFA rankings, the team exceeded expectations by finishing second in Group D; they will face Argentina on Saturday in the first knockout round.)
Clark spoke to us about the importance of finding the balance between too little and too much pre-game preparation, and how to keep players’ nerves from ripping before the game.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What is the purpose of the warm-up?
The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare the players to play in the most efficient way, so that they are 100% physically and mentally ready for the game. There are a lot of details under that of increasing body temperature, activating decision making and performing the type of actions that will be required in a game. But we have to make sure not to overdo it. We don’t want to overload the players and take away the energy they need for the game.
Why can’t you just do the exercises out of sight, inside the stadium?
You want to give players an idea of what they’re about to get into. Little things like the wind, the temperature, how wet the grass is, how it feels, the speed of the pitch. Where are the shadows on the ground? Plus, just being there and feeling the stadium vibe energizes them and takes away some of the anxiety.
All the players – the starting line-up as well as the substitutes – are there, but they do different things.
We have 26 players, but only 11 players can play, plus five players on the bench. For the players on the bench, we try to ensure that they are ready in case they are called up at short notice during the game. But they warm up 50 minutes before kick-off, and it might be almost two hours before they hit the pitch. What we need is just to make sure their systems are starting to fire up, their core temperature is elevated, their spine is activated.
And then those players will go off and do something more relaxed, like the little circle groups you see. If you push them too hard they can go overboard and you can actually kill their performance. It is therefore very important that we keep them calm and relaxed.
In a tournament situation, it’s a constant struggle trying to expose players who aren’t playing games to enough training. Everyone has done everything possible to get to this point. And emotionally it’s difficult. They don’t get the same reward as the guy who scores the winner. We work very hard to make sure we don’t neglect them, that we give them the best opportunity when the time comes.
And the starting players?
They go through a process of activating their body and slowly working out the dynamic ranges of motion they will need to perform during the game. Then they will do top speed type activities.
And then we get into a game-based situation where it becomes spatial and decision-making. Usually it’s kind of a positional game – 5v5, plus a reserve player, or 4v4, plus 3. We want to make sure they start making decisions similar to what they do in the game.
What about when they all seem to be doing different things?
After that, you start seeing things specific to certain players. Some players finish in goal, some cross. We have our own ideas, but we base it on what a player needs in those final minutes. We know what a centre-back needs; we know what a midfielder needs and we design activities that enable him to do so.
The last thing we do is get together and do something as explosive as possible just to end it. This is called post-activation potentiation, or PAP, and it involves excitation of the neuromuscular system. They enter the locker room fully activated, fully charged and ready to start the game.
What are they doing in the locker room, after the warm-up but before the start of the match?
There are still 15 minutes until the game, so the challenge for a player is to close that 15 minute gap. It’s an opportunity to refuel, it’s an opportunity to do the final checks, to put on your pads, to say a few words.
What if they’re super nervous – or not nervous enough?
Once we’re scattered on the pitch, the stadium swallows the communication, so that’s when everyone can talk. You have to understand how they feel, if they need a rocket or if, OK, there’s a lot of anxiety in this group, we have to be very calm. They can be over-stimulated or under-stimulated, and we’re trying to balance that, to get back to the midpoint where people are kind and stable and ready to give their best.
There’s less pressure on you than on teams from places like Argentina and Brazil. Does it make the job easier?
Due to the weight of expectations placed on them, other teams may be too anxious to have to fight us. We see this as an opportunity. We take advantage of their anxiety.
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