Sun, sweat and science: Brighton's pre-season uncovered
Written by Simon Austin — July 10, 2017
Will Abbott, Head of Academy Sports Science and S&C at Brighton, gave TGG the inside track on the club's pre-season preparations:
First of all, what does a Strength and Conditioning coach do?
In my opinion, we have three main roles, which are to ensure players are:
- Available for both training sessions and matches. This is especially important for Academy players, as they aren’t going to develop if they’re sat in the treatment room.
- Fresh enough to perform during competition. This may involve monitoring the training load they are undertaking and education regarding appropriate recovery, nutrition etc.
- Develop the necessary physical capacities. It’s important to benchmark these in relation to the requirements of first-team playing positions and the demands of a first-team competitive schedule.
When did the players come back for pre-season?
This year they returned in the last week of June. We finished our season midway through May, which meant they had just over six weeks off. Generally, the pre-season return date is determined by the first game of the competitive season. As the first team will be playing in the Premier League, the season starts a week later than it would have in the Championship, meaning an extra week off.
Coming back during the last week of June means we have a six week period to prepare the players for the competitive season. The main aims of pre-season are to develop fitness levels in preparation for a long demanding season and for the coaches to communicate their philosophy and playing style to the team.
Did you give the players diet and training plans over the summer?
Left to their own devices, players can change a lot during a six week off-season! So it's important to provide them with as much education and guidance as possible to ensure they come back in good physical condition, enabling them to perform at their best during the season.
After a long, gruelling schedule, a period of rest and recovery is essential - not just from a physical perspective, but from a psychological point of view as well. We give the players two weeks to relax and unwind, although we do still encourage them to stay active and take part in recreational sports.
Following these two weeks of rest, each player has an individualised off-season programme to complete. This consists of running sessions and a gym-based strength programme. Within the academy, we work extremely hard to develop physical capacities within the season, so it’s important the players don’t completely stop during the off-season, because this would reverse all the progress made throughout the year. The Academy players are in their developmental years, aiming to improve year on year.
We need the players to hit the ground running come pre-season, so we can spend more time with them on the training pitch, communicating ideas and moulding the team. The off-season programmes also ensure the transition to full-time training is less stressful for the players, avoiding a significant spike in training load, and reducing the risk of injury.
There are no diet plans per se, but we do provide recommendations on the types of food the players should be eating - and avoiding. With the younger Academy players, we spend time educating them on how their eating habits should change when they aren’t training on a daily basis.
Did the players stick to them?!
To their, the vast majority have come back in fantastic shape. Every year we make the player aware of the importance of the off-season work in preparing for pre-season. You only get one shot a year at pre-season, and if you pick up an injury early on, you’ll likely be playing catch up for the rest of the campaign.
Within every squad, there will be one or two individuals who think they can get away with not doing all of their off-season programmes though. This usually becomes apparent very very quickly, via the physical testing performed on day one. You’ll also get one or two who will have gone above and beyond what you set them!
What did day one/ week one of pre-season involve?
The first day was dedicated to physical testing. This is vital for S&C coaches as it allows us to gauge where each individual is at physically, and consequently what level of training we can start with.
The initial aim of week one, both from a physical and football point of view, is a reintroduction. From a physical perspective, our focus was on developing aerobic capacity and reintroducing the players to basic techniques such as sprinting, changing direction, accelerating and decelerating. From a footballing perspective, the initial focus was light technical work, leading into some larger unit work in preparation for the early pre-season fixtures.
As the pre-season period progresses, we will look to increase the volume and intensity of the movements and activities performed. The coaches focus then tends to shift from larger unit work to smaller unit work.
You went abroad with the squad. Is that something you’ve done before?
During the second week of pre-season we spent six days in Porto. This comprised a day’s travelling, four training days and a match against a local Portuguese team. The main aim of the training camp was to develop the squad’s fitness levels, and for the coaches to communicate their playing style and philosophy for the season ahead.
With our pre-season training camp occurring relatively early into our pre-season, this afforded the coaching team the ability to do a number of things: the four training days allowed us to assess the squad of individuals and provided us with the contact time to deliver a good volume of physical and tactical work; the match on the final day allowed us to make further advances in fitness by exposing all players to 45 minutes of football, whilst also allowing the coaches to assess how much the players had taken on board during the last couple of weeks.
Is there much tie-in with the first team from an S&C point of view?
We didn't travel with the first team this year. However, there is a great deal of discussion between myself and Tom Barnden (first team S&C) when planning pre-season. In the past, players from the U23 squad have joined first team training, matches, and tours during pre-season, so it’s vital there is conversation between ourselves to ensure the training and conditioning the U23s are undertaking is preparing them for the potential opportunity of training or travelling with the first team.
Do you prefer going abroad for the start of pre-season?
I’ve had experience of both going away during pre-season, and also staying at the training ground. Personally, I feel the benefits of taking part in a pre-season tour far outweigh the negatives.
Typically, at the beginning of a season, you will have new players joining the squad. Spending an extended period of time together allows the staff and existing players to get to know the recruits and vice-versa. These tours allow relationships and camaraderie to be developed, which is vital when the going gets tough during the season. If you stay at the training ground, it takes longer for players to get to know each other and bond.
A pre-season training camp also involves increased contact time with the players. This is important in the initial period of pre-season, as it allows coaches more opportunities to assess new recruits and to implement their ideas and philosophies. It also helps to educate the players about how to manage their time and their bodies if they’re out of their normal environment.
Friendly matches against local or foreign teams provide the players with the experience of playing against a different type of opposition than they’re used to.
Admittedly, one of the drawbacks of pre-season tours can be not having the same facilities available that you do at the training ground. In my experience however, this has never been too much of an issue, and the facilities tend to be more than adequate. A lot of research goes into selecting the venue and making sure the location, facilities and travel are right. Typically, the club organises an initial recce visit to check these aspects.
What will the rest of pre-season involve from an S&C perspective?
The initial two weeks of pre-season are about developing general physical capabilities and re-introduce movements and activities, as I’ve said. Once this has been achieved, we look to gradually increase the pitch-based training load the players are exposed to.
Match minutes are also gradually increased throughout the pre-season period using friendly games. The specific training loads prescribed during pre-season are variable from team-to-team and club-to-club.
They are typically dependent on the coaches’ desired playing style and how they want their team to operate tactically come the start of the season. Our aim from an S&C perspective is to ensure the players are robust enough to cope with the demands of the playing style and that any changes in training load during pre-season period are gradual.
The gym-based work will supplement the work completed out on the pitch. As with the pitch-based work, the initial couple of weeks in the gym will act as a reintroduction, before increasing in intensity. The aims of the gym-based S&C are twofold: firstly, looking to develop the physical attributes (strength and power) of the players; and secondly, to develop the players’ ability to tolerate both pre-season and in-season training loads, resulting in a higher training and match availability.
Generally, the volume of pitch and gym based training during pre-season is higher compared to within-season. This affords S&C coaches the ability to develop physical capacities that we perhaps don’t have the time or freedom to do during the season. With the modern-day programme, games come thick and fast.
What do you hope your own career progression will be now?
I’m currently very happy in my role as Head of Academy S&C and Sport Science at Brighton and Hove Albion FC. The club is extremely ambitious and allows its staff the freedom to operate and apply their own philosophies and ideas to their day-to-day practice. With the club recently being promoted to the Premier League, it's an exciting time to be associated with Brighton, and a great project to be a part of. There are some fantastic practitioners at the club, and from professional point of view I’m learning a huge amount, and developing year on year.
My current aim is to complete my PhD, which I’m enrolled on at the University of Brighton. The focus area is the use of GPS technology as a training load monitoring tool in elite Football, the results of which we are using to guide the way we monitor training load at the club.
Additionally, we are currently involved in numerous investigations with external institutions focusing on recovery modalities, the link between injury occurrence, perceived wellness and training load, and the use of bio-banding to individualise training.
The results of these investigations help guide our practice, and improve the service we provide to our academy athletes – with the aim of developing home-grown footballers for our first team.
Any advice for aspiring S&C coaches?
To gain as much practical experience coaching as you possibly can. That applies to those who are currently completing an undergraduate degree, those who are completing a postgraduate degree, or those who have already completed both! There is no substitute for experience in the field. Don’t think it has to be at the highest level either - experience coaching youth athletes, local sports teams, the general population or elite athletes is all beneficial for your development.
I would also advise reaching out and contacting as many S&C coaches as you can. Ask them questions, shadow and learn from them. Again, speak to S&C coaches working with a range of populations. Don’t get hung up on job titles and assume that coaches working with elite athletes are the best around, as it’s definitely not the case. You can learn from everyone.