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Twists and Turns: A World Cup Fitness Coach Explains Pregame Warm-Ups

DOHA, Qatar – Watching players perform their pre-match warm-ups on the pitch is one of the more enjoyable World Cup rituals. They skip, they shake, they swing. They stretch and sprint. Some run drills or fireballs at goals (or goalkeepers). Others play what looks like a backyard keep, shooting one-touch passes around a small circle while two players in the middle dodge and dart to try and win the ball.

It may seem as random as recess at the local elementary school (even though the kids are 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 Australia’s team known as the Socceroos. (Currently No. 38 in the FIFA rankings, the team exceeded expectations by finishing second in Group D; it will face Argentina in the first knockout round on Saturday.)

Clark spoke to us about the importance of finding the sweet spot between too little and too much pre-game preparation, and how to keep the players’ nerves from fraying 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 perform in the most efficient way, to get them physically and mentally 100 percent ready for the match. There’s a whole lot of detail under that of raising body temperature, turning on decision-making, and performing the kinds of actions that will be required in a game. But we have to make sure we don’t overdo it. We don’t want to overload the players and take away energy that is needed for the game.

Why can’t you just do the exercises out of sight, inside the stadium?

You want to give the players a sense of what they are walking 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 field? Also, just being there and feeling the atmosphere in the stadium energizes them and takes away some of their anxiety.

All the players – the starting team as well as the substitutes – are out there, but they do different things.

We have 26 players, but only 11 players can play, plus five players from the bench. For the players on the bench we try to make sure they are ready in case they are called at short notice during the game. But they warm up 50 minutes before kick-off, and it can be almost two hours before they take the field. What we need is basically just to make sure their systems are starting to turn on, their core temperature is up, their spine is activated.

And then those players will do something more relaxed, like the little circle groups you see. If you push them too hard, they can go over the top, and you can actually kill their performance. So it is very important that we keep them calm and relaxed.

In a tournament situation, it is a constant struggle to try to expose the players who are not playing in the matches to enough practice. All of them have put in all the work to get to this point. And emotionally it’s hard. They don’t get the same satisfaction as the guy who scores the winner. We work very hard to make sure that we don’t neglect them, that we give them the best opportunity when the time comes.

What about the starting players?

They go through a process of turning on their body and slowly working through the dynamic range of motion they have to perform in the game. Then they will do some max-velocity type activities.

And then we go into a game-based situation where it becomes spatial and decision-making. Usually it’s some kind of positional game — 5 vs. 5, plus one extra player, or 4 vs. 4, 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 that are specific to certain players. Some players finish on goal, some players cross. We have our own ideas, but we take guidance from what a player needs in those last few minutes. We know what a central defender needs; we know what a midfielder needs, and we design activities that allow them to do it.

The last thing we do is get together and do something as explosive as possible just to finish. This is called post-activation potentiation, or PAP, and it involves an excitation of the neuromuscular system. They walk into the locker room fully activated, fully charged and ready to start the game.

What do they do back in the locker room, after the warm-up but before the game starts?

There are still 15 minutes left in the game, so the challenge for a player is to fill that 15 minute gap. It’s a chance to refuel, it’s a chance to go through some final checks, put their pads on, say a few words.

What if they’re super nervous—or not nervous enough?

Once we are spread out on the field, the stadium swallows communication, so this is the time everyone can talk. You have to understand how they feel, whether they need a rocket or whether, OK, there’s a lot of anxiety in this group, we have to be very calm. They can either be overstimulated or understimulated, and we try to balance that out, to get back to the center where people are nice and stable and ready to perform at their best.

There is less pressure on you than on teams from places like Argentina and Brazil. Does it make it easier?

Because of the weight of expectation placed on them, other teams may be too anxious to beat us. We see this as an opportunity. We prey on their anxiety.

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