This article was written by Rob Ellis.
I am a 44-year-old ex semi-professional footballer. I have played football for as long as I can remember and I currently play in a recreational 8-a-side league. In my career, I have played in well over 1000 competitive matches and taken part in even more training sessions.
I have experienced many physical and performance related changes on the football field. I can still remember how it feels to be an 8 year old, a teenager, in my prime (early to late 20s) and an older competitive player (30-35).
I do not need reminding of what it feels like to be a 44-year-old player, as I can feel it every time I walk, run, or try to kick a football. I am sure that any players that are over the age of 40 can empathise with the aches, pains, and fatigue that I feel every time I play football.
In terms of physical fitness and technical performance, every footballer reaches an age where improvement becomes unrealistic and extremely hard to achieve. In recognition of this, training programmes for older footballers generally switch emphasis from the development to the maintenance of physical fitness and technical performance.
Since the age of approximately 35, I have diminished physically. I have lost a significant amount of speed, power, agility, co-ordination, muscular strength, and flexibility in comparison to my 20s and early 30s.
My cardiovascular and aerobic endurance is one area of physical fitness that is comparable to my what it was in my 20s and my early 30s. I run 4-5 miles at least three times a week without too much physical discomfort and the times that I complete the runs in today are similar to what they were in my early 30s.
A good level of cardiovascular/aerobic endurance is generally easier for older players to maintain than many of the other areas of physical fitness. Cardiovascular/aerobic training does not put the body under the same amount of physical stress as speed, strength and power training does, for example. Many of my ex team-mates are regular endurance runners as they feel that it is the most realistic and painless type of physical training.
I train my speed, power, agility, co-ordination, muscular strength, and flexibility less than I should. This is partly down to stubbornness (in the sense that I have always placed more emphasis on cardiovascular/aerobic conditioning), aptitude (I am a strong runner and have always been one of the most endurant players in all the teams that I have played for) but now more than ever my physical capabilities.
I feel my physical decline most strongly when I try to develop power. I feel that my ability to generate power places an uncomfortable demand on my body and facilitates a higher risk of injury. The reality is that my innate power levels are dropping year on year. The same applies to some degree in all aspects of my physical fitness but in terms of power, the decline is the greatest.
Technical performance is closely related to physical fitness. The fitter that a player is, the better able they can execute techniques effectively, consistently, and for longer periods of time. I can still perform most football techniques to a high level if:
The techniques do not place a high level of demand on my areas of fitness that are lower e.g., power.
There are minimal external pressures that affect the execution of the technique.
External pressures can include:
Multiple defenders in close proximity.
Other technical alternatives to consider.
Minimal time in which to execute the technique.
When there are significant external pressures on a particular technique, there is a greater stress placed on the areas of fitness required to help facilitate the execution of the technique. For example, a shot at goal from 20 yards without any external pressure requires very little physical fitness of any type.
However, if the same shot is performed with 2 defenders trying to block the shot and with only a split second in which to execute the shot, a significant amount of technique related fitness is required. The ball striker must shoot at high speed, move with fast reactions and demonstrate a rapid co-ordination of body movements.
I feel that my lack of technique specific speed and my inability to react quickly enough to perform techniques under external pressures are the roots of my declining technical performance. This is not a problem that is exclusive to me or older player however, the effect is greater and is harder to reverse without specific training.
As football fans, we often hear comments from other fans and analysts about a certain player being “Gone” meaning that their “Legs have gone”. In general terms, this phrase indicates that the player has declined physical and technically to the extent that are now merely a shadow of what they previously capable of.
Personally, I consider a player to be “Gone” when they do not have the enough speed and quick enough reactions with which to perform a specific technique under eternal pressures. It is important for older players to resist the state of being “Gone” by training specifically. The training must be designed to maintain (and in some cases increase) the technique specific speed and quick reactions.
In most group training sessions, some of activities are designed to improve more general techniques and physical fitness e.g., a 5v5 keep ball activity. Unless the coach has chosen to focus on a specific technique or type of physical fitness focus, the range of outcomes from such an activity are quite broad. General technical and general physical fitness training is important for older players however, it does do enough to target specific age-related deficiencies.
I have changed my individual training to focus on improving my technique specific speed and quick reactions. To execute techniques at high speed in competitive play, my body must move fast enough to get adopt the correct body positions at each stage of the technique. If I am not able to do this, the execution of the technique will be inefficient.
Below is an example of how a combination of a lack of technique specific speed and slow reactions can lead to a poor technical outcome. I have used the example of a centre forward attempting to convert a cross as an example:
Focus player - Centre Forward.
Supporting player - Left winger.
Technique performed - Straight line side foot (right foot) finish from 10-12 yards.
Game situation - Left winger crosses the ball from close to the goal-line (left side) along the ground to the far post (the path of ball is straight).
Centre forward starting position and movement - Jogging towards the goal from the centre edge of the penalty area (18 yards from the goal). When the cross is delivered, the focus player sprints diagonally right to the far post (10-12 yards from goal).
GK position - 3-4 yards off goal line and level with penalty spot.
Relevant factors - The centre forward is unmarked and has a clear sight of the right side of the goal.
As the left winger crosses the ball, the centre forward’s technique movements are as follows:
A diagonal sprint from the central edge of the penalty towards the far post (10-12 yards from goal). As the centre forward sprints, they will run with a stride pattern that is consistent with sprinting (long powerful strides).
The centre forward realises that they have an opportunity to reach the ball and potentially score. The centre forward moves towards the ball the with a series of short, fast steps.
These steps allow the centre forward to prepare to slow down and contact the ball. It is common to use shorter steps in preparation to make ball contact, particularly in the action of finishing. I think of this as the player “Feeling the ground” beneath them and getting ready to execute the finish.
The centre forward must position their non-kicking foot approximately ½ a step behind the ball. The centre forward must be close enough to the ball to swing the kicking leg and contact the middle of the ball with the inside of the foot.
A lack of technique specific speed and slow reactions means that the centre forward would be unable to position their non-kicking foot and kicking foot in the correct position at the correct time. Poor feet positioning increases the chances of an inaccurate finish.
Balanced on the non-kicking foot, the centre forward must swing the kicking leg backwards and then forwards towards the ball. The kicking ankle should be locked and turned to a 90 degree angle. The inside of the foot should be facing the middle of the ball and pointing towards the open corner of the goal.
If the centre forward has been slow to approach the ball, their body will be in a poor position to execute the finish. The centre forward will be too far from the ball to make clean contact and will have to stretch the kicking leg towards the ball. This stretching movement will cause the centre forward to lean backwards at the point of contact.
Ideally the ball should be directly under the centre forward’s head at the point of contact. This enables the centre forward to get their head over the ball, maintain good balance, and make a clean contact without stretching for the ball.
If the centre forward is stretching for the ball the point of contact will be in front of the body. This stretching movement means that the inside of the foot turns upwards rather than towards the goal at the point of contact.
The possibility of a scuffed finish increases when the inside of the kicking foot is tilted upwards. The bottom of the foot faces the ball, which increases the chance of kicking the ball with the studs. This means that the finish will lack power and may not reach the goal with enough power to score.
Even if the centre forward manages to make contact the ball with the inside of the foot, the forward stretch to reach the ball means that the inside of the kicking will not be facing the open side of the goal. This means that the ball will not go where the centre forward would have wanted i.e., in a straight line towards the open side of the goal.
If the centre forward is stretching excessively, they may fail to make any contact with the ball. If the centre forward manages to make contact, they will be leaning backwards and kick through the bottom of the ball. This will cause the ball to lift and may divert it over the crossbar.
To reverse or at least minimise the process of decreasing technique specific speed and slow reactions, training must be specific. It is important to practice each stage of the technique at high speed. When a similar situational technique arises in competitive play, the player will be more likely to have the necessary speed and quick reactions in order to execute the technique in time.
Using the example of the centre forward attempting to convert a cross, I have created a training plan, which if performed regularly will help players to perform the sequential actions and overall technique quicker and with better results:
Part 1 - Sprint from the centre of the penalty area towards the far post.
Task: The winger must cross the ball from close to the touchline (must be the same position every time). As the winger crosses the ball, the centre forward must sprint from the centre of the penalty area towards the far post (must be the same running path each time). As the centre forward sprints, they must position their body so that they can see both the ball and the goal. Perform 10 repetitions.
Part 2 - Approaching the ball, the centre forward must take 3-4 small steps to “grip” the floor. These steps help the centre forward to prepare for ball contact and “Grip” the floor beneath them.
Task: - From the point at which Task 1 ends, the centre forward must take 3-4 small steps towards the point of ball contact. The steps should performed be at high speed. The steps may include minor adjustments to the speed and direction of the run towards the ball depending on the speed, direction, and trajectory of the cross. Perform 10 repetitions and then perform 10 repetitions of Task 1 leading into Task 2.
Part 3 - Just before the ball is at the desired point of contact (directly underneath the centre forward’s head and in line with the inside of the kicking foot), the centre forward must position their non-kicking approximately ½ a step behind the ball. Once the non-kicking foot is in position, the centre forward must swing the kicking leg backwards and hold the position in preparation to kick the ball. This must be performed at maximum speed. Perform 10 repetitions and then perform 10 repetitions of Task 1-3.
Part 4 - Swing the kicking foot backwards and then forwards towards the ball. Aim to contact the middle of the ball with the inside of the foot.
Task: Perform 10 repetitions and then perform 10 repetitions of Tasks 1-4.
If these tasks are performed regularly and at high speed, the centre forward will improve their technique specific speed and quick reactions. If the centre forward can develop more speed and quicker reactions in relation to the technique, the greater their chance of executing the finish correctly.
By breaking each technical action down into a sequence of movements, it is easier to identify what must be practiced. The coach and the player can develop a practice routine that replicates each stage of the sequence. Competitive play is highly unpredictable. However, we can try to create training practices that replicate the execution of techniques in competitive play as accurately as possible.
We have seen many great footballers performing at an incredibly high level well into their 30s and close to their 40s. Cristiano Ronaldo, Dennis Bergkamp and Gianfranco Zola were still highly influential players at elite clubs even when their physical prime had passed. Their exceptional technique specific speed and quick reactions meant that they could play at an elite level well into their late 30s.
I believe that the type of training I have identified can help older to minimise the deterioration of technique specific speed and quick reactions. The reality of growing older means that we will all grow weaker, slower, and less agile. For those of us that want to play football and enjoy performing to a good level for as long as possible it is worth considering adapting training to focus on technique specific and quick reactions.