Delegates at the Fitness for Football seminar in Baku heard how fitness and skill development must go hand in hand, because footballers are not like other athletes.
The third Fitness for Football pilot seminar began in Baku on Monday as delegates from 17 UEFA member national associations gathered for a series of presentations and discussions centring on the premise that fitness training must meet the specific demands of football.
The seminar in the Azerbaijani capital is the third such pilot event following similar courses in Oslo in March 2013 and in Istanbul last August. In introducing this coach education seminar, which runs until Thursday, UEFA's head of football education services Frank Ludolph expressed the event's twin aims, which are to advance dialogue between coach educators, fitness experts, technicians and scientists; and to communicate a clear football-specific message.
The centrepiece of the day was a presentation by Andreas Morisbak and Sigmund Apold-Aasen, in which Morisbak, Football Association of Norway (NFF) senior technical adviser and UEFA technical instructor, spoke about UEFA's philosophy and the principle of specificity. He explained how UEFA's approach is to highlight basic principles of learning and training as guidelines; and to educate coaches to work within these guidelines and to utilise appropriate training methods for their own environment.
The principle of specificity is vital because of the relationship between fitness and the development of football skills: better football fitness can better utilise football skill; better football fitness can prevent injuries; while better long-term player development can promote better skills and football fitness.
Apold-Aasen, director of physiology at the Norwegian Centre of Football Excellence, said: "We do not want to develop better athletes. We want to develop better football players." He also talked about the concept of high-stability performance, examining how fitness training can be linked to skills and teamwork training, which are paramount factors in nurturing footballers.
Citing the example of the Norwegian oil industry, he said: "To achieve high performance it is crucial to create a common understanding of the task, the challenge and the desired end result." However, delegates were also advised to: "Challenge the best practice in order to help improve it."
With this being the third such seminar, coaches and coach educators from throughout the UEFA-affiliated associations have now been familiarised with the need for balanced, football-specific fitness training and how best to integrate this important topic into the coach education pathways. In return, and to enable UEFA's Jira Panel to draw conclusions on football fitness Europe-wide, the delegates were urged to be as interactive as possible.
Paul Balsom, one of the UEFA fitness working group members present and performance manager of the Swedish national team, solicited answers from each participating FA on the Fitness for Football survey; together with Apold-Aasen, he also led a feedback session in which delegates conveyed their ideas about how football-specific fitness relates to their national training programmes.
Elkhan Mammadov, general secretary of the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA), emphasised the value of associations exchanging know-how. "For every national association it's a huge experience and a great way to knowledge-share."
What was clear from listening to the smaller associations was their reliance on employing specialists from abroad, with the clear goal to also help train up home-grown coaches. In such countries, only half of the top-flight clubs might have a fitness coach, while a more general problem is how to compensate, in fitness terms, for the lack of outdoor activity undertaken by modern children – since football activity in childhood and youth lays the main fitness foundations.
The representatives from Andorra, Belarus, Belgium, Estonia, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Gibraltar, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Moldova, Russia, San Marino and Ukraine have also received a fitness education document entitled Philosophy & Questions, the main tenets of which are to be analysed in depth. Thus, the next days' activities will continue to look at the physical demands of the game, injuries and their prevention at senior and youth levels, and long-term player development.
The final item on Monday's agenda was an on-stage chat between Frank Ludolph and Berti Vogts, Azerbaijan's national team coach. Referring to his own playing career with VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach, the 67-year-old stressed that "football training needs to be completely different from track and field: fitness has to be football-specific".
He also recalled how innovations kept Mönchengladbach "a step ahead of Bayern in so many different areas" during their 1970s heyday. Now, of course, it is common for club and national team technical staffs to incorporate doctors, physios, masseurs, coaching assistants, fitness coaches and psychologists. "Football players are far better professionals than in our day," admitted Vogts, a FIFA World Cup-winning player and EURO '96-winning coach with Germany.
"I think every professional team should have a qualified football fitness coach, because footballers function differently," he added.