Functional Training and the Football Free-Kick

This blog should be called “problem solving” as that’s really what functional training is. I pride myself on being a functional conditioning professional, but what does that really mean and who qualifies for this fictitious title? In short (before I get on my soap box and tell you who cannot), anyone with extensive hours with athletes in the field – applying function to the gym, qualifies AND anyone who has kept records of interventions to make the athlete better – this is how you prove your worth to the player and coach, and become better at what you do.

Functional training is a way a fitness professional trains their athlete to maximise the athletes’ sporting performance. Let’s focus on Football (soccer, for our American readers) and consider how functional training applies:

An athlete has been asked by their coach to take free-kicks. Their accuracy of the free-kick is excellent but the power is missing. The coach and athlete approach you and ask you to help improve power. The coach wants results within 6 weeks.

The ball is in your court and you must start the next day – what do you do? Of course I will give you my answer later, but in the mean time think about what you would do. I’ll wait here whilst you plan for 2 minutes.

Every instance within elite training is similar to this example. Someone will have a problem and it is your job to remedy the issue. If you are not from a Football background this problem will be very difficult to solve. The first instance I had with functional training was with a Laser Class Sailing athlete. He came to me asking if I could improve his strength in his arms and away I went thinking I knew every answer. Six weeks later and he had put 1.3 centimetres on his arm size but his grip strength was weaker and his endurance had declined during races. The first message is the most important – don’t give advice if you don’t know the sport!

When working with National Judo athletes a year later I had no choice but to get on the mats in the Dojo and get thrown around (a lot!). I learnt more in 3 minutes than I ever would have learnt if I didn’t take up the sport. After doing Judo for a number of weeks I started to learn which muscles suffered delayed onset of muscle soreness and I started to realise the importance of grip strength, explosive power and endurance on the mat. I also learnt that there is no replacement for fighting. I invented new exercises in the gym and brought weights mat side to superset weights exercises with Judo throws.

Here are my steps to what I did with my Football athlete:

  1. Where is my athlete now? I started by measuring the speed of the ball only in his successful free-kicks (64.6 mph) and I measured his 1RM (to full extension) on a leg extension machine (the agonist in the contraction) – this was to establish where he was now. I also got my athlete to perform an overhead squat to assess flexibility, and was happy with the standard.
  2. What do I know about the sport? My knowledge of Football is fairly extensive (having played for many years) so I knew about the technical elements of a free-kick. The next day I started working on leg and “core” (for me, the core is the back muscles) muscular strength.
  3. How long have I got to make a difference and what I did? I only have six weeks so am not expecting big gains, but an increase in average power. My strength cycle lasts for 2 weeks with the following week focusing on high repetitions and accuracy outside of the gym. During week four we worked on power in the gym, with an emphasis on leg extension and run-up. We slowed the movement down using video footage to ensure the movement in the gym was accurate whilst using weighted cables and ankle weights. Weeks five and six were fairly similar, but we introduced heavier balls when practicing the movement and attempted to use light resistance bands to slow contact speed. Of course I ensured that at the end of every session the actual free-kick was practiced fro variable areas of the ground.
  4. Re-testing and results. At the end of week six we once again tested the speed of the free-kick and the strength of the leg extension. As suspected both had increased (11kgs on the leg extension), with the main goal of increasing his free-kick power by 7.1 mph (71.8 mph top speed). There were no observational differences in flexibility.

Although this may not look like a drastic improvement in overall power, remember that we only had 6 weeks and when you recall the initial speed of the ball during the free-kick (64.6 mph), we were able to improve overall speed by over 10%. In comparison to other world class free-kick takers Roberto Carlos has an average speed of 86 mph and a top recorded speed of 117 mph, whereas David Beckham has an average speed of 72 mph. The focus should not always be on power alone, but also on accuracy/success.

Functional training consists of assessment, knowledge of the sport, training interventions, and reassessments. By missing any of these simple steps, you jeopardise the athletes performance and you fail improve as a functioning conditioning coach. On a final note, functional conditioning deals with solving problems and I often use peer advice to get the best training solutions. Ultimately, the aim is to enhance the athletes’ performance and the constant by-products are improving your own knowledge and battery of training ideas.