Applying a High-Performance Thought Process to Soccer

December 9, 2019

In May 2015, we arrived in Rome, Italy to begin a three-year assignment with Associazione Sportiva Roma (AS Roma), an Italian professional football club in Italy’s topflight league, Serie A.

Our job was threefold:
  • to assist the club in upgrading its facilities,
  • to implement a process-driven functional training performance philosophy,
  • to integrate that philosophy through all levels within the club, from the academy system to the first team.
The experience was exciting, challenging, stimulating, and educational on many levels. In this article, we outline some of our experiences with A.S. Roma and how these facilitated a deeper understanding for us in the sport of soccer.

Movement is a skill

If you have worked in the field of performance enhancement for any significant length of time, you will have likely developed a good eye for movement. For Performance Coaches, like ourselves, this ‘eye’ is one of the ways in which we evaluate athletes on an ongoing basis. The quality and efficiency with which a player starts, stops, changes direction, and performs general and sport-specific movements, provide important information regarding the player’s athletic profile. Having seen and tested many athletes, spanning half-a-dozen professional sports over the last twenty years, and noting the vast variability in the quality of the movement, we have come to the conclusion that movement is a skill. And just like any skill, it can be improved when the right type of training and coaching is applied. Yet, there seems to be a prevailing acceptance, at least in the European soccer community, that once a player reaches the top level, he or she no longer needs to be coached in these finer points of movement.

Darcy and Ed with former Roma player, Kevin Strootman, after a workout.

However, in our experience many top-level players have achieved their status through incredible inherent talent and technical skills, that effectively hides significant movement deficiencies. The majority of these players were not exposed to quality movement training during their academy experience. As they transferred from one team to the next, the movement training was not considered. While this is beginning to change at the academy level of many large clubs, quality movement training needs to continue to evolve and be applied at every level. This might be achieved by incorporating movement sessions in small doses as part of the warm-up or team gym sessions. Doing so, we believe, reinforces high-quality movement patterns, producing better performances whilst mitigating the potential for injuries. From what we have witnessed, the biggest objection coaching staffs or technical staffs may have with integrating movement skills training into practice sessions is lack of time. The perception is that movement training takes valuable time away from the Head Coach. But if you can get your technical coaches onboard, it often works well to pair movement training with existing sessions, such as your strength or plyometric training sessions. This could create training themes that incorporate similar force vectors and amplitudes that complement the on-pitch training.

Conditioning with or without the ball

There has been a long-running debate between S&C coaches and soccer coaches regarding the most effective way to condition players for the physical demands of the sport. Many soccer purists insist that you can and should do all of your metabolic development work with the ball – meaning small-sided games or game-based HIIT – those of us with more traditional performance backgrounds, see the need to supplement conditioning with the ball alongside conditioning without the ball. Indeed, Martin has already offered some great practical options that practitioner can use to incorporate HIIT into professional soccer training. In contrast, it is worth noting that there is a longstanding tradition in some European countries, Italy for example, to do plenty of conditioning without the ball. The problem is that much of that conditioning tends to be in the form of longer, steady-state work vs the more sport-specific high speed running efforts that Martin recommends. We see a middle-ground solution. If technical coaches divided their training emphasis themes into linear vs lateral, as some performance coaches would prefer, you can tailor the format of the conditioning to fit those training themes. An example training week incorporating movement training could look like this (assuming a six-day match week- Saturday to Saturday) (*denotes the integration of the ball into this activity):

Training week for players who played 45+ minutes in the previous match

Match Day Theme Activities Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Range
+1/-6 Regen/Active Recovery Roll Bike for 20 mins @ 60-75% maximum heart rate (MHR) Upper Body Lift Lower Body Corrective Circuits Core Stability Massage 1-3
+2/-5 Off-Physical & Mental Recovery 0
+3/-4 Longer Pitch/Stride Linear warm-up (WU)/Movement Skills Linear Plyos *Acceleration Drills Repeated Sprints *Longer Pitch Tactics/matches 4-6
+4/-3 Strength/Change of Direction (C.O.D.) Total Body Lift *Multi-Directional WU *C.O.D. Circuits *Pressing Tactics *Small-Sided Games 7-10
+5/-2 Taper/Tactics Lower Body Corrective Circuits *Multi-Directional WU Tempo Runs Match Tactics 1-3
+6/-1 Match Prep Potentiation *Multi-Directional WU *Match Tactics *Short (2-4 mins) 11 v.11 Games 2-4
Match Day Work Hard/Believe in your process Pre-match WU Play to Win! 7-10

Training week for players who played less than 45 minutes in the previous match

Match Day Theme Activities RPE Range
+1/-6 Combo Day with Emphasis on Linear Movement   Total Body Lift Linear Movement WU/Skills Tempo Runs *Pitch Work – stride emphasis 5-7
+2/-5 Off-Physical &Mental Recovery 0
+3/-4 Longer Pitch/Stride Linear WU/Movement Skills Linear Plyos *Acceleration Drills Repeated Sprints *Longer Pitch Tactics/matches 4-6
+4/-3 Strength/Change of Direction (C.O.D.) Total Body Lift *Multi-Directional WU *C.O.D. Circuits *Pressing Tactics *Small Sided Games 7-10
+5/-2 Taper/Tactics Regen Lower Body Corrective Circuits *Multi-Directional WU Tempo Runs *Match Tactics 1-3
+6/-1 Match Prep Potentiation *Multi-Directional WU *Match Tactics *Short (2-4 mins) 11 v.11 Games 1-3
Match Day Work Hard/Believe in your process Pre-match WU Play to Win! 7-10
The above tables represent a simplified outline of a six-day training week. Whilst training session details have been omitted for clarity, the RPE range 1-10 indicates the general training day intensity. Also, keep in mind that the activities listed are total team activities and do not include pre and/or post-training individual work often prescribed for certain players needing to address specific areas of weakness. A final point regarding conditioning with or without the ball; creatively integrating the ball into conditioning drills (when possible) often elicits superior, sustained effort from most players. Yet, it’s rare to see a player reach the necessary speed thresholds (95-100% of max speed) to mitigate muscle injury risk in ball-based conditioning drills. Therefore, repeated sprints at or above 95% of max speed without the ball, can and should be combined with other ball-based conditioning drills that harness a player’s love of the game and their competitiveness. In this scenario, everyone can get what they want; high intensity, quality movement without the ball and the prescribed, monitored volume with the ball.

The Role of Technology

There is little doubt that our industry, like many others, has developed a collective infatuation with technology over the last 10-15 years. The number of metrics, both internal and external, that can be tracked, quantified, monitored, and analyzed in real-time or after the fact, is astonishing based on what was available only 10 years ago. In the 3 seasons that we worked at A.S. Roma, we received multiple emails every week from different tech companies claiming to have cracked the code of human performance and injury prevention through their latest innovation. We know our experience is not unique. Technology has become a prominent feature of the professional sports landscape – and whether we like it or not, technology and big data are here to stay. With that being said, we believe it is incumbent upon us as S&C coaches to work with developers and sports scientists to improve the practical application of tech products and more importantly, improve the ways in which data and technology are used in the arena of human performance. In an interview with David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene,” he says that “we have a tendency to make something important because we can measure it, instead of measuring it because we thought it was important.” This summarizes the issues we face when using data and technology, and it all goes back to your process. I’d summarize the key point as follows:
“Use your process to identify the important metrics you need to monitor and analyze in order to produce successful results. Then, develop systems that efficiently collect that data within your daily workflow”.
One of the critical first steps is explaining to our athletes why tracking these metrics are important within the context of our team’s process. They may not like the idea of wearing GPS pods or heart rate monitors, but if you can show them how the data collected from those devices effects training volume and/or intensity on a given day, compliance rates will most certainly be higher than they would be otherwise. Once this relationship and two-way communication is established, the data often becomes a valuable entry point for all types of performance-related conversations. For example, many of our players at AS Roma reached a point of interest about their data whereby they would frequently ask to see it, and in these brief, unscheduled meetings, we could use the data to explain why and how the gym work we do addresses deficiencies in their physical profile as an athlete. This approach proved successful in converting some “non-gym guys” into players who came into the gym every day before training for individualized programs to address their deficits and would return to the gym after training for the appropriate regeneration work that set the table for the next day. A notable example of this was Mohammed Salah, who started with a passion for improvement, then applied his work ethic to produce a laser focus on each of the weaknesses we were able to help him identify through objective feedback.


The gratification of working towards a common objective with like-minded colleagues with whom you share common ambitions and values is worth its weight in gold from a life purpose perspective.  The everyday mission of creating and implementing a process that would help our players perform at their best, coaching and working alongside great people with a shared sense of purpose produced an infectious desire to get better and better. During our time at AS Roma, we were blessed to work with great people in an incredible city and for a historic team, all of which combined to produce an experience that we will always be grateful for, and one that we will continue to grow from, for many years to come. In Part II of this article, we will focus on some of what we learned about developing an organization and how the decisions made behind the scenes can have a profound impact on what happens on game day.  

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Have you ever thought about what tools are best for telling us when to apply HIIT the next time? How do we know when we will handle it again without driving our athlete into overtraining or injury risk? If you’ve read our ​book​ or taken our ​course​, you’ll know about how important this variable will be when we look to design the ideal program. Both heart rate variability and subjective comments were key factors we discussed. But is one better than the other?
Maybe. We’ve stumbled upon an incredible study that might just help clear our thoughts on the matter in terms of athlete readiness and when to apply HIIT again in the future to maximize performance potential. The blog post written by ​Diego Hilgemberg Figueiredo​ compares training plans guided by either HRV or subjective inner feelings. The findings may surprise you. Check out a sneak peak in the graphic below as to why heart rate and HRV can’t always bring us certainty around readiness to perform. They’re good, and helpful, but you must know your context! Combine it with feel to get the most power in your programming.


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