How Scottish football players will be managed back to fitness, injury concerns on return and the positive culture at Motherwell

Head of sports science Andy Boles explains what the Fir Park club are doing to prepare players for return to action
Motherwell striker Tony Watt and goalkeeper Trevor Carson pictured training at Dalziel Park in March after Scottish football was suspended due to the cornonavirus pandemic. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS GroupMotherwell striker Tony Watt and goalkeeper Trevor Carson pictured training at Dalziel Park in March after Scottish football was suspended due to the cornonavirus pandemic. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS Group
Motherwell striker Tony Watt and goalkeeper Trevor Carson pictured training at Dalziel Park in March after Scottish football was suspended due to the cornonavirus pandemic. Picture: Craig Williamson/SNS Group

“The minute I hang up the boots I’ll never go for another run.”

Young Hearts defender Chris Hamilton’s tweet likely summed up the view of a lot of footballers in their current predicament. Since March, when football entered a shutdown, they have been incapable of doing their job, the thing they love. At the same time, they have been required to stay fit, ready for a return to action.

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They have taken to the road, to the park or, if they have access, a treadmill to keep on top of their fitness.

What footballers have effectively been undergoing across the past couple of months is a prolonged off-season, Andy Boles, head of sports science at Motherwell, told The Scotsman.

The current campaign won’t be returning, but the new Premiership season will start behind closed doors on the weekend of 1 August provided Scotland is in phase two of its coronavirus recovery. Premiership clubs have also been given a targeted return date of 11 June for player training before the new campaign.

Striking a ball and changing direction

“That’s going to be a really quick turnaround if we don’t think the guys can do a lot to start with,” said Boles, who has previously worked at Hamilton Accies and Middlesbrough. “The next two or three weeks will be key for the players if they can do a lot of these different things, strike a ball, changing direction when they run. A lot of people underestimate the energy cost of changing direction. If they can start to break that in now we can start at a higher level when we come back. I think, even if somebody has been working really, really, really hard, training every day, doing all the things we are asking them to do, you’re probably looking at more than four weeks because of all the decisions people have got to make in a game. It’s just impossible to condition that when you are working yourself. Working at that intensity of a game, even the resilience of being kicked a few times and not picking up injuries. I know that sounds unscientific but all these things make a difference.”

With players such as Allan Campbell and Liam Grimshaw, Motherwell have one of the fittest and professional squads in Scotland, which fits in with the identity and culture that manager Stephen Robinson has sought to construct at the club.

The Fir Park players have benefited from Boles’ knowledge, experience and preparation ahead of being placed on furlough. At their fingertips they have a “menu” of exercises and programmes available to them, something which Boles has used to create his own Match Ready Fitness app which is used by elite footballers from the men’s and women’s games as well as amateur players.

Motherwell culture

He said: “I already had programmes written for the off-season. I just had to adapt it, instead of it being four weeks, making it 12 weeks. Because of the furlough situation what we had to do was create lots of different types of runs. Almost give players a menu to choose what they want to do from that. We’ve got a really good group of players we can trust. We’ve worked really hard to work on the culture of that. Most of the players we can give a programme and trust they will do it and trust they understand it’s important. It probably all comes from the manager.

“A lot of guys traditionally might in the off-season go out and do a couple of runs on the road. What we’ve tried to do is create different runs which target different energy systems. We’re not trying to educate them as scientists but what we try to do is make sure they are hitting aerobic pathways, hitting some high-intensity work, they are hitting power and explosive work.

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“That is what I find some people struggle with when they come back for pre-season that they’ve only done the one kind of run, they’ve only worked one energy system. They think they’ve done loads, maybe run loads of 5ks, but as soon as they try to change direction or run at high speed they really, really struggle physically. So we have tried to give them a wide variety of stuff they can pick from so it gives them a wee dose of everything so that when they come back they should be in decent condition.”

On their return to training, the temptation to go hell for leather with the football will be at its peak, especially firing those Hollywood cross-field passes or shooting practice. However, contact with the ball will have to be managed.

Hip flexors and groins

Having not kicked a ball in anger for a few months or changing direction at high intensity, missing out on those repetitive actions on a daily basis, they are more susceptible to injuries.

Boles explained the processes which he will be putting in place to ease players back into action, boosted by the coaches’ willingness to embrace the progressive load on players rather than “beast” them in the first week which used to be the done thing. “We won’t do a lot of ball striking really early on [in pre-season],” he said. “We will do some small passing drills but we won’t do any 50-yard strikes of the ball because their hip flexors and groins won’t have done much of that for the past four weeks. But now we’re looking at that being 12 weeks or maybe longer, so, obviously, we are going to have to be really mindful (that) when we get back we’re going to have to watch what we’re doing.

“We will try to implement a tactical element into a lot of our conditioning work as well, so, as the players are getting fitter physiologically, they are having to make decisions. That’s going to be a challenge as we are only going to be able to work in groups of four or five.

“We will be looking to do a couple of lower key sessions to start with before we do any maximal testing. Because the players have been off for so long you don’t want to put anyone maximally through anything in the first couple of days because the risk of injury is high. So we will do a few lighter conditioning sessions to break it in and see where the boys are at.

People can go do drills themselves and cover a certain amount of distance, we can look at GPS data and high-intensity distance, but as soon as people start training in a group there is a higher cognitive load as well which you can’t really measure but you’ve got to be aware of.

“In general, they are probably at a higher risk of all injuries, anything from muscle injuries, overloading those muscles, to ankle injuries because they have not moved the same way in a while.”

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* Andy Boles is head of sports science at Motherwell and creator of Match Ready Fitness.

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