Fitness Training in Junior Football

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

By Shane Pill
Lecturer in Physical and Sport Education at Flinders University

This was an interesting topic to be asked to present on at the 2014 AFL Coaching Conference.

My understanding of the skill acquisition literature is that the best thing coaches can do for junior players is maximise their time "with the football". I also believe it is better to talk about physical activity accumulation rather than fitness with junior and youth footballers. Focussing on physical activity accumulation directs coaches to training structures that decrease waiting times for "turns" and that maximise time spent active at training. It also directs coaches to encourage players to continue their game development away from formal training through "pick-up games" in the park, the backyard or on the street; or, as Professor Damian Farrow illustrated in his conference session, through coach-developed practice cards that players can take with them to direct informal practice outside of club practice sessions. Designing training to maximise physical activity accumulation serves the added benefit of conditioning the mind to "stay engaged in the game" for longer periods in contrast to traditional training activities involving players waiting for a turn to run off the line. In off-the-line activities players’ minds are able to switch off football to other distractions while they wait to re-engage with the next turn. Players are not being taught to sustain a game active mind during these waiting for a turn breaks typical of "skill and drill" training sessions.

Prioritise putting a football in junior players’ hands over fitness training and assessment

Fitness training for junior players is also compromised by the natural variation in biological development evident in any age group. Simply being born earlier in the year provides a benefit of greater exposure to deliberate play and practice and informal play. However, physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development are complex and interacting contributors to physical fitness in children. As the diagram below shows, in a group of 8 year old footballers, for example, skeletal growth may range from 5 years through to 11 years of age.

Added to this diversity of growth and development, and therefore functional capacity, is that research suggests primary school age children show little physiological response to training. So while there are undoubted health effects and growth and development advantages in encouraging children to accumulate the recommended minimum of 60 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity every day, is there any real benefit in incorporating fitness training activities during football practice, especially if it comes at the expense of players spending time engaging with the football?

Game-based training can be used specifically for conditioning players for team sport participation comparable to traditional conditioning activities

There is some evidence from Association football (soccer) research to suggest that game-based training can provide aerobic conditioning comparable to traditional fitness training activities. The benefit for junior and youth football of game-based training used for the purpose of physical activity accumulation is the potential for "conditioning" training, tactical training and movement skill training to be combined into one activity that works with children’s and youth’s motivations to play. Recent research has identified the following potential benefits where small-sided games are used effectively.

  • Small-sided games enable heart rate responses to increase, similar to some short-duration intermittent runs shown to be effective in enhancing player endurance
  • Adaptations were the same for football and running, but in a number of areas small-sided football training exceeded that of endurance running
  • Small-sided games training can provide a reliable aerobic training stimulus.
  • Small-sided games containing fewer players can exceed match intensity and elicit similar intensities to both long- and short-duration high-intensity interval running
Fitness is a broad concept – it refers to a set of attributes that people have or achieve relating to their ability to perform physical activity

Generally, when I hear coaches talking about fitness training they are referring to endurance or what is sometimes called aerobic fitness. Fitness is, however, attributed to a combination of components - speed, acceleration, agility, power, strength and aerobic endurance.

Australian football is generally played in 1-to-30m running efforts to contest possession of the ball. Who will get to the ball first - the player with the highest speed, acceleration or aerobic endurance? Who is most likely to break away from the contest - the player with the highest speed, acceleration or aerobic endurance? Who is more likely to be able to stand their ground in a marking contest - the player with the highest speed, acceleration, core strength or aerobic endurance?

There are a lot of factors that come into play when considering a young player’s game conditioning - genetics, position that the player is suited to, chronological age, biological age, experience, how active the young person is outside of football are just a few. Again we see that it is very difficult to generalise the training of young footballer’s “fitness”.

What about Fitness Testing?

I am not an advocate of fitness testing junior and youth footballers for many of the same reasons fitness training is largely irrelevant for players at junior and youth level. Specifically,

  • Wide variations in biological age at the same chronological age
  • Age differences of as little as three months impact performance scores
  • Some people are non-responders to training
  • Coaches not trained in the protocols of tests mean the test measurements lack validity and reliability
  • Percentile based evaluative feedback fitness tests (or criterion referenced tests) may  confound the issue of relative fitness by failing to take maturation into account
  • Children and youth often view these tests in a negative manner. They dislike fitness testing, find it competitive or boring, and often are not motivated and prepared to participate in the various tests
  • The appropriateness of some fitness tests for use with children is questionable as the tests were developed for adults and a child’s metabolic, cardiopulmonary, thermoregulatory, and perceptual responses to exercise are different from those of adults

At the conference, we demonstrated in a workshop how open drills and carefully designed small-sided games could be used for the purpose of conditioning players while practicing movement skills and game-based decision making. The manipulation of game constraints, such as the size of the small-sided games playing space, can be used for a different conditioning effect. 

In Conclusion

I believe that it is much better to focus on teaching young players the game and to focus on physical activity accumulation during practice through the use of practice task design that maximises individual activity. This includes an emphasis on game-based training that incorporates different types of small-sided games. There is also value in coaches encouraging physical activity outside of formal practice times to help children and youth to achieve the health benefits that derive from accumulated physical activity. There is also some evidence of the value of this "backyard" game play in the long term development of playing talent as young people engaged in this type of play accumulate additional game-like practice volume. 

The best thing coaches of junior and youth footballers can do is to put a football in their player’s hands and facilitate purposeful play.

Shane Pill is a senior lecturer in Physical and Sport Education at Flinders University. He is an AFL level 2 accredited coach and is on the coaching staff at the West Adelaide Football club in the SANFL.  Shane presented on this topic at the AFL 2014 National Coaching Conference in Adelaide.

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David Frizzell, 22-04-14 16:37:
Couldn't agree more. Purposeful play is also fun, which enhances learning and engagement. It also works for senior groups if structured correctly.
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This is Our Game
2017 AFL International Cup