SUMMARY: Premierships are won and lost in the preseason – or at least that is the view of many of the AFL’s leading coaches. So what should you consider when you develop your preseason program? We asked Mitchell Cook, a development coach with the Melbourne Storm in the NRL, who’s worked with several rugby league and Aussie rules teams in the field of Strength and Conditioning.

Background

Strength & Conditioning Coach Mitch Cook

Strength & Conditioning Coach Mitch Cook

There is a story of a famous VFL football star back in the 1980s. At the time, he and his team were tasked with running a huge distance (something like 15 kms) through the middle of Melbourne as part of their pre-season program.

This particular player was rather large and not renowned for his long distance endurance, yet by the end of the run he somehow finished at the front of the pack. His team-mates were both impressed yet perplexed with his performance. How could someone so big and strong outrun some of the more natural runners in the team? Something smelled fishy!

Years later when the player in question retired, the truth was revealed. He actually got tired at the beginning of the run and caught a tram. He then went to the pub while he waited for his team-mates to catch up before covertly rejoining the group at the end.

When I look back at this story, two things amuse me. Firstly, there is the story of the cheeky footballer who caught a tram to beat his team-mates.

But just as amusing is the extraordinarily long running session which coaches – even at the highest levels of the VFL –used to ignorantly run.

In case you haven’t heard, long distance running is a thing of the past in an AFL preseason. AFL football (and hairstyles for that matter) have come a long way since the 1980’s.

Nowadays it’s much more scientific and game specific.

In this article, we speak to Strength and Conditioning Coach Mitchell Cook about what you should consider when you plan your preseason training program.

About Mitchell Cook

As a Victorian, Mitchell is a mad keen AFL footballer. He started playing football with Dromana in the under 10’s, before continuing with their senior team in the tough Mornington Peninsular League. It was here that he kicked off his fitness career, running the strength and conditioning training at his club.

This eventually led to an opportunity to run the strength and conditioning programs for the Victorian under 15s and 18s rugby league sides, which opened the door to a high profile role with the Melbourne Storm in the NRL.

Mitch started at the Storm as the Strength and Conditioning Coach and Head Trainer with their 18s team. He then continued these two roles with their reserves side before last year taking over these roles with the Storm 20’s side.

As another point of interest, Mitch’s brother Ryan played for Collingwood between 2006 and 2010, before moving over to South Fremantle in the WAFL where e recently won their Fairest and Best Award.

Mitch has extensive experience in strength and conditioning in both rugby league and AFL football, and often mixes and swaps notes with the some of the best trainers in Victoria.

Here is what Mitch told us about what you should consider when planning a preseason program.

Planning and Preparation

When it comes to conducting a successful preseason program, Mitch stresses the most important thing is for coaches to plan and prepare their programs thoroughly.

“I personally believe that planning is number one. Like the old adage says, failing to plan is planning to fail. A great training sessions of football starts with a great minute of planning. You should train with the knowledge that you don’t have a moment to lose.”

We go into what to cover in your planning later in this article, however before we progress further it may be interesting to note the importance of also keeping a diary of your training sessions.

According to Mitch, diaries are big nowadays in elite sports many with many professional clubs now giving their players diaries to keep track of things like diet, training and sleep.

“Players use personal diaries as a guide or tracker to track things like what they did during a training phase, how they felt and what they hoped to achieve from a training session. They can be referred to later as a learning tool to help players discover what worked for them on the training track, what they did well and what they can improve on next time.”

“On a more personal level, they are also used to record communications between a coach and a player such as individual goals, personal feedback and so on.”
But while Mitch agrees that at the amateur level it may be difficult, even pointless, to make players keep a personal diary, he recommends that coaches should at least keep a diary to document each session.

Keeping records of your training and constantly referring back to them helps you find ways to continuously improve your training over time and keep your team moving forward.

This reminded us of legendary American basketball coach John Wooden (named coach of the 20th Century by ESPN) who famously kept a diary of all his training sessions. When Coach Wooden planned a training session, he would refer to the diary notes from the corresponding session in previous years. This approach gave him cues on what worked and what didn’t in previous sessions so he could continually improve each session the next time around.

His training programs eventually became the best in the country, allowing him to develop players better than his competition and capture 10 national basketball championships during an amazing 12 year period – a Bradman like feat which no coach has come close to replicating since.

It’s no surprise that this has become the norm in elite sport and is something which Mitch strongly advocates.

Fitness Testing

So what should you plan to include in your preseason program?

Well to start with, if you watch the news, you may have noticed that AFL teams put a big emphasis on fitness testing throughout the year.

When we asked Mitch what type of testing he would expect to see at a professional club, he told us the list would be extensive and include something like a 3 km time trial, some weight lifting tests, skin fold testing, a 30/15 test (similar to a beep test) and personal diaries.

However, Mitchell believes that while professional teams conduct extensive fitness testing during the preseason, amateur teams should keep their fitness testing basic.

“As an amateur or local league coach, I don’t think there is much point in doing too much testing. Of course coaches should consider testing so they have a measure to compare to later, but at the amateur level, I think it is better to keep that testing at a basic level.”

Mitch recommends conducting either a simple 3 km time trial with their players, or alternatively doing 3 consecutive 1 km time trials.

“Personally, I’d recommend coaches just stick to a basic 3 km time trial to make it easier, given they only have their players for a limited amount of time. But it really depends on the resources and team situation.”

Mitch also recommends amateur coaches stick to a simple testing calendar which includes,

  1. Testing just before the Christmas break (for teams that do pre-Christmas training), and
  2. At the start of the pre-season after the Christmas break to see where your players are at and what you need to plan for.

But what about testing at the end of your pre-season program?

According to Mitch, “I personally wouldn’t test players at the amateur level before the start of your season unless you feel players are struggling with their fitness and you need some evidence to back it up. Otherwise, most coaches should know where their players are at with their fitness so testing probably isn’t necessary.”

Repeat Effort Running

Something Mitch highlighted in his interview was that long distance running is a thing of the past in football.

The AFL (and NRL for that matter) are now focusing on repeat effort running and training the “lactate” energy system, which is more closely aligned to game requirements.

As Mitch explained, “Your body has three main energy systems – an aerobic system, an anaerobic system and a lactate system. In a nutshell, your anaerobic system produces the most power but only lasts around 5-10 seconds before depleting; your lactate system produces less power but lasts for around 50-90 seconds; and your aerobic system produces the least power but can last over a prolonged period of time.”

Mitch continued, “The first 10 seconds of running in footy is typically fuelled by your anaerobic system, but switches to lactate immediately after it is depleted, so your body relies heavily on the lactate system during a game.

“Repeat effort running not only trains your lactate system, it also trains your body to recover quicker after running.”

As an added tip, Mitch also recommends incorporating some ‘off the ground’ work in your training sessions (where players have to get on and off the ground during a drill).

As Mitch explained, “Getting up and getting down not only gives your body a good work out, it is also more realistic in a game situation.”
Interestingly, using ‘off the ground’ work at training is a trend he has noticed in both the NRL and AFL.

Ball Work

Mitch is also a strong proponent for including ball work during the preseason.

“I’m a definite believer in involving the balls as much as possible during the preseason. It keeps players fresh during the preseason and helps them improve their skill work. The more times players have the ball in their hands during the preseason, the more prepared they are going into the season.”

As an added tip, Mitch recommends incorporating more ‘contact’ work during training.

“Most training sessions I see at an amateur level do not have a lot of contact involved. In this case, players often run around, get the ball and then dispose of it without any contact whatsoever. Yet when you watch a game there is almost always contact, so why not include this in your training?

Mitch continued, “This is something I have learned from rugby league, where contact is a massive part of their game. At the Storm for example, we do a lot of wrestling and tackling drills to prepare players for contact and this is something that is being brought over to Australian rules as well.”

Recovery

Mitch also sees player recovery as a vital component of a preseason program as well.

“You must plan some sort of recovery in your training sessions, even if it is just doing hot and cold showers. Without a proper recovery, players are more likely to get injured and fatigued… Something is better than nothing.”

Recovery techniques used at the professional levels include light jogging, stretching, deep tissue massage, sleep, diet techniques, icebaths (which Mitch described as “huge” right now) and pool/beach sessions.

But Mitch stresses that at the amateur level, coaches do not have the time or resources to provide such extensive recovery to their players. In this case, Mitch simply recommends that at the very least, players conduct a proper warm down such as a light job, followed by a solid stretching session incorporating dynamic movements.

Mitch recommends that coaches give their players a pool/beach program to follow to aid recovery, but letting players take individual ownership of these sessions and perform it in their own time.

“From my experience at the amateur level, it’s hard getting large groups of players together at certain times to a pool or beach because of work and travel restrictions. So it is probably more realistic, especially at an amateur level, to give players guidelines on what to do and then let them take ownership of it in their own time.”

Weight Training

What about weight training? We have heard anecdotal evidence from several respected coaches – particularly those from under 18’s teams – that weight training can boost player performance significantly.

But according to Mitch, planning a weight training program is not all cut and dry for AFL footballers.

“When planning a program you should always plan to the individual. You may have an 18 year old player for example who has been weight training since he was 16 and learnt correct technique, built a base strength and has reached a controlled stage of progression. In this case, a new senior player at 21 who hasn’t touched a weight in his life will be well behind in a number of areas to the 18 year old. So the point to this is each program needs to be catered to the athlete.”

Having said this, Mitch gave us these basic tips for coaches to consider.

To start with, weight training should be done on the opposite days to team training. Two sessions per week will prove beneficial with three sessions being ideal. This obviously means that at the amateur level, coaches have to leave players to do weight training in their own time outside of the main team sessions.

“This will allow players to train on alternate nights to club training sessions and allow for recovery. This is important because weight training before or after football training sessions can pre fatigue your muscles and energy systems.”

Mitch also recommends that players focus on compound exercises, which are movements that involve more than one major muscle group and joint at a time. Examples of these movements include squats, deadlifts, bench press, and bent over rows.

Something which is also vitally important is core strength exercises, which can be done inside your weight training sessions and your field sessions.

As Mitch explained, “Core strength is often neglected by amateur coaches, yet it is an area that can really help your players become stronger in all areas, running, tackling, marking, contest, weight training.”

Finally, Mitch recommends that players new to weight training should focus on learning proper technique first, before they progress onto the strength phase.

“If players jump straight into weight training without being taught correct technique they will no doubt be doing more harm than good. Always start small with progressive increases in the gym which aligns with learning to train. Learn to train, repeat and progress.”

Conclusion

To quote Fremantle Coach Ross Lyon at a recent press conference, Premierships are won and lost in the preseason.

As Mitch adds, “The preseason is where you get your systems in place, where you start building your club culture, your trademarks, your fitness base, getting your skills right and your game plan perfected… You need everyone on-board and committed to succeed and it all starts with your preseason.”

Planning is key and should include at minimum some basic fitness testing, incorporating the ball work early, a focus on repeat effort running (and not long distance running), and a proper plan for player recovery.

But one point Mitchell also stresses is important is “hard work”. You do need to do the hard work early to get your team off to the right track.

When you combine hard work and the right plan together, you increase your chances of success. Hopefully Mitch’s tips will help.

As an off-shoot, Mitch will be offering a special “coach the coach” training program shortly to help coaches plan and run their preseason programs. If you are looking for some professional help with your preseason program this year (and a real edge for the up-coming season), then be sure to look out for it soon. Thanks Mitch!
Title photo by Rachel Hofton via: freeforcommercialuse.org.

Posted by David Johnson

David “Johnno” Johnson is our chief football researcher and writer. With over 20 years of coaching experience in all grades of football David was also a prominent footballer himself, having played at Teal Cup level and was even recruited by the Essendon Football Club. The pinnacle of David's coaching experience saw him as the assistant coach of the East Fremantle Shark Football Club in the WAFL for a number of years.

Leave a reply