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Rafa Benítez's coaching method explained

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Rafa’s percentage game; 80% with the ball and 20% without.

Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

A recurrent theme running through a lot of Rafa Benitez' interviews has been the emphasis that the new Real Madrid coach places on his training philosophy.  Rafa believes that the most efficient breakdown of training time is to spend 80% of the session working with the ball and the remaining 20% concentrating on fitness.

It's a not new idea he's had since coming to Madrid either; Rafa used this method at various clubs including Valencia, Liverpool, Inter and Napoli, and his approach to training has been quite methodical in this respect over the years.  He feels the 80 - 20 approach is a formula that works for him; and he's been content therefore to employ this system in the clubs he's managed.  He obviously believes in it's success.

Underpinning this approach is the need for footballers to have a strong capacity for aerobic endurance; since research has shown that it is the aerobic metabolism that supplies most of the energy used in football.  (Coutts & Grant, 2005; Bordon 2006).  Aerobic training implies that the training programme is designed to improve the oxygen transport system in the body (Reilly et al, 2008) and the reason for this is that during match-play and training there is a requirement to have a good supply of oxygen delivered to the working muscles in order to minimise the risk of fatigue and improve a player's actual running capability.

In the old days this would have been achieved through players running continuous laps around the pitch; however as the game started to become more scientific in the nineteen sixties and seventies, coaches began to question the benefits of continuous lapping and training methods started to become more advanced.  Coaches questioned the value of training without the ball for most of the week, and the old theory of players wanting the ball more on a match-day because they didn't get to touch it during the week became obsolete.

As sports science developed and training methods became more analytical, we began to develop a greater understanding not only of the individual components of fitness required for football: speed, strength, endurance, agility, flexibility, and power; but also about how to develop these.  Studies identified that the most essential requirement of the game is the ability to perform repeated high-intensity sprints interspersed with bouts of low-intensity recovery periods (Bangso et al, 2006).  Various authors agree, however, that underpinning all of these components lies the requirement for a footballer to develop a strong aerobic capacity.

Training methods were designed accordingly to improve players' aerobic fitness and thus ensure that the capability to sustain exercise at a given intensity for longer than was previously possible became the focus of the fitness aspect of training.  Adaptations to include the other components were introduced and integrated into the sessions, with the objective being to address the individual requirements of the game on top of basic fitness.  However, the differences of opinion then arose in how to actually achieve this; with some coaches favouring traditional running and fitness-based training while others adopted an approach that utilised the ball most of the time and was therefore regarded as being more football-specific in nature.

Reading various interviews given by Rafa going back to his Liverpool days, it's clear that he favours the latter approach and has developed training methods accordingly that concentrate on using the ball, as he says, 80% of the time; with the other 20% spent on essential fitness and muscular conditioning that has to be done without the ball.

In football, as in other similar sports, there is a need to ensure that the correct muscle balance exists between the front of the thighs - the quadriceps muscles - and the hamstring / calf group.  The latter is often referred to as the ‘posterior chain' and is important for a footballer since the hamstrings are important muscles used in sprinting and the most frequently injured of all the muscles of the thigh in football (Eckstrand et al, 2012).  Muscular imbalances between the two cannot be corrected simply by exercises involving the use of a football and require appropriate exercises that allow for individual variances.  This aspect of training forms the basis for the 20% of work without the ball that Rafa Benitez frequently refers to.

Another area of emphasis within the training content is the need to minimise the risk of injuries; and while he totally accepts that it's impossible to prevent injuries in football, Rafa believes a lot can be done to avoid the chances of inviting these by using the correct type of training.  At Inter, for example, they found that there was a high percentage of injury recurrences; with 80% of injuries having occurred in the same muscle group in the previous two seasons.  Rafa frequently cites the co-ordination between the medical and fitness teams as an essential aspect of injury prevention, together with frequent analysis of the type of injuries that actually occur.

Such coordination applies also of course to the regular fitness training; where co-operation between the fitness and medical teams in identifying potential injury risks is vital.  Although the fitness staff are the ones who design the actual training sessions, additional input is essential from the medical teams in terms of preventative techniques; but often in football clubs this does not happen as it should do, and you can have one group effectively contradicting the other if both believe they are right.  Rafa has frequently referred in previous interviews to the importance of the fitness and medical teams working as one and the results of this are never more evident than when considerably fewer injuries are sustained in training than in game situations.

With regards to the 80% of the training time being spent working with the ball; a great deal of imagination is required when planning and preparing the sessions along these lines.  If you look at the components of fitness mentioned earlier, it's quite a challenge to prepare and deliver sessions that address each of those components in turn while incorporating the use of the ball.  In this respect, Rafa and his fitness team certainly have the experience; they've adopted this philosophy many years ago and no doubt fine-tuned it over time; simply transferring their method from club to club as the whole fitness team moved along with Rafa.

I think the vast majority of players would much prefer to develop fitness for football via activities that involve actually using the ball; but for this to happen, match situations have to be simulated in training.  The key to being successful with this type of approach lies in the skills of the coaching staff, and being able to simulate those actual match conditions at a realistic-enough level to physically and mentally challenge the players.  It's been shown in recent years that this type of training can be effective, and several studies have highlighted that aerobic capacity in particular can be developed through the use of small-sided games as opposed to more traditional methods of training that involve hard physical work without the ball (Impellizeri et al, 2006, Hill-Haas et al, 2009).  It ultimately depends on whether a coach thinks that the training results can be achieved using the approach he chooses.

The challenge in sports and exercise medicine today is to adapt the many cross-over methods and introduce them into periodised training plans, thus making football training, injury rehabilitation, and planning and preparation methods more scientific and evidence based.  In this respect, Rafa Benitez and his coaching team have embraced that challenge and have appeared to come up with the 80 - 20 approach as a successful formula that works for them.

References:

Bangsbo J, Mohr M, Krustrup P (2006).   Physical and metabolic demands of training and match-play in the elite football player.    Journal of Sports Science. Vol. 24 (7); 665 - 674.

Bordon (2006). Training Methods.  In Football Traumatology, Current Concepts from Prevention to Treatment. Volpi V (2006), Milan, Springer.  Pp 23 - 31

Coutts A, Grant A (2005).  Training aerobic capacity for improved performance in team sports.  Sports Coach Australia. Vol. 27 (4).

Ekstrand J, Healy JC, Walden M, Lee JC, English B, Hagglund M (2012).  Hamstring muscle injuries in professional football: the correlation of MRI findings with return to play. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 46, 112- 117.

Hill-Haas SV, Coutts AJ, Rowsell GJ, Dawson BT (2009).  Generic versus Small-Sided Game Training in Soccer.   International Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol. 30 (9); 636 - 642.

Impellizzerii F, Marcora SM, Castagna C, Reilly T, Sassi A, Iaia FM, Rampini E (2006).  Physiological and performance effects of generic versus specific aerobic training in soccer players.  International Journal of Sports Medicine. Vol. 27 (6); 483 - 492.

Reilly T, Drust B, Clark N (2008).  Muscle fatigue during football match-play.   Sports Medicine. Vol. 38 (5); 357 - 367.