Mark Roberts has been a professional footballer for 14 years, representing the likes of Crewe, Chester, Stevenage, Fleetwood and Cambridge, where he currently plies his trade. Join him for an exclusive look into the reality of pre-season training and why, despite the challenges, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
I‘m travelling back from the airport with my family when the radio informs me that it’s officially the first day of summer. The irony is that mine has already come to a close. There will be no more holidays for me until May of next year. It’s time to get back to work. I’m a professional footballer and pre-season number 18 is underway.
It’s crazy to think that my preparations for the new campaign have already started when certain international players have yet to fulfil their commitments from last season. But that’s football. A relentless schedule which suffers no fools. You have to be willing to make countless sacrifices throughout the year, so your downtime with your friends and family is something you learn to truly treasure.
For those footballers who have or are about to return to training, I can only describe it as being similar to that first day back at school. You know the feeling when you’re ticking the days off and D-day is coming at you like a juggernaut. You can’t quite believe how the weeks have flown by so quickly and if you’ve made the most of your break.
You’ve loved your time away but you’re itching to get back on the horse. You’ve missed seeing your old teammates for a start and are excited to meet the new recruits. There is no doubting that you’ve enjoyed your freedom but it’s normal to miss the structure to your life that a training schedule provides.
That’s why every summer that you remain in the game you get a scary insight into your future without it. There’s not a footballer past or present who won’t become an ex-professional at some point down the line, when you’re no longer part of the dressing room and able to do for a living what you dreamt as a child. The journey will now be over for some players and pre-season beginning will be the most brutal reminder of that. So the older I get, the luckier I feel. Perhaps going back to training isn’t that bad after all.
As you approach the training ground the butterflies usually kick-in. The fitness tests will do that to you. You can’t help thinking if you’ve indulged too much and worked too little. Are you as fit as you were or as you’ll need to be? Even when you’re confident with your own physical state, you still don’t know how you will compare with the rest of your teammates, because once the handshakes and hugs are over the competition for shirts has begun, it’s dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest.
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Long gone are the days when players returned to training overweight or underprepared – sports science has seen to that. The evolution of the game has demanded that. Carrying a few extra pounds into that first day is a recipe for disaster, and playing catch up will catch you out as every player wants to hit the ground running. Simply put, nobody wants to get left behind.
There was one pre-season where I was struggling with a calf problem, which took several weeks to properly diagnose. Unfortunately, I was away on tour in Austria when the decision was made that I needed to see a specialist at the earliest opportunity. The 16-hour train journey via Germany and France may have been a scenic way to travel home but it’s certainly something I wouldn’t want to do for a second time.
Pre-season will look different at every club in the country but whoever you’re working under, you can guarantee that both your physical and mental capabilities will be pushed to the very limit. Some managers like to think out of the box to avoid monotony and keep the group on its toes. Experimentation is not always easy once the regular season has kicked off so testing new systems and formations in games are common practice when boundaries can be pushed with regards the methods of training.
In my career I’ve worked with an Olympic high jumper to add a spring to my stride and a sports psychologist to develop my mental edge. I’ve carried logs, and teammates, through Epping Forest and sprinted up the sand-dunes on Southport beach. My muscles have been re-educated on the pilates reformer and I even went a round in the boxing ring with a European champion, which I can safely say was the longest three minutes of my life.
Speaking of boxing, there have been days where I’ve felt more Ivan Drago than Tony Dorigo; sessions when I’ve been more lab rat than professional footballer. Alongside blood tests and oxygen masks, I’ve been hooked up to machines to discover my VO2 max and even dunked into a water tank to get the most accurate body fat measurement there is. GPS belts and heart rate monitors are commonplace on training grounds these days and the data and stats that the sports scientists are now able to gather is phenomenal. No stone is left uncovered and no hiding place can be found.
There’s always a buzz of excitement on the training pitch when the footballs are introduced It’s usually a case of basic movements at first but you quickly progress to more advanced practices, and before you know it, you’re back in the swing of things. Of course, there is the frustration of rustiness to overcome, but when you’ve been playing this game since the age of five, a lifetime of muscle memory is not easily forgotten.
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Most players dread the running but there’s something strangely addictive to that feeling you get when you’ve completed that last lung-busting run. Testosterone levels are through the roof, with high fives all round; it’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to initiate the team spirit that will help you deal with the highs and lows that you’ll have to face together.
As you head for home, it’s simply a matter of crawling back to your car and trying not to fall asleep in the supermarket queue because you’ve forgotten to do the food shop. Later that evening when you’re relaxing on the sofa – or more likely recovering in an ice bath – the sense of satisfaction that you feel far outweighs the aches in your muscles. Sure, you have to do it all over again tomorrow, but the pain barrier is always worth pushing through when you’re one step closer to peak physical condition.
I’ve run over short and long distances, around running tracks and cricket pitches. It may be against the clock or the whistle, your previous best or the man in your position. One manager wanted us to run with the ball at every opportunity, another was adamant that we run in boots because he said we couldn’t play in trainers. I guess there was a lot of sense to that, but every manager, every pre-season, is different.
If your scores are not logged on the laptop or recorded on a clipboard, you can guarantee that someone, somewhere will be watching and assessing your performance like a hawk. There are still many coaches and managers out there that like to trust what their eyes are telling them above anything else. Every challenge becomes your next opportunity to put down your marker and stake a claim for the holy grail which is a place in the starting line-up on the opening day of the season.
As the famous cliche goes, no medals are handed out at the beginning of July, but that’s when you put the hard yards in that will take you forward into the rest of the season. It’s a war of attrition and your ten-month rollercoaster starts right here.
So be ready because your muscles will need to pump like pistons of a machine, your heart will race and you will strain with every last sinew. When your lungs and legs give out it will be a case of mind over matter. You will have to dig deep and find a way to push yourself and each other to be the very best you can possibly be. That’s what pre-season means to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
By Mark Roberts @markroberts83
Image credit: Keith Jones, Cambridge News