If you want to put anxiety into any player at any level , you just have to say one word: Preseason. It typically means misery, sore muscles, sleep deprivation and a sense of abandonment from the real world. Everything they do is scrutinized and studied by the coaching staff from how they perform, to what they eat, right down to how they interact with each other. It doesn’t matter if preseason camp lasts one or three weeks, players say their goodbyes to the real world and brace themselves for the hard work ahead. This has been my first preseason at University of Cincinnati and although it has been intense work, we have certainly enjoyed it. Instead of simple endurance work and long distance runs being at the heart of our preseason program, our focus has instead been on three key areas:
From the first day of preseason, every session has incorporated the ball. The goal of the coaching staff from day one has been to elevate general fitness towards match fitness and improve speed of play. We have done this with high intensity work with focus on explosive actions. Neil has continued and further progressed his philosophy from the spring that every player must be comfortable in possession of the ball and must be prepared to play at the pace in which we will be challenged every game. Our sessions always hit the ground running with every exercise combining technical work with physical effort, range of passing, a final product, and movement. The sessions have been demanding physically, technically, mentally, and there has always been a tactical element in everything we have done. I have no doubts our non-traditional approach to open training will develop good habits for the season. We feel that we need to start games with a high tempo, so practices must follow the same pattern.
For me personally, this has been the most interesting aspect of the past ten days. Neil, Nate and I have all come from similar playing systems but all have done things a little different in certain areas of the field. As a result the coaches meetings have almost been as lively as the training sessions! We wanted to identify our defensive philosophy as early as possible because that will be critical to our success: what type of pressure we will apply in what areas and which players have what responsibilities. These roles and responsibilities are reinforced every day. All tactical systems of play have areas that are vulnerable but we have refused to hide those from the players, and instead opened dialogue with players as to how we will solve them. I think this two way communication has strengthened the relationship between players and coaches and will hopefully allow us to solve problems as quick as they occur on the field. We talk about our shape and system on the practice field, in the meeting rooms, and even at lunch. There is no such thing as too much information when we are defining key roles for our season. Neil has also let everyone know about his views on set pieces and how critical they are to win games at this level. I always felt I neglected that aspect of the game slightly so have enjoyed and embraced the mentality of attention to detail directed towards corners and free kicks. Our first goal in our preseason game came from a corner so what better way for everyone to stand up and take notice of the importance of preparation!
This is another key aspect that has been addressed by Neil time and time again over the past two weeks. In order for us to have success this year, we have to be able to handle adversity as a team and the best way to do this is to prepare meticulously. The base for mental toughness within our program has been set from day one with high standards in the required fitness tests. Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said “Fatigue makes cowards of us all” and physical fatigue in soccer usually leads to technical and mental errors. Whether our players are in the weights room, the practice field, or the film room, the level of accountability for performance is extraordinary. We have been fortunate enough to monitor work rate and training load through the use of heart rate monitors, so if a player is not hitting the target zones in the session, we are fully aware of it. We can also use this information to track training loads and prevent overtraining when injuries typically occur. When we step on the field, we will have the benefit of Prozone technology to evaluate performance which give instant and detailed feedback for our players.
After our preseason win against Marshall last Friday, we open the regular season away to University of Miami on Friday, followed by a trip to University of Nebraska on Sunday. No better way for us to test ourselves early in the season than top level ACC and Big Ten competition. Our training this week has been focused on making sure we are prepared mentally, physically, and tactically for these huge tests. There will be no stone unturned when it comes to the preparation for the games and the goal of optimal performance. Today has seen us do hot yoga (which will take me a while to recover from!) along with our first session with sports psychologist, Peter Ganshirt. I am excited to see our progress, along with the team growing together on and off the field by playing high level games and bonding on the road. If preseason is anything to go by, and it usually is, our season will be exciting and full of opportunities to grow, get better, and take us towards our goals.