Swansea City pre-season training Guardian
29th July 2015
Ever wondered what pre-season training is like at a Premier League football club?
Long gone are the dreaded sand dune sprints and hill climbs - now it's all about fitness, fartleks and 40 winks!
The article below, published on the Guardian website on July 21, was written by Stuart James as he was given special access to see how Swansea City is preparing for the 2015-16 campaign.
Garry Monk is stood in the centre of the training pitch, far enough away from the players running around the perimeter so as not to be breathing down their neck but close enough to see everything and not miss a trick. "Boys, don't wait for each other," Swansea City's manager says as Wayne Routledge, Nathan Dyer, Bafétimbi Gomis, André Ayew, Marvin Emnes, Modou Barrow and Eder open up into a sprint.
It is just after 10am, a few rays of sunshine are breaking through the clouds and Swansea's players are beginning to sweat as pre-season training gets serious. "Push to the line, all the way," Monk shouts. "Don't sell yourselves short."
There are four double sessions a week during the start of pre-season and today is one of them. Training in the morning is fitness-orientated and the afternoon drills revolve around the ball. During the four-hour break in between each session many of the players get their heads down at the training ground ... in an inflatable hotel room.
Monk gives the impression he never sleeps - and not because he has three young children. The man who led Swansea to eighth place in the Premier League last season is a fiercely ambitious workaholic. He talks a lot about "accountability" and the importance of creating a working culture where there are no excuses for staff or players, and it is easy to see what he means.
This is a club where they monitor sleep patterns at home to check their players are in the best condition. They have even invested in a drone that films training sessions so that every angle is covered when they trawl back through the footage - as they do at the end of each day - and edit the clips to highlight what worked well and what could have been done better as part of their feedback to the players.
Nothing is left to chance at Swansea, as the Guardian discovered when we were granted access for a day at the club's training ground to see the level of work that goes into preparing for the start of a Premier League campaign.
The fascinating insight begins with Jonny Northeast, Swansea's head of sport science and fitness, holding a meeting with the players at 9.30am. With Monk and the rest of the staff looking on, Northeast debriefs the squad on how they performed in the previous day's fitness exercise that focused on "powerful changes of direction". He puts up a graphic showing where every player ranked, from highest to lowest, according to the GPS data that traces every step.
Northeast goes on to explain this morning's drill will be a fartlek session, which involves sprinting for short bursts - the longest run is from the 18-yard line to the halfway line - and jogging in between. Half the players will be running around the perimeter of the pitch for seven laps in small groups, while the other half complete five laps of a longer circuit. Both exercises are designed to finish at the same time, there is a five-minute rest period at the end and the players then swap over.
"This is probably the longest run we'll do in pre-season," Northeast explains as the players, looking a little anxious, drift off to get their boots and trainers. "We try to keep things short and sharp because you know the average player runs about 10-12km in a game but it's never long-distance plodding, it's always change of direction, jumping up for headers or going into tackles, so we try to make it as specific to the game as possible. You look at how much the game has changed over the last six years - the total distance is coming down but high-speed running distances are going up."
Football has come a long way when it comes to training methods and it is hard not to smile when thinking back to a conversation with Alan Curtis, Swansea's first-team coach, earlier in the day. Curtis was recalling one of his first pre-seasons, in the early 1970s, when the Swansea players set off on a six-mile road run to the Mumbles and he remembers asking several of the senior players why they were wearing tracksuit bottoms rather than shorts. "Where are we going to keep our fags?" came the response.
Monk sees nothing wrong with staying true to some of the old-fashioned values he picked up while running up and down the steps by Anstey's Cove as an apprentice with Torquay United in the mid-1990s, but he is also keen to embrace sport science and be innovative with his own methods. For example, this pre-season when it came to the fitness drills he decided to divide the players into groups according to their positions, which means full-backs run together and likewise centre-halves, midfielders and attackers.
"They're going to be competing against each other throughout the season," Monk says, explaining his thinking. "So it's knowing where you're at in those particular positions, whose fitness is where, but also to get them to bond with each other and support one another."
Footballers can be deviously resourceful when it comes to beating the system in pre-season, whether that be hitching a lift home on a long-distance run (Curtis found out that was why the players carried change as well as fags in their pockets) or dropping out of an exercise deliberately early - a well-worn trick in the shuttle running bleep test - to make it easier to show an improvement when the drill is repeated later in pre-season.
Those days, however, are long gone. Swansea avoid exercises like the bleep test for that very reason and there is no way players can run within themselves with all the figures churned out from the GPS technology. It measures everything from how hard they are working to the ground they are covering.
Swansea marry up those numbers with the data they collect during matchdays and the resistance tests they conducted at the end of the season and on the first day the players reported back. Based on all those statistics, players have individual targets to hit in each session and if anyone comes up short it stands out. "You can't cheat any more and that's good," Ángel Rangel says. "It's all on the screen."
Everyone gets to view exactly how their team-mates fare in each exercise, which in the case of the fartlek session means that Barrow, the 22-year-old Gambian who made his Premier League debut last season, has the satisfaction of seeing his name in first place after running more metres at 20kmph-plus than anyone else.
"It's about having an accountable environment," Monk says. "I'm not here to hide anything. I don't want them to hide from each other. The emphasis on it is to be truthful with all the group, for them to be transparent with each other. I have one-on-ones with them and tell them how they're doing individually and so will Jonny. But the group needs to know where everyone is, because the group relies on each other in a game and you need to know that the man next to you is willing to, and able to, put it on the line for you."
Monk acknowledges that there is no specific need for him to be on the training field when the players are working on their fitness and he goes on to tell a story about a TV programme he watched on some NFL coaches who take that part of pre-season off, yet his own view is that the manager's presence is vitally important. "My job is to make sure that the standard is as high as possible. I told them on the first day of pre-season that I'm not here to waste any time and I said they haven't got time to waste themselves. To me, every single yard, every single minute of that training session, counts."
Once the running has finished, the players take part in a few games of keepball in tight grids and then head into the gym for some strength and conditioning work before lunch at 12.30pm. It is a long wait until the start of the afternoon session, which gets under way at 5pm, and it is easy to imagine some of the players wishing that they could get out on the training pitch sooner in order to return home earlier.
Northeast explains there is a good reason for the schedule. "It's about optimising the training physically and mentally, and if the players aren't ready to do parts of the manager's session in the afternoon where it's tactical and technical, then they're not going to be switched on. And physically as well, if they're not fully recovered between sessions, that's when injuries will occur. So we try to give them the most amount of time to recover in between."
Recover means getting some sleep, which could not be easier now Swansea have invested in 30 "Snoozeboxes" so every member of their squad can enjoy a Welsh siesta on site rather than travel to home and back. Inflated and just about big enough to accommodate a double bed, the rows and rows of little white "rooms" along the side of a pitch make for a slightly surreal sight but are proving increasingly popular with the players.
"I tell people I'm in sleep pod and they're like: 'What's that?'" Jack Cork says, laughing. "It's just literally a door and a room with a bed in it but I'm straight in there and straight down, otherwise I'd have to go home. I live about half an hour away and when I come back it's school traffic, so for me it's easier to get your head down in the pod."
While Cork and his team-mates are getting their beauty sleep, Richard Buchanan, one of the club physiotherapists, runs through the mind-boggling number of tests the players are put through to assess their health and determine whether they may be at risk of injury. They include a hamstring machine that requires the players to be strapped in by the ankles and looks like something that has been borrowed from the set of Fifty Shades of Grey.
"During the first week of pre-season, we've assessed lots of different strength, balance and flexibility parameters," Buchanan says. "So we put up a snapshot of that on the board [outside the dressing rooms] for the players to look at, so when we come back from the pre-season tour in Germany and I say to certain players: 'You're in this injury prevention group,' they can't go: 'What am I doing that for? I've never had a hamstring injury.'
"If you look at the results on the board here, this is a hamstring strength test using a NordBord, which is a new piece of kit, not commercially available, that's come from Australia, where they've done some research that shows hamstring injuries are not on the decline on elite sport. If professional athletes fall below a certain level, which is about 280 Newtons - we've raised the bar for our squad - then they're more likely to get hamstring injuries. We've tested the squad and a few have fallen below. We want to get everyone above that line, so we'll intervene and then re-test in six weeks."
The players are told to report back for the afternoon session half an hour before the 5pm start time but some start to drift in a little earlier, including Jonjo Shelvey. He is quick to make the point that Swansea reaped the rewards of the long hours put in during pre-season training last summer when they "got off to a flyer" and won their opening three Premier League games.
After finishing that campaign as one of Swansea's best players, the former Liverpool midfielder says he was determined to push on and decided to hire a personal trainer to work with him during the four-week break, when the players are also given individual programmes to follow.
"Me and my dad and my agent got together at the end of last season and thought how could I improve myself," the 23-year-old says. "I don't want to have any regrets when I finish playing football in terms of getting myself back to the top level. So I want to try to get myself back in shape and kick on. I had a week off doing nothing and I had my stag do that week but I came back off that and was straight back into training with a personal trainer back in Essex. The first week I was in the gym doing upper body and weights and core and working on my leg muscles, the second week we started to run, I was then doing about four sessions a week, it was like being at training. It's definitely helped me."
Shelvey is one of 13 attackers and midfielders required to attend a meeting with Monk at 4.30pm. The Swansea manager holds individual, unit and group meetings several times a week before and during the season and sees them as an important way of getting his message across because of the different ways that players learn.
With the help of Scott Helmich, who heads up the performance analysis department and provides videos and graphics to complement the tactical points that the manager wishes to make, Monk outlines what he expects from the attackers and midfielders in a training session where they will be working on the high-press, which essentially means trying to win the ball back as close to the opposition goal as possible.
The tenth day of pre-season may seem early for that sort of deep tactical session but Monk was working on getting his "concepts" across as soon as the players reported back - something that is made even more worthwhile in his eyes because Swansea were ahead of the game when it came to bringing in new signings.
He sets his exercise up on an area roughly half the size of a pitch, with a goal at each end, and makes sure the attackers and midfielders are always outnumbered by seven to six so it is realistic and challenging. The defenders start with the ball and Monk encourages the players up against them to press at the right time and in the right areas.
"We've been working on the high press all of last week and it will be all of this week as well. I've split it up, done it with just the front three, added the midfielders, I did the back four on Monday, then we'll bring it all together. Going on through pre-season we'll work on the medium block, a lower press and then a box defence, so we cover all the defensive concepts we're working towards."
As the forwards break off at the end to work with James Beattie, who joined the coaching staff this summer, Monk stands and watches while each player takes it in turn to shoot at goal after receiving the ball from seven different bases dotted around the penalty area.
It is now getting on for 6.30pm, another day's training is coming to an end and the Swansea manager heads back to the changing room, removing the microphone he was wearing during the session. "That's more for myself, just to make sure that I'm clear with my points, it's about development of yourself, really," he says. "I'll watch the session back when I get home tonight, see if I repeated myself too much on one point, or if I gave the right information. The bottom line is they've got to go and deliver it, so it's got to be spot on. It comes back to accountability. Make everyone as accountable as possible."