‘This is the Nike SPARQ version of the Yo-yo intermittent recovery test, level two.’
For most players (thankfully, not myself), this one line of dialogue is enough to cause cold sweats, shivers, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. It’s the kind of side effects that you usually only hear at the end of a pharmaceutical advertisement, when you think to yourself, why would anyone want to take that willingly.
At its best, the beep test can scare players into running their butts off all summer. At its worst, especially in the women's game, it can do some real damage to your players, both physically and emotionally. I know of players, friends of mine, who developed eating disorders, simply because they were so scared of failing their fitness tests.
If you ask me, there is no reason to run tests like these in preseason, or ever.
Before all the fitness gurus lose their minds, please hear me out. I do believe that in the fitness world, max out aerobic tests have their place , when used in the right context and the correct environment. They can help measure a player’s aerobic capacity and VO2 max, and give their coach an idea as to where they stand fitness wise.
I am also not suggesting eliminating the test because I myself was bad at fitness tests. Far from it actually. My highest Yo-yo level 1 score was a 45, and I consistently run a sub 5:30 mile and sub 11:30 two-mile.
But for most coaches, we exist in a reality where we don't have 10 sports science coaches on hand to help us. All we have is ourselves and a clip board.
To give some context for those who aren't aware, max-out aerobic tests are typically ‘go until exhaustion’ tests, so you are already risking injury with any type of high volume aerobic test.
On one of my former teams, we opened day one of preseason with a timed mile or 2-mile test, 300-yard shuttle test and repeated full field sprint test. What could go wrong with running a couple of max out tests on the first day of preseason?
We had 9 players out for the afternoon session on the 1st day of preseason through a combination of injuries, ineligibilities, and not being allowed to play because they had failed one of the three tests. They then had to re-run those same tests, in that exact same order, the following day (and every day after that, until they 'passed').
If you want to be able to train with your full team right from the start and through into the season, why risk serious injury right away? And if you decide to hold players out of training because they are deemed ‘unfit’ through test failure, how will they become ‘football fit’ without training?
The second problem I have with max-out tests is this; any type of training following a test like this is compromised because of the fatigue. This makes it nearly impossible to repeat the test in-season, (especially in short seasons like college or high school, when you’re only really competing between August and early November).
So, after the initial test, there is no data to compare it to (unless you are willing to sacrifice an additional day of training to try and get an accurate reading, which most coaches aren’t, and shouldn’t).
And thirdly, many players will run themselves into the ground and not even dream about touching a ball in order to pass a fitness test. I have many friends who were so scared of failing their test that they couldn’t eat, sleep or function because of it. I think on the women’s side this is a huge issue, and if you do coach women, you have to be especially sensitive about what this could do to their life.
You could be setting them up to have major issues for the rest of high school/college and beyond. I had a former player that I coached in club who was forced to quit and dropped out of the school she had committed to during preseason of her freshman year, because her coach made her keep repeating a mile test day after day until she passed.
When you run these kinds of tests, you are saying that isolated fitness on a track is of greater importance than performance within the team and in the context of the sport.
If, in spite of all my reasons, you still feel that you have to have a max-out aerobic fitness test during preseason, here are my suggestions on how to implement it as safely and effectively as possible.
1. Don’t run it on day one.
Everyone is nervous, especially newer players, and the chances of a player trying to make a good first impression and ending up with a torn hamstring are much higher on the first day. Give it a week or 3-4 days.
2. Run a test that is as similar to the sport as possible.
While the 2-mile test sounds great in theory, it is really not a conducive test to football fitness at all, because the run is done at one pace. Even the Yo-yo test isn't that relatable to football, it's more of a repeated sprint test. Create your own test where players have to run at different speeds, walk, rest, catch their breath, and repeat. This is much similar to the game itself.
3. No training session afterward
Do not run a session immediately after the test, or only one that is strictly tactical, set pieces, or recovery. The quality of the play in the training session will be terrible due to the fatigue of the players, unless you do something with very light intensity.
4. Some players just don’t do well on fitness tests
Regardless of how much they train for them, some players still struggle on a fitness test. A benchmark requirement on a test is nice, but it's really just a number (usually one that you made up in your head because it sounded nice). Judge the player by how they do in an 11 v 11 match.
…which leads me to my suggestions if you decide to take my advice and NOT run a max out test...
1. Train light on Day 1 || Play 11v11 on Day 2/3
Let the assistant coach run the session while you watch and take notes on players fitness. Look for fitness in the context of the game, as in, see how long it takes before the tempo of the game slows down. That will give you a pretty good indication of how fit your team really is.
Obviously DO NOT play two 45 minute halves, because that would risk injury. Aim for a block of 10 to 12 minutes with a 2 minute rest between sets. Running in isolation is nice in theory, but how long a team can maintain a specific playing style is the true definition of fitness.
2. Create Repeatable Tests and Monitor Player Readiness
Run a non-max out aerobic test + a repeatable test for lower body power, such as a standing long jump, interval run test, and body composition test, and monitor it every few weeks throughout the season.
This is what Stoke City do to gauge how fit and how fresh their players are. These tests are easily repeatable as they are not max-out tests. If a player’s jump, body comp, or interval run score is dramatically falling below their preseason number, they could be over trained and at risk of injury, or undertrained and in need of some extra work.
Monitoring how players are feeling daily using questionnaires is also a great tool to use (SoccerPulse provides this for all coach accounts - Free two-week trial) Knowing how hard a session was for a player can give you an indication of how fit or unfit they are, and can help you tailor the training accordingly.
3. Be SPECIFIC!
Be specific about what 'fitness' means to your players. Fitness can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. The most game specific definition you can give to a player is "I need you to be able to maintain a high tempo playing style (counter attacking/pressing/etc.) for 90 minutes." When put in context specific terms, it is much easier for players to grasp what is being expected of them.
4. Communicate Your Expectations
Tell your players before they leave for break that they will be no fitness test, and that they will be judged on how they can perform in the team environment. Tell them exactly how you want them to train during the summer, and let them know that what matters most is what they can bring to the table to help the team win.
Yes, there will always be those players who slack off during the offseason because they think they can get away with it, but you will be able to spot those players a mile away in an 11v11 game. You can explain to them in football specific terms, why they aren’t playing.
Don’t kill a player’s love for the game just to keep the lazy players moving. Let’s raise the bar and give players the experience that we would’ve wanted if we were in their shoes.