Manchester City & Barcelona: 16 Minute Soccer Pre-Game Warm-Up: A Cognitive Perspective

Last weekend I went to watch NYC FC vs FC Dallas. I got there 90 minutes early to watch the warm-ups. About 50 minutes before game time, the back-up keepers came out to warm-up, and about 35 minutes before kick-off, the starting keepers began their warm-ups. The game clock went down to 27 minutes, and still no field players, I asked the guy next to me if the game was starting late, he said “no”. Then finally with 24 minutes left, the field players emerged from the tunnel. They warmed-up for 17 minutes, I timed it, and then a couple guys took a few shots for 2-3 minutes.

I was a little confused as to why the warm-up was so quick, and it’s not like it was warm out. I called a few friends and asked them what they thought. One of them told me when he was visiting a pro club in Brazil this past year, the players began low intensity work of their choice inside the locker room, and then the team warm-up lasted about 20 minutes on the field. Another friend told me that Barcelona and Manchester City changed their Champion League pre-game warm-up to 16 minutes. My immediate reaction was, that doesn’t sound like enough time. But first let’s breakdown the components of a warm-up, before coming to any conclusions.

Warm-ups are responsible for accomplishing the following: Mental readiness, Physical Readiness, Injury Prevention, Performance Enhancement

Physically the warm up should increase rate of force in muscles, improve reaction time, increase muscle power and strength, lower viscous resistance in muscles, improved oxygen delivery and increased blood flow to muscles. Dr. Ian Jeffreys and Mark Verstegen  have worked on a warm-up model calledRAMP, which stands for raise, activate, mobilize and perform.

Raise Phase– (5 min in duration) increase in body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, blood flow, joint viscosity. Should be sports specific movements, low-intensity, multi-directional movements or range of motion exercises – sprints technique drills, direction changes, squatting, lunging.

Activate & Mobilize Phase– (5 min in duration)  activates key muscle groups, puts joints through the specific functional sport motions. Mini-bands, balance work, squats, lunges, shuffles, spinal mobility.

Performance Phase– (10 minutes) primes the athlete for the competition or training – raising intensity for sport specific training – comparable level of intensity for competition – hard sprints, possession game in soccer.

Static stretching is not done in the pre-game warm-up, unless the player has a condition that merits it. Static stretching is proven to reduce force production of muscles.

My next question about a 16 minute warm-up would be on the cognitive side. Are the players ready to perform mentally, after such a short period of time, 16 minutes? The military coined a phrase called cognitive readiness, which in short means being completely ready both mentally and physically to face difficult unstable challenges. Is 16 minutes enough to be cognitively ready or mentally game ready? My next question is, if the game was being played away, are the players familiar enough with the entire field from a spatial perspective? This is a big issue for me, and here is why. Studies have even shown that deficiencies in spatial awareness can diminish an athlete’s chances of maximizing their true potential.  From a coaching perspective it is very important to grasp an understanding of the science behind spatial awareness, this will help in the development of trainings and football methodologies in regards to player development.  Jeffrey Taube helps explain spatial awareness and location in a pair of papers he wrote in the “Journal of Neuroscience” in 1990.  Taube suggested that humans are biologically programmed to know what direction we are facing; as this skill has been fundamental to our survival.  He stated that there are cells called “head direction cells”, located in the thalamus, that serve to tell us what direction the head is facing.  There are also cells in the hippocampus called “place cells” that track our location relative to landmarks in the environment.  These two types of cells work together to guide our movement; in what you may consider a cognitive map of sorts.  The last cell that helps us with location and spatial awareness is called a grid cell.  Neil Burgess a neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of College London, says, “grid cells provide a map of the whole environment, similar to the longitude and latitude of real maps, only in triangular patterns.”  It is realistic to assume that frequently training on the same field or a similar field would establish a set of grid cells for that situation, combine that with the direction we’re facing (head directional cells), and then our location on the field (place cells), that will provide the player a very specific idea of location or spatial awareness when playing.

The another question about the 16 minute warm-up is, does this allow for players of different body types to warm-up properly, and does it take into account the environment (wind and temperature)?

And finally, each player has different pre-game needs. The national team keeper from Portugal would listen to his favorite music and watch videos of his best saves before every match, he believed it helped his performance. I liked to walk the field 90 minutes before the game started, and I also like to do some basic low intensity work by myself. Is there some time built into the pre-game routine for individual player needs and preferences?

I am not saying if the 16 minute warm-up is bad or good, but I am asking the following questions: what do want out of the warm-up, what do your players need from the warm-up, what are the environmental conditions of the game, is there time for individual players to address their unique physical and mental needs, does the warm-up take into account physical differences between players and are the players allowed on the field before the warm-up to become acclimated to the space?