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Delivering a Gamespeed-Focused Speed and Agility Development Program in an English Premier League Soccer Academy

Jeffreys, Ian, PhD1; Huggins, Sam, BSc2; Davies, Nick, MSc2

Strength & Conditioning Journal: June 2018 - Volume 40 - Issue 3 - p 23–32
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000325
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ABSTRACT SPEED AND AGILITY ARE HIGHLY PRIZED COMMODITIES IN SOCCER, BUT IT CAN BE ARGUED THAT WHAT IS CRUCIAL IS NOT SPEED AND AGILITY PER SE, BUT HOW THESE CAPACITIES ARE EXPLOITED IN THE GAME. OF THEMSELVES, SPEED AND AGILITY WILL BE INEFFECTIVE UNLESS THEY CAN BE COMBINED WITH THE ABILITY TO DEPLOY THESE CAPACITIES TO EFFECTIVELY PERFORM THE TASKS OF THE GAME. OPTIMIZING THESE CAPACITIES REQUIRES A SOPHISTICATED DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM THAT ADDRESSES THE FULL GAMUT OF POTENTIAL CONSTRAINTS TO PERFORMANCE. THIS ARTICLE OUTLINES HOW SUCH A DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM HAS BEEN SET-UP AT AN ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE SOCCER ACADEMY.

1University of South Wales; and

2Swansea City FC Academy

Address correspondence to Dr. Ian Jeffreys, Ian.jeffreys@southwales.ac.uk.

Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding: The authors report no conflicts of interest and no source of funding.

Figure

Figure

Ian Jeffreysis a Professor of Strength and Conditioning at the University of South Wales in Pontypridd Wales.

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Figure

Sam Hugginsis a Head of Performance at Swansea City FC Academy in Swansea Wales.

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Figure

Nick Daviesis Head of Athletic Development at Swansea City FC Academy in Swansea Wales.

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INTRODUCTION

Speed has long been considered a highly desirable attribute in soccer with players possessing superior speed often deemed to have an advantage. Typically, this discussion of speed has referred to linear speed, yet speed in a soccer context is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon, requiring the combination of physical, perceptive, cognitive, technical, and tactical capabilities. Subsequently, the great advantage of speed to soccer performance is far more than just the possession of linear speed and is reflected in the ability to perform soccer-related tasks. Importantly, this advantage reflects itself both offensively and defensively, allowing players to deploy a far greater range of options during the course of the game.

Ultimately, speed and agility development needs to look beyond the simple definitions of speed and agility and must reflect the environmental requirements of soccer performance. For any player wishing to maximize soccer performance, it is crucial that they are able to access a quality development program that allows them to exploit the capacities of speed and agility in the context of a soccer game—the concept of “gamespeed.” This article will look at how such a program has been developed and deployed in an English Premier League (EPL) Club Academy.

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START WITH WHY—THE CONTEXT-SPECIFIC NATURE OF SPEED

Speed and agility are highly valued in soccer, but it can be argued that what is crucial is not speed and agility per se, but how these capacities are exploited in the game (6,7,9). Of themselves, speed and agility will be ineffective unless they can be combined with the ability to deploy these capacities to effectively perform the tasks of the game (6–9). Although this may seem obvious, it has huge implications for the way in which speed and agility are developed. Traditionally, the approach is to look at these capacities from a definitional point of view and devise means and methods of assessing and developing them based on these definitions. However, this can often result in practices that do not necessarily reflect the way in which the movements are deployed in a game (9). With a definitional point of view, speed and agility are typically trained in a predominantly generic fashion and assessed using a measure of time, with better performance determined as a faster time in performing a given task (9). However, this can often result in techniques that, although allowing an athlete to move quickly, do not reflect the way in which they should move in soccer, where the movements are ultimately deployed specifically to perform a given soccer-specific task (9). To ensure maximal transfer between training and the game, it is crucial that the game, and specifically the tasks that the athlete must perform to effectively play the game, provide the frame of reference against which speed and agility are judged and developed (7,9). Accordingly, any technique developed, and exercises deployed, need to ensure that they address the movement skills and capacities that allow the athlete to play the game effectively (7,9). Rather counterintuitively, this often means that techniques are deployed which may not be maximally effective when measured by time alone but undoubtedly allow the athlete to perform the soccer-specific tasks which are the fundamental aim of any speed and agility program (6,9). Therefore, the approach of looking at speed and agility from a “gamespeed perspective,” where the frame of reference is always the game rather than purely the more definitional terms, speed and agility, ensures that techniques developed reflect the task-related nature of sports movement (7,9).

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PHASES OF A SOCCER GAME

If the game of soccer is to provide the reference for speed and agility development, then it is crucial to develop an understanding of the tasks the player needs to perform to achieve effective game performance. This subsequently requires an analysis of the underlying aims of the movement patterns a player uses to perform these tasks and an understanding of how to effectively deploy movements to achieve task success. Consequently, developing an effective speed and agility program requires not only knowledge of the factors that affect speed and agility but, just as importantly, an intricate knowledge of the way in which these capacities are used in the game. Clearly, some traditional approaches to speed and agility development should still play a part in an effective development program, but it is important to blend these approaches with an understanding of the specific movement-based requirements of the game.

To do this, it is useful to have an overriding framework of the fundamental aims of the game within which key movement patterns can be identified and effectively analyzed. In the model of tactical periodization, 4 key phases of a soccer game can be identified (1). These are defensive organization; transition from defense to offense; offensive organization; transition from offense to defense and are shown in Figure 1 (1).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Each of these phases has within it a series of key tactical principles (1). These outline what a player is expected to do within each of the 4 phases of the game (Figure 2). These, in turn, provide an opportunity to identify the key movement patterns that need to be developed to achieve these principles, and importantly, how these are deployed within the game of soccer. This provides important information not only on what patterns are required, but crucially on the key tasks that the player will need to be able to perform when undertaking these movements. This allows us to ascertain the most effective way of performing the movements and the appropriate technical requirements. This, in turn, allows us to judge these movements, not in the typical way of determining how fast they are being performed but more importantly in determining how effective they are being deployed in achieving a given soccer-related task. Importantly, when analyzing movement tasks and patterns within each phase, movement occurs both on and off the ball, so players need to be able to apply effective movement when in possession of the ball and when moving off the ball.

Figure 2

Figure 2

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THE VALUE OF THE TARGET CLASSIFICATIONS

Given the inherent complexity of soccer movement, it is important to be able to identify discrete movement patterns which comprise the complex patterns and combinations seen on the field of play. Figure 2 shows how the main principle and the subprinciple for each phase of the game can be identified. These, in turn, lead to the identification of key tasks that need to be performed to successfully achieve each principle. This framework then allows for the identification of key capacities and the associated movement patterns that need to be deployed to achieve the overall objective.

It is at this point that the target classifications are extremely useful (4,6,7,9) (Figure 3). These provide a categorization of movement patterns that encompass the movements in the vast majority of team and court sports, and critically, provide a reference as to what the athlete is trying to achieve with these movements. This classification helps to identify which movement patterns form the basis of the key tasks identified for each phase and ensures that the movements themselves are developed in relation to their underpinning objective. For example, when pressing in defense, the player will use a range of movements but essentially be in transition, waiting to read, and react to the unfolding game. This will require them to effectively use acceleration, deceleration, jockeying, cross-step running, backtracking, and side-shuffling skills. Critically, the target mechanics associated with each movement then provide a frame of reference against which to coach and assess these movement patterns through the development process (4,7).

Figure 3

Figure 3

These movement patterns can then be placed in a development syllabus, where they can be developed from discrete skills through to task-specific soccer movements (6,7). This classification provides a list of the key movement patterns that need to be developed, but also provides a development pathway, ultimately enabling them to be used effectively in the game situation (6,7). Importantly, the fact that these are contextualized means that the frame of reference when assessing these patterns always reflect the task-related nature of the game (9).

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USING A TASK-BASED APPROACH

Within this development pathway, the overarching philosophy is to use a task-based approach in the development of soccer-specific speed and agility (8). The concept of a task-based approach is based on the ultimate destination of the program and the game-related tasks the player will need to perform (8). This approach is both a philosophy and an applied dictum. As a philosophy, the approach is used to determine the optimal technique with which to perform any movement pattern. So, when evaluating a movement pattern, this should be based on the ability to perform the key tasks associated with the pattern and not necessarily on how fast the movement is done. This is especially important for transition movements, which are deployed when the athlete is waiting to read, manipulate, and react to the evolving game (4,7). As an applied approach, it provides the ultimate destination for the program and allows for the utilization of a range of random and more manipulative/reactive movements within sessions. This task-based approach also ensures that when these more reactive elements are used, they retain a degree of specificity to the game (8,9,14). This is important because it results in a completely different perspective to that of reactive agility alone. In the latter, the focus is often on providing a reactive element to an exercise and not on the true objective of a task (9). This often results in movement patterns being deployed that may result in a rapid reaction but through the application of a pattern that is suboptimal in terms of performing a task (9). By having the task as the overarching philosophy, this ensures that all movements deployed are performed in a manner that maximizes transfer to soccer performance (9).

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ADVANTAGES OF THE TASK-BASED APPROACH

Undoubtedly, an effective force development program is an important element of any speed and agility development system (7,8). However, it cannot fully develop the required capacities to apply speed and agility concepts into a game, as other factors play an important role. When looking at the gamut of constraints to effective speed and agility performance, effective application of gamespeed requires perceptive capacities, cognitive capacities, and motor control elements as well as more traditional force-based elements (7–9). This reflects the fact that effective gamespeed application depends on the constant refinement and application of the perception-action cycle (9). In this way, an athlete is constantly problem solving and making movement-based decisions and applications in response to the information being perceived and cognitively processed at any time. This requires the development of decision-making processes as to what actions to deploy, when to deploy them etc., and then ascertaining how successfully they are performed. Importantly, throughout this process, the athlete is constantly manipulating the environment to assist in the decision-making process, orienting themselves in an attempt to manipulate the possible variables to increase the likelihood of task success (9). Importantly, each aspect of this perception-action cycle can be potentially improved through an effective gamespeed program (9). This emphasizes that movement is a skill, and as such, practices that enhance skill development should be integrated into a speed and agility development program. Subsequently, enhancements of speed and agility should always take a combined physical- and skill-based approach. One challenge of this is that skills are far harder to measure than physical capacities, but that should never mean that they are not appropriately addressed within a development program.

Research into motor learning suggests that the use of task-based drills can result in enhanced skill development (12). Because task-based exercises have an inherent variability, they naturally have a high degree of randomness and variance built in. Both are believed to increase the degree of skill learning over the longer term (11). Similarly, research also suggests that skill development is enhanced when cognitive involvement in learning is high (2,10). Indeed, it is suggested that permanent improvements in performance capacity are only achieved when cognitive and physical training occur in concert (12). Again, performing tasks that require decision making ensures a high cognitive involvement throughout practice (8,12). Another factor believed to enhance learning is the use of an external rather than an internal focus (13). Although this can be achieved with appropriate cueing, the use of well-designed tasks can help ensure that an external focus is used (13). Similarly, the clear indication of success or failure in the task gives direct feedback on the quality of performance, which is another factor believed to enhance learning (3). However, this is not to say that behavioral approaches to skill development do not play an important role. For example, the ability to accelerate is a fundamental building block in any gamespeed program, and this can benefit from a more closed, behavioral approach to learning. Consequently, the approach taken is a blend of behavioral and dynamic systems approaches to skill development rather than relying simply on one. As with many training inputs, balancing the potential benefits of multiple methods of skill development is a preferred option.

It is here that the concept of deliberate practice is crucial. Ericsson (3) asserts that the quantity of deliberate practice is the largest determinant in the development of expertise. Deliberate practice requires 4 key elements: a clear goal, an appropriate level of difficulty, progression, and immediate feedback. Provided effective coaching is present and can provide the appropriate level of feedback, a blended approach meets all the requirements of deliberate practice, and so, it is a key tool in the development of appropriate soccer-specific speed and agility.

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PROGRESSING MOVEMENT SKILLS

Ericsson (3) asserts that an appropriate level of progression and cognitive challenge is a key principle of skill development, suggesting that there is an optimal zone of challenge for learning (3). If something is too easy, then there is a danger of boredom and an associated lack of learning, but additionally, if the task is too difficult then learning can be precluded. The ability to modulate challenge is thus crucial to effective skill development, and the use of degrees of freedom within an exercise facilitates this capacity (7–9). The use of progressive challenges, where degrees of freedom are manipulated, ensures that an appropriate level of challenge is provided to the athlete and placing them on the edge of the current capacity where learning is believed to be optimal. Over time, a coach can add degrees of freedom to the training exercises, pushing this edge increasingly toward challenges players will face in the game (9). The degrees of freedom are manipulated through the inclusion of a range of spatial and temporal challenges to the exercise (7,8). In addition, delivering this work during gamespeed-based sessions ensures that sufficient repetitive doses of the movements and tasks can be provided to ensure that learning occurs. Critically, this is something that cannot be ensured if tasks are delivered solely through the soccer-specific sessions.

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A MULTIDIMENSIONAL PLAYER PATHWAY

Although this article generally focuses on the micro details of the program, critical to the effective development of the program is the macro management and the realization that the program is a part of a holistic player development program that is made up of numerous strands. Although strength and conditioning plays an important part in the development of the modern soccer player, it always must be acknowledged that far and away the most important part of the player's development is their soccer-specific training. Subsequently, the program must fit, both within, and around, the soccer-specific development.

Every soccer club in the EPL and the Championship are required to run an “academy,” and must deliver an Elite Player Performance Plan. This plan was instigated in 2012 to improve the quality of youth development and outlines key targets that a soccer club needs to deliver. Key targets are set nationally and relate to diverse aspects such as player productivity rates, coaching, training facilities, education, welfare, etc. Within this structure, each club has a degree of flexibility in how it delivers on its targets. Fitting in within this structure means that our principles and methods must comply with, and complement, those used by the soccer-specific coaches. Ultimately, in terms of physical development, our aim at this academy is to ensure that our players are provided with all the physical capacities required to play at the first-team level. Doing this requires a full understanding of the playing philosophy of the first team and the associated physical capacities that are required to play the type of game the first team requires. These capacities then should be progressively developed throughout the player's time at the academy. In this way, the physical work is never seen as an isolated input, separate from the soccer-specific work. At all times, the complementarity of this work is stressed and how it relates to the tasks they undertake on the soccer pitch.

Working around the soccer-specific work means that the physical development training must fit around the daily and weekly structure of the soccer-specific training and of the player's educational programs. To achieve this, it is important to understand the aim of each soccer practice, allowing the key physical components involved in each to be identified, which in turn enables the appropriate planning of the physical development program. Importantly, this may mean that programming is not always optimal in terms of maximal physical development but instead that it complements the overall training of the athlete, ensuring that the player's development is maximized.

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APPLYING THE MODEL

As explained above, the gamespeed development program must fit in with the overall development structure implemented by the club. The player development program complies with the requirements of the soccer association regarding its academy blueprint and has 3 key stages as shown in Figure 4. In addition, players at each stage have a system of attendance that largely dictates the methods by which the athletic development program can be delivered. However, within this overarching framework, there is flexibility as to how a club delivers its program. To maximize our players' development, an overarching goal for each phase has been developed. This, in turn, directs the underpinning aims and objectives that need to be achieved at each stage of the development program. Our triangular approach to athletic development, covering our gamespeed, gameforce, and game-endurance programs, is then geared to the achievement of these aims and objectives. This overarching structure is shown in Table 1.

Figure 4

Figure 4

Table 1

Table 1

Players are initially selected for the academy at age 9 years, and they stay in the foundation phase for 3 years. At this stage, they will typically have 4 sessions per week (3 after school with a fourth on Saturday) with a focus on developing fundamental soccer technical and tactical capabilities.

Many, but not all, of the players will then enter the youth development phase, which itself is split into 2, with the early development phase age being from 12 to 14 and the late development phase age being from 15 to 16. At this stage, the players are still in full-time education, but have access to day-release programs, where they can attend the academy 1 day per week and have other evening-based sessions. Not all players progress through the entire stage because formal scholarships and contracts are decided at the end of the early youth development stage. Players offered these scholarships and contracts progress to the late development stage.

Further selection takes place at age 16, with some players offered professional academy contracts of various durations. At this stage, they become full-time players and have access to training on a daily basis. This is supplemented by an education program which fits around their academy training. Throughout all stages, the focus is on developing players that have the technical, tactical, psychological, and physical capacities to enter the professional game and ultimately represent the club at first-team level.

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THE MULTIDIMENSIONAL MODEL

The key responsibility of the strength and conditioning staff at the club is to provide and deliver a progressive structure of training. The aim is that all players graduating from the academy have the required physical capacities required to play for the first team. Given that the first team competes in the EPL, one of the most competitive leagues in the world, this requires that physical capacities are of the highest level, to enable the players to compete effectively at this level of performance. Although the gamespeed syllabus plays an important role in the player physical development pathway, this is part of a triangular approach that also incorporates force capacities and metabolic capacities (Figure 5). These 3 corners we term gamespeed, gameforce, and game-endurance, ensuring that focus is on how each contributes directly to soccer performance rather than being a goal in themselves. Each of these corners is subject to a development syllabus throughout the above phases of development, starting with baseline capacities and building to soccer-specific performance with important milestones to be achieved for each phase. These objectives tend to be process goals in the early stages focusing on the achievement of competency in specific movements and skills, progressing in the late youth development stage to a mix of process and performance goals, and focusing predominantly in the professional development stage on performance goals. Thus, players reaching the first team should have appropriate capacity in each of the 3 areas.

Figure 5

Figure 5

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THE FOUNDATION PHASE

Table 2 outlines a typical week for the foundation phase. In this phase, the entire athletic development spectrum is delivered on the field in 4 carefully constructed raise, activate, mobilize, and potentiate (RAMP)-based warm-ups (5). Within the raising phase of the warm-up players are instructed and given the opportunities to practice all the key target movements identified previously. The emphasis here is on movement development and efficiency of all the target movements, along with introductory jumping and landing activities. During the activation and mobilization phase, basic movement competencies in key movement patterns such as squatting, lunging, bracing, and bending are included, along with a sequential development of an athlete's ability to control and master their own bodyweight. During the potentiation phase, 3 different themes are included where activities are introduced that progress the athlete's capacities. These themes are acceleration, maximum speed, and gamespeed (which integrates all aspects of the target movements classification into gamespeed-based tasks). Intensity is varied through these sessions, with the highest intensity work being focused on the acceleration and maximum speed days, with lower intensity work on the gamespeed days where more of a focus is on the development of the movement skills allied to the cognitive and perceptual skills required to apply these movements. Importantly, although the themes of acceleration and maximum speed include several basic exercises, all sessions include some exercises designed to combine them with soccer-related tasks.

Table 2

Table 2

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THE YOUTH DEVELOPMENT PHASE

This phase builds on the structure of the foundation phase and still uses RAMP-based warm-ups before all soccer sessions. Table 3 outlines a typical training week for the youth development stage. The major difference is in the complexity of the movements used in the raise phase; the combined types of movements used in the activation and mobilization phase (such as lunges combined with rotational patterns) and the sports-generic and soccer-specific activities of the potentiation phase. Increasingly through this phase, the activities of the warm-up are combined with the overall goals of the soccer-specific session. For example, when the aim of the soccer-specific session is defensive pressing, then the warm-up will include activities designed to develop the capacity to decelerate, jockey, etc.

Table 3

Table 3

This approach is supplemented by 2 dedicated athletic development sessions, which combine gamespeed-based activities, with strength-based activities. Typically, the early part of the session takes place on the field, where the focus is either on acceleration or maximum speed capacities, and this is followed by strength-based activities, which normally involve plyometrics and weight room-based activities. Given the increase in overall work, we carefully monitor the volume and intensity of the sessions through the week. Intensity is at its highest during the dedicated athletic development sessions, where the focus is on the acceleration and maximum speed work. The other sessions are of a moderate intensity, where the focus is on developing the integration of cognitive, perceptual, and skill-based aspects of movement.

This phase sees a general shift from process-based goals, to more performance-based goals as the players progress through the system. Again, although the focus is on acceleration and maximum speed, exercises are always included that maximize transfer to soccer performance. For example, acceleration activities are initiated from a range of standing and rolling starts and in a range of directions and in response to various soccer-related stimuli. In all sessions, the latter part of the session includes task-based activities that relate these capacities to soccer performance (e.g., acceleration), combined with direction change in an attempt to create space.

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THE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT PHASE

Potentially, this phase offers a 5-year transition from the youth development phase to the professional game. However, it should be noted that this period is relatively fluid because some players will be required to enter the first-team environment at a relatively young age, whereas others may require the full period to achieve the physical capacities required at the first-team level.

At this stage, players have 5 gamespeed-based sessions per week delivered through warm-up–based activities (Figure 6). This program is supplemented by 2 dedicated athletic development sessions focusing on the gameforce aspect of the program. Although the warm-up–based activities are run on a similar structure to the youth development phase, a major difference is in the level of integration. The warm-ups are structured to tie in with the main theme of the soccer-based session, and there is a seamless integration between the 2. So, although the raise phase still works on underpinning locomotor movement capacity and the activation and mobilization phase maintains movement control and capacity, the potentiation phase has different themes and is predominantly task-based, building seamlessly into the main session. The tasks are built around the themes highlighted earlier as follows: defensive organization, offensive organization, transition between defense and attack, and transition between attack and defense.

Figure 6

Figure 6

Importantly, work volume and intensity are carefully controlled throughout this phase. For example, on Monday, the exertion levels are relatively low to moderate because this is considered predominantly a recovery day in the overall club program. The focus here is to work mainly on the cognitive and perceptive aspects of gamespeed. Here, a more teaching-based approach is deployed, with focus on less intense movements but still on the achievement of excellent movement patterns. The 2 most intense sessions are on Tuesday and Wednesday, where most of the higher intensity acceleration and maximum speed-based exercises are undertaken, and where the aim is also to prepare the players for their most intense soccer-based sessions. Thursday and Friday follow a general reduction in intensity in preparation for Saturday's game with the focus shifting again to the more perceptual and cognitive aspects of performance. This ties in with the more tactical approaches of the soccer-based sessions on these days.

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SUMMARY

This approach to speed and agility development reflects the fact that ultimately, the critical factor in ascertaining the effectiveness of any soccer development program is how well the player can play the game. Although speed and agility are undoubtedly important, what is more important is how they combine to supplement the technical and tactical capacities of the player, ensuring that they can use these capabilities within the game scenario. We firmly believe that movement is a skill and benefits from a skill-based approach to its development as well as a physical-based approach. Critically, for any training approach to be effective in the soccer club, it must fit into the overall strategy and systems the club has in place for its youth development. Using a structured, systematic gamespeed development approach, focusing on skill development, but within a task-based methodology, has allowed for the development of a system that enhances gamespeed and fits into the overall development framework and goals of the club.

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Keywords:

speed; agility; soccer; EPL; academy; gamespeed

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