All 24 nations in Euro 2016 face the same challenge: they need their players to take the field in the best shape possible. But achieving peak tournament fitness comes with many challenges, particularly perhaps for countries which have not qualified for a major tournament in recent years.
The challenges that support staff and coaches face can be broken down into two categories: how best to prepare the players and team and how to manage the logistics of training and playing on foreign soil.
The first aim is to ensure that the coach is able to select from a fully fit squad. That means limiting injuries and illness. When it comes to athletes, recent research from Australia has found that sudden changes in the duration and intensity of a player’s training load are precursors to injury.
Coaches therefore have to understand the training practices of each player in their squad prior to the tournament. It is relatively easy to acquire the players’ training information from the regular season, but more difficult to create a training programme sufficiently familiar to each player in the squad while suitable for what the coach wants to achieve. Players, like most of us, are creatures of habit and changes to routine are best made slowly. Yet time is not in abundance before a major tournament.
Coaches also need to contend with players joining the squad at different times. If we consider the UK’s representative nations at Euro 2016, most of the players ply their trade in England. The Premier League ended on May 15 but the play-offs for tiers two and three of English football went on until May 29. By that time, most countries had started playing international friendlies.
If this means having to think about the fitness of players who stopped competitive football at different times, arguably the most troublesome are the ones who finished earliest, since there is a need to preserve their fitness until the start of the tournament. For example, the English Championship, as tier two is known, finished its regular games on May 7, more than a month prior to the first Euro 2016 competitive match. It is all about striving to achieve a balance between maintaining fitness and optimising freshness.
When it comes to training, the gym facilities are as important as the pitches. If a hotel can’t provide the facilities that allow players to perform their usual pre-training routines and strength training, teams have to arrange to take the facilities with them. England and Wales have had to build a “pop-up” gym for France, for example; along with a cinema room and gaming consoles for relaxation time.
If you want an insight into the importance of a team’s hotel and training base, the Leeds Rhinos rugby league team is a good example. This season they have gone from treble winners to bottom of the Super League table. The loss of form has been linked in part to losing their regular training base in the floods that ravaged Yorkshire earlier this year.
If that kind of problem can be bad enough in your own country, consider the difficulties associated with choosing a training base abroad. The food and rooms need to be of the standard players and staff would choose themselves, in a hotel secluded enough to limit distractions from nightlife or other guests. It also needs to be close to the training pitch to limit time on the bus.
This is enough of a headache for any team. For nations that qualified late and have the added stress of having to search and select in a hurry, it’s even worse.
Transport is another problem. There have been a number of reports about issues with French transport due to strikes and the implications for fans getting to the games, but the same issues equally apply to all teams.
Those in charge of logistics need a plan A, B and possibly C for getting to and from games, which have strict rules about when teams must arrive beforehand. This is all exacerbated by media commitments and post-match recovery – the coach may want players to have access to a swimming pool and hydrotherapy the next day, for instance. This all dictates how many nights the team spends away from its regular base, especially during the group stages.
Few players will want to stay beyond their final game, so getting knocked out means support staff having to hastily make travel arrangements to get the team home – or at least to a central point from where they can begin their summer holidays. All this has to happen with minimal distraction.
Despite all these challenges, being involved in Euro 2016 is likely to be one of the greatest experiences of the careers of players and support staff. After the madness of preparing and then reacting to the results, most will probably look back on it with a great sense of pride – all the more so if they walk away with the trophy.