Darren Dillon

Darren Dillon is the owner and director of Kickstart Fitness Ireland. Founded in 2010, Kickstart Fitness has grown from what was initially a bootcamp in a local park into what is now a center of excellence for TRX®️Training and functional training, and a high performance hub for strength and conditioning. Darren also serves as head of performance at Shamrock Rovers FC, working with and programming for the academy through to senior professional soccer players. He is also Ireland’s only official TRX®️ Master Trainer, delivering all the company’s education courses to the Irish fitness industry.

// 2 Sports Performance goals during the competitive season

When you live and breathe strength and conditioning day in and day out, it can be all too easy to start putting up silo walls and get stuck in your own specialist lane. But when you serve a pro, college, or high school sports team, you have to constantly remind yourself that no matter how much you love your job or which benchmarks you want to help your athletes achieve, two main goals must remain your focus to achieve optimal sports performance. What certain military leaders would call the “Commander’s Intent” for each mission, which in this case is the competitive season. First, players need to perform their best on game day. And two, they need to stay healthy enough to do so. 

In professional soccer, everything works backwards from game day. Match day minus 1 (i.e. the day before the game), we might do a little technical work, but most of it is purely tactical. At this point, we’ve tapered off with the physical load we’re placing on the players so they’re fresh when the referee blows the whistle. To help ensure this, match day minus two is a day off. On match day minus three, we typically do our heaviest load in terms of intensity, density, and volume. The points of focus are power, strength, and speed. The day before – match day minus 4 – is a medium day for those training qualities. This approach allows us to introduce enough of a stimulus to keep the players quick and strong, without overloading them and compromising either their durability or match day readiness.

The Beauty of a Five-Week Training Block

On Monday of next week, we will commence a five-week preseason block. During this time, the players won’t be on the pitch, so we don’t have to take the tactical and technical elements of the sport into account. It’s when I believe I do my best work as a coach, because I’m able to design and implement a linear program that works toward defined fitness outcomes. this time of the year, it’s a capital S (strength) in S and C, and a lowercase C (conditioning). When the season starts in earnest, this is reversed, and the aim becomes maintaining the levels the lads have achieved during our intensive pre-season training sessions. 

We allow them to put on a bit of weight and muscle mass at this point, knowing that some of it will come off once we begin doing more conditioning drills and they start running several miles in each game. Once they start doing more with the ball in early January, I begin to work with them more on the training pitch than in the gym on chaotic and closed drills. The former requires them to make a lot of decisions quickly. We’ll do small sided games, shout out the colors of the cones we want them to sprint to, and challenge their ability to move swiftly on the fly. Whereas closed training requires the players moving between predetermined destinations, such as the goal line and the halfway line. Their motion could be linear, or involve them zig-zagging. There are less actions than with chaotic drills, but closed training is still a different and useful way to challenge their conditioning and movement competence.

When the Season Starts

Once the competitive calendar kicks into high gear, the games start coming at us thick and fast. So while we have a macro plan that we try to stick to as much as possible, we often have to improvise and simply deal with what the fixture schedule allows. In a given week, the team might play one game on Monday, a second on Wednesday, and a third the following Monday. For the first team players who are logging a lot of heavy minutes, the days in between games will consist of light training and recovery – such as soft tissue manipulation, swimming, cycling, and so on. While the starting eleven are going through this routine, we’ll have the rest of the squad train much harder. Why? Because they need to be in shape if the manager decides to put them in the starting 11 or has his hand forced by injury. We’ve got to keep their fitness level up throughout the season because they never know when their opportunity to prove themselves on the pitch might come along. They’ve got to be ready to seize it when it does. 

One of the things I’m proudest of is that last season we had the lowest number of injuries ever. The players’ cumulative availability rate was 78 percent, which is atypically high. We did have a couple of collision-related knocks, but no muscle injuries (calves, hamstrings, and quads are the most common trouble spots) or ACL tears. This is a testament to our focus on load management and the players’ commitment to showing up every day and putting in the work, and then knuckling down on their recovery afterward.

One final note

Another component of keeping players ready is their mental health, as I’ve written about extensively for TrainHeroic already. Their mindset on game day largely determines how they’re going to play and what they’ll do when they encounter adversity, as is always the case in competitive sports. So while I’ll get them physically prepared before each practice and game with a dynamic warmup, activation exercises, and a bit of acceleration/ deceleration, I’ll also gauge their mindset individually and collectively. Sometimes I can tell they’re already up for it, so aside from a pat on the back or a word of encouragement, not much needs to be done. Or it could be that they’re a bit lethargic and need a metaphorical kick in the arse. This is another way that I try and keep the team’s overall goals – particularly getting the players mentally and physically ready – in mind.

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