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Thursday, 10 March 2016

Train Like a German Soccer Star

In the stirring World Cup final on Sunday between the national men’s soccer teams from Germany and Argentina, an American played a role on the field in Rio de Janeiro despite the United States team’s having been eliminated. Sitting and occasionally pacing tensely along the German sideline was Mark Verstegen, the team’s trainer.
Mr. Verstegen, the founder and president of EXOS, a Phoenix-based company that trains professional and recreational athletes and corporate executives, was appointed in 2004 by Jurgen Klinsmann, then the coach of the German team and now the United States coach. He was brought in to improve the players’ fitness, agility, nutrition and resilience. At the time, the Germans were at a low ebb by their high standards, having not won a World Cup since 1990 or a European championship since 1996. Mr. Verstegen said his appointment was met with widespread incredulity among German fans, news media and even some players.
“They wondered what Americans could possibly teach” the German squad, he said.
Then the Germans advanced to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, performing better than expected, and on Sunday, the team won this year’s edition, defeating Argentina, 1-0, in extra time after having routed the host Brazilian squad, 7-1, a few days earlier. There aren’t many skeptics about Mr. Verstegen’s training methods now.
To learn more about how he trained the German team and how the rest of us might adapt some of their routines at home, ,I spoke and emailed with Mr. Verstegen in the days leading to and just after Germany’s title victory. (His book, “Every Day is Game Day,” was published in January.) What follows are excerpts from our conversations.
Q.
What were the logistics of training the German team at the World Cup, given that the team was traveling from city to city?
A.
We have a pretty amazing mobile training camp. It’s a 4,000- or 5,000-square foot structure that we erect adjacent to the pitch. It holds the latest cardiovascular machines, weights, fitness and recovery gear, treatment tables and so on.
Q.
What would a typical World Cup training session in that facility look like?
A.
It would depend on how close we were to the next game, but we’d often divide the structure into four stations, a mini-circuit, with a different exercise at each station. We might have the players do things like a T-Hip rotation exercise at one station and a miniband lateral walk at another. That’s where you strap a band across the thighs or ankles and walk sideways. We were ridiculed in 2004 when we had players exercise that way. But hip stability is essential for soccer performance and injury mitigation. People don’t laugh about it now.
Q.
After a session in the facility, then what?
A.
The team goes onto the field and does drills, lots of drills, working on agility and acceleration and building power. We might have them do lateral and cross sprints, drop squats, running with the parachute or the Bullet belt [a harness worn by the player and attached to a long rope held by a coach]. After that, there’d be technical and tactical work with the ball.
Q.
How different are these sessions from the training that the German team did before you arrived?
A.
There was more emphasis then on the technical and tactical elements. The physical training was very general, with lots of long runs. Now the players still spend lots of time working on technique and tactics, but their physical training is more focused and individualized. We constantly assess players’ movement patterns, for instance, watching as they perform every exercise. Precision is very important. If they’re slightly off in their movements on any particular day, we correct things right away. It’s like running an antivirus program on a computer. You want to get rid of the junk and keep the movements precise.
Q.
Just how fit is the German team?
A.
I can give you precise numbers on that. The German players covered 113.8 kilometers, or about 71 miles, on average as a team per game in the group phase. Only the Americans ran more as a team. In the quarterfinal round against France, German players ran 7.5 kilometers, or about 4.6 miles, more as a team than did the French side. That translates to about three-quarters of a player more on the pitch.
Q.
How can you tell how much players are running?
A.
All of the players wear monitors in their cleats that track their mileage, movements, where they are on the field, when they stop and start, and all sorts of additional data. We track every player’s every heartbeat and keep and compare data from practice to practice and game to game. We repeat certain drills, and if someone is performing the same drill with a lower heart rate or faster speed, we know he’s improving. If he’s slower or his heart rate stays elevated, we monitor him to make sure that’s he’s not becoming overly fatigued or ill, then get him to push himself a bit more.
Q.
Any suggestions on which aspects of the German team’s training program those of us at home might usefully incorporate into our exercise routines, even if we aren’t soccer players?
A.
The broad elements of the training program apply to anyone. Concentrate on your mind-set, nutrition, movement patterns and recovery. On a practical level, get plenty of sleep, which is extremely important and often overlooked. Kick the electronics out of the bedroom. At the other end of the day, when you first wake up, do a few push-ups or yoga poses, anything that gets your body and mind primed for activity. You’ll be more receptive to activity throughout the day. Then try to do whatever exercise you do a bit better every day. You don’t have to be doing split squats with kettle bells, but do something that pushes you a bit. The point is that the body and the brain respond positively to having demands put on them. That’s really the key to fitness.
Q.
Are you happy with the outcome of that last World Cup game?
A.
Utter elation. We had put in 10 focused years of attention to details. There are no givens in sports, but once that whistle blew, it was utter joy.
Roll Your Glutes Like Bastian Schweinsteiger
To lessen the chance of injury and improve performance, we all should ease into exercise with an orchestrated warm-up, Mr. Verstegen said. These eight exercises approximate a typical warm-up for the German national soccer team, so for many of us, they “might be a workout in itself at first,” he said. But persevere, and the moves will become easier, he said, and your subsequent workouts will be more productive. These exercises require a foam roller and resistance band, which are available at many gyms or can be purchased at sporting goods stores. They are best performed in the order listed.

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