11 May 2007

Skill-based Fitness training for Female Games Players

Skills Based Training as an Alternative to Traditional Strength Training

Strength, power and speed are just as important for female as for male games players, yet many females are uncomfortable in the traditional strength-training environment. The answer, according to James Marshall, could be skill-based fitness training

Female games players in sports such as soccer, rugby, tennis, netball, hockey and lacrosse, who wish to perform at a high standard, need high levels of fitness. Aerobic capacity, power, speed, agility and strength are all required in varying degrees to enable players to excel at these sports. Technical and tactical skills also play a major role in games players’ success; a team sport player has to work on the interactions with their team-mates as well as his or her individual skills.

With coaches having limited time to access their players, and with a host of things to work on, combining skill training with fitness training seems an ideal way to maximise contact time with the players. This is commonplace practice in male soccer and rugby league environments.

However, female games players are slightly different for two reasons; firstly, many female athletes are uncomfortable in the strength-training environment, because they regard it as more of a ‘male’ mode of training; secondly, the female body is obviously different from the male – specifically the biomechanics of the lower limb can make females more susceptible to lower limb injuries (females are 2-8 times more likely than males to suffer knee injuries(1-4)).

In order to provide a positive environment that encourages female games players to improve their fitness and also reduce their risk of injury, integrating skills and fitness sessions could be beneficial. This article looks at creating an injury prevention-based warm-up, and then at the research on skill-based conditioning games and how to apply them. Although strength training for female games players is not addressed here, the need for an adequate strength base before starting speed or power training cannot be emphasised enough.

Incorporating injury prevention exercises into the warm-up

Warm-ups in team training environments should be used to prepare the players for the activities to follow. If the sport requires jumping, then jumps should be included, sprinting requires sprint drills, contact sports require contact etc. Where possible, a ball should be involved for ball sports, and game- related drills performed so that the players can then get warm physically, technically and mentally.

This may also be the ideal time to introduce a basic routine that helps players develop better landing mechanics in order to prevent anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. The players are fresh, the progression is suitable for warm-ups and they are supervised. The ACL is at significantly higher risk of injury in females than males. When looking at non-contact injuries, the factors are either internal (joint laxity, hormonal differences, ligament size and femoral notch width) or external (landing mechanics, muscular strength, level of competition, muscle recruitment activities), with landing mechanics being responsible for many of these differences (4).

A recent study of female soccer players in the USA looked at introducing a commercially available warm-up package designed to train landing mechanics over an eight-week period(5). The authors of the study wanted to see whether the Sportsmetrics ‘Warm-up for Injury Prevention and Performance (WIPP)’ training programme improved the landing mechanics of the soccer players compared to a control group who did normal soccer training without the WIPP programme.

After eight weeks of training, both groups improved their vertical jump scores and their landing mechanics, indicating that soccer training in itself has a training effect. However, no difference was shown between the groups in their landing mechanics. The subjects in this study were young (average age 10 years) so it could be that any training that they did may have improved their landing mechanics. Studies isolating specific exercises that improve the function of the lower limb compared to normal training in trained female soccer players are required.

Balance versus plyometric training

Another study looked at older female volleyball players (average age 15 years) who had all been training for a minimum of four years, and compared a seven-week balance programme to a seven-week plyometric programme on lower limb mechanics(6). Both groups also performed a concurrent strength and speed programme on alternate days between their neuromuscular training. The researchers wanted to test the premise that both dynamic stabilisation and plyometric activity can enhance the neuromuscular activity in the lower limb, and therefore help prevent ACL injuries.

The plyometric group performed exercises that required maximal effort in sport-specific ranges of motion. Jumping and landing with a quick turn, single-leg bounding, landing and responding to a command to provoke an unplanned change of direction were all included, with the movements becoming more complex over the seven weeks. The balance group performed cushioned landings, with knee flexion and avoiding lateral movement of the knees. This progressed from stable surfaces to unstable surfaces such as the BOSU ball and Swiss ball, and also from double-leg to single-leg landings.

Both groups showed an improvement in their vertical jump, their hamstring strength and their hamstring-to-quadriceps strength ratio. They also showed an improvement in knee stability on landing. The balance group showed a significant improvement in their ability to reduce the force of impact during a single-leg jump, whereas the plyometric group didn’t. This was almost certainly because the balance group had practised this landing technique.

Both of these training protocols were effective, but they were done in conjunction with a strength-training programme. Isolating a single set of exercises that will help reduce ACL injury risk is difficult. Instead, a combination of strength work, plyometric exercises and dynamic stabilisation exercises seems best. This can be easily incorporated into the team warm-up; I have used this protocol successfully in the past with male athletes in a professional rugby club.

BOSU ball training

The use of the BOSU ball is becoming more commonplace in commercial gym environments, but does it have any place in sports conditioning programmes? Using it may help you improve your balance on unstable surfaces, but if it doesn’t help you improve your sporting performance, then why bother?

One recent study showed that using the BOSU for four weeks not only helped improve balance performance, but it also reduced time of completion in a multi-directional shuttle run compared to a control group(7). No difference was found in the vertical jump of the control and test groups, but then balance training was not theorised to have an impact on power performance. Follow-up tests two weeks after the end of the BOSU training period showed that while balance on the ball was maintained, shuttle time had increased again. The bottom line is that balance training is likely to have an impact on injury prevention and agility, but little impact on power and speed, and that the training must be continuous. Including it as part of a warm-up protocol throughout the season is recommended.

Skill-based conditioning games

If balance training has little impact on speed and power, or on anaerobic conditioning, then can skill-based conditioning games have such an impact? Good coaches can integrate skills training into small games and drills that require a game-related physical effort, making them fun and hard work.

Other coaches see skills and fitness training as two very different areas; I have witnessed sessions consisting of hours of technical drills with no physical fatigue (but a lot of mental fatigue) followed by 10 minutes of all-out fitness at the end of the session – none of which is game specific, with the players rapidly losing interest. If female games players have a negative perception of fitness training to begin with, then these types of drills will only exacerbate the problem.

An example of how skill-based training affects physical parameters is found in research on junior volleyball players in Australia(8). Here the authors measured the results of three skill-based sessions taking place each week over eight weeks. The targeted skills were passing, setting, serving and spiking. Physical parameters measured included 5 and 10m speed, agility, body mass, skinfolds, aerobic power and vertical jump ability.

At the end of the testing period, the players’ ability to set, pass, and spike had all improved significantly. Physically, their 5 and 10m speed and agility had also improved, but no other physical changes were apparent. Surprisingly, not even vertical jump performance increased, despite hundreds of repetitions of jumps in the spike and serve training. The speed and agility may have improved due to the sheer volume of practice of these movements in the skills training sessions.

The authors of the study recommended that additional physical training take place to induce physiological changes in the players. However, what if the drills taking place had then moved into smaller games to replicate the game situations? Could the coaches structure the practice differently to allow the skill and physical abilities of the players to develop concurrently? What sorts of game practices are specific and which physical parameters do they affect?

Aerobic/anaerobic training effects of ‘small games’

Soccer and hockey are good examples of sports that monitor their games with heart rate monitors (HRMs) to see the aerobic/anaerobic effects of the games sessions. A recent study looked at comparing different variables of soccer games, with player numbers and pitch size changing in each drill, and using HRMs to assess the training effect(9).

Drills varied from 2-a-side for 2 minutes work with 2 minutes rest period, for 4 sets over a 30x20 yard pitch to 8-a-side for 10 minutes work, 1.5 minutes rest for 3 sets over a 70x45-yard pitch. Average heart rates for the smaller-sided games were 90-95% HR max, ideal for improving VO2max in conditioned players. With more than 5 players per side, HR averages were 85-90% HR max, more suitable for improving lactate threshold capabilities in these professional players.

Depending on the level of conditioning of your players, manipulating the size of the pitch and the number of the players will help induce different training effects. Obviously, the more players involved, the greater the similarity to the real game tactically, but the same set of technical skills will be used to a large extent, even in the 2-a-side games. As an aside, the successful use of HRMs needs some education of the athlete, especially as most female recreational exercisers tend to use a self-selecting perception of exercise intensity, rather than heart rates(10).

Speed, power and agility and ‘small games’

Aerobic and anaerobic conditioning can be affected with the use of small-sided games, but what about speed, power and agility? As was shown in the volleyball study, speed and agility can be improved as a result of pure technical training with enough repetitions.

A study on rugby league players compared two in-season training methods and their impact on 10, 20 and 40m sprint times, aerobic power, vertical jump ability and agility(11). The first group of players performed traditional running activities without a ball for their conditioning, while the second group of players played various games from 2-a-side to unequal defence vs. attack games.

Both groups improved their 10m speed and maximal aerobic power, but the games conditioning group also increased their 20m and 40m sprint performances, and their vertical jump ability. Perhaps more importantly for the coach, whilst both groups had the same win-loss records in their matches, the games conditioning group scored more points in attack, and had a greater points differential than the traditional running group.


If you are a coach of a female team, and you want to improve skills, fitness and prevent injuries, but have limited time with your athletes, what can you do? Well, what gets measured gets done; instead of subjectively assessing whether your team is fit or not, why not take two or three variables that you think are key to winning matches and measure them? Then design some games that incorporate skills but utilise the physical parameters that you want to improve.

For example, speed, agility and aerobic power are useful in soccer. Using games that require sudden changes of direction, both planned and unplanned, could help improve agility. Smaller-sided games, such as 2- or 3-a-side in a slightly bigger area but for shorter times, will help produce the same effect as high-intensity interval training. Use HRMs to help determine the exact effect a drill is having. Conversely, a skill game that has a maximal speed component, but higher amounts of rest, will not improve aerobic capacity, but should help speed performance. From experience, players like these games, because they don’t realise they are tired until they are over. By combining effective warm-up drills, skills training and conditioning games you will maximise the time you have with your team and hopefully make training a lot more fun.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI runs Excelsior, a sports training company


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