FourFourTwo trains with the Nike Academy

What does it take to make the grade with a pro-level training programme? FFT spent a day with the Nike Academy coaching staff at St George’s Park to find out...

1 FUEL UP YOUR ENGINE

The smell of sizzling bacon wafts past FFT’s nose. Hmmmm. Sausages, beans, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms – a full English heart attack is lifting up its skirt and showing us what’s on offer. “Don’t even think about it,” says Josh Dixon, the Nike Academy’s strength and conditioning coach. “You need to get some quality carbohydrates and protein on board, plus some fruit. This will top up fuel stores you’ll need throughout the day and trust me, you’re going to need it,” he adds with a sinister wink. Spoilsport. Slap – a spoonful of porridge hits our bowl.

More after the break

 
 
2 TIME TO GET SUITED AND BOOTED

FFT is used to treading carefully into a dark and dingy changing room where a damp, muddy kit is waiting for us. But not today; today, we get treated like pros. In a pristine changing room at St George’s Park a sparkly new Nike kit, immaculately laid out, is waiting for us. Ooooohhhhh. “Dri-FIT Knit fabric on the training tops wicks sweat away and helps keep you dry and comfortable,” explains a Nike insider. “There’s breathability technology to help keep you cool around your body’s high-heat zones.” Great. Do they come in onesies?

 
 
3 MAYBE IT’S TIME TO RETIRE

Now FFT looks the part it’s time to head down to the pitches to impress the Nike Academy coaches, but there’s one last stop we need to make: the physio’s room. We take a deep breath before reeling off an injury history that would make Ledley King wince. Nike Academy sports therapist Hayley Iwaszko offers some sage advice. “For someone of your…” she says, before pausing, “age – I would recommend a lot of pre-activation work before you play, and give your body time to recover after a game. The Academy players are 17 to 20 years old and sometimes train three times a day. I wouldn’t recommend you do that.” FFT tries to get up, but is momentarily immobilised by a back spasm.

 
 
4 STRAP US IN

We mere mortals stroll out onto our Sunday League pitches, fag in mouth, tea in hand. Not elite players. They get their bodies ready with massages, dynamic warm-ups and a darning from the physio. Iwaszko uses the ATFL strapping technique to support FFT’s ankle with a heel lock. “This will stop your ankle moving backwards and protect it against strains, but you’re risking ligament damage by playing on it,” she explains. “Ligaments take longer to heal because they have a poorer blood supply than a muscle or a tendon.” Gulp.

 
 
5 STRETCH IT OUT

Imagine what a BDSM-themed yoga class would feel like. Well, that’s what Dixon puts us through. Even a contortionist would struggle to get in some of the positions he asks us to perform. For all the pain, it’s like relieving a pressure valve. Dixon runs us through dynamic movements, static stretches and some reactionary drills. We pair up and face each other like two wrestlers about to go at it, but instead of grappling we compete for a cone lying between us. The first to grab it, wins. FFT competes against a whippersnapper eight years our junior. He wins. Every time.

 
 
6 POSSESSION WITH PURPOSE

We’re now in the hands of the Academy’s assistant manager Edu Rubio. “We’re going to put you through the same drills our players do everyday,” says the Spaniard. “The ability to keep the ball is crucial to us, but it’s possession with purpose, not just for the sake of it. I’m not big on restrictions – we play freely – it has to be realistic.” The possession drills we run through are played on mini-pitches marked out with cones. “Football is played inside a rectangle not a square – it’s important we replicate game-like conditions.” We, unfortunately, are unable to replicate the Academy’s slick passing game.

 
 
7 TAKE AIM

There are few better feelings than catching a quality football sweetly and watching it cut through the air before hitting the back of the net – making that unmistakable sound of leather connecting with string. Rubio gives us the chance to chase this high with a fast and furious shooting drill. You take a free shot at goal, before becoming a defender and facing an attacker in a 1 v 1, then another attacker joins the action creating a 2 v 1 scenario. FFT finishes the drill with three goals – sadly, one of them is an accurate reconstruction of Marcelo’s own goal in the opening game of the World Cup. Eeyore, eyore. 

 
 
8 IRON OUT THE CREASES

After sitting down for lunch, FFT can feel the early onset of rigor mortis taking grip of our legs. As we shovel another mouthful of food down our throat, Dixon brings our happiness to an abrupt end. “Let’s get to the gym,” says the sadist. “Before we get started we need to prepare the body for movement.” He hands us a golf ball and tennis ball, but there’s no club or racquet – we have to roll our feet, calves, hamstrings and hips over the balls. This feels like someone is digging their elbow into your body’s most sensitive regions. “Don’t go into the pain cave: smile,” grins Dixon. FFT wipes away a salty tear before he can notice.

 
 
9 WEAKER THAN A TEENAGE GIRL
 
As a regular equipment-surfer at the gym (someone who sits at a weights machine, looks at their phone, performs one or two reps and moves onto the next) FFT is confident about impressing Dixon with our execution of the prescribed exercises. We’re tasked with performing a goblet squat, a T-Press-Up, a single-leg Romanian deadlift, a weighted hip-thrust, a wide grip pull-up and an inverted row. No problem. Well, until Dixon insists we perform the exercises to his desired tempo. This means driving a weighted barbell up with our hips, holding it and then slowly lowering it back to the start position with control. “I had 16-year-old female netball players doing this with 200kgs – the Academy record is 230kg for 5 reps,” Dixon announces as FFT almost bursts every vein trying to lift 100kgs.
 
 
10 CAUGHT COLD
 

Sadistic stretching, pain-provoking tennis balls and a muscle-burning weights session – FFT has experienced all manner of torture today, but nothing compares to the ice bath. “Two minutes in the cold, two minutes in the hot, do this for 10 minutes,” instructs Dixon. The dip in the cold water is designed to reduce swelling in our weary legs, creating a flushing effect to improve recovery. It might do this, but it also causes severe shrinking in the groin area and a pain so piercing it feels like your bones are being crushed. The hot water feels like a hug from Yogi Bear. It’s warm and snug in here. FFT doesn’t want to leave. “Back in the cold water,” screams Dixon. 

 
 
11 THE DREAM IS OVER
 
It’s time to accept, that at the age of 32, this FFT correspondent is not going to make it pro. Too old, too injured, but most of all – too crap. The standards at the Nike Academy surpass anything I have ever experienced – and these are boys chasing a second chance. At St George’s Park they have the perfect environment with which to develop and their coaches are focused on nurturing their talent. The players have a simple remit:  eat, sleep, train, repeat. Do that, and they’ll give themselves a shot at earning a pro contract. Slack off and they’ll join FFT on scrap heap.
 
 
THE VERDICT
 
The Nike Academy coaches file their report on Performance editor, Ben Welch
 
Edu Rubio, the Nike Academy’s assistant manager: “Ben’s enthusiasm was contagious. His skills were such that he could have put a few technical South American players to shame and his tactical understanding was better after going through ‘The Nike Academy Way’...I hope. Ben went through the possession game like a true Spaniard – Iniesta would have loved to play wall passes with this Englishman. His shooting has room for improvement! But hey, perfection does not exist and development and learning never ends.”
 
Josh Dixon, the Nike Academy’s strength and conditioning coach: “Ben got the excuses in early, but showed he was more than capable after a well-executed movement prep. I was impressed with his work ethic and showed a good level of knowledge when questioned on the science behind the practice.  Going forward, I would suggest a focus on posterior chain strengthening. Both bilateral and unilateral strength, paired with anterior hip mobility work, will allow Ben to progress into a power phase and develop the athleticism to match his work rate.”
 
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