As FFT walks through the gates at Finch Farm, Everton’s impressive training complex, John Heitinga drives past on his way out. We’ve got no reason to believe he knows why we’re there, but the glint in his eye makes this correspondent think he knows I’m in for a day of suffering. Although we’re expecting it to be tough, I’m quietly confident. I’m the fittest player on my Sunday League team, although I suppose that’s not saying much considering half of my team-mates come to games straight from South Essex’s premier nightspot, ‘Bas Vegas’.
Sports scientist and senior fitness coach Steve Tashjian takes us through some short runs, gradually upping the intensity and then introducing a ball. It’s tough, but I cope well. “That’s a nice, easy warm-up,” he says, as my face falls. We do some high-intensity sprints, focusing on changing direction quickly. “Deceleration is as important as acceleration,” says Tashjian. “All the runs we do are short and sharp, as this replicates the running you do in a game.”
More after the break
As I hoist two dumbbells onto my shoulders, Tashjian gets me to adopt a split stance as I sink into a raised lunge, with the toes of my rear foot raised on a bench. “We want to mimic the position you’ll be in during a game during stability work,” he says. “This exercise builds strength in the glutes and upper legs, which is key for explosive pace and power,” adds Tashjian. We both ignore the noise coming from my knees, which sounds like I’ve missed a gear in an M-reg Fiesta.
Picking up a huge, green disc that makes me feel like a small boy trying to drive his dad’s articulated lorry, I adopt the split-stance again, but this time on an even surface. I start with the weight beside my left hip, lifting it up across my body with straight arms, twisting my torso. I can’t stop my front foot from turning inward. “Doing that during the wood chop exercise makes the base of support wider. We want to keep it narrow, to test the glutes and hip stability as much as possible,” explains Tashjian.
Maintaining the split stance, dumbbells in hand, I’m instructed to perform a three-way shoulder press – driving the weights up, out, and across, alternating hands each time. I’m shocked by how quickly it gets tough. “Focus on tempo,” says Tashjian. “The quicker you go, the more difficult it is to stabilise, which gives the core a good test. Your lower body is having to continually adapt to support your weight as it shifts around, which replicates the way your body has to readjust constantly during a game.”
“Using the cables of a TRX training system adds a stability element to the press-up, making it harder for your shoulders and abdominals to stabilise,” says Tashjian. He’s not kidding: I can force out 30 regular press-ups, but as soon as I grab the handles, my arms shake like I’m trying to flag down a taxi in Mumbai rush hour. Players do 16-20 in a set, but I’m long past comparing myself to them – I just want to finish this without breaking my nose on the gym floor.
I consider myself to be in reasonable shape, and the basic movements were pretty standard fare, but the stability element to each exercise really tested my flexibility and core strength, with embarrassing results. Players go through it three times, and do flexibility training four or five times a week, including weights at least twice a week. I’d like to see them turn in a winning performance after a night on the town, though.