The assessment of fitness and physical profiles of professional soccer players has become common over the last few years. The information provided through testing allows physical performance to be monitored and evaluated whilst providing a means to identify weaknesses and thus create efficient and specially adapted training programs. Tests must reflect the fitness requirements for soccer - flexibility, speed, speed endurance and aerobic endurance. This report describes profiles exhibited by professional players and the variability between individuals and compares where possible with those involved at lower levels of play.
Age - According to various studies, top football teams have an average age of 25 years. However, more and more teams are successfully introducing younger players and keeping veterans in their team. Once passed the 30 mark, many players stopped playing due to a lack of motivation or managers were unwilling to renew contracts. However the increased financial awards as well as better medical care and facilities motivate and help players to continue their careers. Similarly, the development of Youth Academies provides an improved means of carefully nurturing young talent and allows the successful introduction of younger players into the first team.
Height, Weight, Body shape & Body composition - Professional players do vary in weight and size especially when ethnic influences are taken into account. For example, data on International Asian teams demonstrated that their players were smaller in physical size, especially when compared to European teams. Midfielders are often the smallest whilst central defenders are often the tallest and heaviest outfield players on the pitch. A scientific study showed that a professional team had an average body weight of 77.7 kg compared to 73.4 kg for semi-professionals.Body shape or somatype studies indicate that professional players tend to belong to the mesomorphy category meaning a more muscular make-up. Indeed, studies on top English League Players when compared to all Olympic athletes showed they mostly resembled Olympic 400 metre hurdlers and triple jumpers but were on average heavier and smaller. Body composition is important as any superfluous fat affects the ability of the body to run and jump due to the extra weight. Professional footballers usually show values of between 9%-16% (generally an adult male in his mid-twenties averages about 16%). However, this can rise after season the season has finished. For example, a study of a top English professional team showed a mean % of body fat as high as 19.3 % when returning to pre-season training indicating that professional players need to take care with their diet view as well as undertaking some form of aerobic exercise to keep fit during the off-season.
Muscle strength - Due to their muscular body shape, upper body strength in professional players would be expected to be higher than that of others. However previous studies have shown this is not the case probably due to a lack of specific upper body strength work and training tending to concentrate on the lower body. Professionals generally have a greater explosive muscular power. There is a close correlation between knee extension strength and the resulting ball speed and the higher the level, the stronger is the player. Strength tests have shown top level goalkeepers to be significantly stronger compared to other playing positions.
Anaerobic Power - Jump tests allow a means of testing explosive leg strength. In a vertical jump tests, professional soccer players have demonstrated similar anaerobic power performances to international high jumpers. Similarly, stair tests to calculate the maximum power output of players show significantly higher values compared to the norm and to lower playing levels. In all sprinting tests, professionals are generally faster than lower level players. For example, top players covered a 30 metres sprint in 3.94 seconds compared to 4.15 seconds for players from a 3rd Division club. Playing position also plays a part as centre backs have been found to be both heavier and faster and show greater anaerobic power than wingbacks. In tests of speed endurance capacity professional level footballers also demonstrate significantly better performances.
Aerobic Fitness - Aerobic fitness relies on contributions from the lungs, heart, blood and active muscles and professional players demonstrate greater aerobic capacities than the norm due to the development of these physical determinants. For example, measurements on players have demonstrated higher lung function values, lower resting heart rates, greater blood volume and haemoglobin levels. VO2 Max (the maximal ability to consume oxygen in strenuous exercise) which is a good indicator of aerobic fitness is found to be highest at the top levels of the game. Values between 55-70 ml.kg-1 are observed for elite players. A study carried out on the Hungarian Professional 1st Division showed that the finishing position of teams was strongly linked to VO2 Max. For example, the team finishing first had the highest average VO2 Max, team finishing second had the second highest VO2 Max and the team finishing third had the third highest VO2 Max...
VO2 Max varies according to playing position. For outfield players, midfielders have significantly greater aerobic power values whilst central defenders have the lowest values. There is a significant relationship between VO2 Max values and the distance covered in a game. This again indicates, that at the top players are capable of running greater distances. To read more about match performance in the professional game click here. Whilst VO2 Max indicates the upper limit of the body's ability to consume oxygen, it is not possible to sustain exercise for a long period at intensities which elicit VO2 Max. The upper level at which exercise can be sustained for prolonged periods is known as the anaerobic threshold. In English professional footballers, this has been measured at 77% VO2 Max which is close to the intensity in running the marathon. However, due to the intermittent nature of soccer, sprints, duels etc, players often exercise above this intensity but one must also take into account the short rest intervals and periods of low activity.
Agility & flexibility - Flexibility is often found to be poor in professional players, especially in the hamstring and adductor muscle groups. Scientific evidence shows that top level players may have levels lower than the general population, this may be linked to inadequate flexibility programs. Muscle imbalances also occur between the left and right legs and can increase then risk of injury. Top American soccer players undertaking the Illinois test for agility were found to have significantly better values than the normal population.
Psychophysiological - Skilled goalkeepers are reported to have fastest reaction times and are can also dive quicker compared to lesser skilled keepers. English professional football league players are shown to react quicker to a visual stimulus compared to the norm.
Overall, professional soccer players seem bigger, stronger, faster and fitter than the rest. However, playing position and ethnic differences must always be taken into account when measuring performance. It must be stated that even in the elite game, individuals who demonstrate a weakness in one of these physiological factors, can often compensate through an excellent reading of the game as well as a highly developed technique.
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