Is Team fitness overrated to team success?

This discussion point popped into my head while having a discussion about the topic of what lays ahead for the returning Essendon players, and the overall results of Essendon as a team this year. Being forced to give a straight yes or no answer to this question, my answer would be yes, it is overrated. This may come as a big surprise especially coming from a strength and conditioning coach, whose livelihood depends on this profession and the value it provides for clubs. However, lets elaborate a little more on this, and you will see that this question - and my answer - actually has far more layers than it initially appears to.


What is fitness?

For starters lets clarify what I mean exactly by ‘fitness’ when saying that overall team fitness levels are overrated to a teams success. When making this statement, I am referring to the ‘fitness’ that most people and commentators alike think of when talking about a teams fitness – the ability to ‘run a game out’ – to keep running and tackling to a high level, through to the final siren. Primarily it is the running component that is thought of by ‘fitness’ in a match, since that is how players move around and interact. The discussion of what ‘fitness’ is, is a very long-winded one, and indeed entire books are written on this. We aren’t aiming at adding to this and having another boring and tedious discussion on this. But lets have a quick look at the thoughts of Dr Raymon Verheijen from the world of dutch soccer;


In football (soccer) the most important things regarding fitness are not primarily running, muscles or energy systems. Football fitness is ‘communicating – making decision – executing decision’ as often as possible for as long as possible.

The function of fitness is to be able to execute a certain playing style in as high of a tempo as possible and to also be able to maintain this tempo for 90 minutes. Fitness doesn’t make you win a game, but through a lack of fitness you can lose a game.’  

Dr Raymond Verheijen


The degree to which Dr Verheijen downplays the importance of physical fitness in soccer doesn’t apply to aussie rules football, as due to the offside rule and the lower level of combat associated, soccer certainly is a sport where tactics, systems and decision making and team interplay are more important relative to physical preparation than is the case in our football. But the overall principle in Dr. Verheijen's statement is still very relevant – and that is in highlighting what exactly fitness is. Fitness is essentially the overall preparation for a task. In our case in footy, its not being able to just run quicker and jump higher and tackle better repeatedly for 4 quarters – it also includes the ability to do these things at the right times, in the right sports on the field, and also highly dependent on what our teammates and opponents are doing around us. In other words, footy also isn’t just about running quickly and doing this all game, it also involves decision making and executing. This is simplifying things right down it goes without saying, but we aren’t aiming at a technical discussion, we are merely highlighting this point.


So when looking at football fitness in this way – the ability to continue to perceive the game around you, make a decision, and execute it – all game until the end of a game; team fitness is certainly not overrated – it will make or break a team. And when a team is overrun in a last quarter, it will often be as a result of being overrun in this form of fitness – the inability to continue to carry out a game plan. However, it isn’t this form of fitness that commentators and experts alike apportion blame to when citing a ‘lack of fitness’ for a result – it is normally the old running harder for longer fitness that they are speaking of. And when it is this kind of team fitness that is being discussed, yes, this definitely is overrated to a teams success – especially at the highest level.


What else contributes?

We already took a look at a better definition of fitness for football – and this gives a good idea of what is more important than the mere overall physical preparation for football. Quality game plan, tactics, and the ability of the team to execute these will have a strong bearing on the result, and so will the ability to counter the oppositions tactics. Perception, decision-making and execution based on any given match situation – and the ability to do this as well as possible as often and as long as possible - will have a large bearing. Skill execution is vital – but of course a high skill level (the physical component of skill) is nothing without the good perception and decision making that precedes this skill execution (pretty similar to the physical fitness component.) A poor ability with these tasks – or even just a ‘bad day at the office’ where these things don’t work will essentially render even the ‘fittest’ (in the traditional sense of the word) team helpless in a game.


Another factor that is highly underrated and doesn’t get enough air-time from the expert analysts such as the tactics guru David King, is that of momentum in a game. In fact the only journalist who I have come across that regularly pays this the attention it deserves (in terms of AFL games) is Mick Ellis from Inside Football, who has pushed this discussion point persistently despite in being ignored elsewhere (probably because it doesn’t sound as smart as analysing statistics and discussing tactics.) In short, it highlights the fact that with momentum teams often appear ‘fitter’ than they are – or fitter than the opposition, and with momentum going against you, teams often appear ‘unfit’ or ‘lazy’ when in actual fact, the momentum of the game has lead this to appear to be the case. After all, how can a team be ‘unfit’ one week, then ‘run out the game really well’ the next?

Mick has written at length about the extensive research that exists on this, and about how important it is to get momentum, and how important it is to either wrestle it back or hold your own as best as possible when it is going against you.

‘Momentum explains pretty much everything that happens in football.’


‘Scientific research on competitive sport shows that negative momentum saps players energy, makes them error prone, undermines belief and sabotages teamwork – and this combination of side-effects eventually gives the impression that players on the wrong side of momentum are not trying hard enough.’


‘In the professional AFL, we should discount differences in fitness levels. Any supposed difference between clubs is highly overrated and success tends to be over-attributed to it (see Port Adelaide 2013-2014 for just one example) and under-attributed to the effect of momentum.'


‘Which players are being rewarded for effort - scoring, building belief? Who is becoming demoralized, having their belief eroded? This is what feeds players energy or saps it – and creates “momentum.” That’s why during a game 22 players can appear to have the same mindset. Suddenly they all seem to lift, or to simultaneously ‘run out of legs.’


We have gotten a little off topic here – but this is a fascinating discussion point in itself. But it is true that no statistical analysis or comparison of ‘fitness levels’ prior to a game can give any clear comparison between 2 teams. After all, why is footy tipping so challenging – and at times infuriating. Suffice to say, momentum is another key reason – a very big one – in highlighting just why ‘fitness’ in the traditional sense is so overrated to team success. However, there is one exception – one form of physical fitness or preparation that certainly is not overrated to team success – in fact it is the most underrated part to physical preparedness that exists in footy.


Injury reduction

We will keep this point short, as we have discussed it at length elsewhere. Indeed this is a a particularly vital point for all female players - you need only look at the horrifically high number of soft tissue injuries from a mere 16 games so far in the AFL-W season. But when thinking about physical preparedness for a game, resilience to injury is one of the areas that is thought of the least – with more attention paid to speed, vertical leap, agility, tackling, aerobic capacity, etc. However nothing physical will have a bigger impact on a teams success than keeping more of their better players out on the field for a greater portion of the season. It is often talked about ‘this or that player out’ but then when assessing the success of a teams preparation, ‘fitness’ in its traditional sense of running and tackling harder for longer is often given preference (by the experts) to soft-tissue injury rate management. Before moving on, it is worth noting that in the NFL, the success of the high performance team is primarily judged based on their ability to keep players on the park – before even considering the other more traditional measures of ‘fitness.’ There is no point in adding to your vertical leap, beep test and agility score, as well as putting on 5-7kg over the pre-season (with 80% being pure muscle) if at round 7 your body breaks down. Just look at Essendon in 2012 (something like 10-1 after 11 rounds and being lauded for their increased size and stamina and 'bullying' opponents, before nose-diving under an unprecedented rate of soft tissue injuries ).


Individual success is a different story to team success

So far in this discussion we have been talking about a teams success – but this is quite different to assessing an individuals success within that team. As already discussed, team success is a complex product of many variables, of which fitness does play a role – albeit a very overrated role, with the exception of its impact on a teams injury rates. But for individuals, getting ‘fitter’ – even in its more traditional sense, is certainly beneficial. This is because an individual can be successful, even in an unsuccessful team. Success for an individual can be as simple as playing well enough to maintain your role in the A-grade of your club, even though your side loses more games than it wins. The same goes for every level of footy.

In this respect, being better prepared physically contributes greatly to your own individual success, not only from a resilience and injury reduction standpoint, but also in terms of the contribution to the physical components on game day. Of course you must be able to read the game and know how to kick, and simply being able to run harder for longer, jump higher for longer and tackle more effectively will not guarantee success, but it will certainly place you in a better potential position than if you didn’t improve these abilities. We aren’t going to discuss various physical abilities and indicators as these are all touched on in other articles. But the take home point here is that yes, while overall team fitness levels (beyond a certain baseline of fitness being met by everyone – lets be clear on this – a team of 22 fat slobs will not win any games) are overrated to a teams success – and this is even more the case the higher up the grades you get in terms of professionalism, where everyone is super well conditioned, physical fitness is certainly not overrated to an individuals performance – or potential improvements in performance, provided that the training itself does not become the goal.

Strength Coach


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