Warm up to play, don’t play to warm up

When I started coaching at the University of Wisconsin, our men’s soccer team always started the season in August by playing an exhibition against a visiting club from Germany. Despite the mid-summer heat, the German goal-keepers would be out on the field a good hour before the game, building progressively towards game-like movements at game pace.

Eventually our team ambled onto the pitch too. About thirty minutes before the game they would starting to “warm up” by passing a ball (laconically) back and forth in groups of two, using almost exclusively their dominant-side foot. The “formal” team warm up followed and included a two-line attack drill in which one player passed a ball (lazily) to an assistant coach, and then that player and the player in the other line would jog forward toward the goal. The assistant coach would then distribute the ball to one of the two who would, in turn “shoot” it at the keeper. Everything looked like the players (and the assistant coach) were wading through mud. Clearly, the players and keepers never did anything in the warm up similar to the circumstances they would face in the upcoming game.

» Learn more: members can watch our video lessons for ideas on how to warm up, including Nick Garcia’s full warmup video, and Vern Gambetta’s warm up DVD.

Meanwhile, the German guys were still warming up. By this time they were sprinting and diving and bounding and jumping. All of them were in a muck-sweat by now.

When the match began, the first sprint of the game was the first sprint of the day for my guys. I changed our approach after that.

The goal of warming up

I first met Vern at his Building and Rebuilding the Complete Athlete in the 1990s. A key message he gave the attendees was that you should warm up to play, rather than play to warm up. He reiterated this in his DVD on warming up, now available to HMMR Plus members. You must win the warm up, he said.

In the end, the warm up must do two things:

  1. Elevate the body’s temperature;
  2. Prepare the central-nervous system for the (training or competition) work demands to follow.

After implementing this philosophy in training, I’ve added a third objective of warming up:

  1. It must bring the athletes’ heads and hearts into the competition with full confidence.

Warming up the mind

An example of this third point comes from how we warm up to lift weights. Warming up isn’t just important for competition or skills training; it is also crucial for strength training and must be tailored to the task at hand. For strength training I always liked to do the following:

  1. Choose a basic light weight for an initial set of ten reps.
  2. Rest three minutes following the initial set.
  3. Complete a second set at the same weight. This time, do only three to five repetitions, but each repetition should be executed perfectly, with precision, pace and the confidence that comes once your body has had the chance to correctly acclimate to the reality of the weight as a result of the first set.

This first “light” set often feels surprisingly heavy and puts into your head in doubt about the training day you are about to experience. The second set (generally) feels great. The result is that you prove to yourself that the weight is not as heavy as it felt the first time you lifted it. That feeling then sets your mind up for the heavier sets to follow.

Whatever intermediate warm-up sets you plan to do should bring your head and heart to the work you have planned. That means the weights should increase in reasonable increments to (quickly-but-progressively) give your mind and body a “feel” for heavier resistance but: the repetitions should be minimal (three or fewer), to keep the warm-up from interjecting premature muscle-and-mind fatigue before the work-sets are done.

All of this suggests to me that warming up is as important and effective emotionally and cognitively as it is physically.

Progressing the warm up

The final important point for warm ups is that they must be progressive. Looking back at my soccer warm ups, our current approach looks very different than it did a few decades ago. Now we begin with mini band exercises, and then go to movement patterns using locomotor tasks. The entire warm up simultaneously builds progressively along a number of continuums.

slow → fast
linear → multi-directional
eyes-ears-and-legs → eyes-ears-and-full-bodies
simple → complex
without-the-ball → with-the-ball
non-reactive → reactive
single-player → multiple-players

I want the warm-up to leave my players certain of their individual and collective readiness to play; while leaving the opposing players uncertain of their ability to compete with/against my players after witnessing how beautifully, mindfully and progressively they prepared. We have to win the warm-up. In fact, Jim Radcliffe refers to the Oregon warm up as their “rehearsal.” This terminology far better describes what we are trying to accomplish.