The art of structuring an effective warm-up

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We all know the importance of warming up the body in the proper ways, but many novice (or dinosaur) coaches fail to adequately know how to warm up the body in the proper ways specific to the sport.

As a young gun in the soccer world, I can recall running laps around the field, static stretching, and even hill sprints prior to practice sessions and games. None of these are particularly helpful, even if they can work 1-3% of times in specific contexts (hill sprints aside of course). With that, I present the elements of an effective warm-up and how coaches can structure the warm-up to fit into the grander scheme of their session plans.

SPORT-SPECIFIC WARM-UPS

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In warming up the body for the specific sport, we need to create the demands of the specific sport. This does not mean starting off with a full-on sprint or an intense shooting activity. Instead, it’s about incorporating the specific tools, materials and equipment from the get-go. For soccer, that would be the ball (at least one), and a proper playing space that allows participants to move (i.e. not passing and back forth in a static position). At the very least, these elements should be introduced a few minutes into the warm-up. For soccer coaches, I have an article around 13 Warm-Up Activities with the Ball, each of which allow for players to immediately have a ball at their feet and engage in game-realistic warm-ups.

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You can then incorporate dynamic movements and social elements into the warm-up sporadically, keeping that over-arching frame of your sport and session topic in mind. But sprints and static stretching should generally be avoided. At the very least, you don’t want to incorporate any ‘sprints’ into the warm-up until the athletes have had a proper chance for all of their sport-specific muscles + (the legs themselves) to be fully warmed-up. Doing so needlessly increases the risk for injury, or overdoing the intensity before the important components of the session take place.

INTRODUCING THE SESSION TOPIC

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Creating a sport-specific warm-up is awesome, but it also needs to introduce your session topic and build toward what’s to come later on. If you want your athletes to be ready for the demands of what’s to come, you need to get them already starting to think about your key learning outcomes. We don’t just want to warm-up bodies, but brains. Getting them to think, to scan, to make decisions, to communicate, are all imperative to a successful warm-up. There are a countless number of ways of doing this and making warm-ups not only fun, but specific to the learning outcomes you’ll be speaking to throughout the session.

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This does not mean that you are stopping play to correct behaviour, or that you’re frustratingly going on some long lecture about how your players should be communicating more with each other. Actual coaching interventions should be kept to a minimum (if not zero!) to allow your athletes to fully warm-up their bodies. Instead, you can encourage your players to seek out your specific learning outcomes through the structure of the warm-up itself, the progressions you implement, and your short phrases of encouragement throughout.

STEADILY INCREASING THE INTENSITY

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The biggest mistake that coaches often make in their warm-up is in fluctuating the intensity up and down, or starting too fast. The warm-up should be a place for athletes to grow into the feel of the session. You want to naturally increase intensity as you go along, ensuring that the blood is fully flowing by the time you jump into what you’re about to do next. In long-distance running, it’s often discussed how Kenyan runners start at a snail-like place and then gradually get faster with each kilometre. Their long runs usually end at marathon pace, but they NEVER start at that pace. There’s a reason for that. And that reason is quite obvious – the brain, the heart, the muscles, the entire body, simply aren’t ready for the demands, the stress, and the level of thinking required at the start of the day.

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This means that coaches should be thinking of creative challenges, competitions or games that could naturally be added into their warm-ups and serve as steady progressions into that peak level of intensity.

Don’t get it twisted – athletes should never be reaching their maximum intensity in a warm-up (or likely at all in a practice session for that matter). Why increase the risk of injury and ruin the energy levels of your athletes before the session even truly begins? Because your coach did that when you were eight years old? Sounds like a recipe for a bridge-jumping disaster. Instead, you need to ensure your athletes are actually properly warmed-up (from body to blood flow to mind), to ensure a successful session full of learning opportunities and fun.

PUTTING THIS INTO ACTION

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In structuring your dream warm-up, remember to include the demands of the sport and the sport-specific muscles, the learning outcomes you want to impose on the session, and to gradually increase the intensity as you go along.

Take this example from one of my favourite warm-up activities. This can be used for virtually any invasion sport, not just for the sport you’re probably here to read about.

4 players start set up in the squares. Players must pass and move to find an open player in the square, where they then take their place. The ball to player ratio is kept to about 3:4 to keep the sequences flowing, and dynamics are sporadically implemented on the coach’s call (or off-the-ball depending on the sport). But we don’t want this to become static for the players in the square (don’t worry, it won’t with the proper ball to player ratio), which means after about five minutes, we can progress.

Progression: 4 players now act as defenders. If you lose the ball, you become a defender. Now we’re incorporating the specific demands of the sport in a game-realistic manner. But don’t order yet, there’s more!

Progression 2: Progress again into three teams of four. Two teams start in the space available, and the other team starts locked in the squares, with the game becoming a 4v4 + 4. One team starts as the defensive team of four (i.e. not changing over based upon a regain) based on which team has the best shape.

It then becomes a challenge to see which team can free up all four squares the fastest. Time each team separately, with each getting an opportunity to act as the attacking team, the defending team, and the team in the squares. The task is to see how fast the attacking team can free up the players in the square, which become part of their team (5v4, 6v4, 7v4) until that eighth player is found and the timer stops. If the defensive team wins the ball, they keep possession rather than passing to the players boxed into the squares (that’s not their team!).

When I led this warm-up activity for my sports coaching students in 2023, I even interspersed moments of quick accelerations once the players were fully warmed up, by placing a pinnie on the ground and having athletes quickly accelerate toward the pinnie. That’s how I divided the teams that would later be used for this 4v4 + 4.

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The reason why this works so well is that it naturally increases the intensity + challenge for the athletes as they move along. It also gradually introduces the session topic (this works for so many different topics like switching play, support in attack, defensive priorities, passing and moving, etc.). Finally, it incorporates the specific demands of the sport-specific muscles and sport-specific decision making processes, right from the start. Start with a low intensity and build toward a full-on game toward the end, and your athletes will be fully ready to now go into whatever’s coming next!


So there it is! The elements of an effective warm-up session from start to finish. Be sure to check out more of our Coaching content, and follow on social media @mastermindsite and @desmondrhys to never miss an update. If you’re struggling with anything pertaining to your coaching, analysis and beyond, check out my Consultation Masterclass. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and see you soon!

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