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Team sport matches: paying the price of fixture congestion

Sports Performance Bulletin looks at new research on how a busy period of matches in a competitive season can adversely impact the performance of soccer players

Once upon a time, playing more than one match per week was the exception rather than the norm for most professional soccer players. However, the increasingly commercialized nature of the sport and the subsequent manipulation of match scheduling in favour of TV revenue means that in the modern game, it is very possible for soccer teams to compete in as many as 50–80 matches during a 40-week competitive season. This means regularly playing two matches per week, and at some points in the season, some teams completing as many as three matches in a weekly microcycle(1,2).

The cost of congestion

In a survey of 543 elite professional players by the World Players’ Union (FIFPro), 35–40% of players believed that they are currently competing in too many competitive matches, and as a consequence, received an inadequate number of days for proper recovery(3). These perceptions are supported by the fact that previous research has observed that although players may play up to their normal standards when playing 72 hours after the previous match, they may not be properly physiologically recovered(4).

A study published just last month adds credence to this notion. In this review study (a study that pools and analyzes the data from previous studies on the same topic), researchers collected the data from previous studies looking at the impact of a congestion period – defined as one that contained two matches where the recovery period between matches was less than 96 hours – on measures of physical, technical or tactical performance(5). When the pooled data was investigated, the results suggested that total distance covered by the players was not impacted by fixture congestion. However, some of the studies found a negative effect of fixture congestion on slow- and moderate-intensity running and distance covered on the pitch – indicating that perhaps the players were trying to avoid low and medium-pace running during matches in congested periods in order to save energy for their high-intensity work.

New findings

From the above, we might conclude that although players are not keen on fixture congestion, they are able to ‘work around it’ to ensure that actual performance is not impacted. However, a brand new study by Brazilian researchers suggests that that when it comes to some aspects of performance, there’s a price to pay – regardless of any workload management strategies adopted by players. Published last week in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, this study investigated the effects of a match-congested period on straight and curve sprint performance, change of direction, speed and deficit, vertical jumping ability, and half-squat mean propulsive power output in young elite soccer players(6).

Fifteen under-20 elite male soccer players participating in 14 matches over eight weeks were studied. The following assessments were performed before and after the congested fixture period:

  • Squat and countermovement jumps
  • 17-metre linear sprint performance
  • Curve sprint test for the dominant and non-dominant sides of each player
  • Modified 17-metre zigzag and change of direction tests
  • Half-squat propulsive power

What they found

The key finding was that significant decreases were observed in 17-metre sprint velocity at the end of the congested period compared to the beginning. Likewise, a significant decrease in curved spring performance was observed on the players’ dominant sides. Zigzag velocity was also adversely impacted after the match-congested period, along with change of direction performance. In addition, half-squat propulsive power dropped compared to the pre-congestion period measures.

Implications for sportsmen and women

The researchers concluded that ‘seasonal phases comprising high volumes of soccer-specific training and competition seem to be detrimental to speed-power qualities in under-20 elite soccer players’. In essence, although players might be able to reduce some aspects of workload on the pitch such as low and moderate-speed running volumes to help compensate for less than optimum recovery, there may still be a significant price to pay, especially when the period of congestion is lengthy. For competitive team sport players (eg soccer, basketball, rugby etc) undergoing long periods of match congestion, trying to optimize recovery between matches using optimum nutrition (see this article), hydration and taking proper rest becomes even more essential. Coaches meanwhile should try to rotate their players as much as possible; ideally ensuring that an individual player receives at least 72 hours of complete rest, and preferably 96 hours if this is feasible.

References

  1. J Sports Sci. 2011 Jan; 29(1):63-71
  2. Br J Sports Med. 2015 Mar; 49(6):390-4
  3. Sci Med Footb. 2019;3:339–342
  4. Sports Med. 2012 Dec 1; 42(12):997-1015
  5. Sports Med. 2021 Feb;51(2):255-273
  6. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2021 Mar 10;1-7

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