What is tactical periodization? – a brief introduction
Let’s think back to our younger days playing football. For many of us, the context would be junior football, yet a select few may have been lucky enough to play within an academy. All the same, what did the training sessions consist of? I often recall having a warm up to start the session (which usually consisted of a couple of laps around the pitch!) followed by stretches. We would then perform a few drills for the main body of the session, with a match at the end to ‘put into practice what we had learned’. I think many of us who have either played or coached the game would agree that this is the traditional approach used for training sessions.
So what did we do in each session? In my experience as a player, the main body of the session would normally focus on either physical fitness, technical skills or tactics.
As a coach, for years I used this traditional approach in my coaching practice, my sessions would usually focus on one of these elements. In pre-season, the main body of my sessions would usually comprise of physical drills, and then revert back to either technical or tactical based drills during the main part of the season.
So why am I discussing this? Well, what do you notice about this traditional approach?
The recurring theme here is that each element (physical, technical, tactical) is trained in isolation within sessions. This is what we might say is the norm in this country, it is what we experience as players, and deliver as coaches. We may work on two or all three of these elements within the same session (for example, drill 1 is physical based, drill 2 is technical based), but it is very rare that we train all elements within the same drill.
This leads on very nicely to introduce ‘Tactical Periodization’, a very famous and proven-to-be successful approach used by several Portuguese football coaches such as Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas, Carlos Carvahal, Leonardo Jardim, Vitor Pereira and Marco Silva.
So what is tactical periodization?
The tactical periodization approach was developed by Vitor Frade, a Lecturer at the Sports University of Porto in Portugal. Simply put, ‘the key tenet of tactical periodization, is that training should never separate the physiological, tactical, technical and psychological elements of the game‘ (Tee, Ashford & Pigott, 2018, P1). These elements ‘should not be isolated or trained independently, all elements should be included together‘ (Delgardo-Bordonau & Mendez-Villanueva, 2012, n.p).
Essentially, the approach infers that each element of the FA’s four corner model (tactical/ technical, physical, psychological and social) should be trained together within every drill within each session.
The belief of this approach comes from the main principle of tactical periodization:
But what does this mean? Why does it matter if we train these elements together or in isolation?
To explain this, we first need to explore the ‘games logical structure’. If we consider my mental model, this presents football in it’s simplest form, which essentially represents the logical structure of football.
Each sub-phase of the model explains what you will see any team perform in each main phase (for example in Attack, a team will attempt to score a goal, or maintain possession). However, these sub-phases are also game actions, which a player makes in each main phase of the game.
As a player, each action that you make is lead by a tactical decision, and to make a tactical decision, you need certain technical, physical, psychological and social skills in order to perform that decision.
For example, If a player wants to perform the game action of ‘attempting to score’, There is first a tactical decision of how to successfully perform this action (for example, getting into a 1 on 1 situation with the opposition defender, dribbling past the defender to score a goal). To then perform this decision and action, a player needs to be able to perform and be equipped with certain technical skills (shooting, kicking, volleying, passing, receiving, dribbling), certain physical & movement skills (strength, power, speed, agility, balance, co-ordination, stability, object control, locomotion), certain psychological skills confidence, control, concentration, motivation, imagery, vision, game awareness) and certain social skills (communication, discipline, resilience).
So the whole idea here is that if a player needs to develop certain skills from the other elements in order to be able to perform a specific tactical decision and game action, why would we want players to train these elements away from the footballing situation where the player will use them? Players need to learn how to use these skills simultaneously when making a tactical decision in order to perform the game action.
Lets consider the example of making the tactical decision ‘to attempt to score by heading the ball into the net from a direct cross’. A player needs to be able to simultaneously use their heading shooting technique (to hit the ball correctly), strength (to hold off an opponent), vision & game awareness (to see the opportunity and get into the right position) and communication (to shout for the ball) in that situation to perform the game action of scoring a goal. Therefore, players need to learn how to use these skills together in training. Developing communication in a team bonding exercise or vision in a isolated exercise might increase the level of these skills, but it doesn’t teach the player how to use communication or vision in this particular situation, to perform this action. ‘Exercises must relate to the competitive reality and training must adhere to this principle’ (Tamarit, 2007, P49).
“Whilst it might be fun to have players go to the boxing gym – how does thwacking a punchbag benefit football?”(Tamarit, 2007, P49)
So in tactical periodization, rather than training these skills independently, these skills within each element that make up every game action are developed simultaneously. However, each drill that the coach delivers should be informed by the tactical element, because all the other elements, come from a tactical intention.
“Any technical or physical action always has an underlying tactical intention”(AMIERO, OLIVEIRA, RESENDE & BARRETO, 2006)
“The tactical is not physical, nor technical, nor psychological, but it needs all of them to happen”(FRADE, 2003 QUOTED IN FREITAS, 2004)
So how do we train all the elements simultaneously?, and what does it mean by all elements coming from the ‘tactical dimension’?
Well each session focus should be the tactical topic, and every drill within the session should be based on developing this tactical topic. Tamarit suggests that these other elements will develop naturally through training of the tactical topic.
The tactical aspect/dimension will always guide the entire practice, and the other elements will appear as a consequence of this.”Tamarit, 2007, P40
However, this may be slightly naive of us as coaches, to assume that all these skills from each element will occur naturally. The way I personally look to accomplish this simultaneous development is to plan drills that focus around the tactical topic, yet they include constraints (both individualisation or team progressions/regressions) that work on the other elements in the same drill. To do this, as discussed above, I consider what skills (from each element) are needed to complete the tactical action, and then consider the constraints I will add to work on these elements. This way, I am working on skills for all elements simultaneously for the particular action. (It is important to remember that some skills, like ‘Vision’ may occur naturally through continuous practice and do not require constraints, but other skills, such as ‘Communication’ may need constraints to develop.)
An example of this can be seen in the session plan below:
So we know everything stems from the tactical elements, but what is it that informs the tactical elements that we should work on in training?
Its quite simple really, it all comes from ‘the playing model’.
The playing model is the coaches conception of how he wants the game to be played, specifically in each phase of the game, and often reflects his/her philosophy. The model provides the tactical principles for each sub-phase of the game. These principles are a guide for the tactical actions for players to produce in each sub-phase of the game, to achieve this way of playing.
It is the playing model that directs the whole training process in the tactical periodization approach, because the playing model represents the logical structure of the game, or as Tamarit puts it, it represents the ‘Whole’. Training sessions should only work on the principles of the playing model. This way, each training session is working on one of the four main phases of the game at any given time. Therefore training is directly working on the tactical principles of the playing model that form how the game is played based on what the coach wants to create. There is no point working on ‘dribbling’ if the coach wants to play ‘long ball’ (if you get my point).
By working on these principles of the playing model in training, specifically in the areas were these tactical decisions will take place in the game, we are ‘creating habits through systematic repetition’. It is not enough to practice shooting drills and expect the striker to score a hat-trick at the weekend. The specifics of the situation relevant to the principles of the playing model need to be worked on in training (such as practice receiving the ball from wide zones or zone 14 to score in zone 17, a principle of scoring in my playing model). By doing this, we are practising the exact situation that we want the players to re-create in the game. Therefore, when they get in this situation in the game, they know exactly what to do based on what the playing model wants to accomplish, because they are simply re-performing the same situation that they have worked on countless times in training.
So what are the benefits of tactical periodization in my coaching?
Essentially, it is ‘SMARTER’ coaching.
- Players work on all elements of the game, yet specifically work on the skills within each element needed for each game action and tactical decision within the playing model. We are not wasting valuable training time working on any elements (tactical, technical, physical, psychological, social) separately that serve no relevance to the tactical game that we want our players to play.
- Players are learning how to use all elements simultaneously, we are creating better performers.
- Players are only working on the actions and elements within each action that are within the playing model. We as coaches are not wasting our time teaching them what might be a ‘tactic’ of the game that has no relevance to how we want the team to play
- We are training players in our sessions to use these actions in the specific situations that they will use these actions in the game. Players experience systematic repetition of the actions in training, and are able to transfer this from the training pitch onto the game, and perform the actions in the specific situations. We are creating better decision makers, that will lead to more successful and effective performance in the game.
There we have it then, tactical periodization – a revolutionary training approach for football. When you think about it, it all makes sense. I think the message to take away here, is that sometimes as coaches, we need to take a step back and ask ourselves ‘what purpose does this session and its content serve in the bigger picture?’
Delgado-Bordonau, J.L. and Mendez-Villanueva, A., 2012. Tactical periodization: Mourinho’s best-kept secret. Soccer Journal, 57(3), pp.29-34.
de Freitas, S. and Queirós, J., 2004. A especificidade que está na concentração táctica que está na especificidade: No que deve ser uma operacionalização da periodização táctica.
Tamarit, X., 2007. What is Tactical Periodization?. Bennion Kearney.
Tee, J.C., Ashford, M. and Piggott, D., 2018. A tactical periodization approach for rugby union. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 40(5), pp.1-13.
Oliveira, D.P., Amieiro, N. and Resende, N.B., R (2006). Planejamento estratégico. Conceitos, metodologia, práticas. São Paulo: Atlas.