When West Ham United's youngsters returned to training after a short Christmas break, they knew they would be greeted with mid-season 'fitness tests' to monitor their progress so far this term.
However, rather than showing any sort of reluctance to have to complete these tests, 2013 brought a sense of excitement and intrigue for both players and staff alike.
The reason being that West Ham United's Academy Sports Science and Medicine Department, led by Tom Smith, have been working hard to buck a trend.
Research has shown that in Premier League and Football League Academies, fitness levels increase from the beginning to the end of pre-season. However, by the middle and end of the season they decrease significantly to lower than they were during pre-season!
"We believe this trend is down to the traditional concept of doing a large amount of fitness-based training during pre-season in order to get the players as fit as possible for the first game of the season," confirmed Smith, "with the focus then changing to technical and tactical-based training and maintaining fitness levels thereafter."
The Academy Sports Science and Medicine team have developed a multidisciplinary, periodised training programme, adhered to by all age-groups in the Academy, with the aim of continually developing players physically throughout, with fitness levels peaking in the second half of the season.
Each training session is designed to progressively induce longer-lasting increases in players' fitness levels, with fewer injuries, by having a carefully planned physical stimulus, as well as technical, tactical and psychological components to every drill.
The physical stimulus of training is recorded and monitored closely on a daily basis by sports scientists Josh Ewens and Adam Crossley, using state-of-the-art GPS equipment.
Alongside this, every player follows a thorough, individual strength programme, led by strength and conditioning coach Dan Bernardin and his assistant David Bellas.
Academy achieves SPARQ success
AS one of the clubs supported by 'Nike SPARQ Football', lead Academy sports scientist Greg De Carnys arranged for a battery of fitness tests to be carried out across the West Ham United Academy, from Under-8s up to the Development Squad.
The Nike SPARQ (Speed Power Agility Reaction Quickness) team then accumulate the fitness scores from Academies across the country, and give each player a 'SPARQ Rating' derived from ranking, scoring and totaling the results of five tests of athletic performance.
"The mid-season fitness testing results certainly demonstrate the success of the programme so far," explained De Carnys. "The average SPARQ rating of EVERY age-group from U13s to U21s was well above the average Premier League SPARQ rating. Our U21s recorded results 19.4% above the Premier League average! This relates very well to the performances on the pitch in the first half of the season, when they won the Group 1 title to qualify for the Elite Group Stage.
"In addition to squad successes, three individual UK SPARQ records were broken by the club's youngsters:
*Matt Carter, 15, beat the current Premier League U15s SPARQ rating record.
*Az Masoud, 15, beat both the current U15s and U16s Premier League SPARQ rating records
*Courtney Homans, 17, recorded the UK all-time best SPARQ rating at any age-group!
"Not only are the squads performing exceptionally well in these tests when compared to other Premier League Academies, they are also achieving what we had hoped they would when we put this programme into place from the start of pre-season.
"That is, that every age-group from U13s to U21s has continued to make significant improvements in their own fitness scores between the end of pre-season and January, rather than deteriorating, which appears to have become the norm."
In addition to De Carnys and Ewens, sports scientist Luke Lawrence has been key in helping to deliver the programme to the younger age groups across the Club, with the overall aim of making talented footballers more athletic.
Other outstanding individual performers were George Moncur (U21), Elliot Lee (U18), Ben Marlow (U17) and Eric Nti-Bonso (U15), who all made considerable improvements in every athletic performance test.