As we approach the congested Christmas football fixtures period and some people’s thoughts are already on next year’s World Cup, it won’t be a surprise when the topic of a winter break for footballers comes up again. Premier League teams face a run of four fixtures in the space of between nine and 12 days over the Christmas and New Year period. Meanwhile, the top leagues in France, Germany, Spain and Italy all have a winter break. But does having a break over the festive period actually make a difference to footballers – physically or mentally?
There’s been a lot of research in this area and it’s a subject we’ve also partially looked at, with a study we carried out on Coventry City’s academy footballers.
Unlike their professional adult counterparts, elite youth football leagues in this country generally have a break over the Christmas period. But little is known about the impact this has on the players. Some evidence has previously suggested that too many matches in their season can lead to a lack of motivation and mental burn out, as well as reduced physical performance. We do a lot of work with the Sky Blues’ academy and decided to investigate if the players’ eight-day Christmas break improved how they believed they felt.
The 18 academy players filled in a well-being questionnaire daily during a 28-day period, including 10 days before and after their Christmas break.
They were asked to rate how they felt about their motivation to train, their quality of previous night’s sleep, quality of recovery from a night’s sleep, appetite, feelings of fatigue, stress levels and level of muscle softness.
We found that during the break, players’ perception of well-being in most of these areas all improved, but this did not continue once training resumed in January. Motivation to train and appetite were unaffected by the Christmas break, which may mean these elements are not as related to the amount of training players are involved. However, the information is still necessary for our research to help develop an overall picture of player well-being.
These findings are, perhaps, not unexpected, and backs up other research in this area. It’s also worth considering other elements that may have contributed to the results. A lot of these academy players are still in education; this study does not take into account how their school or college workload may have affected the results. In addition, players have a variety of other stresses including pressure to earn a contract and relationships with coaches, peers, family and friends.
In the future, we’d like to carry out this research again but also look at if there are any potential physical benefits of this winter break on the young footballers. This would give us a complete picture of how academy players are affected by the eight-day gap in training.
Of course, even then there’s a big difference between how an academy player benefits from the winter break, to how a professional footballer could benefit from it. For a start, Christmas breaks in the top leagues are still a bit of an illusion. Footballers don’t stop completely during that time, instead they are often still at training together, putting in many hours at the gym and heading off with their team-mates on hot weather training camps. And as we’ve already mentioned, footballers in La Liga, Serie A or Bundesliga don’t have to worry about school homework or coursework during their winter break.
But our small study gave us an insight into how the academy players felt they benefited from the break. And perhaps it also adds a little extra fuel to those fiery debates about whether professional Premier League footballers would benefit from a winter break too.
The reference for the original abstract is: Neil Clarke, Matthew Ellis, Peter Mundy & Mark Noon (2017) A Christmas break temporarily improves the perception of well-being in academy soccer players – BASES Conference 2017 – Programme and Abstracts. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35, sup1: s44. DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2017.1378421