Matchday Prep: Priming Your Game

During the practical phase of my Sport Psychology graduate program, I was counseling an athlete who routinely mentioned a “drag” during the first quarter of the game.

“A drag?” I finally asked. “Like your legs are tired? Or it’s hard to focus? Or something else?”

She shrugged and made a face. “I just… drag. Everything feels heavy and slow. It’s like my first quarter is my worst, and then it’s like I wake up.”

Attacking this solely from my role as her sport psychology coach was difficult; the sport scientist in me immediately started shouting “CNS down!!”.

But, as I always preach, the brain and body work together for optimal performance, so we didn’t ignore her complaints. Together we built a special “Matchday-1 Routine”, which included some mobility, a series of jumps and sprints, and some breathing and mental training.

Entirely due to her own hard work and commitment to implementation for several weeks, she began reporting that she felt “awake” for a full 90 minutes.

Warmed up. Light. Fast. Normal.

This was, in all honesty, a very rudimentary form of Priming, my best effort to keep in my lane as the sport psych expert and not stand in the way of her sport and strength coaches. But, as this scenario prompted me to realize, priming and competitive stress are perhaps two of the best examples of the critical and inextricable Brain-Body Connection in sports performance.

What’s Priming?

In sport science and strength & conditioning, “Priming” is an umbrella term for “raising hormone levels, activating the central nervous system, warming up the muscular system, and generally waking up the body within 24 hours of performance” (in its most simple definition).

Priming isn’t a session where you want to improve, per se. You aren’t purposefully chasing an adaption as you would in a heavy lower-body strength session, correcting technique as you would in a speed session, or trying to increase aerobic capacity last minute, like in conditioning.

It’s a supplementary and preparatory session intended to prevent that “drag” or “slump” between the last training session and Matchday. It’s especially relevant if your team is traveling or has a day off before playing.

Get into the gym, spend about 20-40 minutes (maximum) working, and get out. If you don’t have a gym, a field or bit of flat surface will suffice. Go hard and go home.

Think about it as putting your key into the ignition of your car and starting to turn it. You’ll hear the engine start. You haven’t pressed the gas. You aren’t actually moving forward. The engine is just running. If you haven’t started your car in a while, you might have to do it twice before you get that nice engine hum.

That’s priming - revving up the engine within 24 hours of expecting it to go a smooth 150km/hour for 90-120 minutes, just to be sure it works.

How To Prime For Soccer

Priming for soccer is relatively straightforward and meant to be fast. Although protocols vary depending on sport, level of play, availability of resources, and coaches themselves, Priming is generally the same.

Movement

Mobility is an essential part of our protocol at White Lion. A 10 minute movement flow that takes athletes through all join ranges of motion, across all planes, and activates the musculature will make them feel warm and comfortable. There should be no rush here.

This is also a great time to work on any weak mobility spots, such as hip or shoulder rotation and overhead mobility. Remember: you’re not changing or adding anything. Just get it turned on.

Some go-to moves: 90/90 stretch, internal rotations, leg levers, t-spine openers, overhead reaches, shoulder wall slides, world’s greatest stretch, hamstring sweeps, lateral lunges

Power

Sprints & jumps are great options for a Priming session. Power cleans and medicine ball throws are also useful, when equipment allows. White Lion’s priming protocol uses 4-6 sprint starts to 20m and 4-6 reps of jumps (variation specific to athlete/situation). When space and time allows, 4x4 power cleans @ 70% or medicine ball throws can substitute for plyometrics.

Sprint start types: falling start, pushup start, walk-in start
Jump types: broad jump, vertical jump, ascending hurdle jump, hexbar jump, depth jump
MedBall types: vertical throw, kneeling wall drive, double-jump reverse throw, sprint start drive

Strength

A light resistance training session has also been well-researched and shown to be effective in Priming (again, time and equipment allowing). As soccer is a mostly lower-body sport, the upper body can handle a traditional strength training session on Matchday-1 (or even Matchday - welcome to Division I Collegiate Soccer!).

However, back squats or deadlifts with barbells with an emphasis on barspeed (low percentage - think @ 60-70%) are also a beneficial option. This is not an absolute or maximal strength session - the bar should always be moving with velocity or the weight needs to be lowered. No 3-second reps!

For the barbell back squat or deadlift, a maximum of 2-3 sets of 5-6 reps are sufficient here. Again, no RPE 9! Keep that barbell moving.

Mental Training & Regeneration

This is overlooked for the most part for obvious reasons (“we don’t have time for mental training”). I heavily encourage athletes to use slow-paced breathing exercises for regeneration and work with visualizations of their performance during the recovery part of their session (or after).

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Well, that was the most simple, straightforward layout of Priming I could possibly provide. I would like to leave you with the following points, however:

  • Every athlete’s CNS is different, so their threshold and needs during a Priming session will be different. If you see an athlete overexerting, they’re doing too much. If they require a ton of rest between sets, they’re going to hard. If their barbell isn’t moving, they’re going too heavy. Adjust.

  • Intense Priming sessions aren’t always appetizing to sport coaches and athletes, and they aren’t always realistic or accessible, especially while traveling or on a schedule or budget. I hope this article offered some adaptable ideas for how to prime at low cost and quickly.

  • Regeneration should always follow Priming. Although nothing was “improved” or “new” during this session, athletes still need to enhance their recovery before their match. If not, that takes away the purpose of Priming: optimizing the athlete for their performance, not taking away from it.

Good luck out there. Get that engine roaring!