Tactical Re-Adaptation: The final stage of the Return-to-Play Process

"Football is played with the head. Your feet are just the tools." – Andrea Pirlo

Traditionally, we look at the rehabilitation process strictly from a conditional vantage point. A healthy player is important of course, but the final stage should be his return to the complex system that is the team. A system that may have evolved from the one he was a part of when he was healthy and adapted to the coach’s game model. An injury lay off means loss of specific shape. All attempts should be made to keep some specific adaptation (depending on the injury), but in the grand scheme, the player becomes less and less adapted to matches and more specifically, his part in a complex system. How can we accelerate this re-adaptation to the game model? How can we prevent spikes in workload while ensuring he re-assimilates into the system (that may have changed)?

Taking a team through the levels of approximation proposed by Paco Seirul.lo, is a systematic way of moving from general shape, to competitive shape. The best way to maintain competitive shape, is by playing matches. Competitive shape allows the player to sustain match rhythm and gives him adaptations we cannot achieve in training, due to the higher intensity and pressure present in match situations. An injured player, loses competitive shape, and regresses in specific shape. The best we can do during his rehab, is maintain his general shape, and move through the levels again as he heals. After being cleared to play by the physio, the player will more likely have a high general shape. By medical standards he is rehabilitated, but in terms of the complex game of football, he has one more stage; tactical reintegration.

A team is a complex system with many interactions. The system is always changing, and relationships are being formed between players, and these teams within the team affect the entire system and provide special advantages, and weaknesses. If one of these players are removed and replaced, the system changes and the interactions and patterns that emerge can be drastically different from the original system. As the player misses these matches and interactions his specific shape reduces. We should educate the player on the reintegration process (tactically) and pay very close attention to his progression. This can have a positive psychological effect, as we are showing the player that he does not need to feel pressured to perform at his peak immediately but respect the process of readapting. This freedom can bring about a better performance in some players as they are not afraid to take risks (especially attacking players).

Rapid spikes in workload can lead to injury, so how can we accelerate a player’s tactical rehab without putting him at risk? First, we must respect the levels of approximation. To help in this process, we must compliment the field sessions with special and directed strength (field or gym). For example, in my team I had a player who was out for 5 months with an ankle injury. Upon clearance from the physio, we did a phase of general strength to address some weakness/imbalances, and now we are on to directed strength. A qualitative analysis of this player in the training sessions, showed me his gradual improvement and how our work in the gym has helped the quality of his actions gradually. If we respect the process of moving through the levels of approximation, we can safely Improve the player’s actions and reduce injuries. I am not saying the strength work is the sole reason for his improved or improving football actions, but it is a significant percentage of one of the multiple variables which includes, returned exposure to consistent football training and intrinsic motivation. We must approach re-adaptation with a multi-varied analysis.

​Edgard (returning to play after being out for 5 months) doing some directed strength drills.

Finally, a suggestion on how to accelerate re-adaptation to the tactical demands of the system while avoiding spikes in workload. The key structure to readapting tactically is the cognitive structure. We need to stimulate the brain as much as possible through the training drills. Preferentially simulated situations are the most taxing on the cognitive (and of course 11v11 games). If we look at the anatomy of a training session, we can have this returning player partake in the activation phase or warm-up, and work as a neutral player in the drills that precede the preferential simulated situation. The player can be totally removed from these drills (less favorable) and work separately on lighter conditional, or coordinative work to keep the overall load down. The player can be fully thrusted into the PSS drill, without any rotations out. PSS drills will overload the cognitive structure, and the player will recall information from his previous ‘memory bank’ while also becoming aware of additional information (movements or players) that were introduced in his absence. This increase in game-like situations will accelerate his re-adaptation tactically. The same approach can be taken if the main phase of the session involves an 11v11 game. Reducing load in the drills with the least cognitive benefit and loading the player totally in the activities that are more cognitive will quicken tactical rehab while avoiding too much of a spike in workload. Gradually, we begin to involve him in the full training session. The key however is the cognitive stimulation, as this “muscle” is not worked in a football specific way in rehab.

Thanks for reading!

Be sure to follow Dominic Adams on Twitter: @CoachAdamsTT


Cissik, J. M. (n.d.). Basic Principles of Strength and Conditioning.

Malone S, et al. The acute:chonic workload ratio in relation to injury risk in professional soccer. J Sci Med Sport (2016)

Dynamic Systems and Performance in Team Sports By Seirul-lo Vargas, F. (2003)

{Soccer Brain}. (2017, October 06). Retrieved February 20, 2018, from https://soccerstripes.com/soccerbrain/