While the players of Hamburger SV were taken up onto the eternal ice of Tirol’s glaciers, Jürgen Klopp preferred activities such as canyoning and abseiling to strengthen team spirit during his time at FSV Mainz and Borussia Dortmund. In the summer months a huge number of football clubs come to Tirol for their pre-season training camps. But why is this quiet corner of Austria such a mecca for the international football elite? An essay about the evolution of training methods in football – and what that means for Tirol.
For many football fans, early summer is a barren wasteland of melancholy. By the end of May all the international leagues have concluded, national and international cup competitions have finished, and the perspective of football weekends and Champions League evenings in September seems a million miles away. All that remains is to count down the days and weeks until the new season finally comes around.
Sure, there are international tournaments like the European Championships and the World Cup – highlights even for fans who follow their teams home and away for nine months of the year and kick every ball. But the best thing about those summers when the top international teams compete for silverware is that by the time the Euros or World Cup are over it is only a few weeks until the start of the next domestic season.
By mid-July pre-season preparation is well and truly underway. The transfer window is open and the players are back in training with their clubs as they build towards the start of what will be another long season. Pre-season friendlies are played – the chance to catch a sight of the club’s latest signings in action for the first time. It is during these hot weeks in July and August that the groundwork is laid for the rest of the season. Pre-season can determine whether the next nine months will be a time of celebration or suffering.
Pre-season training camps during the summer represent a kind of re-birth for each club. They are a new beginning, a time of hope. New players are unpacked almost like presents at Christmas. Fans are keen to see them wearing their team’s shirt for the first time, to hear what they have to say in interviews, to see how they fit into the formation and gel with their new teammates. Hope grows about the season ahead; the melancholy of last season’s failures melts away.
This annual ritual of re-birth is often played out on the lush green pitches of Tirol, set against a backdrop of craggy mountain peaks. Most of Europe’s top clubs come to the Alps to prepare for the season ahead. In recent years Tirol has welcomed among others Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City, Werder Bremen, Genoa CFC, Olympiakos and Dynamo Kiev as well as the national teams of Spain, Holland, France and the Czech Republic. Tirol seems to be the perfect place to get ready for the challenges ahead.
Clubs coming to the region in 2017 include Young Boys Bern (Fügen), RB Leipzig (Seefeld), 1. FC Köln (Kitzbühel), Sparta Prague (Bad Häring), VfB Stuttgart (Neustift), Werder Bremen (Zell am Ziller), Viktoria Pilsen (Westendorf) and Watford (Going). Friendlies are scheduled between Young Boys Bern and Tirol’s largest club, FC Wacker Innsbruck, as well as between Ajax Amsterdam and SV Werder Bremen.
But what do these teams actually do during their time in Tirol? And what makes this region so popular? Despite major changes to preparation methods in recent years, the fundamental aims of pre-season training camps have remained the same for decades: building up fitness, communicating tactics and strengthening team spirit.
Until a few years ago the cross-country run was an element of every pre-season preparation loved by fitness coaches and loathed by players. Generations of professional footballers have run through the forests of Tirol in the heat of summer, pushed to their physical limits – and often beyond.
Managers such as Germany’s Felix Magath became (in)famous for their boot camp style training methods. They would stand, stopwatch in hand, on the sidelines and drive their players on with a mixture of motivation and criticism. “Suffering, sweat and strain” became their mantra.
Sometimes managers would give their players a break from the physical exertions. Huub Stevens and Jürgen Klopp were well-known for taking their players up into the wilderness of the mountains with the aim of building not only fitness but also team spirit – alpine adventures not always understood or appreciated, especially by new signings from foreign climes such as South America. Legendary stories remain from Hamburger SV’s excursion to the glacier at the end of the Ötztal Valley in 2007 and the many canyoning and abseiling activities ordered by Jürgen Klopp during his time at FSV Mainz and Borussia Dortmund.
However, few managers have proved more inventive than Christoph Daum, who got his players to walk over broken glass and burning coals in order to strengthen their character and motivation.
These days such training methods are the exception and no longer the rule. Physical preparation in pre-season has become highly scientific and technology-driven. Sensors, GPS data and drones are the tools of the modern football coach. Data are collected and patterns identified. Nothing is left to chance – even the players’ sleep is closely monitored. Some teams have been known to bring “sleep boxes” with them on training camps so that players can take power-naps between sessions.
Classic fitness training techniques such as cross-country runs have gone out of fashion. Players are expected to arrive at pre-season training in good shape – and that means staying fit even on holiday. This approach leaves more time during pre-season training for tactics, work on formations and first and foremost rest and regeneration between the short, high-intensity sessions.
On top of that there are exercises to improve coordination, physical awareness and concentration – brain training. When it comes to work with the ball, the focus is on stress resistance and anticipation. Perfection is the aim: players must become ever faster, fitter, skilful and intelligent. And they must learn to function as part of a team, studying and visualising group dynamics and shared goals.
Football training at a professional level is becoming increasingly high-tech. Gone are the days of run-until-you-drop or run-until-you-vomit. And yet, despite the many advances that have been made, teams still choose to come to the Alps in early summer to kick off their preparations for the season ahead.
Why? Sure, Tirol has excellent forests and trails for “old-school” cross-country runs. But it also offers top conditions for state-of-the-art training at the very highest level. With such an infrastructure and history of success, it is little wonder that clubs keep coming back to this corner of Austria year after year – and are likely to do so for many more to come.