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Gibraltar’s Under 16s returned last week from a UEFA Development Tournament in Bulgaria, where they put in some heroic performances and faced opposition at a level that not many Gibraltar squads of this age group have faced before.

A draw against North Macedonia, a win over Kosovo and a narrow 1-0 defeat by the hosts Bulgaria is evidence of the progress being made within Gibraltar’s young National Team squads. Central to all of this success is the fitness, strength and conditioning work that is being done by the Gibraltar FA’s team of experts who are guiding the youngsters through these crucial elements of developing as a young athlete and footballer.

David Mitchell, the Under 16’s Physiotherapist and Fitness Coordinator gives us an insight into the hard work that went in to prepare the U16s for this tournament :

David, take us back to the start, how did you begin the squads’ preparations for a UEFA U16 Development Tournament?

The preparation for this development tournament began 18 months before the tournament under the Gibraltar FA’s Elite Youth Development Programme setup.  Conditioning wise we began by introducing them to basic movement patterns in the gym designed specifically for their age group and focusing on injury prevention exercises. From there we progressed to developing their strength and power, alongside increasing their playing endurance. Gibraltar is a small nation that competes on the international stage so it is important we develop young athletes who can cope with the demands of elite-level international football.  

 

 

As some of the players are quite young in age (Under 16s), does this affect the way you have to plan from a fitness, strength and conditioning perspective?

This is the focus of the EYDP’s long-term athletic strategy.  Our young players have a lot to deal with. They have academic careers, club football and other sports/social clubs alongside their EYDP training commitments. Our main objective is to balance the training load that is placed on these young players and assist in their athletic development in a safe and responsible manner.  This means adapting their EYDP pitch and strength sessions around their busy lives. As staff, we must be extremely mindful and flexible.  Everything we do is bespoke to the specific player and aims to put no unnecessary stress on their bodies and minds. 

Is there anything specific that you had to working on or focussing on to get the players ready for the weeklong tournament in Bulgaria?

In the weeks leading up to an intense tournament like this where we played 3 matches over the course of 7 days, we focus on developing the players’ bodies to react to the increase of match pace and to facilitate effective recovery from the physical stress an international match can put them through. This means increasing the intensity of gym sessions whilst simultaneously reducing recovery periods to help the body to adapt to the fast stop-start nature of football. We then developed appropriate recovery strategies through football-specific dynamic stretching and mobility protocols that are used consistently across all GFA squads. Our aim always, across all of our National Teams is to give the players the best possible start when they walk back onto the pitch, in some instances less than 48 hours later after their previous international match. 

Talk to us about how these Under 16 players have developed and progressed physically ahead of the tournament?

The players involved in this squad have worked tirelessly to improve their physical wellbeing. They were fitness tested every 4-6 weeks to allow them to see for themselves progression they were making in the hard work that they do in the gym. These young athletes have worked tirelessly for 18 months, coming in at 7am before school most days for training sessions and returning in the afternoons twice a week for strength and conditioning sessions in the gym. Their maturity has been impressive. We have seen a significant increase in their physical ability which is now being transferred on to the pitch. They can recover better, perform on the field for longer and still put in the work in the final minutes. 

 

 

Given that each player had to play 90 minutes of football across the three matches, in a Development tournament did this have an impact on the workload in Bulgaria?

To an extent it does. The technical staff have prepared for this tournament with the mindset of development. It is difficult to plan tournaments because one of the beauties of the game is that anything can happen. Until we arrived at the tournament, we wouldn’t have known what we will have to deal with; we needed to be prepared for injuries or illness, picking up cards and suspensions that may that prevent players from playing, and how the other teams perform all affect how the coaching staff approach a particular game. Again, the focus in the weeks leading up to the tournament was developing the players’ ability to deal with high load environments and recover effectively. And I think this was a fundamental part of the success in the tournament. The boys were fit, strong and ready for the rigours of a tournament of this sort.

What about the way ahead for these players now the tournament is over? Has the groundwork been laid for these players to progress up the international ladder into the older age group squads?

Going forward, if they keep to these regimes and carry on their hard work and sacrifices I have full confidence that each player with be able to adapt to whatever situation is presented to them. Their most recent results in Bulgaria are clear evidence of how far they have come in their training. They have worked exceptionally hard over the last 18 months and have responded well to everything we have asked of them. They know what it takes now, and I’m sure that they will continue to develop and progress as they get older and achieve their goals.