Darren Burgess Foresight

Player Workload Flash Report 2022: We need a calendar that respects players’ health

Foresight Foresight
25 May 2022 - by Darren Burgess
Darren Burgess Foresight

The FIFPRO Player Workload Monitoring Index provides unprecedented insight into the workloads of elite footballers around the planet. As well as presenting reliable data, FIFPRO conducts surveys with players and high-performance coaches to understand better how training and matches affect the physical and mental health of players. The latest results send a clear message – and call for change.

88% of high-performance coaches believe that no player should play more than 55 matches in a season, while half of players say they have suffered injury due to a heavy fixture schedule. FIFPRO’s data highlights the problem: a large percentage of elite players regularly play more than 55 matches per year, putting themselves at risk of mental strain and physical injury.

If a heavy match schedule most obviously raises the risk of physical injury, it can cause other problems too. Players who take part in a higher number of matches typically travel farther and longer, as cup fixtures add to their league schedule; they play more evening matches and only increase their training, or at least spend more time at the club’s training centre. Those players spend more time away from their club and less time with their families; they begin to lose sleep and rest. This can all raise the risk of fatigue, burnout and strains on mental health. FIFPRO’s survey sends a stark warning: 82% of coaches observed mental-health problems in players with heavy schedules.

“International players are more likely to suffer injury or perform below their usual standard.”

My own career has allowed me to examine these problems up close. During the 2017/18 and 2018/19 seasons respectively, Arsenal reached first the Carling Cup Final and the Europa League Semi-Finals, and then the Europa League Final. If we include the pre-season and international fixtures of that period, some members of the squad played over 120 matches. The data I saw indicated a real problem: players were suffering substantial fatigue. However, the perceived importance of these matches demanded that certain players always be selected, despite the associated risks; the players themselves largely wanted to play in the important fixtures and achieve success for the team. Nonetheless, there were times where those players would have benefited physically, and mentally, from more time away from the club.

International players often experience greater physical demands: they face not only a more congested match schedule but also the long-distance travel that comes with the international calendar. The punishing extra miles often arrive during FIFA’s short international match windows, squeezed into a domestic fixture list that is already packed. While most research suggests that the human body requires one day of recovery for every time zone crossed in a flight, the short FIFA windows make this impossible. International players are more likely to suffer injury or perform below their usual standard.

Long-distance travel often brings sharp changes in climate, giving players no chance to adapt to a very different environment. This puts further stress on the body at a time when players are asked to perform at international levels for their country.

I saw this phenomenon during World Cup qualifiers: Australian players who were competing domestically in European leagues were obliged not only to travel for 24 hours and more (including a 10-hour change in time-zone) so that they could play for their country, but also, in the space of one journey, to switch from spring to autumn or from summer to winter, and vice versa. While the travel is most extreme when European-based Australians play ‘home’ games back in Australia, away fixtures in the Asian qualifying zone bring their own challenge: some World Cup qualifiers take place in the Middle East, where players often have to play in temperatures above 35 degrees. These dramatic shifts in climate and the sheer length of time spent in the air make players more vulnerable to injury, dehydration, poor performance and disrupted sleep.

All these trends paint a worrying picture: an overloaded calendar is pushing elite players to their limits, and top coaches are beginning to see the damage. Players already sense the problem: 87% told the FIFPRO survey they would welcome limits on back-to-back matches; 76% would support new rules to protect their end-of-season breaks. And yet, the very same players feel they have no say in the matter: only 22% said their views were respected in discussions on working conditions.

The growing strain on players’ health reveals the crisis of governance in our sport. Those who would continuously expand competitions and overload the calendar, while failing to see how this affects players, are taking a path that is unfair and unsustainable. We need reform soon. We need a calendar that understands players’ needs and respects their health, and that can only happen if we listen to the players and what their bodies are telling us.

BURGESS Darren
About

Darren Burgess

Darren is currently the High Performance Manager at Adelaide Football Club and FIFPRO Senior Advisor on Player Workload, Health & Performance. Darren’s prior experience included senior high-performance roles at Arsenal Football Club, Port Adelaide Football Club, Football Federation Australia and Liverpool Football Club. He has also worked as a lecturer in Exercise Science at Australian Catholic University and completed his PhD in movement analysis of AFL and Soccer in 2012.