The ability to make short passes within a confined space is an important skill for successful players. Accurate passing is important for maintain possession and for setting up goal scoring opportunities. An analysis of the 1986 FIFA World Cup showed that 57% of goals were scored after completing passes of 3m or less. During the match, passing skill is affected by a number of factors. Among these, the development of fatigue is thought to impair the player’s technical ability. While there is ample evidence showing match-related declines in physical performance (running distance, sprint speed, etc), studies have yet to focus on the technical aspects of the game such as the ability to execute short passes. In a joint effort between Italian, Swiss and Norwegian universities, Dr. Ermanno Rampinini and colleges studied the effects of match-related fatigue on short passing skill (link to article). They provide good evidence of a decline in passing ability during a match and suggest that this is related to the player’s fitness level.
The researchers used a short passing skill test named the Loughborough Soccer Passing Test (LSPT) (a short video demonstration is below). This test requires players to execute 16 passes performed within a circuit of cones and grids. This is a timed test where the object is to hit a series of targets. Players earn time penalties for inaccurate and poorly executed passes. The total time plus penalties is taken as the performance indicator.
A group of 16 junior-level players (ages 17-18) performed the LPST before, during and after full-sided matches. Because matches can have effects other than fatigue on motor skills, the players also performed the test before and after completion of a 5-min high intensity shuttle running protocol. This exercise bout was designed to simulate the most intense aspects of the match and to induce fatigue without the psychological demands of match-play.
The researchers found that performance on the LPST decreased during and after the match. The players were 62% less accurate in their passing and 20% slower to complete the 16 pass test. Passing ability was also diminished after the 5-min fatiguing exercise bout. The decrements in passing performance were also related to the player’s fitness level. There were close correlations between Yo-Yo test performance (a measure of match fitness) and match-related changes in passing skill.
The results of Dr. Rampinani’s study indicate that physiological fatigue induced by either match play or high-intensity exercise reduces passing accuracy. Also, the reduction in passing accuracy is associated with the athlete’s fitness level. These findings are not surprising given that match play often leads to fatigue-induced changes in physical performance. It is also not surprising that the loss of passing skill over the course of the match is related to the player’s fitness level. In fact, an earlier study by the same group, researcher found that in Serie A games, teams that experienced a greater level of fatigue over the course of the match also attempted fewer short passes and fewer of these passes were successful.
It is important to point out that this study did not investigate whether fitness training would reverse the decrements in match-related passing skill or not. However, there are other studies that do strongly suggest that endurance and interval training will increase movement and involvements with the ball over the course of a match. Thus the authors hinted that improving fitness might lessen the decrements in passing shown in their study.
The bottom line, match-related fatigue adversely affects passing skill. This appears to be due to the physical demands of the match. Because the magnitude of effect is related to fitness level, it is possible that training programs designed to improve player’s fitness level might prevent these decrements.
Rampinini E, Impellizzeri FM, Castanga C, Azzalin, Bravo DF, Wisloff U (2008) Effect of match-related fatigue on short-passing ability in young soccer players. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 5:934-942.
Rampinini E, Impellizzeri FM, Castagna C, Coutts AJ, Wisloff U (2007) Technical performance during soccer matches of the Italian Serie A league: Effect of fatigue and competitive level. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport,doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2007.10.002.