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A Conversation with Vitor Frade: The Relevance of “Tactical Periodization”

By Michael Curless On a trip to Porto, Portugal in May 2022, I had the opportunity to meet with Professor Vitor Frade, whose pioneering coaching philosophy – “Tactical Periodization” – helped inspire me to write Coaching Positional Soccer. After I presented him with a copy of my book, we began a conversation that lasted nearly three hours. With dramatic gestures, eyes darting, and periodic taps on my and the translator’s shoulders for added emphasis, this lively octogenarian explained the essential tenets of his thinking. As the conversation deepened, the three of us leaned in closer until we were only a foot away from one another. The interpreter also shifted to translating Frade’s statements while he was talking, rather than waiting for a pause in the conversation, which further energized the discussion. It was riveting and exhausting. Professor Frade has been developing his coaching ideas since 1975 with teams at the highest levels and through extensive research. He reports having a personal library of over 30,000 titles—larger than the library at the University of Porto, where he taught for decades. In Frade’s philosophy, the lack of connection between typical soccer training exercises and the requirements of the game has inspired the professor to seek improvements in how soccer is coached. He believes that fitness, strength, skill, and tactical development will happen together by utilizing small-sided games in practice. Professor Frade said that he threatened to quit coaching one team, led by Jorge Jesus if Jesus did not “lock up the gym” to block players from engaging in traditional, i.e., nonsoccer-like strength training. Frade also discouraged massages and even vitamin supplements in the preparatory period to ensure players “assimilate the stimulus of practice without crutches or external help” to develop the specific physical requirements to play a soccer game. Professor Frade teaches that soccer practices should mimic the game. Coaches do not train players but set up situations that provide players with problems to solve. “Soccer playing needs to be improved by playing soccer.” He imagined practice drills as “fractals” that remain loyal to the “unbreakable wholeness” of the soccer game. Like a “leaf that reflects within itself the essence of the whole tree, but only if the leaf stays connected to the tree,” a practice drill should contain all the essential elements of the game, defending, ball-winning, management of ball possession, and creating finishing opportunities. He believes that the context of the game combined with the modeling from other players through “empathic attunement” provides the ideal environment for learning. Professor Frade asserts that the coach should paint a picture of the team’s game model so players have a collective understanding of how to play, even when each game moment can require unique player movements and skills. This game image is assimilated through player principles, so players gain “knowing about their know-how,” i.e., understanding why they use certain skills and tactics at specific times. Frade wants coaches to help players develop instinctive playing habits through systematic and meaningful training because instinctive behavior requires less mental energy than learning new behavior. To manage the mental fatigue from learning new skills and tactics, a coach can shorten the duration of drills to 90 seconds to help with recovery and not overwhelm the players. Proof of Vitor Frade’s theories came from his coaching experience. As his former student Jose Mourinho has said, “The table does not lie.” Once Frade was given the chance to train 10 of FC Porto’s international players after the European Championship in 1996 and a month of vacation. There was a 10-day period before the first match. The rest of the team was in Brazil in a typical preseason training with the head coach Bobby Robinson. The players Frade trained utilizing mostly small-sided games and mini-tournaments due to the small number of players at practice and became the primary starters of the team that year during their successful campaign that included 72 matches with 55 wins in a row. The players did not have muscular injuries that season even though the coach relied on only 13 players for the entirety of the season. He acknowledges that it has been hard for Tactical Periodization to gain acceptance, yet his philosophy has never been more necessary. However, Frade believes that we are in a period when more people are starting to open to his ideas almost 50 years after he first began to articulate them. First published in The Soccer Journal

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