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Fast Feet, Faster Brains: An inside look at the Chicago Fire’s most chaotic training drill

You’ve seen it on video. But what’s really going on? And who are the team’s top performers?

Gastón Giménez races several Fire teammates
Chicago Fire FC

The drill doesn’t really have a name. But if you’ve watched any video from Chicago Fire training sessions this season, you’ve seen it.

As the players hop on the balls of their feet, off-camera, a man with an English accent shouts “TURN! TURN! TURN!” The players quickly change directions 180 degrees on every command. Then comes the fun part—the man will yell “RED!” or maybe “LEFT!” and the players take off in full-on sprints—sometimes in different directions—toward a finish line five meters or so away.

That’s when the scene unravels into chaos. Some players are frozen in place. Others are shouting and celebrating. Fabian Herbers breaks out the mid-air pirouette celebration made famous by Cristiano Ronaldo. Brandt Bronico offers up a fist pump. Francisco Calvo shouts “VAMOS!”

What is this drill? Why are some players always running in the wrong direction? And why does it always have the players so fired up?

“It’s a really high intensity, highly competitive drill,” says Ben Donachie, who joined the Fire as the club’s new director of performance earlier this season. “They all love it, they all buy in. It’s just a good drill.”

Donachie, who came to the Fire from AFC Bournemouth, is the man you hear shouting the commands during the drill. “It switches them on mentally,” he says. “It switches them on—A for the session, and B—in preparation for the game the next day.”

There are some days where Donachie will torture the players a bit. Normally, when Ben shouts “right!”, the players will race to their right toward a finish line. If Donachie shouts “red!”, that’s the cue to run in the direction of the red cones, rather than the yellow cones set up in the other direction.

But not always.

“Sometimes left is right, and right is left, to really, really play with them, you know?” Donachie says. “I’ll say ‘OK guys, red is now yellow, so if I say red, you have to go to yellow, or if I say right, you have to go to left.’ So that really, really gets them.”

It’s sinister, but that’s the point. The Fire usually train in the morning, and the drill is a great way to wake up the players’ brains.

“It’s unpredictable,” Donachie admits. “They don’t know what color I’m going to shout, so it’s getting them mentally engaged and switched on for the warm up, and then into the session.”

Donachie also likes that the drill has a sprinting component. Research shows sprinting on matchday minus one can improve performance.

“What I like is you get explosive actions, you get sprints,” Donachie says. “The day before a game, it’s always a good idea to do explosive actions, because it activates them for the game. So it has a potentiation effect for the game.”

The final reason Donachie likes to use the drill is easy to see—it’s highly competitive. After four or five warm-up rounds, the knockout stage begins. There are five or six guys in each group, and the top two from each heat advance. Run the wrong way, or get frozen on your feet at the line, you’re out, and you have to face the wrath of your teammates.

“They’re competitive by nature, so they want to win,” Donachie says. “And you kind of see a trend of people who tend to progress to the late stages on a regular basis, and also the guys who either try to guess and get it wrong, or are also slow to react. The other guys know who’s out, so they always kind of joke about it and laugh about it.”

Donachie says at most sessions, it’s the same six or seven guys who tend to make it to the latter stages. So who’s the best on the team?

“Jonathan Bornstein is typically very good, historically very good,” Donachie admits. “And someone else—ah—Mr. Fabian Herbers always tends to be up there. If I was to predict at the start of the session who would be in the final two, they would be up there on my list.”

The Fire are struggling on the field right now, but this is one thing that seems to be working well. That means this no-name drill is sticking around—for now.

“There’s different drills you can do,” Donachie says. “It doesn’t have to be the one I do. There are variations to it. I’ve seen a good progress in the guys doing this one, so until I feel like it starts to stagnate, we’re gonna keep using it.”