Jay found himself standing shivering in the dark at 6am on Monday. The glowing orange lights of the station were illuminating where he stood. A few early morning commuters straggled into the station sporadically, dreams of sleep still dancing in their tired eyes. One and all stopped to purchase the life-giving coffee, which would power them to their destinations.
Jay was wearing a tracksuit over his football kit, but it wasn't helping to keep him warm. He hoped Nathan showed up soon; otherwise, he'd need thawing out. "What the fuck am I even doing out here?"
He considered what he knew of Nathan. The man had been a mainstay in the first team for several years as Jay progressed through the youth ranks. He was a legend at the club, being one of the few players at Royston FC who had tasted professional football during his career. Nathan was 35 now and in the twilight of his career. As a teenager, he'd been part of the Peterborough setup, even played in their first team a few times. In a movie, it would have been a dramatic injury or something specific which had prevented Nathan from making the grade. He would have been led astray by a smoking hot girlfriend or broken a leg in a crucial play-off final, but this was real-life, and the reality was that he simply hadn't quite made the grade as a professional. He had slowly dropped down through the leagues, first out of the professional levels and then further down until he'd reached the Eastern Counties leagues and Jay's neck of the woods. The man was reliable, trained hard, and always put the team first. He also had an easy way about him and a positive attitude, which made him the perfect team-mate.
The minutes ticked by, Jay was sure Nathan would turn up. "After all, he was the reliable one, wasn't he?" Jay thought, "Fuck It, another five minutes, and if he hasn't shown up, I'm heading home."
"You made it then," a cheery voice said, and looking up, Jay saw a rosy-cheeked Nathan jogging up. "I'll take it easy today as you're new to training, we'll start with a gentle jog through Royston Heath." That said, the man was off. Jay trailed in his wake as he sped down the roads towards the Heath. This vast, uninhabited expanse of scrubland on the outskirts of town was covered in gorse, heather, and a few trees. It was a popular spot for many in the town, dog walkers, bird watchers all visited it regularly and in the winter if it snowed adults and children alike enjoyed sledding down its slopes before ducking into the warm hearth of the Heath's cafe.
This morning the Heath was sparsely populated. Few would choose willingly to rise at this unearthly hour.
Nathan led them at a brisk jog down the uneven paths through the English countryside. Jay learned to watch his footing. He began to anticipate where the morning dew might have left grass slippery or to spot low lying branches from a tree before he ran into it.
When they'd finished their circuit of the Heath, Nathan eased them to a stop. Jay rested his hands on his knees while he caught his breath. He tried to ignore the fact that Nathan didn't even seem to be breathing hard. The man surely wasn't human.
Nathan waited until Jay was breathing more easily then warned him of what he could look forward to, "That was a decent warm-up, roughly 5k give or take a bit. We'll do the same thing after a short break, but this time we'll be doing interval training, we run full out for a minute then jog slowly for three. You'll be knackered at the end of it, but there is nothing like it for improving your aerobic fitness."
Jay gritted his teeth, he'd signed up for this, and he reminded himself that it would make him stronger, faster and fitter. It'd be worth it. Wouldn't it?
By the end of the interval training, the tiredness he had felt after their initial run seemed like a fond distant memory. His kit was soaked through with sweat, and his muscles didn't just ache they almost throbbed from overuse.
"It gets easier, and the first week will be the worst." Nathan had the nerve to grin at him, the sadist. "See you here tomorrow, same time, same place?"
"Sure," Jay said, not meaning a word of it. Yet the next morning, he found himself rising before the sun once again, determined that he would make a change. If he failed to become a professional, it wouldn't be for lack of effort.
The pair repeated their gruelling routine every morning during the week. For the first couple of days, Jay's muscles ached as he fell onto the sofa at home afterward. He listened to Nathans advice, soaking his legs in a hot bath full of Epsom salts to help his muscles recover. By Wednesday, he felt stronger, and while he wasn't able to fully keep up with Nathan, he was at least not as out of breath come the end of their training.
As they said goodbye after that session, a message swam into view.
Congratulations, you are being mentored by an experienced professional. This will help you improve in areas where your mentor is strong. Your Concentration has improved by 1 point and your Pace has improved by 2 points.
Mentor: Nathan James (Boosts Stamina and Concentration improvements)
Pace: 33 (+2)
Thursday evening was a training night for the first team. Jay trudged into Garden Walk, Royston FC's modest stadium. At night when there wasn't a match, the stadium usually seemed almost abandoned, derelict even. This evening, however, the floodlights were turned on, a necessary expense for evening training in the English autumn time. There was a chill in the air, and Jay could see his breath as he muttered "Evening" to the rest of the team as he entered the changing room. The heating wasn't turned on at the club for team training sessions, that would have been a luxury too far, and Don claimed the cold toughened them up as players.
The boss was sat in his customary chair by the door wearing a thick woollen coat, ticking off people as they entered. There were a little over a dozen of them who had made the trip into the ground. The full squad at the club comprised of twenty players. It wasn't lack of professionalism or motivation on the part of the players who weren't present; the majority of the players had jobs and families to look after. Their dreams of professional football were far behind them, and for them playing was a hobby. One they loved and took seriously, but it came second to the importance of paying the bills or ensuring a happy home life.
After waiting ten minutes, it became apparent that this was the full crew for the evening. Don quietened them down with a couple of curt words and then instructed them to do two laps of the pitch, warning them that whoever completed it last would owe him ten press-ups. Some of the more enthusiastic players rushed into the lead. Jay paced himself, matching Nathan stride for stride as the two of them ate up the distance just like in training earlier in the week. He was surprised at how easy he found the running; Jay always been able to complete these runs but had often finished them as a sweaty, exhausted mess. Tonight was different. He was never in any danger of being last; he and Nathan stayed comfortably in the middle of the pack. At the end of the run, he simply stopped. There was no need to put his hands on his knees, no gasping for breath.
Congratulations, Your training is paying off. Your 'Pace' has improved by 1 point, Concentration by 1 point, and your 'Fitness' has improved by 1,000 points.
Pace: 34 (+1)
Jay grinned as he looked at the message, he was improving. There might be a long way to go, but he appeared to be heading in the right direction.
The players rehydrated with spurted gulps of electrolyte infused water (no fancy branding at Royston, just the cheapest packets available) as Don explained to them the next training routine they'd be undertaking, Shuttle Runs.
If you look in a soccer coaching manual, it will explain that Shuttle Runs are an excellent conditioning exercise. Jay groaned internally as Don spoke, what the mythical manual wouldn't mention is that sadists designed this exercise to torture people. It would, however, probably go on to explain that the exercise involves several cones placed in a straight line, the player (or victim depending on your viewpoint) begins at one end of the cones. They run from the first cone to the second one and then back to the first cone, then they will run to the third cone and back again, continuing this for as many cones as have been set out.
Jay heard a snapping sound and came out of his reverie to see Don smirking at him,
"Apparently, you know all about this routine Jay, so you can be the first to demonstrate it."
"Damn," Jay thought, "he'd committed a cardinal sin. The one thing you never did in training sessions was to stand out in any way. If you got praised, then the other players considered you a manager's pet and wouldn't leave you alone. If you caught the coach's focus by being inattentive or lazy, then he'd pick on you, he could kick himself."
Swallowing hard, he replied, "Yes, boss." With that he was off, running full tilt at the first cone, then back again. There were five cones in all, sounds easy, doesn't it? By the time he came in from the final cone, he'd run 130 meters as fast as he could, and his heart was pounding in his ears. The boss looked at him and nodded approvingly.
"Not a bad time kid, 22 seconds and change. Adam, see if you can beat that." With those words, Jay was off the hook, and the focus was on someone else as he shuffled safely out of sight of Don near the back of the group.
His breath was still ragged as Nathan clapped him on the back affectionately, "Decent time that, I think that is the best you've done since you started training here. If you keep up the hard work, you'll get faster still. It won't be long until I'm having trouble keeping up with you at this rate." Despite everything, Jay returned Nathan's infectious smile.
By the time the rest of the squad had finished their Shuttle runs Jay felt fully recovered, his time ended up the fourth-best in the squad, At the top, Nathan predictably was comfortably faster than him.
Once the bosses victim, Josh, who had been the slowest member of the group, completed his press-ups the gaffer indicated that they would be doing the Four Corners drill. One of the more enjoyable training exercises. They split into two teams of six aside, and the activity took part in one half of the pitch within which cones were set up to make small six-foot areas in each of the corners of the pitch. The idea was for each team to hold onto the ball until they could pass it to a player who was within one of the designated areas. If they did that, then they scored a point.
Don warned them they'd be playing for ten minutes, and as always, the losing team would pay the usual forfeit of undertaking press-ups. Jay was put onto the side, which wore the decidedly unflattering red pinnies; fortunately, he wasn't particularly tall. Harold was six foot four, and he had tightened around his frame like a corset. Don threw a ball into the middle, and they went at it. Don organised and cajoled both teams, reminding the team with the ball that they needed to work as a unit to cut off the passing options and close down the ball carrier. Then he'd work on the offensive team, telling people to communicate with each other and to move and find spaces where they could receive the ball.
The drill was incredibly hard work, constant movement, and switching in mentality as one team or another intercepted the ball, and their roles changed. Jay's side battled hard and eventually gelled somewhat, synching their movements to make it difficult for the opposing players to release the ball when they had possession, and by the end of the session, they had scraped to a 10-7 win.
Revelling in the sense of victory, Jay and his team-mates gently ribbed the losers as they undertook their penance press-ups. Don finished setting up for the next activity and then quieted the group with a muffled cough, "Right lads because we did so well on Saturday, we'll finish out with a six aside match. Charles you and Nathan can be captains. Charles, you can pick first."
The two veterans wrinkled their faces in thought as they looked at the likely lads in front of them, predictably Charles first pick was Tom. Not surprising as he was the only keeper training today.
Nathan then picked Ritchie, he was a defender, but everyone knew he had a nutty streak and occasionally practiced between the sticks. Charles's pick of Tom had forced his hand, he had to pick a keeper, or Charles would have picked Ritchie to leave his opponent without one. The next couple of picks went to established, reliable outfield players who were comfortable on the ball. Charles picked. up Spyros and Nathan, Luke. The third round of picks came up, Charles chose Ed a solid and flexible midfielder. Nathan repeated "Jay" for the second time making his choice.
Jay looked up, surprised. He had been watching the choices unfold passively as an observer not expecting to get selected until the very end. He was after all a youth player with just a single appearance to his name. He jumped up and strolled over to Nathan's group feeling ten feet tall. There were still another six players to be picked, and yet here he was a chosen player.
The rest of the picks happened quickly, and the match started. Jay was still grinning throughout the game. It was a pleasant feeling, being part of a group, and at ease for once. He played his role enthusiastically in the match, diving in for tackles, sprinting into space looking to receive passes, but it was to no avail when Don blew his whistle his side had lost 4-2. Even the subsequent punishment press-ups did little to lower Jay's mood, and he remained buoyant when the squad returned to the dressing room a little later.
He eventually goodbye to his team-mates and headed out into the cold wintery night to walk home. As he hunkered down into his jacket on the walk home, a now-familiar update flashed up in front of his eyes. This further brightened his mood. Today had definitely been a good day.
Congratulations, your training is paying off. Tonight's training has caused you to improve in several areas. In addition to this your continued aerobic training sessions have further improved your fitness.
Mental: 27 (+2)
Fitness: 7,000 Reasonable condition, stamina decreases at 15% above normal