Life as a professional footballer

10 Mins read

“Motivation is the foundation for all athletic effort and accomplishment. Without your desire and determination to improve your sports performances, all of the other mental factors, confidence, intensity, focus, and emotions, are meaningless. To become the best athlete you can be, you must be motivated to do what it takes to maximize your ability and achieve your goals”
Jim Taylor PhD.

After meeting Luke O’Nien, professional footballer for Sunderland Athletic Football Club, you can be rest assured that he has incredible amounts of motivation.

O’Nien has agreed to take me through a typical 72 hours of his life, I was tired just listening! “I am still learning what my body needs and when it needs it, in order for it to function at its most efficient when I need it,” he insists.

It sounds to me like Luke’s found efficiency in every aspect. From planned meal times to morning habits he’s cultivated to allow his mindset to be focused. There is research and reasoning behind everything he does.

The plan is that over the next 72 hours, Luke will show me how he gets his mind and body in prime condition for matches.

“Each day as a professional footballer has many similarities in terms of content. The structure from the time I wake up to the times of each session to when I go to bed is similar most days and most weeks,” O’Nien says.

Monday – Training

  • 7:45am – Alarm goes off.

Luke O'Nien professional footballer for Sunderland FC holding up the club scarf in the Stadium of Light

The obligatory picture with the club colours [Luke O’Nien]

“I like to set my alarm a few minutes before I actually want to I wake up and drink half a litre of water. My body hasn’t been hydrated for 8 hours whilst I’ve been asleep, so its important to hydrate myself straight away and flush the body with any waste products built up over night.”

  • 8:00am – 8.20am – Sun salutations.
  • 8:20am – 8:45am – Band exercises.

“This tells my body the day is about to start, increasing the suppleness and warmth into my body. Salutations and stretching also syncs my mind and body together and eases my body into the day. This is then followed by a series of upper body band circuits and core exercises which I learnt at Ben Heard’s Pro Performance Academy. I used to do these exercises after lunch but I found out that my body became lethargic and I lost motivation for these intense exercises at this time, as my food was digesting and fatigued after the morning training session. So I moved my morning strength exercises to early morning where I felt alive and fresh. Finish my session with a warm honey and lemon. It is like a detox drink that fills the body with vitamins and minerals.”

Luke O'Nien professional footballer for Sunderland FC celebrates winning his second penalty against Gillingham in the 75th minute.

Match days are often stressful [Luke O’Nien]

  • Shower and drive into training.
  • 9am – Veg omelette on toast with a fruit salad.

“I’m very lucky that I only live two minutes away from the Training Ground at SAFC. Once I’m there Joyce the chef makes me an omelette. The protein is key for the recovery of the morning home gym session while the fruit and bread is the fuel for the session ahead. I’ve explored fasting throughout the morning but have found this an effective way to recover my body and prepare me at the same time. What works for one person may not work for another.”

  • 9:45am – 10 30am – Specialised stretches.

“Every training day I go through the same stretches. My glutes, groins, hamstrings are normally my target areas as I look to release these muscles ready to train at my maximum with the team.”

  • 10:30am – Team meeting. As this is the day before a Tuesday night game, we spend 15 minutes on watching footage of the oppositions strengths and weaknesses.
  • 10:45am – 12.15 – Team training.

“The session is short and sharp. Not too intense as the management team want to keep us fresh for the game tomorrow. Then the session is finished with some tactical shape work. This part of the session the manager shows us what shape we will expect them to play and how he wants us to set up against them. This is done at a very low intensity as the manager wants to visually give us the scenarios that we will come across tomorrow.

Luke O'Nien professional footballer for Sunderland FC during training. The picture shows him in training uniform jumping over hurdles. The other tam embers are in the background.

Regular training sessions build muscles and stamina [Luke O’Nien]

“When training finishes, I spend 20 minutes sometimes by myself or with a coach, working on an aspect of my game I want to improve on from the week before. So, last week’s game, I had lots of chances to cross the ball into the box but decided to pass to someone instead.

“My decision was still a good one but I wanted to make sure that if I get crossing opportunities in Tuesday’s game; I am ready to execute. I will spend 20 minutes working on different types of crosses so mentally I feel prepared going into the game tomorrow and I can cross the ball well without much thought and as if it is automated.”

  • 12:30pm – Lunch.

“It’s important to eat straight after a session. Your energy levels go down and it is important to replenish this straight after a session to give yourself maximum recovery time. Normally I have one third of the plate veg or salad, one third meat or fish and one third of my plate carbohydrates.”

  • 1pm – Head-tennis.
  • 1:45pm – Repeat light upper body and core circuit.

“Head-tennis is a technical and tactical skill game against an opponent. I play this after lunch to increase the number of touches I have on the ball in a day. It’s different to my exercises in the morning. This is followed by my circuits. If there was no Tuesday game, this time would be a power/strength session for the legs, but as there is a game tomorrow, I keep my upper body session fun and light. Then finish the session with a stretch which acts as a cool down.”

  • 2:30pm – Ice bath.

Luke O'Nien professional footballer for Sunderland FC is fending off Boyd from Sheffield Wednesday.

O’Nien in action against Sheffield Wednesday [Luke O’Nien]

“I jump into the ice bath for 5-10 minutes. This is to flush the legs muscles of any toxins built up in training to aid the recovery process. From the ice bath I jump into the warm pool. The ice bath vasoconstricts the blood vessels and the warm pool will vasodilate the bloody vessels. This will help push the blood around the body bringing fresh oxygen to the muscle and taking away the waste products such as lactic acids from training.”

  • 2:45pm – Personal development.

“I then spend 20 minutes watching back highlights from previous matches. I do this to prepare my mind for the game tomorrow. When I watch my footage back I look at all the times I touched the ball in 90 minutes in the previous game. I tend to pause the video with the ball at my feet to see if I could have made a better decision to what I did.

“If I made a mistake or gave the ball away, then I look to see why and what I could have done to avoid this mistake. The positive moments in the game bring confidence. Some aspects of my game I work hard on and when they pay off during the game, it reinforces that the work I am doing in training is good. So the analysis of my game is like a checkpoint – it tells me how I am doing. It also mentally sharpens me up and prepares me for tomorrow’s game. I only look at the footage as positive. If there are aspects in my game to do better on, than I see this as positive, as getting better and improving performance is something I am always striving for.”

  • 3:15pm – Home via the shops.

“On the way home from training I stop at the shops to pick up my dinner. I like to buy on the same day I eat as often I have fish in the evenings before a game which is more fresh if I can get it on the day. This also means that I’m eating for my body.

“When I get home I tend to have a fruit snack straight away. Snacking in-between meals is important for me, as being hungry is like dehydration for me. I don’t drink when I feel dehydrated as this is too late. I drink water consistently throughout the day and this is the same with eating. I snack regularly to stop my blood sugar levels fluctuating lots.”

  • 3:30pm – 15 minute stretch.

“I created a habit that every time I come in from training, I stretch for 10 to 15 minutes. When in the football season it is very hard to improve flexibility as training and matches are very frequent and are working against this. Therefore I need to stretch often to improve.”

  • 5:00pm – I switch off for an hour.

“I do whatever I crave. Whether that is watching a series on Netflix or grabbing the keyboard or guitar and seeing what I can remember from years ago. Downtime is very important to disconnect from football. To let the mind switch off and do whatever. Having a break from something is important to maintain the passion for it. I make sure in the evenings I don’t do any gym circuits as these are all done in the morning and I can look forward to going again the next day.”

  • 6:00pm – Dinner.

“At 6:00 pm I start making me dinner. As this is the eve before the game, I tend to make a big dinner full of carbohydrates. I like to make a sweet potato cottage pie. Cooking tends to relax me. My mind is fully engaged in the process so I don’t tend to think about the upcoming match the next day which I normally am eager to do.”

Luke O'Nien's dinner. Garlic bread with half a plate of home made mixed leaf salad the other half lasagne. A berry smoothie for after.

Dinner. Garlic bread with half a plate of home made mixed leaf salad the other half lasagne. A berry smoothie for after. [Luke O’Nien]

  • 8pm – Watch the Premier League football game that is normally live on sky that evening.

“When watching football, I tend to watch it from a playing position. As the player receives the ball on the TV and makes a decision, I put myself in his shoes and see if I would have made the same decision or something different. It is a good learning tool for me watching live football matches.”

  • 9:30pm – Snack and stretch.
  • 10:00pm – 10.30pm – Sleep.

“Around this time I make my way up to bed to ensure I have at least eight hours sleep. Sleeping is just as important as my nutrition and is vital for maintaining a good mental and physical health. Sleeping helps recover from mental and physical exertion which training and matches cause. Just before sleeping I tick over in my mind positive things I want to happen in the match tomorrow. I fall asleep with these thoughts on my mind as visualisation is the first process into making something from fantasy into reality.”

Tuesday – Game Day

“I don’t set an alarm clock, with my match being in the evening, I am in no rush to get out of bed. Everything I do today is to ensure I have maximum energy for my evening game and that starts with waking up when my body feels it wants to.”

  • 9:00am – Sun salutations and a shower.
  • 10:00am – Breakfast at the cafe on the beach.

Luke O'Nien's Home-made smoothie with berries and bananas.

Home-made smoothie with berries and bananas.[Luke O’Nien]

“Puts me in a good mood starting the day. I take a drive to a café on the beach and have my breakfast and take a book with me. I have a light stroll along the beach to stretch my legs and relax myself.”

  • 12:00pm – Fruit smoothie.

“My main ingredient in the smoothie is beetroot, this dilates the blood vessels (widens them) which enables more blood flow and oxygen to my working muscles. This means I can be at my most efficient in the evenings game. My next two hours are filled with low intensity activities. I tend to watch some Netflix, carry out house hold chores, read up on things, have a nap – anything that keeps my mind busy and not thinking about the game tonight.”

  • Around 4:00pm – Game coming up.

“Sometimes before a game I have a lot of thoughts going through my mind and I want to clear this and I turn to my laptop. If I have scenarios of the game going through my mind from previous weeks or made up ones and I can’t work out what I did wrong or what was the best decision, then I write it down. When the problem or scenario is on paper, I can take a step back and see it from another angle which I couldn’t see when it was just on my mind. I spend twenty minutes or sometimes even an hour on my laptop. Depends on the day, and how I feel. I just do what feels right.”

  • 4:45pm – Dinner.

“My pre-match meal that consists of normally Sea bass, sweet potato and peas. Over a number of years, I feel like this meal prepares me the best for my game. It doesn’t feel too heavy on the body and I feel energetic throughout the game.”

  • 5:15pm – Shower.

“With my favourite tunes playing, this is like my transition from a nice chilled out day to this is the business end of the day. I get out the shower and get my tracksuit on and feel the buzz of the match day for the first time today.”

  • 5:45pm – Drive to the stadium.
  • 6:10pm – Team meeting. Manager gives the starting team.
  • 6:15pm – 7.05pm – Get changed.

“After getting changed into my match kit. I do a bit of light stretching. Look at the programme which contains player profiles of the opposition and I get familiar with them. Then spend five minutes flicking through my camera roll – looking at photos of all the good times I have had with good people which reminds me that football is just a game – don’t get caught up in the moment or thousands of people in the crowd and just go out there and play with freedom and enjoy it.”

  • 7:05pm – 7.40pm – Team warm up.

“All the preparation is done. I’ve trained to the best I can. I have got my mind in a good clear place and understand the job the manager and the team need from me this game.”

Luke O'Nien professional footballer for Sunderland FC scores a goal against Bristol Rovers and celebrates in the goal

Matches need players to have their minds in a good, clear place [Luke O’Nien]

  • 7:45pm – 9.30pm – Match.
  • 9:30pm – 9:50pm – Post match talk with the team and the manager.
  • 9:50pm – Shower after match and head home.
  • 10:00pm – Snack and lots of water.
  • 11:00pm – Sleep.

“Some days it can take me a while to really relax after a game. With the match starting in the evening on a Tuesday I often call some friends or watch something to unwind my mind from the game.”

Wednesday – Recovery 

“On Wednesday I have a lay-in and let the body sleep for as long as it likes. Today is all about recovery.”

  • Around 10:00am – Breakfast.

“I start the day with a good large breakfast full of protein for muscle recovery. On my days off I don’t really have a routine. Sometimes I go into the training ground to get into the ice bath, pool, and steam room which I feel really aids the recovery process. Sometimes I spend the day in the house, chilling out with my girlfriend. Or I spend all day cooking and improving my culinary skills. Hydration, nutrition and stretching are the three main components for me on a day off.

“Thursday is a training day, so these three components gets my body ready for tomorrow’s training session.”

Many children dream of growing up to become a professional footballer. But no one imagines the level of dedication, hard work and motivation it takes to become one. Luke O’Nien sure has set a high standard to be at the top of his game.





You can follow Luke on Instagram and Twitter for regular updates on his progression in the game. 

Featured image courtesy of Ben Herd

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