Soccer is far and above the sport with the highest participation rate in the world, deeply rooted in culture in Europe, Africa, and South America. Most recently, it has also found an astonishing rate of growth in the non-traditional market of North America, where Major League Soccer is looking to continue expansion, and has established a dedicated following throughout the continent.
This increased interest has created a trickle-down effect to the sport at the grassroots level, where participation continues to grow, and has led to the creation of the Development Academy by the U.S. Soccer Federation, and a comprehensive Long-Term Athlete Development pathway and accompanying high-performance EXCEL programs by the Canadian Soccer Association. Mirroring successes in player development that academy programs of European soccer clubs have had, both Canada and the United States have moved to a 10-month long league format for their high-performance development programs, where teams practice an average of 3-4 times a week, playing 1-2 games on the weekend. This is not much different than what many collegiate and professional clubs complete in a given week.
While these academy programs place a large emphasis on technical skill development (and in my opinion, that should be the number one priority), sometimes physical preparation can be cast aside at both the developmental and high-performance level. This can be due to lack of time, or completed to a limited level due to the over-emphasis of “sport-specific” training. Despite these common hurdles, I have been fortunate enough to work in environments at both ends of the performance spectrum where the advantage that enhancing physical abilities can have on skill development were fully realized, and through some simple approaches, we were able to find improvements in skill, physical abilities, and injury prevention.
Limitations to the Common Approach to Training
When discussing approaches to training, we must first establish a working definition of the demands of the sport. In its basic essence, soccer is a continuous sport comprised of mostly low-intensity activities (jogging, walking), with interspersed bouts of high-intensity activities (sprinting, jumping, rapid deceleration, sudden changes of direction).
The most common approach to physical preparation that I have witnessed in soccer has involved continuous medium intensity work, comprised mostly of long-distance sprints, agility work, and other “sport-specific” movements and drills. This is due to a variety of factors, such as sport culture, the coach’s training background (doing what they did as athletes), the tangible feeling of “intensity” associated with medium intensity work, and a simplistic analysis of what the sport is comprised of – I recall a seminar in which Charlie Francis urged coaches to analyze the demands of basketball by watching the individual player, instead of following the ball.
While there is a place in every training program for longer high-speed runs, agility work, and sport-specific drills, there are some limitations to this approach. For one, as eloquently described by Charlie Francis, medium-intensity work capacity training is usually too low of an intensity to elicit high speed, power, and strength adaptations, while being too high to recover from quickly – especially for more advanced athletes. This may limit the potential of improvement across a spectrum of physical performance abilities, and also dampen the output at following practices. Secondly, if not carefully planned, the implementation of “sport-specific” movements can create a redundancy in training, again limiting the scope of athletic development, and potentially leading to an increased risk of over-use injuries. Which begs the question, if one is looking for training to mimic the sport… Why not just play the sport itself?
Aside from the above-mentioned over-use and redundancy, training by only playing the game can limit the stimulus for adaptation – For example, one is able to run faster (thus, higher intensity stimulus) without the ball, in a straight line. In a game or practice, even without the ball, that speed stimulus is limited by things like taking the appropriate defensive line to the opponent, maintaining a tactical shape, and having keep yourself in an adequate body position to react to the opponent’s actions.
If you are like me, and you use twitter to follow various people in the sports performance industry, you likely saw the sarcastic answer to that question make its rounds following the World Cup final in which Germany beat Argentina to capture their fourth World Cup title. The meat of the tweet was: “Yep that’s right, fitness training and S&C has no place in football. Just play and you’ll get better.” This statement resonated with me, and not just because of the sarcasm involved. From the continued improvement at the international stage by both the German national team and German Bundesliga clubs, it is clear that German soccer not only had a very successful approach covering talent development and identification, but also benefited from the work done by EXOS in their preparation for the last 3 world cups. Through conversations with other coaches who are more acquainted with the approach taken by EXOS, their work with the national team was very meticulously planned and implemented, perfectly complementing the technical and tactical requirements of practices, as well as the rigors of the sport, and the demands of the ultimate stage.
Suggested Approach to Training
Despite the limitations to some of the current systems employed for physical preparation, I have found some success in training soccer players through a focused approach including the implementation of quality sprint work, high-intensity movements (jumps, medicine ball throws), as well as general strength work, and low-intensity conditioning.
1. Movement Quality
I like to emphasize that the developmental level is a perfect time to instill quality movement patterns for basic movements. It is no accident that the term “physical literacy” has recently become a buzzword in youth athlete development, and rightfully so. It’s much like how teaching multiplication and division to a student in elementary school lends itself to understanding concepts like the quadratic formula down the road in high-school. Movement quality also lends itself to injury prevention, and when speaking about a young athlete, one can’t overlook the benefits of transfer of these movement skills to every-day life – How many times have we heard to lift with our legs, and not with our back?
Movement quality is a constant even with more advanced athletes. Although in this team sport setting we’re not dealing with sprinters or weightlifters, a high degree of technical proficiency allows the athletes to best express their strength and speed, paving the way for both a higher stimulus for adaptation, and safer, more efficient, movement execution.
2. General Strength and Low-Intensity Conditioning
Rudimentary general strength work serves as a perfect building block for youth athletes to start training. When I was a student in elementary and then secondary school, P.E. class included a significant amount of time spent on low-intensity conditioning, bodyweight exercises (push-ups, crunches, rope-climbing), and basic gymnastics. More recently, I’ve heard that schools have moved away from this general fitness curriculum, and I don’t think it is doing young athletes much of a favour.
Bodyweight exercises provide means for injury prevention, creating soft-tissue adaptations that increase the robustness of various structures, including tendons and ligaments. At the developmental stages, they also serve as a great introductory step to formal weightlifting, as you will find bodyweight movements share similar patterns to many basic barbell exercises. Bodyweight exercises also involve a variety of movements and adaptations – For example, a simple, properly executed push-up ensures a proper scapulohumeral rhythm, enhances upper body strength, and reinforces postural strength across the spinal erectors and abdomen.
Low-intensity conditioning also serves a variety of functions, ensuring an improvement of stamina (high-level soccer players can cover as much as 12km a game), tissue resilience adaptations, and metabolic adaptations that serve to enhance the aerobic mechanisms for recovery from high-intensity exercise. Despite the high aerobic capacities of professional soccer players, and the relationship between soccer level and aerobic capacity, this type of work must be carefully planned in conjunction with the coach – As former MLS Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Young stated in his slide deck on training for soccer, “the combination of games and standard duration technical/tactical practices may provide sufficient aerobic stimulus.”
The use of both modalities does not stop at the developmental level, and I continue to use these exercises with all of my high-level athletes, not just for their adaptability that allows them to be used through different phases (for example, during general preparation and as recovery in-season), but also their ease of implementation during travel, or when facilities are scarce.
3. High-Intensity Movements and Speed Development
Despite the necessity for strength and jumping ability for things like 50/50 balls, quality high-intensity movements (jumping, high-velocity medicine ball throws, Olympic lifts) and true straight-line maximal sprinting are, in my experience, perhaps the most often overlooked element of training for soccer players. The implementation of both into a soccer training program is essential not only to the development of soccer players, but also for positive outcomes on game day. The latter has been validated by research – Faude et al. (2012) found that the vast majority of goals scored in the second half of the 2007/2008 German Bundesliga season were a result of high-intensity movements (jumps, straight-line sprints), and most interestingly, they found that most of those goals were preceded by a straight-line sprint without the ball.
Most soccer coaches are subconsciously aware of the need for speed development. One collegiate women’s soccer coach mentioned to me that the one attribute she cared about improving the most was the ability for her players to create space. Well, what better way to create space if not by having the speed required to ditch a man-marking defender, or run from an onside position onto a through-ball behind the back line. Conversely, having speed also affords you more time to neutralize these sort of opportunities from the defensive side of the ball. On the pitch, it also seems obvious that speed would aid in dictating the pace of the game – drawing back to childhood games of keep-away, it always seemed harder for one kid to keep continuously chasing the fast kid, who kept sprinting away short distances, seeming to never get tired. As mentioned by Coach Derek Hansen in his article about the importance of speed reserve, improving maximal sprint abilities allows an athlete to not only operate at higher speeds during a game (due to game speeds being sub-maximal), but also improves repeat sprint ability, and neuromuscular synchrony required for injury prevention. One of my favourite examples of the advantage of speed in soccer happened during this past year’s Copa Del Rey final, where Gareth Bale pushed the ball past Marc Bartra, using his speed to get around him to score.
I would apply the concept of speed reserve to strength as well, and have often used this example in my pre-season meetings with athletes: If you are going into a 50/50 ball against someone slightly weaker than you, you would have to battle in order to win the ball. However, if you were considerably stronger than your mark, not only would you be likely to win the ball most of the time, but you would be required to expend less energy in order to do so, and as such, fatigue less over the course of the game. It was not a surprise that one of my athletes who was most diligent with their strength work became a dominant force at midfield, constantly dominating 50/50 balls, winning first and second touches, all while going on to earn all-conference honours, and being invited to train with a professional club.
I once had a coach tell me that he asked his strength coach to not focus on “injury prevention,” and just on performance enhancement. His philosophy was that if one player got hurt (even if it was caused by the training), he would have another player ready to take his spot. I doubt the efficacy of fear of losing your starting spot when it comes to preventing injury, and aside from this one coach, I have never met another coach who denied the necessity to recover and regenerate. While we want to make sure players are working hard, it is our job as coaches to make sure we’re working smart – Continuously going full-out without adequate periods of reduced work load puts athletes at risk of injury, limits their output (thus limiting further high-intensity adaptation), and also blunts neural learning mechanisms necessary for both tactical and technical drills.
Managing recovery at most amateur levels often becomes tricky. Field times are expensive, and we want to make sure that we get to use that time as much as possible. Also, if you live in climates with a lot of inclement weather, devoting on-field time to stretching can be uncomfortable for both the players and coaches.
Proper recovery can start being addressed at the practice warm-up. I’ve also found that most teams do not spend much time building up to the appropriate intensities during the warm-up – Going from low-intensity dynamic warm-ups, straight into small-sided games or crossing and finishing drills. While all of those should probably be included in your game warm-ups, adequate progression should be ensured in order to have players be ready as soon as the whistle blows. Start with low-intensity running, incorporate low-intensity dynamic warm-up drills, and progress to sub-maximal accelerations to distances of 10 and 20 metres. Practices allow for more variability in the warm-up, so one can address issues by incorporating walking stretches of short durations, and even some mobility drills. I have found that hurdle drills are a great choice not only for young athletes, as they incorporate a certain level of coordination, but also for older athletes, as they break apart the monotony of the usual menu of dynamic warm-up drills.
Due to the nature of the skills involved with the ball, soccer players are often pre-disposed to groin, hip flexor, and hamstring injuries. In my personal experience, I’ve found that with adequate implementation of the modalities I’ve previously mentioned, we reduced the incidences of both hip flexor and hamstring injuries. However, training and proper warm-up alone will not be enough to address issues of muscle tone and tightness. Find a way to make sure that your athletes spend time adequately addressing these problem areas with stretching and rolling. If weather and time are issues, you may have to be creative – Find time at a nearby covered area, and add in additional time regularly. As an alternative, you can assign players short stretching routines as “homework.” Even though as coaches we may think most young athletes are not willing to spend time stretching at home, we can’t assume the worst and not equip our athletes with educational tools that they can take away – Some athletes will take care of themselves and some will not, but as a whole, both developing and high-level athletes are much less likely to do so if they haven’t been provided with the knowledge or resources.