Soccer demands 360° of mental and physical focus for optimal performance and is often fraught with opportunities for injury. Practice time is mainly devoted to technical development, tactical execution and positional rehearsal with extra end of practice “conditioning” mixed in, often to the detriment of speed, explosiveness, and running technique due to fatigue and lack of focus.
How can players keep getting better, stay strong and continue to maximize their in-game performance as the season progresses?
Since Soccer is all about running it is easy to get caught up working on more running and more soccer but when it comes to injury prevention and performance, the ultimate goal is for the players is to stay healthy and peak during big tournaments and playoffs.
Too often teams and players focus so much on playing soccer that they often do not properly train to prepare their bodies properly for the demands of soccer.
The importance of off-field development and foundational strength and conditioning can often be neglected.
Soccer’s Biggest Myth: Endurance is everything. Sure, soccer players might run more than 10K in a match but it is the ability to go, stop, change direction and recover during explosive high intensity actions that can ultimately decide a match. The ability to produce force explosively and absorb force for injury prevention are key elements of soccer success.
Soccer is a high-speed sport where the athletes are always starting and stopping, changing gears and going from zero to full effort in an instant. Any time athletes push the boundaries of human performance, injury awaits those who exceed the threshold achieved through training. The nature of the game places intense stress on the muscles and joints, from the feet, ankles and knees as the cleats dig into the turf to the core and upper body absorbing forces from, shooting, clearing the ball, hard stops and starts and incidental collisions during play. This is a lot of stress for the body to handle. Keepers have an even more unique profile of physical demands to stay strong during the season.
Overload. Adapt. Perform. Repeat: The game of soccer, while intense and physical, does not create adequate opportunity for ongoing strength and conditioning development. In fact, the opposite usually results as players wear down through the season. A well designed in-season training schedule can stop the potential decline of off-season preparation and continue to allow the athlete to improve as the season progresses. Effective soccer conditioning involves not just training hard, but training smart and ensuring that the athlete’s time and energy is spent maximizing the benefit and focus for each individual player and meets the needs of their position. Off-field strength and conditioning development must translate into on-field production to allow their tactical skills to shine through.
Soccer Athleticism, Movement Skills & Mechanics: Soccer is a multi directional Sport that involves quick change of direction, fast cuts, and movement transitioning. Goal keepers need to be able to move explosively in all directions (forward/back, laterally and vertically). Improved movement skills allow the player to get to balls faster, make creative offensive moves and take away space from an opponent quickly.
Teaching footwork, quickness and agility is much more than just simply going fast, running through a speed ladder or repeating cone drills. Soccer involves movement in all directions, requiring athletes to view the field, process the information and react to the situation, opponents and team mates to achieve the desired outcome. On the field players must successfully react to the constantly changing environment (the playing surface, weather), the opposition, the speed and direction of the ball, the location of their teammates etc. If they do not train for unpredictable situations, they will not be prepared for them.
Movement efficiency, reactivity, nervous system firing and skill execution under fatigue are often what separate the top players from the rest. Injuries often occur during high speed braking and battling for the ball. A full sprint into an immediate stop imposes a huge amount of force on the knees, ankles and feet which can lead to significant injury potential. If the muscles can’t handle the load, the ligaments and joints will be the next line of defense. Increasing strength and force absorption control along with improved mechanics, can help prepare players for these extreme demands and turn an injury risk into a strength; as the player becomes more evasive, more confident and more durable.
Soccer Strength: The demands of soccer dictate that movement skills should be trained in parallel with Strength. Multi directional stopping and starting requires a foundation of strength and the resilience and stability a player needs to avoid injury plays a significant role in development. Soccer players must be able to produce strength in multiple planes and various ranges of motion for sport success.
Soccer requires strength and power through the lower body, core and hips in order to shoot, kick and pass effectively, to decelerate quickly and safely and accelerate explosively into open space. Core development is essential to allow the player to stabilize the spine and provide a platform for the upper and lower limbs to move. Once a stable base foundation has been built, athletes can then be trained to create powerful rotation. Soccer players should develop the ability to produce rotary force from a variety of angles. Developing this linked chain of strength from the ground up also allows them to absorb force which is crucial to maximizing performance and minimizing injury.
Soccer Energy Systems: A player’s position on the field dictates specific energetic demands that each player will require to be successful. Players need to be prepared within a wide range of energy systems, from short explosive bursts, longer sprints and runs across the field to sustained effort and recovery throughout a match. Conditioning is not only about sustaining effort throughout a game, a tournament and the season, it is also about recovering from multiple high intensity individual efforts and this is a significant factor in programming to fuel skill execution under fatigue and recover from explosive efforts in a fast paced, complex game.
Recovery is When the Magic Happens: Sometimes for athletes putting in the work is easy, it is the buildup of volume and a lack of recovery from the work that sets them back. A well designed program priorities quality over quantity. Any coach or trainer can make an athlete tired. Understanding how to program the correct amount of effort and planning purposeful, productive drills is the true art and science balance that allows them to train, adapt and recover fully between drills, training sessions, practices and competition.
Promoting overall recovery involves a mix of physical rest (during and between workouts, practices, games etc), nutrition, and sleep. Physical rest begins with ensuring that the training load and volume are ideal for the athlete each week and that they are able to recover well from hard efforts to be ready for the next one. Sometimes, load management is just as important as training intensity.
Proper nutrition and hydration fuels energy expenditure, replenishes the cells, minimizes illness and injury, and helps keep the body healthy and running efficiently throughout the season. You cannot out train a bad diet but a good one can truly help athletes perform at their physical peak.
Recovery is not fully complete without the proper amount of sleep. This is the magic elixir that helps maximize the benefit of all of the physical preparation tools to give the body time for the brain to relax and process new information and for the body to adapt and regenerate to help make the athlete a little better each day. Without enough sleep, hormone levels are effected, energy is low, athletes are more prone to injury and illness and all of the hard work, nutrition planning and skill development will not have a chance to create their desired effect.
Training hard without proper nutrition or proper sleep is like “stepping over dollars to pick up dimes”, wasted effort for less benefit.
Peaking for Progression vs. Maintenance: In the last 10 years sport science has made huge strides in understanding soccer athletes. Off-season training has evolved and progressed to maximize the strength, speed and skill of athletes as the season starts but there is still another level we must continue to develop. The key is to create a seasonal progression strategy that shifts throughout the year to focus on different aspects of skill strength and conditioning development, but maximizes performance when performance matter most.
Players want to be at their best at the end of games, at the end of tournaments and when the competitive season hits, not just in the spring. No matter how hard, how smart or how effectively the athlete works in the off-season, players who do not participate in a proper in-season conditioning program, have a high level of aerobic fitness but can often lose strength and even be de-trained by playoff time and, at the highest risk for injury when they need to be the most prepared. A properly designed seasonal program will carry the momentum of each training cycle into the next and allow each athlete to keep climbing higher, moving faster and performing better.
Many in season soccer program focus too much on maintenance and not enough on progression, on running more instead of maintaining strength and resilience, often selling short the potential of players and often becoming a roll of the dice to hope that players can avoid injury and perform at their best when the playoffs arrive.
The goal of all aspects of player development should be to keep getting stronger, improving skills, strength and conditioning, to train hard, play hard, eat well, sleep well, recover and, most importantly, to keep getting better.