Previously published on winstarssoccer.com
The Physical Preparation of our Academy Players
In Part 1, I outlined the importance of physical preparation in developing soccer players. In part 2, I go into detail about the five elements of our physical preparation program, how they fit into our program, and some interesting case studies.
The first step in developing a program that would integrate with practice was simple - understand the environment. Every team has rules, expectations, processes - aka culture - that shape the training environment.
I always listened closely to coaches and players, along with getting to know everyone’s names.
A successful program starts with good relationships between myself, the players, and coaches. While gaining their trust, I would continue experimenting with ways to squeeze in elements of strength, power, speed, and conditioning into the 15-20 minute blocks I am afforded.
Although some things change from a programming standpoint, the goal remains consistent – a well-rounded physical preparation program for developmental soccer players!
In this section, I present the conditioning demands of soccer, how we monitor conditioning levels, and how intensity is viewed within the program.
It doesn’t take someone with a degree in sports science to tell you that conditioning is critically important for soccer. The game itself is a test of conditioning – two 45-minute continuous halves, in which each team is trying to outperform the other.
Preparing for the demands of the game requires more than being able to run for 90 minutes.
Soccer is more than a continuous running sport; it also requires the ability to perform repeat sprints (RSA), separated by intermittent recovery. The length of recovery between high intensity runs changes with match situations, ranging from 20-60 seconds (1,2,6).
Our go-to conditioning test is the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test, developed by soccer physiologist Dr. Jens Bangsbo. Not only is it widely used amongst other academies, it’s also been well researched in soccer players, both professional and youth. A score of >2,320 (stage 58) has been proven beneficial in promoting RSA in elite junior soccer players (age 19) (3).
In our academy, I’d like all players to reach a benchmark of 50. Currently, half of our team has met this benchmark, with a few surpassing 60.
Since June, we’ve seen an average increase of 13.1 stages in the Yo-Yo test in the players who are still with us (many 15+ stages!). As a team, we’ve increased the average score from 35.2 to 47.2 (June-February).
Although we’ve had players come and go during that time, the fact is, we are fitter today than we have been in the past.
The Conditioning Continuum(s)
Our soccer practices are two hours (120 minutes) and provide the bulk of conditioning required for soccer players. Most importantly, practice must have both low and high intensity components to prepare for the demands of a match.
The best way to digest the different components of conditioning for a soccer player is to view them on a continuum of intensity.
Using Heart Rate (HR) monitors throughout the indoor season, I’ve been able to confirm that our practices include an appropriate distribution of work in each of the intensity “zones” listed above.
But that doesn’t paint the complete picture.
For most of practice, it is rare that a player reaches close to their top speed, or makes a run over 50 meters with pace.
These gaps at high intensity are where conditioning without a ball fit into the program.
Running without the ball may be a prerequisite for achieving certain high intensity qualities; specifically max speed. Distance covered at high intensities fall within both speed endurance and repeat sprints (with and without ball).
I find it best to view these qualities on a continuum of speed.
Within these 2 continuums, there is surely cross over. As you can see, the speed continuum (Figure 2) exists on the intensity continuum (Figure 1).
Application to Practice
As I stated earlier, practice covers the bulk of conditioning. We are looking to ensure we are training at high intensities, across all qualities of the continuum – with and without the ball. To complement practice, players are advised to run at a low intensity on most non-practice days.
Below, I explain why speed development is a key component of the program, how we train it, and present a case study.
As made clear in the above section, running is important to soccer performance. Both speed and endurance will lead to better running performance. Speed sessions have been a mainstay of the program since the beginning and there are important 3 reasons for this:
Speed training is usually done in our Saturday practices, the reason being, they are theoretically well rested since Tuesday’s practice – which is a MUST for speed training.
Currently, we are getting 4-5 high quality sprints per week. I’ve started to use warm ups for speed prep, and finish off the warm up with 2-3 sprints with long periods of rest (2-5 minutes, depending on the distances) – we are experimenting with this 2x/week.
With one speed day and resisted acceleration day per week between November and February, we’ve seen improvements in 30m sprint times as high as 0.15-0.29s in some of our players’ sprint times. This is quite impressive in a short block of training that included a holiday break.
In this portion, we dive into the influence strength has on reducing injuries, power, program structure and general guidelines for soccer players.
Soccer is a physical game, and you must be prepared for it when making the jump to the college game. Beyond the physicality of soccer, a balanced strength program can help to reduce common injuries. The stronger your muscles, tendons and ligaments, the more resilient they are to injury.
“Strength is the mother of all qualities” – Dietmar Schmidtbleicher, German Sports Scientist
It is a fundamental quality of power (Power = Force x Velocity), which underpins many athletic qualities. How powerful you kick a ball is dependent on both the force you strike the ball with strength and speed.
Whether it is power, speed, or endurance – having a good base of strength is a perquisite. It is critical that we maintain some type strength training in our weekly plans for its injury reduction benefits.
Logistics trump all when it comes to programming.
Being resourceful in programming is important when time and equipment is limited. Strength training is not limited to only lifting weights. For me, it also includes our “ankle strengthening” routine - a series of low amplitude jumps - and our sprints which are a part of our “hamstring strengthening” routine.
For most of the year, we have trained for 20-30 minutes, one time per week. Our strength program consists of 4-6 exercises in a circuit format that alternate between upper and lower body to allow recovery time between similar exercise groups.
Currently, we are experimenting with non-competing supersets (four exercises total). Using an “every minute on the minute” (EMOM) style program, we are able to rest 2 minutes between upper and lower body exercises – ensuring we are recovering adequately for power and strength work.
My recommendation for any soccer player would be to lift weights 2-3x/week to supplement what we are doing in practice. It is critical that a well thought out lifting program be done to avoid competing soccer demands, injury, and putting on too much muscle leading to loosing speed.
The following segment outlines the three parts of our power program, insight into a week of jump training, and a case study about an testing tool that has been useful for monitoring lower body injury.
Power training is about moving fast – which is critical to soccer. Our power training program is simple:
By performing these explosive movements at different loads and speed, we are training to be more powerful. Similar to strength training, performing a balanced power program will help strengthen your muscles, tendons and ligaments, making you more resilient to injury.
Take our jump training for example. Most of the year, we’ve completed extensive-low amplitude skips/hops/jumps one day a week, while complementing intensive-high amplitude jumps (ie. Repeated jumps, tuck jumps, loaded jumps) throughout the week.
The ability to produce force rapidly is important for sport, which is why we are looking to quantify it through testing. Of particular importance in young soccer players is the asymmetry between legs – common to many athletes. When this asymmetry gets outside of a tolerable limit, it can lead to overuse injuries.
The Single Leg Hop test (SLH) is an important marker for us. Not only a test of single leg power, but an opportunity to monitor athletes returning from injury, or those who may have a potential risk to developing one.
From November and February’s results, a combined 7 of 8 athletes who had an asymmetry > 5% between legs had either been returning from injury, had an injury at the time of testing, or later developed some sort of pain/injury in the lower body.
In 4 of the 7 cases, athletes picked up lower body injuries following testing.
This SLH is a go-to in our testing battery, serving as an important monitoring tool for our athletes
The below section on agility will define the components agility, why it’s complex, and how we are approaching it with training.
Training “agility” is very elusive, partly due to the many components that are involved, and the lack of transfer to sports performance (See Figure 3).
Within each component exists further subcomponents. For example, within change of direction, we must consider an athlete’s ability to accelerate, decelerate, co-ordinate their limbs, change their center of gravity, etc.
Making matters more complicated, each athlete has a unique agility skillset - often specific to their position. For example, midfielders who are often in the “right place” to receive the ball have strong decision making and visual processing skills which make their style of play seem effortless (ie. Iniesta). On the other hand, defenders require strength to win challenges and the ability to anticipate, and change direction based on an attacker’s play (ie. Sergio Ramos).
Sport is chaotic, and ultimately, your ability to succeed depends on your ability to read and react to the game.
The good news is that soccer practice allows players to work on these skills, in a sport specific context. Without sporting context (ie. use of the ball, positional tactics, game objectives) there is hardly any transfer of the critical skills required to read and react to the game.
So, what are we currently doing for agility?
Simply put, we focus mainly on change of direction.
As is the theme with this article, we must physically prepare for the demands of the game. Most injuries occur during changes of direction (deceleration, landing, cutting) – so we must allow our players to build proficiency and strength in these positions.
Throughout the year, we have used the end of warm ups as a time to introduce and work on different movement skills (ie. cutting, shuffling, landing, accelerating, decelerating etc.). Adding another layer on top, we may add visual/decision making stimuli by performing partner reactive drills, or position specific tasks (ie. defenders react to attackers change of directions).
Putting it Together
This article is the result of over 100 sessions with the Winstars this past year. It represents our current approach to physical preparation, and will surely evolve as time passes. I hope it provides context to our program, and the current thought process behind it.