There's more to getting athletes in shape than just running them through some drills.
by Mike Mejia, CSCS
In this current age of over specialization, young athletes are routinely subjected to practice and competition schedules that quite frankly, aren't always in their best interests- and soccer is certainly no exception. Kids today are doing more and more drills, continually practicing ball handling skills and playing in multiple tournaments, all with the intention of becoming better soccer players. And while there's no arguing the fact that consistently rehearsing specific movement patterns and skills is a vital component of mastering the sport, it's far from the only thing they should be working on.
Realizing this, more coaches have begun incorporating various aspects of fitness training into their practice sessions. While I generally applaud this idea, some of what I've been seeing lately does offer cause for concern. Whether it's conditioning drills that fail to emphasize proper movement mechanics, or strengthening exercises being done with questionable technique, many coaches are unknowingly creating an environment that actually increases, rather than reduces an athlete's injury risk.
In an effort to help get things back on track, I've highlighted a few of the more common errors that I've been noticing below; along with some suggested ways to help remedy them. Take a look and see if any of these examples apply to what you're currently doing with your team.
1. Warm-ups: By now, the importance of putting athletes through a dynamic warm-up prior to any type of physical activity should be well established (In case you need more information on dynamic warm-ups, or some sample drills, you can refer to my videos here). Yet, despite being almost universally accepted, I often see players and coaches give little more than lip service to the idea of warming up this way.
Having athletes just sort of half-heartedly swing their legs about without paying attention to proper form, isn't much better than failing to warm-up in the first place. In fact, I would go so far as to say that sloppily performed dynamic flexibility drills actually increase one's chances of injury! Allowing a knee to twist in and out on a rotational lunge walk, for instance, or rounding the back and over kicking on a Frankenstein drill that's designed to loosen up the hamstrings, can be every bit as dangerous as anything you'll encounter out on the playing field.
So please, instill in your athletes the importance of taking these drills seriously and stress that they use good technique at all times. Doing so will also help improve their mental focus by getting them into more of a "game ready" mindset.
2. Running mechanics: Whether as part of a practice, or as punishment after a poor performance, I'll often see coaches going what I like to call "sprint crazy". This is where they employ repeated sprint intervals as a way of whipping their athletes into better shape. While I'm far from against the idea of young athletes running, I would like to point out the fact that practice doesn't necessarily make perfect- it makes permanent! So, if you're allowing your athletes to run with their arms swinging across the front of their bodies, or using short, choppy strides because they're not pushing against the ground and using their powerful hip extensor muscles, you're just engraining bad habits that will be hard to break.
The bottom line is, if you want faster, fitter athletes, take the time to go over proper sprinting mechanics instead of just running them to death. You can find some great drills to help with this in my article on youth speed development here.
3. Change of direction techniques: Coaches often remind young athletes of the importance of being "first to the ball". Well, a lot of that comes from the ability to rapidly and efficiently change direction. Whether it involves trying to juke a defender, or react to a quick change of possession, the ability to decelerate one's momentum and then accelerate in a different direction is crucial in a sport like soccer. It's also one of the best ways to guard against the inordinate rise in the amount of non-contact knee injuries (especially those involving the ACL) that are currently being seen amongst young athletes.
When running agility drills, shuttle runs and the like in practices, pay less attention to how fast your athletes are able to do these types of exercises and place more emphasis on coaching good movement mechanics. Teaching them things like positioning their feet properly when changing direction ( i.e. not having them too close together), or lowering into their hips to help get a better weight shift etc. will help them avoid unnecessary stress to joints like the knees and ankles as they attempt to change directions. I'll have more examples of this, complete with a video tutorial, in an upcoming article.
4. Conditioning work: Besides always encouraging good running mechanics, try to choose conditioning drills that more accurately mimic the energy demands of the sport. Soccer can be tough to train for as it requires all three of the major energy systems to be used. It obviously requires some aerobic endurance, but there's also lots of moderately paced running and multi-directional sprinting involved, along with things like side shuffles, back pedals etc.
Rather than simply have your athletes go for long, slow jogs around the field, or just run a bunch of suicides, help them get in better game day condition by incorporating some of the following drills:
Indian Runs: Line your athletes up single file about three to five yards apart and have them maintain this spacing as they do a light intensity run (or quick paced jog) around the field. As soon as they're all moving, blow your whistle and have the person in the last position burst into a sprint and run along side all of the others (who are still running at the original pace) until they take over the lead. Once they do, have them slow down a bit and then blow the whistle for the next person to go. Continue until everyone has had at least one chance to sprint.
Hollow Sprints: Line your athletes up at one end of the field. Begin by blowing your whistle once to start them spiriting for an unspecified distance. Next, quickly blow it twice to signal them to break down to a jog. Continue having them shift gears this way so that they do at least 2-3 sprints across the length of the field.
The 5/5, 10/10 drill: This is a great multi-directional conditioning drill. Begin by setting up two sets of cones: one 5 yards from the starting line and the other 10 yards away. Each time your athletes run, they will always run to the first set and back and then immediately to the second set and back.
Prior to each repetition, you will choose between 4 different drills (sprints, back pedals, side shuffles and cariocas) and then give them a sequence to do. As soon as they return, you will shout out a new sequence, giving them just enough time to process it and then run the drill again. This goes on for 4-5 repetitions before they can rest for 60-90 seconds. Shoot for 2-3 rounds. Here's an example:
1. Sprint, back pedal, side shuffle, sprint
2. Carioca, side shuffle, back pedal, back pedal
3. Sprint, back pedal, carioca, side shuffle
4. Side shuffle, side shuffle, sprint, sprint
5. Strengthening drills: One of the biggest challenges for a coach is trying to incorporate effective strengthening drills that require little to no equipment. I say this because some of the most popular field-based exercises in existence are the ones that contribute most to the overuse of specific muscle groups. Here I'm talking about things like push-ups, crunches and forward lunges.
Instead, try selecting drills that promote more in the way of structural balance and work the core as a dynamic stabilizer, rather than attempting to isolate the "abs" or other muscles that often get overworked. Exercises like reverse lunges, plank variations, sky divers and hip bridges usually work well in this instance.
In the end, it's important to realize that the older athletes get, the bigger role their fitness plays in terms of helping to both improve performance and avoid injury. So start laying the groundwork now by treating physical conditioning an integral part of your practice sessions and not just some add-on that they're forced to endure at the beginning and end of each session. Doing so will help your athletes learn to appreciate the importance of keeping fit from an early age, and likely end up paying huge dividends down the road.