For Parents

Stop Making Excuses. Manage Your Time. And Show Up To Practice. Every Day.

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Almost every soccer player I work with has the same goal: to obtain a university scholarship.  Unfortunately, I do not believe that most of these players realize what playing soccer for a university team really involves.  Without getting into too much detail, I do feel that I am qualified to speak on this subject because:

  • I played 5 years of varsity soccer in university
  • I have coached and been a part of the staff of several different university varsity soccer teams for the past 6 years
  • I have trained hundreds of soccer players who have gone on to play university varsity soccer

…so I figured I would use this blog post to clarify things for any young soccer player aspiring to play university varsity soccer.

First off, there is the commitment to training.  Most university soccer programs in the United Sates (the country where everyone wants to go to play university soccer) have very demanding training schedules.  Typically things start off in mid-August with pre-season, comprising 3-4 weeks of 2-3 practices per day, including strength and conditioning, technical and tactical training.  Once the competitive season starts in early-to-mid September, the training schedule may become a little more manageable, with a minimum of 1 and maximum of 2 training sessions per day.  All of this also takes place in the midst of the competitive season, which typically comprises 2 games per week, until at least the end of October, if not longer for the teams who make the play-offs and/or get invited to the NCAA tournament.  Of course, once the competitive season is finished, a brief off-season period in November/December typically precedes a long winter training schedule, that includes daily strength and conditioning, as well as several training sessions and exhibition games each week.  For the typical first year university soccer player, this type of schedule represents an increase of 2-3 times as many training hours per week as they would have been accustomed to during their last year of high school, when even the most competitive players and teams train only 4-5 times per week.

Second, and more important than the training, is the reason any university athlete is there in the first place: school.  Even the most rudimentary university academic programs require a minimum commitment of 18-20 hours per week of class, and some higher-level programs are closer to 30 class-hours per week.  Add to that at least another 4-6 hours per week of labs and tutorials, and finally students must also contend with several hours per day of homework.  Although I cannot say for certain exactly how much homework university students have these days, from speaking to the several dozen varsity athletes presently training with us, it is safe to say that the total amount of homework in university is easily 50-100% more than it is in high school for most students.

Basically, the point I am trying to make is this: if any teenage soccer player is seriously considering obtaining a university soccer scholarship, it is unacceptable for them to ever use homework and/or lack of time as an excuse for missing training in high school.  Time management may be the most important skill any aspiring university soccer player can develop before they graduate high school.  If you can’t cope with the demands of high school homework, assignments, and exams, while still attending all of your club rep or academy team’s training sessions and games, you will NEVER be able to cope with the aforementioned 2-3x increase in training and 1-2x increase in school workload that awaits you in university.  Stop making excuses.  Manage your time.  And show up to practice.  Every day.

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Fitness

Dumbbell Touch-Downs

As promised, here is one great example of a single-leg strength training exercise that works very well for soccer players. It targets the knee and hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, quads) and also the external rotators of the hip, which play a role in stabilizing the hip and knee while running, cutting, jumping and kicking.

To perform this exercise, stand in front of a step 12-24 inches high, holding a dumbbell in one hand, with the other hand held behind the back, then shift the weight of the body onto one foot (use the opposite leg of the hand holding the dumbbell (for example, if the dumbbell is held in the left hand, stand on the right leg). Slowly lower the dumbbell towards the step in front by bending the hip and knee of the standing leg, and leaning the trunk slightly forwards. Keeping the head up and chest out, continue to lower the dumbbell until it touches the step (“touch-down”). The knee of the standing leg may rotate slightly inwards; limit this movement by contracting the external rotators on the outside of the hip. Push through the heel of the standing foot, straightening the hip and knee, and returning to the starting position, before repeating the movement again. Use a weight that is comfortable for 10 repetitions, and perform 2 sets of 10 repetitions with each leg.

I hope you enjoyed learning abut this exercise, and that you find it helpful as part of your single-leg strength routine. I’d love to hear your thoughts – drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Fitness, For Parents

What Can a Zombie Apocalypse Teach Us about Exercise?

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Like many grown men, I am addicted to all things zombie.  There’s something liberated about the premise of societal collapse that allows the story to wander (accidentally?) through all sorts of “real” life lessons.  One recurring theme, which was reiterated by Abraham on this Sunday’s Walking Dead episode, is the power of the group versus the individual.

In this episode, Abraham reminds Glenn that the secret to survival amid a plague of zombies is sticking together.  Glenn, unfazed by probability and reason, leaves his erstwhile group to find his separated lover.  One by one, each member of the group realizes that their collective odds improve if they remain united;  with Glenn following his own initiative, they all follow Glenn.

A zombie apocalypse is like life, with the zombies played by work, kids, aging, chronic disease, and other life-changing events.  And just like in a zombie apocalypse, the key to survival in life is forming and maintaining the right groups.  Groups make life social and interesting, provide a source of support and learning, force us to be accountable, and give us an intrinsic sense of purpose.  As a result, we’re more likely to stay committed to overcoming life’s challenges if we do it in a group.

This thought was reinforced last night during my weekly “beer league” soccer game.  I used to play soccer at a fairly competitive level through university.  When I entered the working world, I managed to keep up a reasonable exercise routine.  Over the years, as work and a new family life have conspired to dominate my schedule, I have slowly found myself prioritizing Netflix over net-minding in my increasingly spare spare time.  However, the one thing that kept me committed to regular exercise was team sports.

The benefits of group exercise are well-documented.  The trick is finding the right group of people and the right activity that inspire you to stay committed.  It could be an old passion, like soccer for me;  or it could be something new, like a spinning class or dance lessons.  Whatever your interest, find a few friends, sign-up and register, and always, always, avoid getting bitten by zombies.

Fitness, For Parents

Make Sure Your Kids Play These 2 Sports … In Addition to Soccer

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A couple of months ago I got the great news that I am going to be an uncle! Of course, because I work with athletes, I immediately began planning the athletic future of my young unborn niece or nephew (that’s normal right)?

It occurred to me that, although the child will definitely be playing soccer (that will not be up for debate), he/she should probably be playing other sports in addition to soccer, in order to become more well-rounded athletically.  This idea is certainly not unique (many countries’ national soccer/football federations, including the Canadian Soccer Association, advocate for young players to participate in a variety of sports and athletic activities, and to delay specializing in soccer until at least the age of 14, if not later).  But what sport(s) should you choose?  Are some better than others?  And which ones, if any, will help the most with soccer?  Below are the 2 sports I think all young soccer players should participate in, to maximize the development of their athletic ability and make the most of their free non-soccer time:

1. Gymnastics and/or Martial Arts:

I believe these sports are the best to help young athletes/soccer players to develop strength, balance, flexibility, coordination, and basic motor skills, that do not necessarily develop fully when only playing soccer.  A lot of the work we do at Soccer Fitness is with young (ages 8-10) players, and I can tell you that the ones who participate in gymnastics, or a martial art like karate for example, are by far stronger, more flexible, and more coordinated than their peers.  The development of good strength-to-body weight ratios (a staple of gymnastics and martial arts because of all the push-ups, squats, etc..) in conjunction with lots of flexibility training, is very useful for soccer players, for both performance enhancement, as well as to prevent future over-use injuries that are common in soccer from a lack of flexibility.  Furthermore, these sports also teach unique coordination, including how to land from jumps, and how to roll/fall on the ground, which adds another, perhaps more helpful aspect to the prevention of injuries caused by landing or falling to the ground (also common in soccer players).

2. Cross-Country Running and Track & Field:

This one is a bit more personal for me, because I ran cross country and track in elementary and high school, and I know first-hand the benefits that middle distance running has for soccer.  Without getting into all the specifics, the reality is that adult soccer at the higher levels (university, and professional) requires a lot of high intensity running, and if players are unable to sustain a high-enough work rate, they will not be able to play the game at these levels.  The development of a strong aerobic base is essential for the ability to perform a lot of high intensity running in soccer.  Of course, this aerobic base can be developed without doing middle distance running, however, it would require participating in several high-intensity soccer practices per week, which most players do not do.  Even the few who do train/play soccer everyday typically do not train at the intensity that would be required to actually improve aerobic endurance.  Running competitively on school teams forces players to accumulate this high-intensity running training that will directly translate to players doing more fast running during games.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Nutrition

A Legal Performance Enhancing “Drug”?

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Earlier today, I had lunch with an old friend, who has become a very successful entrepreneur.  A new business he has started up this year is his own brand of premium coffee, which he has successfully taken into big name stores like Costco and Longo’s, to name a few.  We were speaking about coffee (specifically about caffeine in coffee), and I commented that I believe one of the main reasons the drink is so popular is not necessarily the taste, but the fact that people are addicted to the caffeine, and associate their “fix” of caffeine with the taste.  Caffeine, then can be seen as a “legal drug” (a phrase my friend has actually trademarked), in the sense that it is addictive, yet perfectly legal to sell, purchase, and use, in any quantity.

Since I began working with higher level soccer players about 8 years ago, I became interested in, and began doing research on, nutritional supplements that may give a performance-enhancing edge to the players.  One supplement that I frequently cam across was caffeine, which has been shown (in very small, safe, and legal doses) to provide a significant increase in endurance, as well as in the function of the central nervous system, in athletes.

Because soccer is a sport in which the aerobic system plays a huge role delivering energy to the body, and because caffeine is a safe and very commonly consumed substance with no negative short- or long-term side effects when taken in small doses, it seemed logical to me that it would be worthwhile for soccer players to use caffeine as a means of improving their aerobic endurance before training and games.

I have since written and published articles about caffeine use and its benefits for soccer players, which can be viewed here:

Parents’ Guide to Caffeine Use for Soccer Players

I won’t bore you with all the details if you don’t want to read them, but below are my guidelines (taken from the article) for caffeine use in soccer:

Non-Habitual Users (0-4 cups of coffee per week):

– take minimum dose of 75mg (about 1 cup of coffee); maximum dose of 4mg per kg of body weight, 30 minutes prior to start of competition

Habitual Users (7-14 cups of coffee per week):

– take minimum dose of 2-6mg per kg of body weight, 30 minutes prior to competition

It must be noted that caffeine is presently listed as a banned substance by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the NCAA / CIS (American and Canadian University athletics associations) but not the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).  The quantity at which caffeine is considered banned, however, is 15 mcg (micrograms) per mL (milliliters) in a urine sample.  In layman’s terms, this concentration would be the equivalent of a dose of 8 or more mg per kg of body weight (or the equivalent of 10-15 cups of coffee).

Please let me know your thoughts.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started!

Fitness

Strength Training for Soccer: Don’t Do Squat(s)

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Today we are going to talk about strength training for soccer.  In an ideal world, all soccer players would begin their training at a very young age, and make the same number of touches, passes, strikes and execute all other ball control and manipulation with both feet.  Equally.  Every single time they train and play.  Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and in the world in which we do live, all soccer players begin to favor one leg (some more than others) almost from the moment they begin playing the game.  Even more unfortunately, over time, the favoring of one leg (using one leg to kick, strike, and control the ball more than the other) leads to significant imbalances in strength, power, stability, flexibility and mobility between the left and right legs, which in turn can often cause a cascade of injuries, from the feet all the way up to the lower back.  In my years as a soccer fitness coach, I have seen this left/right asymmetry in almost every single soccer player I have ever worked with, from 8 year old house league players all the way up to seasoned professionals and national team members.  If you’re a soccer player and don’t believe me, try this simple test:

– close your eyes, then stand on one leg.  Hold the position for 2-3 seconds, then repeat by standing on the opposite leg.  Continue the sequence for 5 repetitions with each leg.  Then ask yourself – which leg felt more stable – the “planting” – or “non-kicking” leg – or the “kicking” leg?

If you’re like 99% of the players I’ve worked with, you were probably much more stable and balanced on the planting or non-kicking leg.  The reason for this is simple: the planting leg has been doing just that – planting –  firmly into the ground, over-and-over again, while the kicking leg has been swinging and bending in all sorts of directions, over several years, and several million kicks.  As a matter of fact, typically the size of the muscle on the planting leg will be noticeably bigger than that of the kicking leg, for the same reasons.  Need more convincing?  Think about this fact: soccer is the only sport in which almost all of the movements (all of the running and kicking, and the majority of the jumping) are done exclusively while standing on one leg at a time.

Taking this asymmetry into account, it has occurred to me that soccer players are really not very well suited to performing traditional lower body strength training exercises, like squats and dead lifts, which are done with both feet planted on the ground.  As long as there is a strength difference between right and left, and all strength training is done with both feet on the ground, the strength difference will always be there and never change, and the weaker leg will always be weaker and more injury prone.  Thus, soccer players should focus their lower body strength training on performing single-leg exercises.  Over time, this will allow players to ensure that they are not allowing one leg to compensate for the other during the movements, and also can allow for extra strength and stability training (more repetitions) on the weaker leg, to try to even things out.

I have had tremendous success in correcting muscle imbalances and improving strength and performance in soccer players using almost exclusively single-leg strength exercises.  Stay tuned for my future blog posts, where I will give examples of simple and effective exercises and movements that can be incorporated into a player’s or team’s strength training routine.

I’d love to hear your opinions on this subject – drop me a line here to get the conversation started!

Fitness, Matches

The Secret to Beating the Spanish ‘Tika-Taka’

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Hello and welcome to the Soccer Fitness Gols Blog!

For my very first blog post, I thought I’d share something that has been on my mind for the past year – pretty much ever since the final match of the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil.  As a soccer fitness coach, I have always tried to figure out how to get players to perform at their best during games.  One thing that has always fascinated me is the way that the Spanish National team – and Spanish club Barcelona – have become experts at conserving energy by becoming masters of keeping possession of the ball.  This style of play, often called “Tika-Taka” (named after the sounds the ball makes as it bounces quickly from player-to-player with fast one-touch passing) is predicated on forcing the opponent to spend much of the game defending, often in their own defensive 1/3rd of the field.  A lot of the goals scored by Spain and Barcelona happen very quickly after they lose possession of the ball.  Because they are able to “rest” while they have the ball, if and when they lose it, the players have a lot of energy available to explode into a high pressing defense (typically in the opponent’s 1/3rd of the pitch), win the ball quickly while the opponent is off balance and key players are slightly out of position, then quickly counter-attack with a penetrating through ball and score. It sounds easy, but unfortunately, this style of play is not always realistic for teams (especially North American teams), because keeping a lot of possession of the ball often requires having 11 players on the field with the technical abilities of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, etc..which a lot of North American teams do not have.  Thus, I believe it may be more realistic for teams to try to figure out how to play against “Tika-Taka”, rather than to try to copy it. 

All of this brings me back to the 2013 Confederations Cup final in Brazil.  The hosts were playing Spain, the reigning World champions and 2-time European champions, and also the authors of “Tika-Taka” and possession-oriented soccer.  In this particular match, however, Brazil seemed to be able to prevent Spain from establishing rhythm in the game, in spite of their slightly higher ball possession (53% to Brazil’s 47%).  In defense, the Brazilian players did a lot of running off the ball, and were able to stuff out a lot of Spanish attacking moves before they became too dangerous.  If there is one statistic that really stands out at the end of the game, it is fouls committed (which I typically think of as a measure of intensity of play and work-rate – the higher the number of fouls committed, the higher the work-rate).  Brazil clearly took the lead in this category with 26 to Spain’s 16, although in spite of all these fouls, no Brazilian player received even a yellow card.  What this says to me as a fitness coach is that the Brazilians (in a very disciplined way) simply out-worked the Spanish in this game, and it is precisely the ability to out-work opponents that I believe is the key to beating teams that have more technical players and keep more possession of the ball. 

In soccer, out-working the opponent has everything to do with improving aerobic fitness levels.  A team that likes to keep possession will thrive on keeping possession because, as I mentioned earlier, the more they have the ball, the more they can rest, and save energy to pounce when they do lose possession.  If you are playing against a team that likes to keep possession, you need to make sure you are aerobically fitter than they are.  If you do that, you will be able to run more when defending, and get players into situations where they can outnumber the opponent when the opponent is in possession of the ball.  This will frustrate a possession-oriented team, because they will not be able to establish a rhythm and will not always be able to rest while in possession, thus limiting the number and effectiveness of the dangerous counter-attacks they like to use.   In the Confederations Cup final, Brazil really did look like the fitter team.  Even the fifa.com game summary reads: “Brazil harried and chased Spain all over the pitch, with the home crowd cheering them on.”

I don’t know how the Brazilians did their fitness training leading up to this tournament, but it must have involved a significant amount of high intensity aerobic interval training, and probably a lot of this work was done on the field in defending practices.  The results speak for themselves, and I can’t wait to see how the Brazilians do in this year’s World Cup!

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started!