Soccer Fitness – Brazil Trip Day 2


Today I spent the entire day at the Copacabana beach.  FIFA has organized a ‘Fan Fest’ – basically some viewing areas with large screen TV’s showing all the games, plus they serve refreshments, and there are other attractions like rides you would see at an amusement park, etc..  It’s a beautiful beach, and even though the two teams playing in the early game (France and Nigeria) have no connection to Brazil, there were lots of ‘French’ and ‘Nigerian’ fans who looked suspiciously Brazilian in attendance.  Unfortunately the weather was not great as it was cloudy all day, but the atmosphere here is amazing and the people are very friendly.  I met up some American fans that were in the city for 1 more day before going to Salvador to watch the US team take on Belgium.  Once again, these people were super friendly and we had a few beers and talked soccer for most of the afternoon.

After the game, I decided I wanted to get in on one of the pick-up games happening on the beach.  Outside the Fan Fest at Copacabana, there are lots of little mini-fields set up with 2 goals, about 15m x 25m in size (ideal for 4v4 or maybe 5v5).  People are playing soccer on these pitches literally all day long, and if you want to get in you just have to wait for the right moment and let someone from one of the teams know.  I was really expecting to have a lot of fun and thought I might even get to play against a future Brazilian star player.  Unfortunately, what I actually saw and participated in was something I have seen and been a part of all too often back home in Toronto, and it will be the topic of my blog today.

Somebody needs to explain to me why grown men (and sometimes women) play in a recreational pick-up match as if they are playing in the World Cup final (minus, of course, the skill, fitness, and tactical understanding of the game)?.  Instead of 5v5 on the small field, we ended up with something like 10v9, and basically after about 10 minutes the entire game deteriorated into long balls from the goalkeepers looking to find a single striker who was being quadruple-marked, right in front of goal.  If the ball ever did manage to spill out from this mess, it was quickly kicked forwards in a completely random fashion, until it eventually ended up right back in the goalkeeper’s hands.  Of course, no adult pick-up game would be complete without the customary reckless defending (late tackles, wild sliding, and kicking at balls that were higher than head height).  Surprisingly, the worst of the soccer was actually played by the Brazilians, including one who kicked a younger player so hard in the back of the leg that he had to be carried off the pitch by his father. 

I have to say that I have not played a proper 90-minute soccer game since my last season with York University, which was in 2004 (10 years ago).  Since then I competed in adult leagues for a few more years, until around 2008 I decided to stop precisely because of the reckless play I saw today.  As a player, I was by no means technically gifted.  I did reasonably well at the university level and in the CPSL here in Canada because I was always in good shape and was very aggressive.  If anything, I was usually the most aggressive – and even slightly reckless – player on the pitch when I played.  But the OUA and CPSL games meant something – there was a reason to be aggressive and to play hard defensively, to risk injuring yourself and someone else as long as you played fairly.  In addition, although this environment was by no means ‘professional’, at least there were certain standards for training, fitness, technical ability of the players, etc.  There were referees, and athletic therapists present in case players got hurt.  It just made sense to play hard, but fair.

In contrast, I really fail to see the reason why adults feel the need to be so careless and physical in meaningless games like the one I played in today.  Several times when I had the ball, I saw players coming towards me and just got out of the way – there was no way I was going to risk getting hurt in a beach pick-up game after being here for barely 24 hours!  I am sure this one game is not representative of all the recreational soccer that goes on in Brazil – if it were, I would have a hard time explaining how the country has produced so many of the worlds most talented players.  It was just very surprising to me to see how similar this game looked to the adult men’s leagues that I played in after university, and are so commonplace all over my hometown of Toronto.

I recently wrote and published an article summarizing a series of studies called ‘Football for Health’ that were presented at the 4th World Conference on Science and Soccer this past month.  The basic premise of these studies was that playing football (soccer) has been shown to have similar health benefits to a combination strength training (in improving muscle size and strength) and aerobic endurance training (in improving aerobic fitness and increasing fat loss) in adults of all ages and levels of ability, so the studies made the case for the promotion of adults’ participation in recreational soccer as a means of improving their health.  Upon hearing this information, me and the colleague I had attended with immediately looked at each other as if we both had the exact same thought.  He raised his hand to ask the question first:

“what about the risk of injury from participation in recreational soccer versus strength training or aerobic endurance training?”    

The answer was interesting.  Participants in these studies played truly ‘recreational’ soccer – no scores or standings were kept, and they were not part of a ‘league’ with winners and losers.  They simply played small-sided games (usually 7v7 or 8v8), 1 hour per day, 3 days per week.  When the researchers conducted other studies using adult league players and compared injury rates between the two, their findings were that the rate of injury in adult competitive soccer was 8x (eight times!) higher than in recreational soccer.  Basically, the implication is that as soon as you introduce competition into adult soccer, you are guaranteed to have injuries.  This is really not surprising, considering the age, extra body weight, and diminished fitness and skill levels of most of the participants involved in most adult leagues. 

My opinion is that adults can get all the enjoyment – and physical activity – they need out of recreational soccer without the competitiveness and risk of injuries that go along with the typical adult leagues.  In Scandinavia (specifically in Denmark, where the ‘Football for Health’ studies were conducted) there is a big push towards setting up recreational soccer games for adults, supervised by referees, coaches and/or fitness coaches to ensure that people behave themselves.  I wonder if/when Canada will look into this option for adult soccer?

 In any event, it looks like I will be watching France vs. Germany in the Quarter-Finals on July 4th – should be an amazing game!       


Soccer Fitness – Brazil Trip Day 1


Today was an interesting day.  1.5 hour flight to New York, 2 hour lay-over, then and 11 hour flight to Rio De Janeiro.  The airport was absolutely crazy busy.  I had my Canada gear on, and some of the people in the large crowd waiting for friends and family started sheering for me – that was kind of cool!

After about 1 hour trying to make sure I was giving my cab driver the right information, I arrived at the Bed and Breakfast Vila de Botafogo.  It’s a house owned by a lady who rents upstairs bedrooms out as a B&B.  Botafogo is a quiet part of Rio, about a 5-minute car ride from the Copacabana beach, which was my next stop.  Got there in time to catch the last bit of the Holland vs. Mexico game and eat some great barbecue.  The Fan-Fest that FIFA has organized on the beach is a lot of fun, and there are people here from all over the world.  I really enjoyed being there but was exhausted so headed back to the B&B to catch a quick nap before the Greece vs. Costa Rica game, which I watched on a small TV in my room. 

Having seen this entire game, I have to say that I think the Costa Ricans were very well prepared physically.  Greece decided to play very conservatively, and did not change their tactics much even after going 1 goal up, which meant that the Costa Ricans had to do a lot more attacking – and running.  I will be interested to see the GPS/time motion analysis data on some of the Costa Rican players, notably Ruiz and Bolanos in midfield (who seemed to be all over the place) and the lone striker Campbell up front.  They held off the Greeks, and created some decent chances in the extra time period.  I think they fully deserved to win the game on penalties. 

Everybody I meet here is talking about soccer.  Even though I speak zero Portuguese, I am somehow able to communicate with most of them.  I am getting the feeling that the Brazilians believe they can win the whole thing now.  Tomorrow there are 2 big games and I will likely be watching both of them at the beach.  The winners tomorrow will play in the quarter final here on July 4 (the game which I have a ticket for!).  I’ll be blogging every day with highlights and some soccer/fitness related content about the games.

Can’t wait for tomorrow!  


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2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Algeria – Electrolyte Experience


Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at the Algeria, the north African team participating in their fourth World Cup, and trying to make their first ever appearance in the second round of the tournament.  Algeria have been drawn in Group H, which includes Belgium, Korea Republic, and Russia, and they play their first match against Belgium on June 17th.

Algeria is the only African team from the northern part of the continent at the World Cup. The country comprises 2, 381, 741 square kilometres of land, more than 4/5ths of which is desert.  The desert is known for one thing: lack of water, which leads to a dry, dehydrating heat.  For soccer players growing up in this part of Africa, the heat can mean only one thing – they will be sweating a lot every time they take to the pitch.  Hydration and electrolyte replenishment is a crucial part of success in soccer, but for Algerian players, it stands out as even more important. 

When the body sweats, it loses water and electrolytes (ions of salts sodium and potassium, which are essential for optimal muscle contraction and function).  Recent studies done in elite level male soccer have shown that players can lose up to 5 grams of sodium through sweat per game.  5 grams is equivalent to 5000 milligrams, or ‘mg’s’.  This number is ominous when taking into consideration that the average amount of sodium in a typical Gatorade or PowerAde bottle (750mL) is only 250 mg’s.  So players who are losing up to 5000 mg’s of sodium per game through sweat will not get nearly the amount they need replenished from a traditional sports drink.  When I worked with the Canadian National Women’s U17’s, our Medical staff encountered this problem during some games played in the heat in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Azerbaijan.  One key strategy we used was to add salt to the players’ Gatorade or PowerAde bottles.  Typically, a salt packet containing 200-300 mg’s of sodium would be sufficient to add electrolytes without affecting the taste.  The exact amount of sodium required can be determined by checking players’ body weights before and after training or games.  If a player has lost more than 2% of their pre-training/ game body weight, then the amount of water and sodium they consumed was not sufficient. Add 300mg’s for the next training session/game and see if the weight loss levels off.  If it does, then you have the right concentration; if not, add another 300mg’s and repeat the procedure. 

From all their experience training and playing in a desert climate, the Algerians must be very well-versed in hydration and electrolyte replenishment.  They will need to draw on this experience in Brazil another country with a very warm climate.  Can they do enough to get through to the second round for the first time in their country’s history?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 weeks’ time.

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



2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Russia – Competition the Key to Successful Tune-Up Matches


Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at the Russia, the strong European team that finished ahead of favored Portugal in qualification.  Russia have been drawn in Group H, which includes Belgium, Korea Republic, and Algeria, and they play their first match against Korea Republic on June 17th.

As mentioned above, the Russians did very well in qualification, their only loss coming to Portugal away from home.  Their coach, Italian Fabio Capello, has had similar success in World Cup qualification, guiding the England team to an unbeaten record ahead of their participation in the previous World Cup in South Africa in 2010.  Unfortunately, England and Capello disappointed in the tournament, finishing second in their group to the United States and then losing to Germany in the 2nd round, 4-2. 

For the Russians, since qualifying the team scheduled some exhibition matches to be used as “tune-ups” prior to the start of the 2014 tournament.  Typically, when planning tune-up matches, coaches try to find opponents that are similar in competition level and playing style to the opponents drawn in their group.  When I worked as Fitness Coach for the Canadian National Women’s U17 team, ahead of the 2012 FIFA Women’s World Cup we played 3 exhibition matches.  Our first 2 were played against local boys teams in the U15 age category (to simulate our fitter, stronger group opponents in Nigeria and Colombia) and our 3rd and final tune-up was played against the Chinese Women’s National Team just 1 week prior to the start of the tournament in Azerbaijan (to simulate the North Korean team who we might play if we got out of the group).  For Capello and the Russian team, planning their tune-ups meant finding an organized, tactically strong and talented side (similar to Belgium); a fit, physically demanding opponent (similar to Korea Republic); and a side with a lot of individually skilled/technical players (similar to Algeria).  Finding opponents as tune-ups to the World Cup can be even more challenging, considering that the choice is usually from teams who have not qualified.  It seems as though the coach and team have chosen their pre-World Cup opponents wisely, as their final 3 tune-up matches were:

  • vs. Slovakia May 27th (1-0 win)
  • vs. Norway May 31 (1-1 draw)
  • vs. Morocco June 6 (2-0 win)

In their quest to find opponents similar to their World Cup opponents, Capello and the Russians found Slovakia (a strong team to match their strongest opponent, Belgium); Norway (a fit and physical team to match Korea Republic); and Morocco (a north African team with some individual talent, to match Algeria).  Russia’s opponent-selection for their tune-up matches also looks good from a results perspective, as they won 2 out of 3 games and allowed only 1 goal to boot.  Has Russia prepared themselves enough to get out of Group H and possibly farther?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 weeks’ time.

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


2014 FIFA World Cup Soccer Fitness Preview: Korea Republuc – The Soccer Social Network


Because this is a World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 32 participating nations. In this installment, I will look at the Korea Repubic, the Asian team with the most-ever appearances at the World Cup, whose qualification for this year’s tournament marks their 9th total appearance, dating back all the way to 1954 in Switzerland.  Korea Republic have been drawn in Group H, which includes Belgium, Russia, and Algeria, and they play their first match against Russia on June 17th.

Having just recently returned from the 4th World Conference on Science and Soccer in Portland, Oregon (June 4th-7th, 2014), there was one presentation that stuck in my mind when I researched the Korean Republic team.  Ricardo Duarte, PhD., a professor at the University of Lisbon and consultant with Manchester City FC in the English Premier League, presented his study on “social networks” in soccer, on Saturday, June 7th.  Without getting into all the details, basically professor Duarte has developed a mathematical model for analysing attacking passing and movement combinations and sequences that occur during games, which he has termed “social networks”, and has been able to predict the likeliness of certain outcomes, such as total shots, shots on goal, goals scored, and even matches won, using this model.  Among the key predictors of a team’s success in their social network is the consistency of their starting line-up; that is, the more they use the same starting-11, the more likely it is that they will have successful passing and movement sequences that will lead on shots on goal and goals scored.

In the case of the Korea Republic National Team, they have struggled in this regard.  During the team’s 2014 World Cup qualification campaign, they never found a consistent starting-11, and used a total of 32 players over the qualification period.  The lack of consistency in the Korean roster has led to some poor results on the pitch, as they first struggled In the 3rd round of the Asian qualifiers, losing 2-1 to Lebanon ( a result which cost coach Cho Kwangrae his job) and requiring a 2-0 win over Kuwait to progress to the last phase.  In that round, Korea Republic did not fare much better, as they dropped points in several games, including 2 defeats to Iran, and required a 5-1 defeat of Qatar to confirm their direct qualification over Uzbekistan on goal difference.

While there has obviously not been any research done using the “social network’ model on the Korea Republic’s 2014 World Cup team, it is clear that the lack of consistency in their line-up has led to some poor on-field performances.  With a new coach in Choi Kanghee, and a wide-open field of competition in Group H, they may have an opportunity to find the right starting-11 and improve the success of their social network on the pitch.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 2 weeks’ time.

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