Matches, Science

A Soccer Fitness Lesson from Canada’s Performance at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Canada’s 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup experience is over.  It ended yesterday in their Quarter-Final match against England, when two costly first-half mistakes in the span of three minutes allowed the English team to build a 2-0 lead that the Canadians were not able to overcome, despite a good overall performance throughout the game.  Although they failed to win the World Cup, this year’s Canadian team has been an incredible success story, both because of the results they were able to achieve on the pitch, as well as for the way they have inspired an entire nation – including hundreds of thousands of young aspiring female players.

As a fitness coach, there has been one lesson regarding the physical side of the game that I have taken away from Canada’s performance at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.  That lesson is that we can be more assured and confident in the ability of our young players to succeed at the senior international level in this country.  In the starting 11 of this year’s Canadian Women’s National Team were two players that I had the pleasure of working with three years ago, as members of the Canadian Women’s U17 team: Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan.  While several Canadian players had outstanding performances in this tournament, in my opinion it was the performances of Lawrence and Buchanan that stood out the most.  Lawrence displayed speed, athleticism, good close control under pressure, and even came up with two game-changing plays; first, the crucial goal that helped Canada draw with the Netherlands to secure qualification into the knock-out rounds of the tournament, and second, a dribbling run and shot on target that set up Christine Sinclair’s rebound goal to get Canada back into the game after falling 2-0 behind to England in the Quarter-Final.  Buchanan, already a star in the Canadian team, cemented her reputation as one of the best centre backs in the women’s game with a combination of tenacious defending, accurate and reliable passing, and incredible composure under pressure.  She seemed to get better with each game in this tournament, and her performance against England even included some exhilarating runs into the opponent’s half of the pitch to start counter-attacks.  At just 20 and 19 years of age, respectively, Lawrence and Buchanan represent a new breed of women’s player, both in Canada as well as in the rest of the world.  While their youth (and accordingly, lack of senior international experience) may be seen by some as a hindrance, there is a lot of scientific evidence to support the use of more young (ages 20 and under) female players in senior international competitions.

Four years ago, at the 7th World Congress on Science and Football in Nagoya, Japan, Paolo Pacione (then the Fitness Coach with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Men’s U20 and Olympic Teams, and now the Fitness Coach of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer) and I presented a paper titled “A Longitudinal Analysis of Speed and High Intensity Running Ability in Elite Canadian Youth Female Soccer Players: A Pilot Study.”  This study was conducted in conjunction with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Sport Centre Ontario, and involved a four-year longitudinal analysis of fitness test scores of elite female soccer players from the ages of U14 to U17, from the Ontario Provincial Program and National Training Centre of Ontario (or “NTC”, a pool of players that represents Ontario’s feeder-system to the Canadian National Women’s U17 Team).  Speed and Yo-Yo (endurance) test scores from players who (eventually) were selected into the NTC Program, were compared with those from players who (eventually) were not selected.  What we found was that, at the U14 age category, the “eventual” NTC players had better speed and endurance scores that the “eventual” non-NTC players.  This was not so surprising.  What was more surprising, however, was that four years later (when the selections were made for the NTC program), the “non-NTC” players, even though they did improve, never reached the speed or endurance level that the NTC players had reached at the U14 age category.

While this may sound confusing, what these results indicate is that it may be possible that crucial physical abilities in soccer like speed and endurance may be peaking in female players in as early as the U14 age category.  Accordingly, players who exhibit speed and endurance abilities which meet or exceed the NTC or National Team standards beyond the age of 14 should presumably be able to meet the physical demands of youth (U17, U20) or even senior international level competition.  In other words, Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan are not the only young female players who have the physical tools to compete at the Women’s World Cup for Canada.  Indeed, this year’s Canadian team even included 1997-born, 17-year-old Jessie Flemming in its roster.

Of course, just because a player achieves a certain standard level of performance in speed and endurance testing does not mean they will be technically, tactically, and psychosocially ready to compete at the international level – these are all factors that need to be considered and evaluated by the coaching staff prior to any selection decisions being made.  The importance and value of scientific data like that presented in our study four years ago is that it can provide coaches with the rationale to consider – and possibly to eventually select and include – certain younger players based on their physical ability.  In Canada, we have many other young female players who can meet the physical demands of senior international competition.  They may get their chance in the years to come.

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

Advertisements
Matches, Science

A Soccer Fitness Lesson from Canada’s Performance at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup

Canada’s 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup experience is over.  It ended yesterday in their Quarter-Final match against England, when two costly first-half mistakes in the span of three minutes allowed the English team to build a 2-0 lead that the Canadians were not able to overcome, despite a good overall performance throughout the game.  Although they failed to win the World Cup, this year’s Canadian team has been an incredible success story, both because of the results they were able to achieve on the pitch, as well as for the way they have inspired an entire nation – including hundreds of thousands of young aspiring female players.

As a fitness coach, there has been one lesson regarding the physical side of the game that I have taken away from Canada’s performance at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.  That lesson is that we can be more assured and confident in the ability of our young players to succeed at the senior international level in this country.  In the starting 11 of this year’s Canadian Women’s National Team were two players that I had the pleasure of working with three years ago, as members of the Canadian Women’s U17 team: Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan.  While several Canadian players had outstanding performances in this tournament, in my opinion it was the performances of Lawrence and Buchanan that stood out the most.  Lawrence displayed speed, athleticism, good close control under pressure, and even came up with two game-changing plays; first, the crucial goal that helped Canada draw with the Netherlands to secure qualification into the knock-out rounds of the tournament, and second, a dribbling run and shot on target that set up Christine Sinclair’s rebound goal to get Canada back into the game after falling 2-0 behind to England in the Quarter-Final.  Buchanan, already a star in the Canadian team, cemented her reputation as one of the best centre backs in the women’s game with a combination of tenacious defending, accurate and reliable passing, and incredible composure under pressure.  She seemed to get better with each game in this tournament, and her performance against England even included some exhilarating runs into the opponent’s half of the pitch to start counter-attacks.  At just 20 and 19 years of age, respectively, Lawrence and Buchanan represent a new breed of women’s player, both in Canada as well as in the rest of the world.  While their youth (and accordingly, lack of senior international experience) may be seen by some as a hindrance, there is a lot of scientific evidence to support the use of more young (ages 20 and under) female players in senior international competitions.

Four years ago, at the 7th World Congress on Science and Football in Nagoya, Japan, Paolo Pacione (then the Fitness Coach with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Men’s U20 and Olympic Teams, and now the Fitness Coach of the Montreal Impact in Major League Soccer) and I presented a paper titled “A Longitudinal Analysis of Speed and High Intensity Running Ability in Elite Canadian Youth Female Soccer Players: A Pilot Study.”  This study was conducted in conjunction with the Ontario Soccer Association and the Canadian Sport Centre Ontario, and involved a four-year longitudinal analysis of fitness test scores of elite female soccer players from the ages of U14 to U17, from the Ontario Provincial Program and National Training Centre of Ontario (or “NTC”, a pool of players that represents Ontario’s feeder-system to the Canadian National Women’s U17 Team).  Speed and Yo-Yo (endurance) test scores from players who (eventually) were selected into the NTC Program, were compared with those from players who (eventually) were not selected.  What we found was that, at the U14 age category, the “eventual” NTC players had better speed and endurance scores that the “eventual” non-NTC players.  This was not so surprising.  What was more surprising, however, was that four years later (when the selections were made for the NTC program), the “non-NTC” players, even though they did improve, never reached the speed or endurance level that the NTC players had reached at the U14 age category.

While this may sound confusing, what these results indicate is that it may be possible that crucial physical abilities in soccer like speed and endurance may be peaking in female players in as early as the U14 age category.  Accordingly, players who exhibit speed and endurance abilities which meet or exceed the NTC or National Team standards beyond the age of 14 should presumably be able to meet the physical demands of youth (U17, U20) or even senior international level competition.  In other words, Ashley Lawrence and Kadeisha Buchanan are not the only young female players who have the physical tools to compete at the Women’s World Cup for Canada.  Indeed, this year’s Canadian team even included 1997-born, 17-year-old Jessie Flemming in its roster.

Of course, just because a player achieves a certain standard level of performance in speed and endurance testing does not mean they will be technically, tactically, and psychosocially ready to compete at the international level – these are all factors that need to be considered and evaluated by the coaching staff prior to any selection decisions being made.  The importance and value of scientific data like that presented in our study four years ago is that it can provide coaches with the rationale to consider – and possibly to eventually select and include – certain younger players based on their physical ability.  In Canada, we have many other young female players who can meet the physical demands of senior international competition.  They may get their chance in the years to come.

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

Matches

European Dominance in Women’s Soccer – It’s Only a Matter of Time

Over the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to travel to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and then to Montreal, Quebec, to attend three different FIFA Women’s World Cup matches (Australia versus Nigeria and U.S.A. versus Sweden on June 12th, and France versus South Korea on June 21st).  Of course, during this time I also watched many – if not almost all – of the other Women’s World Cup matches that took place.  Among many noticeable trends in the women’s game that stood out this year, including a shift towards the use of younger and less experienced players, an emphasis on wing play, and better overall technical ability of the players, one thing was apparent to me the most from my experience of both attending and watching this year’s matches on television: the fact that the top European women’s National Teams appear to be pulling away from the top teams from the rest of the world.

In men’s soccer, European teams have won the past three FIFA World Cups (Italy in 2006; Spain in 2010; and Germany in 2014).  These elite men’s National Teams, along with others such as France (runners-up to Italy in 2006), and Holland (runners-up to Spain in 2010), share several common traits in their programs that have contributed to their overall success.   Among these common traits are:

  • A strong, competitive, national professional soccer league with multiple divisions of play (typically at least 4 or 5 divisions)
  • Highly regarded coach educational programs, conducted through UEFA and their own country’s Football Associations
  • A high ratio of UEFA “B” and “A” Licensed coaches relative to the number of registered players in the country
  • A strong emphasis on youth development, including the most well-respected and professionally run youth academies in the world

It stands to reason that, if these countries are so successful in the men’s game, they should be able to achieve similar success in the women’s game by patterning their women’s soccer programs after their men’s programs.  Indeed, over the past 5-10 years, we have seen both Germany and France emerge as Women’s World Cup favourites, partly because of their own very successful domestic women’s professional leagues, academies, and coach educational programs.  In the next 5-10 years, I expect to see other European women’s National Teams, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, to continue to improve and to also develop into Women’s World Cup contenders.

I was fortunate in that the matches I attended this year included two very strong European teams, Sweden (who have traditionally been one of the better women’s National sides), and France (who have really improved in recent years and looked unstoppable as they swept aside South Korea 3-0).  Of course, at the moment there are teams from continents other than Europe, including the United States, Japan, Australia, and even Canada, who have looked very impressive and have progressed through to the knock-out rounds of this year’s tournament.  Looking at the bigger picture, however, the technical skills, athletic ability and tactical discipline of the top European women’s teams at this year’s World Cup is impossible to deny.  It seems to me that it is only a matter of time before the Europeans become as dominant in the women’s game as they are in the men’s one.

Matches

3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the National Women’s Soccer League

This past weekend, I took a trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Thanks to Vanessa Martinez, a friend and colleague of mine and the Head Coach of the University of Manitoba Bison’s Women’s Soccer Team, I had the opportunity to attend some Women’s World Cup matches at the U of M’s beautiful new stadium, and also to tour the rest of the soccer and athletic facilities of the campus.  During the trip, I also got to speak at length with Coach Martinez and her staff, and in the process I learned a lot of things that changed come of my misconceptions about women’s soccer in general, and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL; a new professional soccer league for women that was founded in 2013) in particular.    Below is a summary of the three things I – and probably many others – didn’t know about the National Women’s Soccer League:

  1. The top professional players in the NWSL are paid – and paid well.

First of all, when examining salaries of professional athletes, it is important to keep everything in perspective.  It is not realistic to expect to see women’s professional players in a new league like the NWSL, which is barely 2 years old, make the kind of money that the big stars of European leagues, or even Major League Soccer, are making.  What I found surprising, however, was that the top players in the NWSL are able to earn a good living, plus benefits, while working 6 months of the year, and in most cases also getting cost of living expenses paid for.  I have been guilty for a long time of advising young female players that “there is no money in women’s professional soccer,” but this simply is not the case anymore.  The average salaries of the W.P.S.L. range from $6,000 to $30,000, and are growing each year.  The best players in the NWSL, however, area paid well.  Abby Wambach, star striker for the United States National Team and for the Western New York Flash in NWSL, for example, will earn $190,000 in 2015.  Marta, the Brazilian forward and one of the greatest female players ever to play the game, will earn an incredible $400,000 this year.  Of course, these players and many others will also be earning a lot more revenue from advertising and sponsors in addition to their salaries from the NWSL.  Two of our top Canadian Women’s National Team players, Adriana Leon ($36,000) and Rhiann Wilkinson ($54,000) are also among the top 10 highest paid players in the NWSL.

  1. The FA’s of the three largest CONCACAF Countries – U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico – have partnered with the NWSL to ensure its long-term success.

Another unique aspect of the NWSL that I was really surprised to hear about was the agreement that the league has in place with the Football Associations of the three largest CONCACAF countries (U.S.A., Canada, and Mexico).  Spearheaded by United States Soccer Federation (USSF) President Sunil Gulati, the WPSL has secured contracts with the USSF; the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA); and the Mexican Football Federation (MFF), whereby all U.S., Canadian, and Mexican Women’s National Team players playing in the NWSL will have their entire salaries paid for by their home country’s Football Association.  What this means for the NWSL is that a huge chunk of all teams’ salary budget (Abby Wambach is a great example of this) will be alleviated, allowing for more money to be spent on young up-and-coming players and/or foreign star players.  This is a unique move that is really unprecedented in women’s or men’s professional soccer (imagine the USSF paying Toronto FC star Michael Bradley’s $6.5 million per year salary!).  It is both surprising and refreshing to see that the Canadian Soccer Association has committed to this agreement and to help its top players develop in the highest level “domestic” league they can.

  1. Many – if not all – of the players in the NWSL have college or university degrees, meaning they have not sacrificed their education for a career in professional soccer.

I think that this is the one fat about the NWSL that resonated most with me, because of the amount of time I have spent in university soccer, first as a player and then as an Assistant Coach and Fitness Coach with several different women’s university teams.  I grew up in an era in men’s soccer where, by the time you had been accepted into a university program, you had basically zero chance of becoming a professional soccer player, regardless of how good you were.  Things have changed a bit with the development of Major League Soccer and its college draft, but in the men’s game the chances of becoming a pro at the age of 22 or 23 – when most young adults finish their undergraduate education – are still slim.  This is because, in most men’s professional soccer leagues around the world, players can be signed as professionals when they turn 18, so often the more talented players are forced to forego their education beyond high school if they decide to become a professional player.  In the NWSL, the opposite is almost always true.  Most of the female players in the nine-team league are drafted by clubs at the conclusion of their college or university undergraduate education.  Also, in many cases, players will continue their post-graduate education while playing in the league, as the spring/summer schedule does not interfere with typical fall/winter school schedules.  What this means in the long run for young, talented, aspiring female soccer players is that they will not be forced to choose at the age of 18 between getting an education and becoming a professional soccer player.  Indeed, our current Canadian Women’s National Team is full of players who hold either a university undergraduate diploma or higher, or are presently in school working towards their degrees, while at the same time are playing professionally and earning money in the NWSL.

Speaking with an experienced coach like Coach Martinez, who has been a National Team player (with Mexico), an NCAA Division I College Player (with the University of Texas), and a women’s professional league player (in the German Women’s Bundesliga), was a very eye-opening experience for me.  After learning more about the NWSL and how they are helping to develop the female game, I am now a lot more optimistic about the future of women’s soccer in North America in general, and in Canada in particular.

Matches

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Preview – Mexico: Live High Train Low

Because this is a Women’s World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 24 participating nations. In this instalment, I will look at Mexico, who are making their third appearance at the Women’s World Cup (in both of their previous tournaments they failed to advance past the group stages) . Mexico have been drawn in Group F, along with Colombia, France, and England. They will play their first match against Colombia on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015.

Physiologically, Mexican players have always had an advantage over their opponents, simply by virtue of the fact that so many of them grew up in Mexico City. which is situated approximately 1500 metres above sea level.  At that altitude, the partial pressure of oxygen is significantly lower than it is at sea level, and as a result there is significantly less oxygen available to the heart, lungs, and skeletal muscles to perform exercise.  Soccer players and other athletes who grow up and live at altitude will eventually acclimatize to these conditions, and their heart, lungs and skeletal muscles will develop the ability to perform with less oxygen available, and thus become very efficient and oxygen transport and utilization.  If these same athletes/soccer players then train and/or compete in matches and tournaments played at sea level (as is the case with the Women’s World Cup in Canada), they will have a significant physiological advantage over their opponents, whose oxygen transport and utilization will not be as efficient.  Termed “live high / train low”, this strategy can be very useful for athletes with efficient cardiorespiratory systems, because when they do train or compete at sea level they will be able to push themselves harder without experiencing as much fatigue.

Sine many of the Mexican Women’s National Team players are from Mexico City, they will have grown up experiencing the “live high, train low” phenomenon.  Can this strategy help them to get past the group stage for the first time in their history?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

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

Matches

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Preview – Colombia: Perfect 10

Because this is a Women’s World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 24 participating nations. In this instalment, I will look at Colombia, who are making their seconds appearance at the Women’s World Cup (their first was in Germany in 2011, in which they failed to advance past the group stage) . Colombia have been drawn in Group F, along with England, France, and Mexico. They will play their first match against Mexico on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015.

Colombia is an emerging nation in South American women’s soccer, having finished as runners up in the 2014 Women’s Copa America tournament to winners Brazil.  Among the strengths of the Colombian team is their central midfield play-maker, Yoreli Rincon.  At only 21 years of age, she was voted player of the tournament in the Copa America, and she had a hand in almost all of Colombia’s 12 goals in their 7 matches played, either as scorer or with an assist.  Rincon is one of the most creative women’s players in the world, and she is a traditional “number 10” player who is most comfortable playing in the hole behind two central strikers.  Below is a highlight video of some of her best plays in recent years.

Can the strong play of Colombia’s number 10 help them to advance past the group stage this year?  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.  I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Matches

2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Preview – England: Strong Defence Plus More

Because this is a Women’s World Cup year, I have decided to countdown to the tournament by providing a short soccer/fitness related preview of each of the 24 participating nations. In this instalment, I will look at England, who are making their fourth appearance at the Women’s World Cup (in each of the previous three times they entered the tournament, they reached the Quarter-finals) . England have been drawn in Group F, along with Colombia, France, and Mexico. They will play their first match against France on Tuesday, June 9th, 2015.

England have been a consistently solid team in the Women’s World Cup, as evidenced by their three previous Quarter-final appearances.  This year, they had an excellent qualifying campaign, winning their group while scoring 52 goals and conceding just 1.  This strong defence will be put to the test in their first match against one of the pre-tournament favourites (and leading scorers in European qualification), France.  It remains to be seen if they can use this combination of good defence and efficient attack to get past the Quarter-final stage at this year’s tournament.  We will have to wait and see what happens in 1 month’s time.

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