Fitness, Science

Article “Dispelling the Myths of Soccer Fitness” Posted by

It’s the middle of August, and for university soccer teams across the country – and also across the continent – that means the start of pre-season training.  Typically, pre-season schedules involve two, and sometimes even 3 training sessions per day, for 2-3 weeks, with other inter-squad and exhibition games mixed in, and very few if any days off.  I’ve personally been a part of about one dozen pre-seasons, first as a university player, and then as an assistant coach and fitness coach with several different college and university teams.  For university players, one of the most common themes of this very demanding time of year is invariably going to be fatigue, which can simply decrease performance or, even worse, lead to injuries.  Unfortunately, as two-/ three-a-day pre-season training schedules have become the norm in university soccer, players must basically resign themselves to the fact that they are going to be in constant pain for this time period, and that they will be lucky to get out of it without picking up an over-use injury.

With almost perfect timing, an excellent article and interview of Raymond Verheijen was posted by on Thursday of last week.  Verheijen is a professional coach and fitness coach from the Netherlands, and a world-renowned expert in periodization of fitness training in soccer, who has worked with numerous professional clubs and national teams in the past 20 years.  One of the main things he advocates regarding fitness training for soccer is for coaches to use a science-based, or objective, approach to planning their training.  In discussing the dangers of over-training, he had the following to say:

“Overtraining has to do with fatigue. To understand what is important you must understand the characteristics of football in the context of developing players. At a higher level of the game you find that there is less space and less time – you must execute the same football actions in a shorter period of time with greater speed. What this means is that football is an intensity game, it’s a speed of action game, and not an endurance game. If it was an endurance game then more would be better – we would train teams longer. As it is an intensity sport, less is more. Training smarter with a higher intensity is more effective. This is not an opinion to be debated, it is objective fact. If speed of action is your objective then your worst enemy is fatigue. If you are still tired from your last training session then you will start with a lower than 100% speed of action. You will not stretch any boundaries or reach 101%. Fatigue within a training session is normal, but fatigue as a result of the previous session is your worst enemy. Between training sessions players should get rid of all of the fatigue so that they start at 100% at the next session. Only then can you improve yourself, from the perspective of performance.”

It will be very interesting to see how long it takes (if ever) for this kind of objective approach to catch on in university soccer. I suspect that the first few coaches and schools who start to lower their training volume and focus exclusively on intensity may be seen as being “too soft” and “not fit enough for the college/university environment.”  If improved player performance is the ultimate goal, however, then a pre-season training plan based on objective facts is the only way to achieve it.  Below is a link to the full article/interview:

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

For Parents, Nutrition, Science

Why You Should Never – EVER – Eat a Low-Carbohydrate Diet

As part of my Nutrition for Sports Performance course, I was recently assigned to create a project (anything other than a written report) about a topic of my choice related to nutrition for a sport of my choice.  Of course, there was no choice of a sport other than soccer, and the topic I decided on was carbohydrate intake for high performance players.  I decided to make a “funny” video, with some useful information that applies specifically to university varsity soccer players on game days.  Here is a link to the video which I just posted on our Youtube page:

In my career, I have had a lot of experience with this particular topic, from being a university varsity athlete myself, to taking undergraduate kinesiology courses in nutrition and post-graduate courses in fitness and weight management, and finally to the work I did later at the higher levels of the game (including the Canadian Women’s U17 National Team and the Toronto FC Academy teams) that involved very specific nutritional education and player monitoring.  Throughout all this time, I have noticed that in the field of nutrition, many trends and “fad diets” come and go, from the Atkins diet in the early 2000’s to the more recent “Paleo” and “de-tox” type fads.  Unfortunately, one central theme among a lot of these fad diets has been recommendations for low – or even no – carbohydrate intake.

I don’t really have a problem with people in the “general population” (non-athletes) reducing their carbohydrate intake, even if I don’t necessarily agree with it.  This is because people who are not competitive athletes typically consume too many calories in general, and since a significant portion of their caloric intake is likely to be carbohydrates, they will likely experience some weight loss simply by reducing and/or eliminating carbohydrates from their diet.  The problem with low/no carbohydrate diets when applied to athletes – and specifically, soccer players – is that they simply do not provide soccer players with enough energy to perform the work they need to do on the pitch.  Here is a simple breakdown of scientific facts (not my personal opinions) about carbohydrates and soccer:

  • Professional soccer players cover, on average, between 9-12 kilometres per game
  • Included in this distance covered is an average of 2-3 kilometres of high intensity running (fast running and sprinting)
  • The average heart rate of professional soccer players in games is 170-180 beats per minute, or roughly 60-80% of age-predicted maximum heart rate
  • The ONLY nutrient available in the human body to provide the energy needed to perform work at these intensities is carbohydrate, which are stored in the body (in the muscles and in the liver) as a compound called “glycogen”
  • A large body of scientific evidence exists which demonstrates the relationship between stored muscle glycogen and physical performance in soccer, including:
    •  A linear relationship between resting muscle glycogen levels pre-training/game, and time to exhaustion in soccer (thus, the more energy a soccer player has stored, the longer he/she will last in training/games)
    • An inverse relationship between muscle glycogen used, and resting muscle glycogen levels in soccer (thus, the longer a soccer player plays the game, the more of their energy gets used up)
    • A linear relationship between high carbohydrate intake post-training/games, and muscle glycogen re-synthesis (thus, the more carbohydrates a soccer player eats, the better their will be able to replenish its energy stores)
    • A linear relationship between muscle glycogen re-synthesis, and increased physical performance (including muscular strength, power, and endurance) in soccer (thus, the better job a soccer player does of restoring his/her energy levels, the better he/she will perform physically in training/games)

Adding to the overwhelmingly strong argument for soccer players to eat a high carbohydrate diet is the fact that there is not one government-regulated organization in North America (including Health Canada, the Canada Food Guide, the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services) that recommends healthy adults to get less than 45% of their total caloric intake from carbohydrates.  Most of these organizations recommend a range of 45-65% of total daily caloric intake to be from carbohydrates, and that is for the “general population” of non-athletes, not elite soccer players.

Taken together, this information presents soccer players with an easy and clear message that they should eat a lot of carbohydrates each day, to optimize both performance, and recovery.  How much carbohydrates should you eat if you are an elite level soccer player?  A great study done by Burke et. al. in 2001 determined that elite soccer players should follow the following guidelines:

  • Consume 5-7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day on non-training/game days
  • Consume 7-10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day on training/game days

I think it’s time we take a science-based approach to carbohydrate consumption in soccer.  Unless the advocates of low/no carbohydrate diets can come up with a way to provide soccer players with the energy to run 12 kilometres, with 3 kilometres being run at high speeds, and an average heart rate of 175 beats per minute, for 90+ minutes per game, without using carbohydrates, then a diet high in carbohydrates is the only science-based solution.  I hope that any elite level soccer player (or their parents/coaches) who read this article will think twice before they consider a low carbohydrate diet in the future.

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

Fitness, Science

The “You Have to be Big and Strong to Play in This League” Myth

Yesterday afternoon I worked as a Guest Coach at the 2nd 2015 TFC II Soccer Camp, run by International FC Academy (IFC) in Vaughan.  Each 1-day edition of the Camps feature a guest player either from TFC’s senior team, or the TFC II USL-Pro team.  Yesterday the guest player was 20 year old attacking midfielder Marky Delgado, recent TFC senior team signing who is also a member of the United States Men’s National Team.  These camps have been a very rewarding and positive experience for me, and the players who attend receive access both to high level coaching and training from the IFC staff, as well as the opportunity to learn and ask questions of the star TFC players.  During today’s question/answer portion of the Camp with Marky Delgado, one great question that came from one of the younger players was “what is your best strength, and what is your biggest weakness?”

Delgado noted that his best strength, in his opinion, was distribution from midfield, and he added that it has been this ability which has helped him earn a place in the starting line-up for TFC since arriving last month.  When asked to explain his biggest weakness, he simply responded “strength”, and he added “you need to be big and strong to play in the MLS.”  I have heard this type of comment many times before, most notably during the two years I spent as Head Strength and Conditioning Coach of the TFC Academy, in 2012-2013.  At times, it seemed as if some coaches, despite all of the advances in sports science and performance training, and also despite all of the science-based work I was doing with the players, were only concerned with how “big and strong” the young academy players were.  It was almost as if there was some kind of arbitrary “big and strong” threshold that a young player needed to reach, without which he would never become a professional player or make it into the first team, no matter how talented he was.

The problem with this line of thinking when it comes to youth development and professional soccer is that it is a complete fallacy.  Of course, muscular strength and power, particularly leg strength and power, plays a role in soccer players’ performance, and numerous studies have demonstrated that higher level soccer players have greater lower body strength than lower level soccer players.  But muscular “size” and, to a lesser extent, muscular strength, is not the best measuring stick for predicting the physical performance of a professional soccer player.  In fact, it isn’t even in the top 5, as it lags behind acceleration, speed, agility, repeated sprint ability, and jump height, just to name a few.  The physical ability with the best predictive value of performance in soccer is probably also the most misunderstood physical ability in the sport: high intensity running ability.  Simply put, high intensity running ability is defined as a player’s ability to perform “high intensity” – or fast – running during a game.  As a general rule, the more high intensity running a player can do in a game, the better he will play.  Over 15 years’ worth of research has clearly identified high intensity running ability (which can easily be measured through on-field tests like the Yo-Yo Test or the 30-15 IFT Test) as the best predictor of performance in soccer.  And high intensity running ability has absolutely nothing to do with how big or strong a soccer player is.

To illustrate this point, first think about the context in which the “big and strong” comment was made – that is, when Marky Delgado said “you have to be big and strong to play in the MLS.”  Major League Soccer is a league which seems to be renowned for having players who are “big and strong”.  The size and muscularity of the players in MLS is clearly visible and is also clearly more prominent than in the players in the top European leagues.  While there has as yet not been any research quantifying the distances covered and amount of high intensity running done in MLS, several recent studies have indicated that the leagues with the highest amounts of distance covered and high intensity running are the ones with the best players in the world (for example, the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A).  Since there is no comparative data available, I can at least make a “common sense” argument that it is probable that the players in MLS cover less total distance and do less high intensity running than those in Europe’s top leagues.  Thus, MLS players may be “bigger and stronger” than players in the top European leagues, but they are likely not doing as much high intensity running, and are thus likely not playing the game at the same high physical standard.

Delgado’s comment that “you need to be big and strong to play in the MLS” can be further refuted by examining the star player on his own team.  Designated Player Sebastian Giovinco, who is listed on TFC’s roster as 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 135 pounds, is small not just by MLS standards, but by those of any senior men’s professional team, anywhere in the world.  In fact, at 135 pounds he is almost 40 pounds lighter than the team’s average weight of 173 pounds.  Yet nobody in TFC or MLS has suggested that Giovinco needs to be “bigger and stronger” to play in the league.  At week’s end, Giovinco’s 16 goals and 11 assists have kept him as both TFC’s biggest offensive threat, as well as 2nd overall in the league in goals scored and tied for 3rd in assists.  In addition to his obviously excellent technical ability and positioning, Giovinco is excelling physically in MLS not because he is “big and string”, but because he is fast, agile, and well conditioned to be able to perform high intensity runs for the duration of every 90+ minute match.  And he is TFC’s smallest and lightest player. Interestingly, the second smallest/lightest player on TFC’s roster, at 5 feet 9 inches and 146 pounds, is Marky Delgado.

None of this is meant as a knock on Delgado, or on the inspiring message he gave to the aspiring young soccer players at the TFC camp yesterday afternoon.  I am only commenting on the need for a shift in the paradigm of how we go about measuring players’ physical ability and their potential to play professional soccer.  What is needed is a science-based approach, where coaches, fitness coaches, and sports-scientists work together to determine the best. most valid, and most reliable standardized, objective measurements of players’ abilities.  If a starting player for Toronto FC and an up-and-coming talent with the U.S. Men’s National Team believes he needs to be bigger and stronger to be competitive in Major League Soccer, then he (as well as his coaches) may be adjusting his training and spending more time on training for muscular size and strength at the expense of more important physical abilities like speed and high intensity running ability.  More importantly, if the prevailing attitude of coaches and fitness coaches in Toronto specifically, as well as in Canada in general, is that players who are not “big and strong” cannot be successful at the professional level, we may be excluding young, talented and potentially impact-full players from our higher levels of play (including youth professional academy and/or National Teams) for the wrong reasons.  Based on the most recent performances of Toronto FC in MLS, as well as our Canadian Men’s and Women’s National Teams in major senior international competitions, I do not think we can afford to make these kinds of mistakes in player identification.  I say It’s time to put an end to the “you need to be big and strong to play in this league” myth once and for all.

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

For Parents, Science

Article: “A Canadian Solution by Way of Germany” by

Below is a link to a very interesting article, written and posted by the website, which is dedicated to all things soccer and Canadian.  The article highlights some unique aspects of the German soccer model, and some ways in which Canada can learn from – and copy off of – this model in order to improve our domestic player development.

The main aspect of Canadian soccer that the author feels needs to change is our coach education system.  Specifically, the author is advocating that the Canadian Soccer Association create a Canadian National Youth License, with a curriculum centred around optimal training methods for talented players aged U8-U12.  The rationale for the implementation of a National Youth License and coaching/teaching curriculum for talented young players is that these are the ages in which our players do not receive proper technical instruction and/or are not exposed to proper learning environments in which they can develop their tactical knowledge and speed of play.  Players fall behind at these ages because there are no coaches who are adequately trained to properly optimally develop them.

I am 100% in agreement with the authors of this article.   In 2006,  when I was just getting started as a coach, I enrolled in the United States Soccer Federation’s National “Y” (Youth) License.  At the time I knew very little about the course, but because I was working with youth players (U10-U12) I thought the course content would be very helpful and applicable to my work.  Everything about the National “Y” License was impressive to me.  In each of the first 5 days, the course focused on a specific age category, starting with U6 on Monday, U8 on Tuesday, etc. all the way up to U12 on Friday.  The instructors were not just soccer coaches, but also teachers, child psychologists, and physical fitness experts.  We learned about each particular age category’s unique characteristics, based on their stage of physical, psychological, and psychosocial development, and how best to structure the learning environment to be able to maximize players’ skill development throughout each stage.  Also included in the course was video feedback, whereby we were recorded running our sessions and then watched the video while receiving feedback from the instructors and our peers.  By the time of the final exams on the weekend, I was very confident and had gained a lot of valuable knowledge and insight into how to best train young soccer players.  The experience was very rewarding for me and I am sure it has helped me tremendously in my career as a coach and fitness coach.

Based on this very positive experience, I have since been an advocate that all coaches working with youth players should take the USSF National “Y” Licence, and also that the Canadian Soccer Association should develop its own Youth coaching license.  It has always struck me as odd that in Canada, so many of the coaches who work with our elite level youth players (aged U10 to U14) have National “B” and “A” Licenses, which have a curriculum focused almost exclusively on tactical training of elite players ages U14 and up.  The knowledge and experience these coaches gained from the National “B” and “A” Licences, while certainly very valuable, is not at all applicable to the actual work they are doing if they work with youth players aged U10 to U14.  Furthermore, because there is no level of credibility to distinguish which coaches are truly experts in working with youth players, we also have no way of ensuring that our elite youth players receive the best coaching and development available to them.

Of course, there are several factors which together have contributed, and are still contributing to the lack of optimal player development in this country.  In my opinion, the creation of a Canadian National Youth Coaching License, as described in the article below, is one way in which we can improve coach education and, ultimately, player development in Canadian soccer.

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