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.

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

  1. So true, I’m a small soccer player and I was almost limited because of that until I was inspired by other short soccer players who are devastating defenses the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Sanchez, Hazard, there are so many Maradona wasn’t big at all, neither was Pele, so I know I’ll make it to the highest level

    • richard@soccerfitnessgols.com

      Hi Anele, thanks for your comment. I agree. In fact many of the best players in the world right now are small. In the end the only thing that should matter is performance. If you play well, you should be given a chance, regardless of your size.

  2. Mario

    Great article! I remember when Modric was said to be “too small for the premiership.” What makes this sport the greatest is that the players can be any shape or size and still play at the highest level. From a big and strong Giroud to a small and quick Pirlo both players play in the best leagues and cover plenty of ground per match as you have mentioned. The paradigm in this country definitely needs a change if we are to have any success. Cheers

    • richard@soccerfitnessgols.com

      Hi Mario, thanks for your reply/comment! I agree with what you have said. I think the statement should be changed to “you need to have above average technical ability, speed, decision-making, and recovery between high intensity running to play in this league”!

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