Fitness, Matches, Science

Specificity – the Most Important Rule in Soccer Fitness Training (Part I)

This summer I took a trip to Montreal, to watch both a Women’s World Cup match, as well as a Major League Soccer match between the Montreal Impact and Orlando City FC.  During this time I also got to visit and catch up with an old friend, Palo Pacione, who is the Fitness Coach of the Impact.  We discussed our work, some of the ups and downs we have both experienced in our careers, and also how the role of a soccer fitness coach has changed and developed over the past 10-15 years, since the two of us got started in this industry.  During our discussion, one issue that continually came up was our shared opinion that the most important role a fitness coach can have in soccer is the work done with the players on the field, during training.  As we looked back on some of the experiences we have had at higher levels in the game, including the Canadian National Men’s and Women’s Teams, and both Canadian as well as international professional soccer teams and academies, we both recognized that the most important contributions we have made to players and teams at these levels came not from the work we did in the weight room, but rather from the soccer-specific work we did with them on the pitch.

As a sports scientist, I am inclined to consider the above-mentioned realization in the context of the principles of training, which provide fitness coaches with a framework from which they can develop their training strategy and tactics.  In doing so, I have come to see that the reason the most impactful and rewarding work soccer fitness coaches do occurs during training on the pitch is because of the most important of all of the principles of training – the principle of specificity.  The principle of specificity states that sports training should be relevant and appropriate to the sport for which the individual is training in order to produce a training effect.  Put another way, specificity refers to the development of any particular athletic quality, in the exact, specific manner in which it occurs in a particular sport.  In soccer, then, the principle of specificity dictates that the best way to develop the specific athletic qualities needed for soccer is to train them in the specific manner in which they occur in the sport, on the pitch.

To understand how the principle of specificity would affect training in soccer, the first step must be to identify what specific athletic qualities are central to performance in soccer, and then to determine how these athletic qualities occur in a match.  Below is a chart that lists the necessary athletic qualities in soccer, and how they are manifest in the sport:

Speed –          Short sprints (0-5 metres) to outrun opponents into space or to get to the ball

–          Long sprints (10-30 metres); usually recovery runs or overlapping runs

–          Multi-directional running (backwards, sideways, and diagonal)

Power –          Jumping to head the ball

–          (for goalkeepers) Jumping to catch/parry the ball

–          Shooting / ball striking

Strength –          (general) All soccer actions including running, jumping, kicking

–          (specific) Shielding, challenging for the ball on the ground or in the air

–          (specific) decelerating / slowing down from sprints and fast movements

Endurance –          Aerobic capacity (to be able to cover a specific total distance during a match)

–          High intensity running ability (to be able to perform a specific amount of high intensity – fast – running during a match)

–          Recovery (ability to recover in between bursts of high intensity running)

Flexibility –          Prevention of muscle injury when performing soccer actions such as running, jumping, kicking, and challenging for the ball

After determining the necessary athletic qualities in soccer and how they are manifest in the sport, the final step for soccer fitness coaches must be to determine what types of exercises or training will help to reproduce these athletic qualities in the same manner in which they occur in the sport.  When considering all of the specific details relating to the manifestation of each of the five athletic qualities in soccer, it is difficult – or maybe even impossible – to imagine a training program in which the execution of these athletic qualities would remain specific without having players on the pitch, actually playing soccer.  Thus, the only way for soccer fitness coaches to apply the principle of specificity to the physical training of soccer players is to come up with exercises and training sessions that are done on the pitch, with the ball, and preferably while actually playing soccer.  Below is a chart which briefly describes one practical example of how to use the principle of specificity to train for each of the 5 athletic qualities in soccer.  In Part II of this article (next week) I will provide detailed examples and descriptions of each of these 5 practical training sessions.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and would love to hear your thoughts/comments.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Speed –          Crossing and finishing exercise, where wide players must make long sprints (10-20 metres) to receive a through ball, and then cross to forward players who must make short sprints (5-10 metres) to finish on goal
Power –          Technical exercise, involving repeated bouts of maximal jumps to head the ball
Strength –          1 vs. 1 exercise, done in a small/restricted space, to facilitate multiple decelerations and challenges for the ball
Endurance –          Small-sided soccer game, played at a high intensity for a specific amount of time, with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:1
Flexibility –          Soccer-specific warm-up exercises, following the FIFA 11+ program, that include flexibility and mobility exercises for soccer-specific muscles

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