Fitness, Science

How Canadian College And University Soccer Is Hurting Young Soccer Players – And What Can Be Done About It

It’s hard to believe, but we are now in the first week of November, 2015.  For college and university soccer players, if you’re lucky enough to still be playing by this time of year, it means you have progressed deep into the play-offs and are very close to qualifying for the National Championships, which are typically finished by November 15th.  In college and university soccer, the play-offs and National Championships are microcosms of the competitive season, with multiple 90+ minute matches scheduled over a very short period of time, including several instances of back-to-back matches, as well as periods of time with 3 games played over just 4 days.  As an example, take a look at this year’s CCAA (Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association) and CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) men’s National Championship tournament schedules:

  • CCAA Men’s Soccer:
    • Match 1: Wednesday, November 11th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Friday, November 13th
    • Match 3 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Saturday, November 14th
  • CIS Men’s Soccer:
    • Match 1: Thursday, November 12th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Saturday, November 14th
    • Match 3: (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Sunday, November 15th

Of course, in order to get to the National Championships, teams need to have qualified from the play-offs, which are scheduled in a very similar way.  Typically, the first play-off matches in college and university soccer begin between 3-6 days after the conclusion of the regular season.  In Ontario, the play-offs finish with the OCAA (Ontario Collegiate Athletic Association) Championships, and the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) Final Four, both of which comprise multiple 90+ minute matches played over a 2-3 day timespan.  Below is a summary of these schedules for men’s soccer in 2015:

  • OCAA Men’s Soccer Championships:
    • Match 1 (Quarter-Finals): Thursday, October 29th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Friday, October 30th
    • Match 3 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Saturday, October 31st
  • OUA Men’s Soccer Final Four:
    • Match 1 (Semi-Finals): Saturday, November 7th
    • Match 2 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Sunday, November 8th

Working backwards even further, it is critical to note that, in order to qualify for the play-offs in Ontario college and university soccer, teams must endure the OCAA and OUA competitive seasons, both of which pack two and sometimes even three 90 minute matches per week, every week, from the beginning of September until the end of October.  Here is what the 2015 OCAA and OUA competitive schedules looked like:

  • OCAA Men’s Soccer competitive season:
    • 10 matches played from Saturday, September 12th to Saturday, October 24th
    • Total of 10 matches in 6 weeks = 1.6 matches per week
  • OUA Men’s Soccer competitive season:
    • 16 matches played from Saturday, August 29th to Saturday, October 24th
    • Total of 16 matches in 8 weeks = 2.0 matches per week

I cannot help but wonder why, in the year 2015, we are still subjecting young student-athletes to this type of competitive schedule.  Virtually all of the scientific research done on the intensity and loading in soccer has indicated that a minimum of 24-48 hours is needed in order for players to optimally recover from a 90 minute match.    Furthermore, most if not all of the world’s leading authorities in soccer-specific sports science have recommended that players do not play more than one match per week in their competitive seasons.  This is because when players do play more than one 90+ minute match per week, they will experience both a significant decrease in muscular strength, speed, power, and endurance, as well as a significantly increased risk of over-training and injury due to inadequate repair and recovery from muscle damage caused during the match.  Compounding the problem for college and university soccer is that the great majority of the players are in school between the ages of 18-22, and their bodies are not fully physically and physiologically developed and thus are at an even greater risk of injury.

Several of the world’s most prominent soccer coaches and fitness coaches, including Jens Bangsbo of the University of Copenhagen, Raymond Verheijen of the World Football Academy, and Jurgen Klinsmann, current Head Coach of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, have been critical of college and professional competitive leagues that require players to play more than one 90+ minute match per week.  In fact, Klinsmann was one of the harshest critics of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) soccer schedule (which also comprises an average of 2 matches per week), criticism which eventually led to a proposed change to a full academic year schedule (September to May) that will likely take effect as early as the 2016-2017 season.  If the rest of the world (including the Americans, who are traditionally resistant to change) has been able to structure their competitive soccer seasons so that they average a maximum of 1 match per week, there is no reason for Canada not to follow suit.

Competing in college and university soccer in Canada is a unique and rewarding experience.  For the great majority of young players who do not advance into the Canadian National Teams and/or into professional soccer, competing at the college and/or university level represents the highest competitive level they will reach in their careers.  If the CCAA and CIS are truly concerned with the long-term development and overall health of the young soccer players competing in their leagues, they should seriously consider revising their competitive schedules, to lengthen the season and/or to decrease the total number of matches played to a maximum of 1 match per week.

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

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14 thoughts on “How Canadian College And University Soccer Is Hurting Young Soccer Players – And What Can Be Done About It

  1. Pat Raimondo

    Very poor article. Poorly recherched. Not fair at all!
    Why are you not taking about the CSA Club Championships (5 games in 6 days)
    Why are you not talking about club Tournaments (ie The Robbie, 3-6 games in 4 days)
    Why are you not talking about Pro academies detetion days and tournamnents?

    • Greg

      Though they can play a number of games in the Robbie, those games are 60 minutes long. And our rep team played 25 or 50 minute games in our four tournaments this year. As opposed to the normal 70 minute games we play in league.

      Though is sounds like the college and university schedule is very arduous, I don’t believe it is the same for youth soccer.

  2. Peter Cooper

    I fully agree with what you have said. Being a a player in the CCAA, it is very tough on the body. Injuries are a common occurrence and damages the future of us players. I am a central defender that plays two 90′ minute games in two days. That is two marathons in two days. If it weren’t for ice baths and military training during pre-season, I would not have made it through this season.

    Thank you for posting this. I can definitely relate.

    • richard@soccerfitnessgols.com

      Thanks Peter. Glad you liked the article. At some point it would be good to see the league administrators (the people who have the power to change things) take a science-based approach and create a competition schedule that allows for optimal recovery between each game. This can only occur with a maximum of 1 game per week.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Pat. The research that went into this article reflects the latest sports science on matches during the competitive season. We focused on the university / college game because this is the highest level that many young soccer players attain in Canada. The university and college system should help set the standard in soccer in Canada for adopting leading sports science. The CSA club competitions and tournaments like the Robbie reflect outdated approaches that have long since been abandoned in other countries. But you’re right, there are definitely other areas of both amateur and professional soccer in Canada that need to change format if we want to develop more high quality players and avoid needless injuries. In fact, we wrote about this on September 2 in our post, “Why Are We Still Playing Tournaments?”.

  4. Julie

    I do not agree with this article. I competed in the states where we would have 18 matches in two months, plus 2 matches before the season started in pre season. The only thing I agree with about this is that the playoffs shouldn’t be so back to back. However, weather dependent, has an issue with Ontario schools, as they need to complete there matches before the cold hits.

    As for studies, the FIFA 11 standards for warm up help with preventing from injuries. Also proper coaching, teaches players about stretching and recovery methods. Most schools require practices between games, however that’s when you should take a day off. I’ve been coaching for years and have had multiple back to back days of training and/or games and had very few injuries of my players due to properly showing them stretching and warming the body up properly to the game.

    • richard@soccerfitnessgols.com

      Hi Julie,
      thanks for your comment. I am sorry you do not “agree” with what we have written, but these are facts. Playing more than one 90+ minute match per week is simply not healthy. All top competitive league around the world have made changes to try to limit the number of games played per week. The NCAA will be making similar changes soon.
      An excellent study conducted recently by Dupont et. al. (2011) found that professional soccer players who participate in more than 1 match per week were almost 6 times more likely to get injured than players who compete in only 1 match per week.
      You are correct that warm-up programs such as the FIFA 11+ can be effective at reducing injuries, however, players who play 2 or more matches in a week are always going to be far more likely to get injured than players who play in one match per week. I am happy to hear that you have had success with your team by using warm-up protocols, however, as long as your team continues to play back-to-back matches and/or more than one match per week, the risk of your players being injured is going to be very high.
      Good luck.

  5. Becky

    I fully understand the sentiment, but I am really curious as to how you would create a better schedule. The majority of the country cannot play beyond early November because of the weather.. and wouldn’t be able to start up again until the regular school year is over. Some CIS schools do not even have soccer fields on their campuses, let alone access to regulation indoor turf fields, so playing on full-size indoor turf fields in the winter is not an option. I have looked at the proposed NCAA schedule and it is not realistic to start playing again in March in Canada (or even the northern states for that matter). Additionally, due to scholarship caps, as well as limited funding in Canada, scholarship money is not as readily available for Canadian athletes. The summer (i.e. May and June when the season would continue) are often vital months where student-athletes earn the funds to be able to support themselves throughout the school year.

    As someone who has played both D1 NCAA soccer as well as CIS soccer, I have to point out the inherent differences in the two leagues and how one proposal cannot be directly applied to another. Money, infrastructure, support, and size are all factors that create two completely incomparable systems.

    My education background is in exercise science so I am fully aware of training load principles, injury risk, optimal recovery, etc. And I do believe a less physically demanding schedule is better for the players. However, I am hard pressed to think of a way to organize the season without negatively affecting other aspects of the student-athlete’s lives.

    • richard@soccerfitnessgols.com

      Hi Becky, thanks for your comment. A lot of the points you have made are correct. I think it may be possible to play matches indoors – I cannot speak for the rest of Canada but in Ontario, most schools can and do get access to indoor, regulation size fields to train on in the winter, so it may be possible to use the same facilities for regular season or play-off matches in the late fall. The other option, if indoor facilities are not available, is simply to decrease the number of matches in the competitive season. What would be wrong with 8-10 matches in 8 weeks, rather than 16 matches? Does each school really need to play each other 2 times each season? In the end, if the health of the players is the primary concern, one of these two options is the only choice.

  6. Myriam

    I agree with this article, however I agree with what Becky had to say on a few points.
    I have been a trainer for Men’s soccer in the OUA for over 5 years and the number of injuries that I’ve had to deal with is extremely high and I pose most of the blame on the compact season these players are faced with. Playing games on Saturday and another on Sunday is extremely demanding especially when the players have been training twice a day the week before and know that this must be repeated in the weeks to follow. There were even some instances when we would play Saturday, Sunday & Wednesday. 3 90+ minute games within 5 days in the OUA can pose risk to anyone’s body and this has always been a concern for me. Even with perfect fitness training whether it be cardiovascular or flexibility sessions, the injuries are still very hard to avoid especially when the players do not have enough time to properly recover. We have hydrotherapy sessions after every practice and I even treat and train the players one on one to try and minimize the risk of injury during the season. I have always wished for a longer season or for a way to lengthen the season in order to let bodies properly heal and be properly re-fueled. However, based on where my school is located, we do not have access to a regulation sized indoor turf field in the winter and that would mean that we would have to travel to other schools which has many associated costs. If the season were to begin in June, we would not have the full roster we need to play as many students are at home working. We currently have trouble getting everyone out in the middle of August because they all have to work. Yes, soccer is important, and yes having everyone present for all of training camp is very difficult but these kids are working so they can be students first. As much as I would love to see a change in the CIS, there are many factors to keep in mind when wanting to lengthen or change the way the league is running the current schedule. It is not easy being a varsity athlete in Canada especially a soccer player because you are put in a situation where your body is going to take a beating, but you do it because you absolutely love it. Our job is to try and keep them healthy even with the many obstacles placed in front of us. I am now a Medical student so I take even more precautions in the treatment or clearance of the players once they are injured. I know they want to play, and I know they can lie about their symptoms in fear of losing a starting position. They know missing 2 weeks means missing almost 1/3 of the season. Its a very difficult and tricky situation. A solution is needed, I am just not sure how it can be implemented.

    • richard@soccerfitnessgols.com

      Hi Myriam, thanks for your response. Everything you have said is correct. If the season cannot be lengthened, then why not just decrease the number of matches? Why not 8-10 matches over 8 weeks, rather than 16 matches over 8 weeks?

  7. Michael Aquino

    Richard,

    Agreed 1 match per week is ideal. Unless you lengthen season difficult to create a schedule which is beneficial for optimal recovery from games. If you can’t lengthen season, at the very least play no more than 10 games in 8-10 weeks. OCAA moved to 3 divisions of 6, east, west and central … and we played home & away for ten games. It wasn’t a bad number of games given the season/schedule to operate within. Leagues may need to try and add a week on both the front and back ends of schedule to make it work …

    You then need to keep playoffs to a final 4 with games Thursday & Sunday or very least Friday & Sunday (absolutely no need for 3 games in 3 days).

    Nationals is trickier with travel and hotel costs but where there is desire to change I’m certain alternatives can be found …

    Increasing length of season as the americans are considering is the bettter approach.

    Things to consider as I believe – if done correctly – there’s a place for the collegiate game in the Canadian soccer structure …

    Mike

    • richard@soccerfitnessgols.com

      Hi Michael,
      thanks for your reply.
      I agree that there is – and should be – a place for the collegiate game in the Canadian soccer structure. In fact, I think there should be more of a place for it. Colleges have better coaching, facilities, access to athletic therapy, infrastructure etc..than any other adult amateur environment in Canada, so it would make sense to have our top athletes (who are not playing professional soccer and/or are not involved in the Canadian National Teams) to be training and competing in the college game. The problem is that, with the current league and play-off competition schedule, the total number of games with insufficient rest periods end up doing more harm than good. I think that, once the American competitive season is lengthened, at some point the Canadians will follow suit. It would be great to see and I think it would really help us. Hope to see some changes in the next few years!

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