For Parents, Science

The Problem with Age Groups in Youth Soccer

There are over 1 million registered soccer players in Canada.  Of those, over 80% are youth soccer players (between the ages of 5-17).  These numbers are a great example of how much the game as grown in this country over the past few decades, especially at the grass roots level.   One of the challenges that have accompanied this growth, however, is that the increased numbers of players have been organized and grouped according only to their chronological age (typically in Canada, this grouping is done based on the year in which the players are born).  On the surface, grouping players according to their chronological age or birth year seems fair – after all, this is the same way that the Canadian educational system groups its students.     Unfortunately, in both the youth sports / youth soccer systems, as well as in the educational system, grouping children based simply on the year and month in which they were born will not lead to optimal development, and many of these children will end up getting left behind.

There are two different “ages”, or methods, by which a child’s development can be determined.  The first, as mentioned above, is their chronological age (determined by their birth year); the second, and perhaps more important one, is their developmental age.   Developmental age can be determined by taking into account a variety of factors, including chronological age, gender, standing height, sitting height, and body mass.  A specific formula is then used, taking all of these factors into account, to determine the child’s age of Peak Height Velocity (or “PHV” for short).  A child’s age of Peak Height Velocity is defined as the age at which they will reach, or have reached, their maximum rate of growth.  On average, girls will reach their age of Peak Height Velocity between the ages 10-13, and boys will reach it between the ages of 12-15.     Reaching age of Peak Height Velocity typically occurs during the “growth spurt” that accompanies puberty, and thus, it coincides with increases in height but also in several other developmental characteristics, including increased production of anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, and accelerated development of the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord.  Thus, children who reach age of Peak Height Velocity earlier in their life will be at a significant advantage in sports including soccer, due to advanced physical, physiological, and cognitive development.

Simple examination of the average range in age in which boys and girls reach Peak Height Velocity (and thus the range of their actual developmental age) provides clear evidence of the problem with grouping young children together simply based on their chronological age.  For example, if the average age range for girls to reach Peak Height Velocity is 10-13, then there is a chance that any girls’ soccer team in any specific age category (U12, for instance) will be comprised of girls who have an actual developmental age of 10 and are playing, training and competing with girls who have an actual developmental age of 14.  This disparity in developmental age can present a significant problem to youth soccer coaches as well as their Club/Academy directors, one of whose main jobs is to identify talented players and place them in appropriate high performance programs.  There is likely no soccer coach in Canada who would accept forcing a 10 year-old girl to play for a team and compete in a league against 14 year-old girls, yet, if coaches in Canada do not know the actual developmental age of their players, this might actually already be occurring without their knowledge.

The best way for youth soccer coaches and Club/Academy directors to ensure parity between the developmental ages of their players is to simply assess and determine all of their players’ age of Peak Height Velocity.  Once all players in a given team or age category have had their age of Peak Height Velocity determined, specific decisions regarding specific players can be made based on their developmental age versus their chronological age.  For example, in the aforementioned girls’ U12 team, perhaps some players who are determined to be 2-3 years developmentally behind the average for their team could be moved to a younger aged team.  Conversely, if there are a few players who are 2-3 years developmentally ahead of the team average, they could be moved up to an older aged team.  Of course, there are several other factors for coaches to consider besides developmental age when making decisions about player identification and selection, including players’ technical ability, tactical awareness and knowledge of the game, and their psychological traits and personality.  If developmental age of players is ignored, especially in high performance environments, then there is a good chance that some talented players will be left behind simply because they reached their age or Peak Height Velocity later than the average for their team.

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

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Fitness, Science

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #20: Friday, February 26th, 2016

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the next edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog. In this Blog, we will be providing weekly video content relating to all things soccer and fitness. In this edition, we discuss skilled performance and motor learning, and how best to teach individual technical skills in soccer practice.

I Hope you enjoy it, and as always, please feel free to post thoughts/comments!

Fitness, For Parents, Science

Why Coaches in High Performance Programs Shouldn’t Select Slow Players

I have written and published several articles highlighting the importance of coaches and fitness coaches using objective, factual methods of analysis for assessing soccer players’ performance, from both the physical, as well as the technical and tactical viewpoints.  Using standardized, objective methods of player assessment minimizes – and in some case eliminates – the influence of coaching bias which can occur as a result of subjective, opinion-based analysis.  In the book ‘The Sports Gene’ by David Epstien (which should be required reading for any fitness coach working with athletes, including soccer players) the value of objective analysis is clearly apparent.  According to Epstein, one objective fact that is of specific importance in sports including soccer, is that speed – and in particular an athlete’s percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres, which are responsible for increased speed – is an excellent predictor of performance. Simply put, this means that players at higher levels of play (professional and National Team soccer, for example) are faster, and have better recovery abilities, than players at lower levels of play (amateur and recreational soccer).

Below is an excerpt from one of the few instances in which Epstein discusses soccer in The Sports Gene, including quotes from Danish fitness expert, and fitness coach for Copenhagen F.C. in the Danish First Division, Jesper Andersen:

 “Soccer coaches all want the fastest athletes, so Andersen wondered how it could be that many Danish pros have fewer fast-twitch fibres than an average person on the street.  “The guys that have the very fast muscles can’t really tolerate as much training as the others”, Andersen says.  “The guys with a lot of fast-twitch fibres that can contract their muscles very fast have much more risk of a hamstring injury, for instance, than the guys who cannot do the same type of explosive contraction but who never get injured.”  The less injury-prone players survived the development years, which is why the Danish elite level ended up skewed toward the slow-twitch.”

Interestingly, several studies investigating muscle fibre-type distribution amongst professional soccer players have indicated that in many other countries, the professional players have a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres, and thus are “faster” than the players in the lower levels.  Furthermore, there have been numerous match analysis studies (comparing the total number of sprints, total amount of high intensity running, and mean sprinting speed amongst professional and amateur soccer players) which have confirmed that professional soccer players run faster, and do more fast running, than amateur soccer players.  So why are the professional players in Denmark “skewed toward the slow-twitch” as Andersen indicates?  The answer most likely lies in talented player identification and selection.

A second objective fact mentioned repeatedly in The Sports Gene is that speed and, to a lesser extent, high intensity running ability, are largely determined by genetics, and that athletes (including soccer players) who possess these abilities are far more likely to reach the higher levels of play.  If we look at the sport of soccer objectively, and we accept the (objective) fact that speed  and high intensity running ability are determined by genetics, then soccer coaches and fitness coaches in high performance environments should be identifying and selecting players based on these abilities, especially in the older youth (U14-up), and adult age categories.  This does not necessarily mean that player identification at higher levels of play should be focused exclusively on speed and high intensity running ability but rather, that coaches and fitness coaches should place a high priority on identifying and selecting players based on these abilities.  If there is a choice to be made between selection of two players with similar technical and tactical abilities, the edge should go to the player with better speed and high intensity running ability.

Soccer players’ speed characteristics should be measured early (starting at age 10-12) and consistently, using objective assessment tools such as photo-cell timing gates (to assess linear running speed), and the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test (to assess high intensity running ability).  Players who have been identified as having superior speed and high intensity running ability, especially when this identification happens at a young age, should be given priority to be placed in high performance training environments where they can maximize the technical and tactical aspects of their game.  The volume and intensity of the physical training these players receive, as per Andersen’s suggestions, should be tailored to their own specific muscle physiology, with a combination of relatively high intensity and relatively low volume, in order to maximize their speed and high intensity running ability while at the same time minimizing their risk of injury.

The use of objective facts, rather than subjective opinions, should always be of paramount importance to soccer coaches and fitness coaches when assessing, selecting, and training their players.  Because it is an objective fact that speed and high intensity running ability are both good predictors of performance in soccer, as well as determined more by genetics than by training, coaches and fitness coaches must place a high priority on selecting for these physical abilities in their talent identification and selection processes.  Becoming an elite level soccer player requires world class technical and tactical ability, but it also requires world class speed, and this fact cannot be ignored by soccer coaches in high performance environments, even in our own country.

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

For Parents, Nutrition, Science

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #19: Friday, February 19th, 2016

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the next edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog. In this Blog, we will be providing weekly video content relating to all things soccer and fitness. In this edition, we discuss the importance of protein consumption for soccer players, including daily protein requirements, as well as whether or not protein supplementation may be needed for soccer.

I Hope you enjoy it, and as always, please feel free to post thoughts/comments!

Uncategorized

A Potential Solution to a Player Development Problem

For the past 10 years, my business has provided fitness testing, training, and coach education to soccer players, coaches and teams from countless different amateur youth soccer clubs across Ontario.  During this time, I have had many discussions and conversations with the club head coaches, members of technical staff, and even the administrators and board members from these different organizations.  During these discussions I have realized that, although virtually all amateur youth soccer clubs across Ontario have the goal of developing better soccer players, they simply do not have enough time and resources to adequately build and deliver player development programs. The reason for this lack of time and resources is that youth amateur soccer clubs are presently set up to divide their energy and their focus between both recreational “house league”, and competitive “rep” – or player development – programs.  Although clubs run these two separate soccer streams believing they have the best interests of the players in mind, the end result is that the house league and rep programs compete for resources, and the synergies between these programs are limited at best.

One main problem facing amateur youth soccer clubs in Ontario today is that they have a very high cost (in both dollars, and time spent) to administer their house league programs.  These programs can have hundreds if not thousands of registered players, and thus they require a significant amount of time, resources, and manpower to run efficiently.  All house league programs, unfortunately, present little to no benefit to any soccer club’s competitive / development stream.  This is because the great majority of the players involved in recreational or house league soccer have no ambition of playing soccer competitively and/or progressing to become a professional or National Team player (so they will never be participants in the development stream).  Thus the high costs associated with an amateur club’s house league program are simply not justified by any benefits they may provide to the same club’s competitive / player development program.

A second problem for amateur youth soccer clubs is that their competitive / player development streams need to be broader, and more inclusive.  Most clubs operate their competitive programs under a system whereby players are identified and selected out of house leagues when they are 7-8 years old.  After this age, players in the house league program have a very small chance of being identified, because the club’s house league and rep / competitive programs run in parallel to each other, and there is little to no scouting in the house league programs from the ages of 9 and up.  Even most club’s rep / competitive programs, although some have been re-structured as standards-based systems such as the Ontario Player Development League (OPDL), still comprise rosters of only 15-20 players per age group.  So the total number of rep / competitive players in any club’s developmental streams is still very small in relation to the total number of recreational / house league players.  This presents a problem for clubs because, in order for a club to deliver a standards-based developmental program, they must employ professional / paid coaches, fitness coaches, and athletic therapists (all of whom must be paid for their work), and also invest a significant amount of money and resources into indoor/outdoor field rentals, and team travel.  Thus the traditional model for most amateur clubs’ developmental programs, whereby only the players deemed “good enough” at 7-8 years of age, are selected into the competitive/player development stream, is simply not sustainable, because this very small number of players will be forced to bear the very high cost (paying coaches, fitness coaches, athletic therapists, field/gym rentals, team travel, etc..) associated with administering these player development programs.

One potential solution which may help standards-based player development programs (like the Ontario Player Development League) to become more sustainable would be for the pool of players in each age group of these programs to become larger.  This larger number of players in each age group would make the cost of administering developmental programs more manageable for any amateur youth soccer club.  This is because the larger number of players could then share in some of the fixed the costs of coaching, fitness training, therapy, and field/gym rentals, making the cost to each individual player significantly lower.  A second, potentially effective solution to this problem in Ontario would be to separate the recreational or house league stream from the competitive or player development stream.  We could have clubs focused exclusively on delivering recreational / house league soccer to the large number of players who do not have the ambition to pay competitive soccer, and entirely different clubs focused exclusively on delivering competitive/player development programs, with larger player pools.  This would allow the clubs who are experts in player development to focus all of their attention, time and resources into this stream, and leave the recreational / house league programs to the different clubs in that stream.

Imagine if a top professional club or academy in another country (Barcelona, or Bayern Munich, for example) had to divide its time, energy and resources into its competitive / developmental program (which is set up to help players progress to become professionals with the first team) and a recreational soccer program.  No foreign club or academy in any other country would ever want to saddle themselves with this unnecessary burden.  Why, then, do we expect our own amateur soccer clubs here in Ontario to be experts in both recreational soccer and player development?  It is possible that by increasing the number of players in specific clubs’ developmental soccer programs, while simultaneously separating these clubs – and their programs – from other clubs’ recreational house league programs, we may be able to provide a more sustainable model for player development in this province.

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

 

For Parents, Science

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #18: Friday, February 12th, 2016

Hi everyone,

Welcome to the next edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog. In this Blog, we will be providing weekly video content relating to all things soccer and fitness. In this edition, we discuss the science behind the technique of striking the ball with the instep of the foot, including some common coaching mistakes and how to avoid them.

I Hope you enjoy it, and as always, please feel free to post thoughts/comments!

For Parents, Science

Coaches – Don’t Make This Technical Mistake With Your Players

In soccer, the technique of striking a ball with the instep of the foot has always seemed to be more of an art form than an exact science.  Players who have mastered this technique (a few modern examples include David Beckham, Andrea Pirlo, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic) have no doubt spent thousands of hours practicing it, and as a result have developed their own slightly unique ball striking style.  While this style may differ from player-to-player, a few biomechanical constants in the technique remain the same.  Because a the cross-bar on a regulation size soccer goal is only 2.44 metres high, keeping the ball low when striking it is a critical component to the technique.  Expert ball strikers – even if they strike the ball with a slightly differing technique – can strike with power and accuracy, while at the same time keeping the ball low enough to stay under the 2.44 metre cross-bar height.

Like many other soccer players who grew up in Canada, I was first introduced to ball striking technique from house league and rep coaches at a very early age.  And, like many other Canadian players, I was taught from my coaches that in order to keep the ball low when striking it, I had to “keep my body over the ball.”  On the surface, this coaching advice seems to make sense – after all, most of the time, especially with young players, if they keep their body over the ball while striking it, the ball is likely to stay lower than if they lean back while striking it.  It is also part of our natural instincts as humans and as athletes to assume that the way we were taught to execute a technique (in this case, ball striking with the instep of the foot) is the correct way, especially if we are able to achieve the desired result through this execution (in this case, keeping the ball low when striking it).

A closer look into the biomechanics of ball striking, however, reveals that keeping the body over the ball has no relevance whatsoever to the height at which the ball will travel when it is struck.  This is because the height that a ball reaches during an instep strike is related only to the point on the ball at which the foot makes contact with the ball when it is struck.  If the ball is struck on the top half (slightly above the midline of the ball) it will stay low, regardless of the body position while striking.  Similarly, if the ball is struck on the bottom half (below the midline of the ball) it will travel upwards, also regardless of the body position while striking.  Thus, a coach who wishes to teach a player how to keep the ball low when striking with the instep of the foot needs only to focus on ensuring the player makes contact with the top half of the ball.  There is no more need to tell a player to “keep your body over the ball.”

The elimination of the “body over the ball” kicking technique has other advantages as well.  In a comprehensive review of instep kicking mechanics, Ismail et. al. (2010) determined that power in the instep strike is maximized in part through maximizing the range of motion at the hip of the kicking leg.  This is because a greater range of motion at the hip allows the thigh and shin to travel – or accelerate – over a greater distance, and as a result of this greater acceleration, the power generated in the leg when contacting the ball will increase.  Thus, a body position that is open, with an upright or slightly extended torso when contacting the ball, will allow for maximal range of motion at the hip joint of the kicking leg.  Conversely, bending forwards or hunching over to keep the upper body “over the ball” has the exact opposite effect – that is, it restricts the range of motion at the hip of the kicking leg.

As mentioned previously, striking the ball with the instep of the foot is still very much an art form, so individual differences in ball striking technique may still exist between different players.  Coaches who wish to teach players how to maximize power while at the same time keeping the ball low when striking with the instep, however, should avoid instructing players to “keep their body over the ball.”  Instead, coaches should follow basic biomechanics principles, and instruct players to keep an upright, “open” body position, and make contact with the top half of the ball, in order to maximize power and keep the ball low when striking.

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