Matches, Science

How Ball Possession Influences Match Performance in Soccer

In its simplest form, ball possession in soccer is typically approached in one of two ways. A team will either look to maintain possession of the ball often with the intent of unbalancing the opposing defence through passing and movement, until a space is created through which to penetrate, or a team will look to willingly concede possession, with the aim of exploiting space created through quick transitional play.  There are hundreds if not thousands of different strategies – including variations of team and group tactics as well as line-ups and formations – with which teams can achieve these objectives, however, almost all of these strategies can ultimately be grouped into two sub-categories:

  • High Percentage Ball Possession
  • Low Percentage Ball Possession

Despite the differences in game strategy, a recent study by Soccer Research Group at the University of Sunderland (Bradley et al., 2013) found that there is no significant difference in the total amount of running or high intensity running between teams using high and low percentage of ball possession. The study examined over 20 teams and over 800 players from the English FA Premier League. The players were grouped into these two sub-categories, with “high percentage ball possession teams” or “HGBPT” (teams that had 55+/- 4% ball possession in matches) and “low percentage ball possession teams” or “LPBPT” (teams that had 46 +/- 4% ball percentage in matches).  Researchers analysed the teams based on several different physical and technical performance indicators. Among the performance indicators measured were (from the physical side) total amount of running, and total distance covered at different running speeds, and (from the technical side) passes, shots, dribbles, tackles, and possessions won and lost.  In addition, this particular study also compared performance in these metrics amongst different playing positions, including fullbacks, central defenders, wide midfielders, central midfielders and strikers.

Their findings also yielded some other interesting results. It found a significant difference in the amount of high intensity running done when in possession of the ball, compared to the amount of high intensity running done when not in possession of the ball, between the two sub-categories.  HPBPT did 31% more high intensity running when in possession than did LPBPT. Conversely, HPBPT did 22% less high intensity running when not in possession of the ball than did LPBPT. This suggests that despite using high intensity running at different times in a team’s game strategy, both sub-categories of teams engage in similar total amounts of high intensity running .

There were also positional differences in physical performance. Central defenders in LPBPT did 33% less high intensity running when in possession than did central defenders in HPBPT. Meanwhile fullbacks, strikers, and central/wide midfielders in LPBPT all did significantly more high intensity running without ball possession than did their counterparts in HPBPT.

The two sub-categories of teams differed in their technical performance as well. Players in HPBPT performed 44% more passes, and also had a significantly higher percentage of successful passes, received passes, touches per possession, shots, dribbles and final-third entries, than did players in LPBPT.  Total passes, passes received, and pass completion percentage, were all higher in HPBPT than in LPBPT, across all playing positions

So what does all of this information mean to soccer coaches and fitness coaches?  First of all, it is imperative for any coach and/or fitness coach to take note of what type of team (HPBPT or LPBPT) they are working with, and also what their particular strategy for an upcoming match will be (do they intend to have more or less ball possession in their upcoming match?).  Once this critical piece of information has been identified, then some specific training strategies may be implemented based on the findings of the study.

HPBPT are required to do more high intensity running while in possession of the ball, so coaches and fitness coaches should design training exercises, such as conditioned small-sided games, that require a lot of running off the ball to be done by players who are supporting the ball-carrier, in order to maintain possession. In contrast, since LPBPT do more high intensity running when not in possession of the ball, coaches or fitness coaches working with these teams should spend more time on defending sessions (functional exercises, or small-sided games), which elicit a similar type of movement and game play.  Position-specific training might also be an important addition to teams’ training routines, based on their percentage of ball possession. Central defenders in HPBPT, for example, may need to perform some functional sessions with a lot of high intensity running, as they will be required to do a high amount of high intensity running during game play. Players in the other outfield positions in HPBPT will also need to do more high intensity running in training, in addition to training with a high number of passes in their sessions while maintaining possession of the ball.

Ultimately, the planning and implementation of strategies and tactics prior to match play in soccer is a complicated process. When planning training and preparing for an opponent, coaches and fitness coaches must account for a variety of factors including the strengths and weaknesses of the individual players in the team, as well as those of the opponent, and they must consider the results and evidence gleaned from recent studies like the one done by the Soccer Research Group.  If their strategy involves maintaining possession of the ball, their players will be required to perform large amounts of high intensity running, while at the same time managing a high number of passes, all while they are attacking and in possession.  Thus, the physical and technical training for a team striving to maintain a high percentage of ball possession must include exercises which mimic these actions on the pitch. On the other hand, teams aiming to play with low percentage of ball possession must do most of their high intensity running when they do not have the ball.  In this case, coaches and fitness coaches must plan exercises that force players to do the majority of their high intensity running when defending, rather than when attacking.  If and when these teams do win possession and transition into attack, they must also train and prepare to maximize the efficiency of their movements, limiting the amount and speed of their running and trying to get to goal as quickly as possible.

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

Fitness, For Parents, Science

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #24: Friday, March 25th, 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 problems with traditional March Break soccer camps, and provide some suggested alternatives for players, parents, and coaches.

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

For Parents, Science

Why Are March Break Soccer Camps Still a Thing?

Today is Monday, March 21st, and included amongst the upcoming milestones this week is not just the first day of spring, but also the end of the March Break (which in 2016 ran from Monday, March 14th until Sunday, March 20th).  In Canada, the March Break is a time during which students between the ages of 5-18 have the privilege of a week-long break from school and oftentimes, a planned family vacation.  For many youth soccer players in Ontario and Canada, however, March Break is not really a break at all.  Instead, it is a time when they end up participating in an abnormally high volume of soccer training and match play.

Typically, Canadian youth players are not required to attend their regular weekday evening training sessions during the March Break, either because they have been cancelled altogether, or because attendance cannot be made mandatory due to the holiday.  Inserted into this void in players’ schedules are March Break soccer camps, comprising upwards of 6-8 hours per day (30-40 hours per week) of soccer training.

Objectively speaking, there is simply nothing productive that can come from participation in a week-long soccer camp.  Any skill that may be taught or trained in a March break camp, whether it is technical (dribbling, passing, shooting), tactical (game awareness, position-specific skill), or physical (speed, strength, endurance), cannot be rushed.  Basically all relevant scientific evidence in the fields of skilled performance and motor learning, as well as physical fitness training, has indicated that it takes several weeks, months and, in some cases, even years, of dedicated practice to improve these skills and physical abilities.  Adaptations to the body’s neurological, physical, and physiological systems which govern these abilities occur gradually, so the amount of practice hours required to improve them must also accumulate gradually in order for improvements to take place.  Thus, the idea that training for several hours per day over a one-week period will somehow accelerate the development of technical, tactical, or physical skills in youth soccer players is contrary to factual evidence – it doesn’t work.

A larger problem with week-long March Break soccer camps is the high volume of training that players are subjected to, which typically comprises up to 3-4 times the amount of physical activity that they are accustomed to getting during their regular weekly schedule.  For example, most high-level, standards-based soccer programs in Ontario will require players to participate in three to five 1½ to 2 hour training sessions per week, and possibly an additional 60-90-minute match per week.  Even at the highest level, this would represent a total volume of 12 hours of soccer per week.  In a March Break soccer camp, where training typically takes place from 9:00am to 4:00 or even 5:00pm, players will have accumulated their regular weekly volume of soccer training by the middle of the second day.  By the fifth day, they will have accumulated somewhere between 30-40 hours, which represents a 3-4x increase in the volume of training they are accustomed to.  Unfortunately, there is no way for players to make this kind of an increase in training volume without at the very least suffering decreases in physical, physiological, and psychological performance.  In the worst cases, increasing volume will lead to overtraining, burnout, and eventually, to injury.


Armed with these objective facts, youth soccer clubs and academies in Ontario should consider the following alternatives to the typical week-long March Break soccer camp:

  • If possible, continue with the regularly scheduled weekday evening soccer training and game schedule during the March Break week
  • If maintaining the weekday evening schedule is not an option, run a March Break program that includes no more than 2-3 hours per day of soccer training, with the remainder of the time spent on other activities (for example, class-room sessions, watching soccer highlight videos, etc.)
  • Cancel all training for the week, but provide players with “soccer homework” that must be completed (for example, a certain number of touches on the ball or repetitions of technical skills, fitness exercises, or an assignment to watch a professional game on TV and write a report about it)

The development and improvement of soccer skills is a process that requires several months’ and years’ worth of dedicated practice hours.  These practice hours must be accumulated gradually, through the use of a training volume that is reasonable and sustainable based on players’ typical weekly training schedules.  A large increase in soccer training volume, as is typically seen in week-long March Break camps, is counter-productive to optimal player development.  Soccer clubs and academies in Ontario and Canada should consider more healthy alternatives to the traditional week-long March Break soccer camp, which will allow young players to fill the void left by the break in school without putting them at increased risk of overtraining or injury.

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

For Parents, Matches

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #23: Friday, March 18th, 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 watching high level soccer (such as the UEFA Champions League) for aspiring young soccer players.

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

Fitness, Science

Like it or Not – There IS a Link Between Speed and Level of Play in Soccer

As human beings, we suffer from an unfortunate tendency to ignore factual evidence in favour of our own beliefs and opinions.  Sometimes, the rational areas of our brains allow us to “over-ride” this tendency and accept objective evidence as truth.  Other times, as seems to be the case for some youth soccer coaches with regards to player identification, it doesn’t.  Three weeks ago I wrote and posted an article titled “Why Coaches in High Performance Programs Shouldn’t Select Slow Players.”  This article presented evidence-based suggestions for youth soccer coaches in high performance environments.   The main point of the article was to explain that speed (and other speed characteristics like agility, power, and high intensity running ability) is a good predictor of performance in soccer, and also that speed is primarily genetically determined, so if coaches want to select players who have a good chance of achieving success in soccer, they should include assessment of speed and speed characteristics in their identification and selection processes.

I received a lot of feedback, both positive and negative, from this article.  One common theme among the responses, however, served to highlight the fact that there are still many youth coaches out there who are unwilling or unable to accept the use of objective facts in player identification and selection.  Many people who responded to my article were critical of the idea of including speed and high intensity running ability among the selection criteria for high performance soccer environments, mainly because they felt that this approach would lead to the selection of players who are “good athletes” as opposed to “good soccer players.”  Unfortunately, this is the point at which opinion starts to take over from reality, and in order to restore objectivity, I have decided to present a short review of the evidence linking speed and high intensity running ability to level of play in soccer.

Firstly, it should be noted that there is no reason to think that being a “good athlete” and being a “good soccer player” are mutually exclusive.  The reality is that for every Andrea Pirlo or Xavi Hernandez (“good payers” who are not necessarily “good athletes”) there is a Lionel Messi or Zlatan Ibrahimovic (“good players” who are most certainly “good athletes.”).  Of course, coaches who reference Pirlo, Xavi or any other “good player” who is not a “good athlete” are either unintentionally or willfully ignoring the fact that these players are so exceptionally gifted technically and tactically, that they can get away with not being a “good athlete” and still perform at a high level.  Objectively speaking, 99% of the world’s professional soccer players do not have the technical or tactical skills of Pirlo or Xavi, but they do have above-average speed and high intensity running abilities.  Below is a brief summary of the findings from several recent studies which have all demonstrated a link between speed, high intensity running ability, and level of play in soccer:

  • From “Physiological Characteristics of Elite Soccer Players” by Douglas Tumilty (1993): “A comparison of top teams and players with less able participants indicates that the components of anaerobic fitness – speed, power, strength, and the capacity of the lactic acid system – may differentiate better between the two groups.”

  • From “A Multidisciplinary Approach to Talent Identification in Soccer” by Reilly et. al. (2000), which compared elite to sub-elite soccer players on a variety of physical, technical, and psychological tests: “The most discriminating of the measures were agility, sprint time, ego orientation and anticipation skill. The elite players were also significantly leaner, possessed more aerobic power, and were more tolerant of fatigue.”

  • From “Match Performance of High-Standard Soccer Players with Special Reference to Development of Fatigue” by Mohr et. al. (2003), which compared first-division and second division professional soccer players in specific performance tests: “The results show that top-class soccer players performed more high-intensity running during a game and were better at the Yo-Yo test than moderate professional players.”

  • From “Strength and Speed Characteristics of Elite, Subelite, and Recreational Young Soccer Players” by Gissis et. al. (2006), which compared a range of fitness tests between three different levels of play in youth soccer: “The findings of the present study suggest that the elite young soccer players can be distinguished from subelite and recreational young soccer players in strength and speed characteristics.”

  • From “The Evaluation of the Running Speed and Agility Performance in Professional and Amateur Soccer Players” by Kaplan et. al. (2009), which compared professional and amateur soccer players in a variety of speed and agility tests: “In conclusion, professional soccer players’ running speed and agility performances are higher than amateur soccer players.”

  • From “Speed and High Intensity Running Ability of Female Soccer Players of Different Standards of Play” by Rupf et. al. (2010; a research project I worked on and co-authored, presented at the 2nd World Conference of Science and Soccer in Port Elizabeth, South Africa): “High level players are faster, possess greater speed endurance, and have a greater capacity for high intensity work than club players.”

You get the point.

The identification and selection of talented youth soccer players is a challenging process.  Most, if not all, of the studies I have cited above have advocated (as have I) that a multifactorial approach, giving consideration to players’ technical and tactical skill, stage of growth and development, and physical/physiological characteristics (including speed characteristics), is the most appropriate way to identify and select talented players for high performance programs.  Because speed and speed characteristics are one (of many) factors that differentiate between levels of play in soccer, youth soccer coaches in high performance environments should include assessments of these characteristics as part of their identification and selection processes.  It’s time for all of us in Canadian soccer to ignore our predisposition to trust our own opinions, and accept the fact that there is a link between speed and level of play in our sport.

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


Fitness, For Parents

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #22: Friday, March 11th, 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 provide advice for soccer parents and players about which factors they should consider when deciding what soccer program they would like to participate in.

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

For Parents

Article – “The Armpit of Youth Sports”at

Below is a link to a very interesting and well-written article, by John O’Sulivan of  The article reviews a recent reality TV show called ‘Friday Night Tykes’ which profiles and follows the coaches, parents and players from several different “rookie” (ages 8-9) American football teams from the Texas Youth Football Association, or “TYFA” for short.  I stumbled upon this TV series on Netflix two weeks ago, and I have just finished watching the 10 episodes which make up the show’s first season.  I must say that, although the show is centred around a different sport than the sport in which I work, the parallels between the youth football system portrayed on ‘Friday Night Tykes’ and the youth soccer system I have worked in for the past 10 years are astounding.

First and foremost, the biggest problem which becomes apparent almost immediately at the start of the show is the youth football coaches.  These grown men are so hell-bent on winning (even though they are working with children in the “rookie” or 8-9 year old age category) that they are constantly losing their tempers, are routinely verbally and physically abusive to their players, and show an almost criminal lack of regard for basic first aid and treatment of injuries.  The parents of the children participating in the TYFA rookie league do not come across much better in the show.  There are frequent examples of parents pushing their kids too hard, placing enormous pressure on them to win and getting into verbal and physical altercations with each other, their coaches, game officials, and even opposing parents and coaches during games.   Unfortunately, at the centre of all of these problems are the players, 8-9 year-old kids who seem to want to have fun and enjoy the sport of football, and who really do deserve better coaching and in some cases, better parenting than what they appear to be receiving over the course of the show.

The author describes the win-at-all-costs mentality of the American youth football system in general, and of TYFA in particular, as the “armpit of America”,  meaning that although Americans know it exists, “no one wants to see it or acknowledge it, and (they) would rather cover it up and move on”.  O’Sullivan goes on to write about the show:

“It is a stomach-churning display of ignorant and misguided parents, coaches and administrators applying adult values, tactics, and training to children in 2nd through 4th grade, some of it bordering upon child abuse.”

As I mentioned previously, the similarities between the American youth football system as it is portrayed on ‘Friday Night Tykes’ and the Canadian youth soccer system are abundant.  Unfortunately, there are still far too many environments in Canadian youth soccer in which uneducated clubs, teams and coaches are only concerned with winning, and far too many parents who are pushing their children into these environments at the expense of their own development.  While there have been several positive changes made to promote player development in Ontario and Canada in recent years, including the formation of standards-based organizations like Soccer Academy Alliance Canada (SAAC), the Canadian Academy of Football (CAF) and the Ontario Player Development League (OPDL), the implementation of age-appropriate competitions and rules, the elimination of standings from youth league competitions, and changes made to the formatting of many youth soccer tournaments, there is still a lot more work that needs to be done.

The message of player development needs to be delivered to the people involved in the youngest, grass roots levels of Canadian youth soccer, to the recreational and house league clubs, coaches and parents who provide young children (sometimes as young as 4 or 5 years old) with their first experiences of the sport.  If we truly want to develop more, better soccer players, then need to acknowledge and deal with the “armpit” of our own youth soccer system.  It’s time to take youth soccer away from, as O’Sullivan calls them, the “misguided adults” in the present system.

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


Fitness, Science, Uncategorized

Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog #21: Friday, March 4th, 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 push-up exercise, how it can be incorporated into a player/team’s training routine, as well as specific exampled and variations of the exercise to target muscular power, strength, coordination, and core stability.

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