Fitness, For Parents, Science

What to do During the December Break – Gols Video Blog #27: 12/12/2016

It’s that time of year again!

December that is – when almost all youth soccer clubs and academies give their players “time off” from their regularly scheduled training and games.

But what exactly should soccer players be doing during this time off?  Is it meant to be a break from all forms of exercise, or just a break from soccer?

In this edition of our Video Blog, I provide my recommendations for what soccer players can do during the December break – how they can maintain and/or improve their fitness and ensure they enter the next year’s soccer season fit, healthy, and ready to perform at their best.

Below is a link to the video.  I hope you enjoy it and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments!

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Matches, Science

How to Win Without a Shot on Target – Analysis of the 2016 MLS Cup Final

On Saturday, December 10th, in -4 degrees Celsius weather at Toronto’s packed BMO Field, the Seattle Sounders defeated Toronto FC in the 2016 MLS Cup final, 4-3 via a penalty shoot-out, after a scoreless draw over 120 minutes.

How did they do it?  By all accounts, TFC appeared to have dominated the game.  They held an 8.4% edge in ball possession, a 9% advantage in passing accuracy, and they created significantly more chances, with 19 total shots – to Seattle’s 3 – and 7 shots on target – to Seattle’s 0.

Sometimes in soccer, however, a more in-depth analysis of closely-contested matches is required, and often when this happens, a completely different story can unfold.

While TFC certainly did have greater ball possession, a better pass completion percentage, and created many more scoring chances than Seattle in the match, it was clear from the outset that Seattle’s plan to defend deep, frustrate Toronto’s attacking players and prevent any sort of offensive rhythm from developing was working to their advantage.

The resolute Sounders defense, led by centre back Romeo Torres, left back Joevin Jones, and former TFC goalkeeper Stefan Frei, frustrated Toronto’s star attacking players, including 2016 MLS Player of the Year Sebastian Giovinco, and striker Jozy Altidore.  Giovinco in particular was neutralized by the Sounders defense, who kept him playing with his back to goal and brought him down the few times he managed to turn and break free.

In the middle of the pitch, Toronto’s central midfielder and captain, Michael Bradley, was defended well and contained by the Sounders’ defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso, who limited Bradley to a 50% completion percentage on passes made in the attacking half of the pitch.

Offensively, despite the fact that they did not create many scoring chances, the Sounders were dangerous on the counter and central striker Nelson Valdez in particular – until he came off with an injury in the 78th minute – was a constant threat in transition.

Any time a team elects to defend deep and tries to counter-attack, they are bound to concede ball possession and a greater number of shots on target.  What the numbers don’t demonstrate, however, is that the great majority of the shots Toronto created were not clear-cut scoring chances, but rather efforts from long distance or from bad angles that were well defended.

The one true clear-cut scoring opportunity that TFC had, which came from a lofted cross and a near-post header by Altidore, produced a spectacular save from Frei, who was the deserving man-of-the-match with 12 total saves, including 5 from shots taken inside the 18-yard box.

One telling statistic that could get overlooked is that although Seattle conceded nineteen total shots, ten of them – over 50% – were blocked, with an additional two that were forced off target coming from good defending and goalkeeping.

Another is the number of corner kicks conceded by Seattle – 10 – to only 5 conceded by Toronto.  While it might appear that generating more attacks leading to corner kicks is a positive outcome for TFC, the fact is that the majority of those corners were earned after attempted penetrating passes or crosses were intercepted by the well-organized Seattle defense.

Unfortunately, Toronto was not able to alter the course of the game through changes in tactics or personnel.  In spite of the above-mentioned trends, which were fairly obvious by half-time, TFC elected to stay with the same tactics and the same line-up, not making their first substitution until the 77th minute, when Will Josnson came on in place of Jonathan Osorio.

TFC’s second substitution, bringing on Benoit Cheyrou in place of Armando Cooper in the 88th minute, also came without a tactical change and also failed to make an impact on the match.

Most important – and perhaps controversial – of all, however, was the delay in brining on Tosaint Ricketts, who had been an impactful substitute in previous TFC regular season and play-off games (most recently in the second leg of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Montreal Impact on November 30th).

Ricketts did not see action on Saturday until the 103rd minute – nearly half of the way through the 30-minute extra time period, affording him minimal time to influence the match.  He was also brought on in place of Giovinco, Toronto’s leader, top regular-season goal scorer, and overall most dangerous attacking threat.

Ironically, among Giovinco’s specialities is taking penalty kicks – he has been successful in five of six attempts in Major League Soccer – and he was substituted just 15 minutes prior to the shoot-out that cost his team the title.

Admittedly, Giovinco was not having a great night and seemed to be hampered by an injury that may well have been the reason for his being taken off, but he was visibly upset at the moment he was replaced, and he certainly would have been a valuable addition to the side during the ensuing shoot-out.

Furthermore, throughout the extra time period the Sounders seemed to have resigned themselves to the inevitability of a shoot-out – as evidenced by Toronto’s 67% edge in possession over the course of the 30-minute period – so leaving an injured Giovinco on the pitch for an additional 15 minutes probably would not have been a problem.

Ultimately, Seattle’s strategy in the MLS Cup Final was not pretty, but it was effective.  They used a deep, tight defense, pressuring TFC’s attackers in their defensive 3rd quickly and preventing them from settling on the ball, and using “tactical fouls” to disrupt attacks that were started in the middle 3rd.

They also demonstrated how – with the right tactics – it is possible to win a cup final without taking a shot on target.

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

Fitness, Science

How Best to Improve Endurance for Soccer

I have been obsessed with trying to find the perfect way to train for soccer since I was in high school, and I haven’t been in high school since 1999.

Over the almost 20 years which have passed since then, my obsession has provided me with the opportunity to start my own business; to work with some of the best soccer players in Canada as well as professional players/teams in other countries; to conduct and publish research; and, most recently, to create courses designed to teach other coaches and fitness coaches how to train their players and teams.

In the midst of the work mentioned above, I have also spent a considerable amount of time developing and administering fitness training programs, both on the field, in the weight room, and in my own facility, the Soccer Fitness Training Centre.  One key commonality that has been an integral part of all of the different training programs I have developed and used has remained the same: that the training methodology, as well as the exercises used, must be scientifically proven and evidence-based.

It is with this thought in mind that I have decided to share some evidence in support of what is probably the best and most efficient way for soccer players to train – high intensity aerobic interval training.

High intensity aerobic interval training involves the use of short-duration (between 5-10 seconds, up to 2-3 minutes), high-intensity exercise (usually higher than 80% of maximum heart rate or maximal oxygen consumption), with variable rest periods in between (work-to-rest ratios ranging from 3:1 to 1:5).

Recent research has indicated that high intensity aerobic interval training can improve aerobic and anaerobic endurance, reduce body fat, and induce other improvements in overall health.  Among the proven positive benefits of aerobic high intensity interval training is:

  • Reduction in cardiovascular risk factors (Tjona et. Al, 2009)
  • Improved insulin activity (Barbraj et. Al, 2009)
  • Reduction in body fat percentage (Trapp et. Al, 2008)
  • Improved maximal oxygen uptake and peak power output (Gibala & MeGee, 2008)
  • Greater improvements in cardiovascular performance as compared to longer, continuous training (Bacon et. Al, 2013)

Key to the effectiveness of this type of training is the fact that the higher heart rate which can be achieved through short, high intensity bursts of exercise raises the number of calories burned per-minute and per-workout, and also increases post-exercise oxygen consumption, causing even more calories to be burned when workouts are finished.

As a matter of fact, one important finding of the study by Bacon et. Al (2013) mentioned above was that even people considered “non-responders” to lower intensity cardiovascular were training (meaning that they did not improve their cardiovascular fitness following low/moderate intensity aerobic exercise) were only able to “respond” – to show improvements in their aerobic fitness – with high intensity aerobic interval training.

Soccer players, because they participate in a sport that requires a similar activity pattern of short-duration, high intensity running and sprinting, can stand to benefit greatly from this high intensity aerobic interval training.

In addition to improvements in aerobic and anaerobic endurance, peak power output, and body composition, however, the most valuable aspect of high intensity aerobic interval training is perhaps that it can be completed in a very small amount of time (many of the studies cited above have used or examined the effects of training protocols ranging from a minimum of 5 minutes to just over 20 minutes).

This means that soccer coaches can improve their team’s aerobic performance with as little as 5 minutes of total training time, 2 days per week.  Of course, any extra training time that is saved can then be devoted to team technical and tactical training, which can further improve both individual and team performance in the long run.

Evidence in support of the effectiveness of high intensity aerobic interval training, both for athletes as well as for the general population, is very clear.  Soccer coaches and fitness coaches working with soccer players should consider adding this type of training into their routines, in order to get the greatest possible results in the least amount of time.

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