For Parents, Nutrition, Science

Why Low-Carb Diets DON’T WORK – Gols Video Blog #35: 4/3/2017

Hi Everyone,

In this next edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I discuss the importance of carbohydrate intake for optimal performance and recovery in soccer, and why low-carbohydrate diets are not a good choice for soccer players or any other athletes.

I hope you like it and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts/comments!

For Parents

Why You Should Think Twice About Chasing a Scholarship – Gols Video Blog #34: 3/28/2017

Hi Everyone!

In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we discuss the trend of Canadian soccer players pursuing athletic scholarships at American colleges and universities, and whether or not this is the best option for their careers (as soccer players and/or beyond soccer).

As always please feel free to post your thoughts and comments.

For Parents, Matches

UEFA Champions League Analysis – How NOT to Defend Corners! Gols Video Blog #33: 3/20/2017

Hello Everyone,

I hope you are as glad as I am that March Break is finally over!

With that out of the way, in this next edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we analyse the recent UEFA Champions League matches between Real Madrid and Napoli, as well as Borussia Dortmund and Benica, which were the second legs of the first knockout round. Specifically, we look at how Napoli’s and Benfica’s inability to defend corner kicks resulted in goals which sealed the games for Madrid and Dortmund.

Hope you like it and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments!

Fitness, Science, Technology

Coaches – Why You NEED to Start Monitoring Training Load/Intensity NOW – Gols Video Blog #32: 3/14/2017

Hi Everyone,

this week in the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, I am discussing the importance of coaches and fitness coaches monitoring the training load and intensity of their training sessions and games.  I also discuss the use of a simple tool, the Borg 0-10 Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale (provided below) which is a cost-effective way for any coach at any level to keep track of these metrics.  Simply put, if you do not monitor how hard your athletes are working and their physical responses to the stress of training and games, then you are simply guessing when planning future training sessions – and to me, this is not acceptable for high performance sports!

I hope you enjoy the Blog and as always, please feel free to post your thoughts/comments!

Borg0-10RPEScale

For Parents, Science

A 40 Year-Old Solution to a Long-Term Athlete Development Problem?

Last week, I had the pleasure to meet and speak with John Vanderkolk, who is something of a pioneer in Canadian Soccer.  The former Governor and co-founder of the Canadian Soccer Hall of Fame and member of the Heritage Committee of the Ontario Soccer Association has worked for over 40 years in the sport as a manager, reporter, marketer and ambassador in a variety of roles, including with the Robbie International Soccer Tournament, the Toronto Blizzard of the North American Soccer League, the North York Rockets of the Canadian Soccer League, and our Canadian National Teams programs.

Almost 40 years ago, he also used some astute observations to spearhead tremendous growth and development of the game in North America.

In the 1970’s, our nation was captivated ice hockey’s 1972 Summit Series, an 8-game tournament between the Canadian and Soviet National Hockey Teams, generally regarded as the two best teams in the world.

While our Canadian team eventually prevailed in the Series, Vanderkolk, an immigrant from the Netherlands, could not help but notice certain aspects about the way his fellow Europeans, the Soviets, moved and coordinated their bodies on the ice, aspects he was convinced could only have come from one source – a history and background playing soccer.

Having been involved in media and public relations here in Canada, he got in contact with his colleagues at the Toronto Star, Rex MacLeod and Jim Kernaghan, each of whom wrote separate articles in 1979 that included interviews with Vanderkolk, espousing a similar message – that young athletes, regardless of what sport they want to specialize in or what level they intend to reach, would all benefit from participation in soccer.

In an interview conducted by Kernaghan and published in the Toronto Star on February 11th, 1979, Vanderkolk is quoted as saying:

“Soccer is the ideal game for youngsters to gain conditioning in.  I don’t care what happens to the professionals, but they could really benefit from the game.”

And later, in another interview – this time with McLeod, Vanderkolk elaborated:

“We should push our kids into soccer.  It is great for the legs.   It develops coordination, agility, ball control, and it’s a way to sharpen the skills you need for hockey.  You pass, you score, you have 2 two-on-ones, you stop, start, accelerate, fake – just like hockey.”

Amazingly, now – almost 40 years since those articles were published, Vanderkolk remains just as adamant about the benefits of playing soccer on overall athletic development.  He told me:

“When you first learn to walk, at the age of 1 or 1 ½ years, you cannot hold a hockey stick, baseball bat, or even catch or shoot a basketball.  But, you can kick a soccer ball.  It is the first sport that develops foot-eye coordination, which I believe translates directly into hand-eye coordination as those motor skills become available to kids in later years.  Ultimately, the agility, footwork, and even the decision-making skills you pick up from playing soccer will make you a better athlete in any sport you go on to play later.”

Both then and now, he lists dozens of elite athletes from a wide range of sports, including hockey, basketball, tennis, skiing etc. all of whom had a background playing soccer as youth athletes prior to specialising in their other sports later in life.

Amazingly, the repercussions of his observations about the important role that soccer can play in the development of elite hockey players in Canada – a country that is and has always been crazy about hockey – is that they were the catalyst for parents of thousands of young Canadian athletes to get their children to participate in soccer, which led to unprecedented growth of the sport across the country in the 1970’s and 1980’s, growth that still continues to this day.

As a fitness coach and sports scientist who has spent the last 15 years of my life working with youth soccer players at every level, from house league to the elite youth National Teams and professional academy players, it was very refreshing to meet John and hear him tell his story, and especially to hear what he had to say about the role soccer can play in the development of athletic skills in young children.

Interestingly, Canadian soccer has adopted the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model, one of the tenets of which is that young children should participate in a variety of different sports – not specialising in any one sport until the age of 14-16 – in order to facilitate the development of well-rounded athletic skills.  A relatively newer addition to the LTAD model that I was exposed to and trained in was the development of Sport for Life’s Physical Literacy and Movement Preparation program (for which I became a certified instructor in the spring of 2016), which includes progressions of many different types of movements, including several which fall into the category of those which are performed regularly in soccer (including accelerations, plyometrics, cutting/turning, and multi-directional movements).

If – as per the guidelines of LTAD – we want our young children to participate in sports that develop a wide variety of athletic skills, and also – as per the new Sport for Life programming guidelines – we want to teach and develop athletic skills to young children and athletes to help them perform better and prevent injury in the long run, then it may be possible that John Vanderkolk came up with a strategy that solves both of these problems almost 40 years ago – just play soccer!

I, for one, would not be opposed to this strategy.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback on this article.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started!

For Parents, Matches

UEFA Champions League Analysis – Defending Principle of “Restraint” – Gols Video Blog #31: 03/06/2017

Hi Everyone,

a few more first-leg matches from the knockout round of the UEFA Champions League were played last week, including one between Juventus of Italy and FC Porto of Portugal.  In this edition of the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog, we discuss this match and in particular, the plays by Porto’s left back Alex Telles, which led to two consecutive yellow cards (and of course one red card) in the 25th-27th minutes.

A key take-home message for young soccer players and coaches from this blog is the importance of the defending principle of “restraint”, and how in many cases, players applying pressure on the ball need to learn and better understand how to use this principle when they apply pressure.

I hope you like it an as always, I welcome your thoughts/comments!

Matches

UEFA Champions League Analysis – How Benfica Beat Dortmund – Gols Video Bog #30: 2/27/2017

Hello everyone!

The UEFA Champions League started up their knockout rounds last week, and that is always something that can put me in a good mood!

In this edition o the Soccer Fitness Gols Video Bog, we discuss the game between Benfica and Borussia Dortmund.  While it may have looked as if Benica were outplayed in the game, they actually employed a clever strategy that involved changing their tactics during the first 15 minute periods of both the first and second halves – a strategy that wound up producing the only goal of the game in their 1-0 victory.

I hope you like the video and as always, please feel free to post your comments / feedback!

 

Fitness, For Parents

STOP Finding Excuses Not to Train! Gols Video Blog #29: 2/21/2017

In the past few weeks we have had some bad weather in Toronto, including freezing rain and dozens of centimetres of snow.

A consequence of this weather for soccer teams and other training programs like ours was that many people decided not to show up to their regularly scheduled training sessions.

In this week’s Video Blog, we discuss the problems with this course of action, and why soccer players who want to progress to higher levels of play should stop finding excuses not to train, including bad weather.

I hope you like it and as always, please feel free to post comments and feedback.

For Parents, Science

Beware of Charlatans (“Mindset Coaches”, “Nutritionists” etc.) Follow-Up Article

Hi everyone.  This post is a follow-up to my Soccer Fitness Gols Video Blog from February 13th of this year.

I got some responses to the video – positive and negative – and as a result I thought I would elaborate on it with a short article, to try to explain this issue in a bit more detail.

Let’s start with some definitions of the key terms.

A charlatan is a person who falsely claims to have a professional knowledge or skill – in other words – a “fraud”.  And very often, charlatans attempt to sell themselves and their services by using pseudoscience, which is a collection of beliefs or practices that are mistakenly regarded as being based on scientific method – in other words, “BS”.

Unfortunately, in the soccer and fitness industries, it is way too easy for a charlatan to sell their services to consumers – soccer players, parents, and coaches – regardless of their own credibility, education, or experience as a soccer coach or fitness coach.

In my video I gave the following examples of how charlatans operate in fitness and in soccer:

  • If a person wanted to work in fitness, lacked credibility but had a good body – big muscles, looks good without their shirt on etc., they could simply post a picture of themselves without a lot of clothes on, be it on the internet or in a flyer or promotional material, and there is a strong chance that they would be regarded as an expert in fitness training, bodybuilding, even nutrition – regardless of whether or not they have any actual education or experience working as a fitness coach or personal trainer.
  • If a person wanted to work in soccer, lacked credibility but was a decent player, and especially if they have a playing background as a professional or even at the college level, they could probably represent themselves as an expert soccer coach, and be seen as an expert, regardless of whether or not they have any actual education or experience working as a coach, at any level.

And there is even another level to this, where people who may have some kind of expertise in fitness, for example, yet instead of working as a fitness coach or personal trainer (a position for which they are actually qualified) they instead represent themselves as things like a “mindset coach” (a pseudoscience term for sports psychologist) or “nutritionist” (pseudoscience term for registered dietitian).

In both of these cases, the pseudoscience term can be used without any guarantee of educational credentials, work experience, or quality of service – yet the charlatan who dispenses “mindset” or “nutritionist” advice can still be paid – sometimes paid very well – for their advice and services.

Furthermore, because there are no industry standards regulating “mindset training”, “nutrition consulting” or, unfortunately, even soccer coaching, any individual who provides services under one of these titles can basically do and say whatever they want, regardless of whether or not the information they put out is factual and/or whether or not their services have any true benefit to their consumers.

The soccer and fitness industries are probably the only industries in the world in which charlatans can get away with this type of behaviour.  Think about this for a moment – there is literally NO WAY that a consumer would accept and pay for services from somebody in another profession or industry if this provider did not have any relevant education, experience or credibility in their field.

If you go to see a doctor because you are not feeling well or have some sort of problem, you would likely insist on seeing someone who is certified, licensed, and who has graduated from a reputable medical school.

You would probably never dream of taking the advice of someone claiming to be a “doctor” who never studied medicine, and you would probably see right through someone who represented and promoted themselves as a medical expert based on irrelevant information or pseudoscience (for example, the fact that they have been sick a lot or have a lot of experience being in the hospital).

Likewise, if you need the services of a lawyer, you would likely insist on hiring someone who has attended and graduated from a prestigious law school and has some relevant experience in the particular type of legal help you require.

And again, likewise, it would be highly unlikely that you would hire someone who called themselves a “lawyer”, but never went to law school and represents themselves as an expert based on irrelevant information and pseudoscience (for example, the fact that they have been tried in court many times for crimes they have committed).

It sounds ridiculous, but these same exact types of decisions are made by consumers in the soccer and fitness industries all the time.  Taking medical advice from someone who has never studied medicine, or legal advice from someone who has never studied law, is the same as taking fitness and nutrition advice from someone just because they are big and strong and look attractive, or taking coaching advice from someone just because they can kick a ball better than you can, or taking mindset advice from someone just because they claim to be good at motivating people.

The legendary Italian soccer coach Arrigo Sacchi summed it up quite nicely when he said

“I never realized that to be a good jockey you had first to be a good horse.”

This isn’t to say that it’s a problem for fitness coaches to be in good physical condition, or for soccer coaches to have a background as a professional player – it’s just that this cannot be the only thing you, a consumer, considers when choosing who you want to work with, or who you want your children to work with.

Keep in mind – it may be likely that the advice you get from someone who is representing themselves as an expert yet lacks the education, experience and credibility, may be wrong or even harmful to your health and athletic development.  At the very least, it will probably be a waste of money.

The best advice I can give to consumers (soccer players, parents, and coaches) in the soccer and fitness industries is that you should be aware of the relevant education, experience, and credibility of the professionals you are looking to work with, and you should make your decisions based on these factors.

If you want to improve physical performance, look for a professional who has education and experience in fitness training and strength and conditioning (not someone who simply has big muscles).  If you want to improve soccer performance, look for a coach who has education and experience coaching ad developing players (not someone who simply was or is a talented soccer player).  If you want diet advice, look for a registered dietitian with a background in sports nutrition (not a self-professed “nutritionist” who looks good in a bathing suit).  And if you want to improve the mental side of the game, look for a licensed sports psychologist (not a self-professed “mindset coach” who uses generic motivational jargon).

Hopefully this article helps consumers in the soccer and fitness industries to avoid being tricked and manipulated by charlatans and the pseudoscience they are selling.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.  Please feel free to share them here!

Uncategorized

Beware of Charlatans (“Mindset Coaches”, “Nutritionists” etc.) Gols Video Blog #28: 2/13/2017

The internet has been an amazing invention, which has given billions of people all of the world access to information about anything they could possibly want, all with the convenient click of a button.

One problem with information available online, however, is that there are not always clear ways to determine whether or not it is useful, credible, or even true at all.

Charlatans (people who falsely represent themselves as experts in a particular field) can easily use pseudoscience (a collection of beliefs or practices mistakenly regarded as being derived from the scientific method) online to take advantage of consumers.

In the soccer and fitness industries, unfortunately, misinformation based on pseudoscience is prevalent, especially within businesses that write articles, disseminate information, or sell their services online.

Our Video Blog today discusses this topic in more detail, including providing some guidelines for consumers in the soccer and fitness industries, to help them differentiate the experts from the frauds.

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

 

Fitness, Science

Speed Endurance Training – The BEST Way to Train for Soccer-Specific Fitness

Soccer is a sport which requires a unique combination of anaerobic and aerobic fitness.

That is, elite level soccer players must possess speed and jumping power, as well as aerobic endurance and recovery, similar to elite track and field athletes.

The sport also requires a significant amount of very specific movements, including accelerating/decelerating, cutting and turning, backwards and lateral movements, plus of course  all of the technical movements involving the ball.

With all of these unique physical requirements, designing physical training programs for soccer players can be a difficult task.  After all, focusing too much training time on speed and power training can negate improvements in aerobic fitness, and too much time spent on improving aerobic fitness can cause a decrease in speed and power.

One unique way to target the two different energy systems (anaerobic and aerobic) used in the sport simultaneously, while also providing a specific and relevant stimulus to the muscular system through soccer-specific movements, is to use on-field speed endurance training.

The aim of speed endurance training involves prolong the amount of time an athlete can maintain a very high level of exercise intensity.  In soccer, this would mean prolonging the time a player can run, sprint, and change directions at high speeds, while maintaining control of movement and executing a tactical objective.

Training for speed endurance presents a challenge to the anaerobic energy system (which must provide energy to the body to allow it to maintain the high level of exercise intensity over this time-frame) and the aerobic energy system, which is responsible for helping the body recover between bouts of high intensity exercise.

In general, the total time of the work periods for speed endurance training can vary from as little as 10 seconds, to as much as 60 seconds (the longer the time of the work period, the greater the challenge to the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, and the more recovery time needed between repetitions).

Speed endurance can be further divided into “speed endurance production training” – using a 15-30 second work periods and a work-to-rest ratio of between 1:4-1:6 – and “speed endurance maintenance training” – using a similar 15-30 second work period but a significantly smaller rest period, often with a work-to-rest ratio of 1:2-1:3.

Perhaps the most beneficial feature of speed endurance training is that the total number of repetitions of its high intensity work periods can range from as little as three, to as many as eight repetitions, meaning that the total training volume (total amount of time running/training) is very low – as little as two-three minutes.  This low training volume is especially valuable to elite level soccer players, as it should significantly decrease the risks of training-related overuse injuries.

Several recent research studies, including Iaia & Bangsbo (2010), Iaia et. al. (2009), Skovgaard et. al. (2016), and Iaia et. al. (2015) have demonstrated that speed endurance training can elicit significant improvements in markers of anaerobic and aerobic fitness in running athletes and soccer players.

While some of the studies cited in this article used running workouts, others have achieved similar results with soccer-specific speed endurance training, comprising drills or small-sided soccer games.  A key advantage of using soccer drills or small-sided games as a means of speed endurance training is that the work done by the payers – including shorter sprints, movements in multiple directions, decelerations and changes of direction, and of course the use of the ball – is as specific to the actual sport of soccer as possible.  Theoretically, this increased specificity should lead to better improvements in overall performance on the pitch.

Some examples of soccer-specific speed endurance training sessions, utilising a 15-30 second high intensity work period with the ball, are:

  • Repeated 2 x 20-30 metre shuttle run with a deceleration and one-touch pass at the end of each run
  • 1 versus 1 game played over a long (30-40 metre) and narrow (10 metre) field
  • 2 versus 2 game played over a short field (20 metres x 30 metres)
  • “pressing exercise” involving groups of 4, 5 or 6 players applying high pressure to the team in possession of the ball, on ½ of a full size field

In order to ensure that the intensity of the work periods is high enough, specific goals/targets, as well as “punishments” can be included in these exercises and games.  For example, in the first example (the shuttle run) a specific number of passes can be used as a target for the players who are performing the shuttle run.  This number can get progressively higher in subsequent training sessions.  In the small-sided games (1 versus 1 and 2 versus 2) the teams who fail to win or fail to generate shots on target can be “punished” with a small amount of push-ups during rest periods.

Soccer coaches and fitness coaches should strongly consider adding speed endurance training into their routines, both in pre-season, as well as during the competitive season.  The combination of stimuli to both the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, plus the ability to maximise specificity by using soccer-specific exercises and games, in combination with a low training volume, make speed endurance training an excellent tool or coaches at all levels.

Of course, the examples given above are just some of literally hundreds of different ways in which soccer coaches and fitness coaches can utilise speed endurance training with their players and teams.  If delivered properly, speed endurance training can maximise improvements in players’ speed and endurance, while at the same time minimising their training volume, affording coaches more time to plan and execute the rest of their technical and tactical training.

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

 

References:

Iaia, F.M. & Bangsbo, J. (2010).  Speed endurance training is a powerful stimulus for physiological adaptations and performance improvements of athletes.  Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Sports Science, 2: 11-23.

Iaia, F.M., Fiorenza, M., Perri, E., Alberti, G., Millett, G.P., Bangsbo, J. (2015).  The effect of two speed endurance training regimes on performance of soccer players.  PLOS ONE, September 2015, 1-16.

Iaia, F.M., Hellsten, Y., Nielsen, J.J., Fernstrom, M., Sahlin, K., Bangsbo, J. (2009).  Four weeks of speed endurance training reduces energy expenditure during exercise and maintains muscle oxidative capacity despite a reduction in training volume.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 106(1): 73-80.

Skovgaard, C., Almquist, N.M., Bangsbo, J. (2016).  Effect of increased and maintained frequency of speed endurance training on performance and muscle adaptations in runners.  Journal of Applied Physiology, 160(1): 36-42.

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!

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.

For Parents, Matches

Canadian and American Soccer – We’re More Similar Than You Think

Last week, I gave a presentation about periodization for youth soccer to the West Windsor Plainsboro Soccer Association (WWPSA for short) located in Princeton, New Jersey.  This experience was unique for me because I was in the United States on the evening of Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, when Donald Trump became the 45th U.S. President.

While I certainly do not intend to discuss politics in this article, there was something about the experience of being in a foreign country at the exact moment when a controversial figure was elected President, which left a lasting impression in my mind.  And that something was the realisation that we Canadians are not very different from our American neighbours, both with regards to our politics, as well as our soccer.

Again, this article is not about politics, but it is worth noting that – based on the conversations with Americans I had following the election last week – almost all of them said they did not really care much for either of the presidential candidates, nor about identifying themselves as “democrat” or “republican”, but rather that they were concerned only with things that affect the long term health, welfare, and security of themselves, their families, and their country.  In this regard, it seems to me that Americans and Canadians are, for the most part, very similar.

Back to soccer now.  After working directly with soccer coaches and administrators from the WWPSA, and speaking to some other coaches and players in the area, I came away with the sense that Americans and Canadians also share some similarities in the sport – specifically, with regards to coaching and coach education – and that these similarities have resulted in similar challenges in the development of the game and the success of each country at the international level.

The primary similarity between American and Canadian soccer which has ultimately led to coaching challenges is that in both countries, the sport has huge numbers of participants, but lags behind several other sports in terms of popularity and history.

The Canadian Soccer Association’s website http://www.canadasoccer.com states that Canada has over 850,000 registered soccer players (almost 3% of its total population), and that an amazing 44% of children in the country participate in the sport.   This makes soccer the largest participation sport in the country.

In the United States, http://www.wikipedia.org states that there are over 13 million registered soccer players (over 4% of their total population), making soccer the third-largest participation sport there, behind only basketball and baseball/softball.

In Canada, hockey is clearly our most popular sport, and based on the amount of media attention devoted to different sports; both baseball and basketball are more popular than soccer.  In the United States, baseball, football, basketball and in many cases hockey could all be considered more popular than soccer based on the media attention they receive.

A common coaching problem that has emerged in both the United States and Canada as a result of the large numbers of participants in youth soccer is the lack of qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced coaches available to work with all of these players.

I have been through the coach licensing programs in both Canada (up to and including the CSA National “B” License) and the United States (up to an including the USSF National “A” License) and, while they are both certainly very challenging courses, they require significantly less time to complete as do similar coach licensing programs in other countries.  In Uruguay, for example, elite level youth coaches must complete a 2-year coach licensing program comprising 1400 hours of in-class and on-field instruction, plus multiple exams; I wrote a previous blog article about this topic which can be viewed here: https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2016/09/26/3-things-canadians-can-learn-from-uruguayan-youth-soccer/.

Most countries that have been more successful in developing talent, as well as in winning games and tournaments at the international levels, have been able to ensure that the more talented youth players they have – the “best” players – are placed in programs where they get coaching and training from the most knowledgeable and experienced coaches – the “best” coaches.   This concept is known as “best with best”, and there is considerable evidence to suggest that putting the best players with the best coaches will lead to optimal player development, which in turn will lead to optimal performance at the senior international level.

While it is certainly possible for America and/or Canada to develop a “best with best” model, the systems present in both countries at the moment – in which huge numbers of players are participating without enough knowledgeable and experienced coaches – may not be sufficient to develop it.  Some potential solutions to this shared American/Canadian soccer problem might be:

  • Decrease and/or set limits on the total number of “competitive” players registered in the country, provinces, and states:

This would require the great majority of registered in youth soccer players to compete in “recreational” programs rather than in “competitive” programs.  If recreational players want to participate in a competitive program, they should be given fair and equal opportunities to try-out, but the standards by which players are selected must be stricter as the total number of “competitive” payers accepted into the programs would be significantly lower.  This could also help to streamline the process of identifying who the “best” players are in specific age and gender categories for the higher level programs (state/province, and National Teams).

  • Hold more frequent coach licensing courses and make requirements stricter for coaches who wish to work with these “competitive” players:

If the ultimate goal of “best with best” is to provide good players with access to better coaching, then the number of “better” coaches needs to increase.  This can only be done if the North American state/provincial and national organisations hold their licensing courses more frequently so that more coaches can attend them and reach higher levels of coach education.  Furthermore, if the total number of “competitive” players in a certain region or city is lower, then the licensing requirements for coaches working with those players can be made stricter, thus demanding a higher standard of coaches to work with the better players.

  • Raise the standards of state/provincial, and national coach licensing courses:

As mentioned previously, it I not uncommon for coaches working with top level players in other countries to be required to spend several years (and more than 1000 hours) on coach education and licensing courses in order to meet the licensing requirements.  Although the American and Canadian coach licensing courses are challenging, well organised and very educational, it is possible that increasing the length of the courses and adding more content – including more content around sports science related topics such as periodization, energy system training, and sports psychology, for example – could help to raise the overall standard of the courses and of the coaches who participate in them.

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

Fitness, Uncategorized

Should Soccer Players do Power Cleans?

Olympic lifting – specifically, the power clean exercise – is widely becoming a very popular method of training for both individual and team sport athletes.

The power clean exercise is an exercise which increases power and strength and works the legs (glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calf) as well as the lower back (erector spinae) and shoulder muscles (deltoids, biceps). It is an exercise wherein the individual sets up in a squat position, lifts the weight up and uses momentum to get the bar up to shoulder level.

Some controversy exists over whether or not these lifts and movements should be incorporated into soccer players’ training routines.  Those in favor of using them will point out how the lifts can improve running speed and jump height, both of which are essential to optimal performance in soccer.

Those against using them will probably say that the lifts take too long to learn, and too much time out of a players’ training routine, which could otherwise be spent on the field, doing specific conditioning exercises which are more important and specific to the sport.

A recent study by Karsten et. Al (2016) which was published March 25th of this year assessed the effect strength training had on a variety of running tests including the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Test, which mimics the sprinting/activity pattern common in soccer games. A high score in this test indicates greater aerobic capacity, which has a strong correlation to lowered fatigue levels and better athletic performance among soccer players.

The researchers divided two recreational soccer teams composed of thirteen players into two groups; one performed only soccer specific training drills while the other did the same drills in combination with a strength training regimen over a 6 week period.

The strength training group trained both upper and lower body through a variety of exercises ranging from 60-75% 1RM. The study determined that the group who trained with resistance in combination with soccer-specific training outran the no-strength group in the Yo-Yo Test and other cardiovascular performance tests. The report found a 2.9% increase in cardiovascular performance following the 6-week training program.

Researchers attributed this increase in players’ cardiovascular capacity to the strength training component of their training. Power comes from having a high level of strength, therefore improving strength will allow for faster sprint times, as well as an increase in aerobic capacity when the running is done at high intensities (such as in the Yo-Yo Test, as well as in soccer games).

It would appear that, based on the evidence, including power cleans and other resistance exercises into a soccer player’s training routine will help to optimise speed and high intensity running ability, which in turn will improve on-field performance.

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

Fitness, Science

3 Things Canadians Can Learn From Uruguayan Youth Soccer

I enjoyed my first opportunity to work in professional soccer this year, when I was hired as Fitness Coach for Canadian SC Uruguay, a professional soccer club in the Uruguayan Segunda (2nd Division).  I was fortunate to have been given this opportunity by Canadians SC’s head coach, Rafael Carbajal, an Uruguayan Canadian who had previously been working with the Canadian Men’s National Team.

Canadian SC is just one of over 30 professional soccer clubs from Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city and a hotbed for talent development in the country.  As a matter of fact, the nation of Uruguay as a whole, with a population of just over 3 million people, has been excelling at player development for over 100 years, and can perhaps be considered the most successful soccer nation in the world, per-capita.

Ask any Uruguayan to back up this claim, and they will be happy to oblige.  They might start by pointing out that their nation has won 4 – not 2, but 4 World Championships – the first two being the 1924 and 1928 Olympic titles which are generally regarded to have been the top soccer competition in the world prior to the first-ever FIFA World Cup in 1930 (which they also hosted and won), as well as the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, where they upset the hosts in the final in Rio De Janeiro in one of the most famous soccer matches ever to be played.

Uruguay also has the distinction of being the most successful nation ever in the Copa America, the South American Championship tournament held every four years.  With 15 Copa America titles – the most recent of which came in 2011 – Uruguay has eclipsed even the continent’s giants Argentina (14 titles) and Brazil (8 titles).

All of this success has been achieved despite a tiny population and relatively small domestic professional league.  In fact, there is no other country in the world, per capita, that has come even close to achieving the international success that Uruguay has, and the Uruguayans seem to relish their role as soccer “underdogs”, a topic which I have written about in my blog before:

https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2016/07/08/soccer-in-uruguay-day-7-underdogs/

As a Canadian fitness coach, the experience of working in top level soccer in a country like Uruguay was invaluable for me.  During my time there, I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrasts that exist between Uruguayan and Canadian soccer.  Although I worked exclusively with the first team (adults) at Canadian SC, I also got to spend a lot of time working with and learning from the club’s youth academy coaches and fitness coaches – who work with teams from the U14-U19 age groups – and it is in these age groups where the main differences between Uruguayan and Canadian soccer are most prominent.

While there have been improvements in the Canadian youth soccer system over the past 15-20 years, we have not been able to keep pace with other nations – not just the more successful European and South American nations but even those in our own CONCACAF region – and as a result, we have not been successful in developing top class adult players to feed our national teams.

Three main aspects of Uruguayan youth soccer in particular stuck out the most as being very different from what we presently have in Canada, and they are a big reason why this was such a great learning experience for me.  Below is a summary of the three things Canadians can learn from Uruguayan youth soccer.

  1. We need to develop a soccer culture where babies, toddlers and young children are better exposed to the game.

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In Uruguay, as in almost any other country in the world, all the little kids want to be professional soccer players when they grow up.

Why do they want this?  Because from the moment they are able to see, they see soccer.  From the moment they are able to hear, they hear soccer.  From the moment they can walk – and many times much earlier than that – someone has put a ball in front of them for them to play with.  You get the idea.

The underlying reason for Uruguay’s obsession with soccer is that all of the most famous and successful Uruguayan professional and National Team players grow up plying their trade close to the homes – sometimes even literally in the backyards – of the young players aspiring to take their place in the future.  Young aspiring soccer players in Uruguay can watch games on TV, on the internet, or attend live matches close to home at a very low price, and see their heroes up close and personal, on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis.

The small geographical landmass of Uruguay combined with the centralisation of most of the soccer talent in Montevideo, means that there is great proximity between youth players and professional players.  Youth players have a very clear idea of what is required to become a professional player because they live and train very close to professional players.

All of this results in a “culture of soccer” in Uruguay, which ensures that when these youth players reach their formative years, their technical development and tactical knowledge of the game will be at the highest level possible, because they will have seen and been able to emulate the top players in the country far more often than their Canadian peers.

It is possible that, through better development and promotion of our own, Canadian domestic professional leagues (like Ontario’s League One) we may be able to develop a similar “culture of soccer” in Canada, which could then help to encourage and advance the development of young Canadian talented soccer players.

  1. We need to make our youth soccer programs, specifically from the ages of 7-13, accessible to everyone.

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Believe it or not, there is a Uruguayan version of “house league” soccer.  It’s called “Baby Futbol”, and it comes complete with all of the things you might expect to see in an amateur recreational youth soccer league.

Teams play 11v11, on a field not much smaller than a full size adult pitch, with goals of equal proportions.  There are young and relatively inexperienced coaches, and the parents on the sidelines can be heard screaming encouragement – and sometimes instructions – from miles away.

Baby Futbol is the only youth soccer program available to Uruguayan children between the ages of 7 and 13, and it is free.

That’s right – it costs parents nothing to have their children participate in Baby Futbol.

From this large pool of youth soccer players, academy coaches and scouts from all of the professional clubs in Uruguay will select the best and most talented players to participate in their academy teams programs, starting in the U14 age category.

This means that one, centralised, free youth soccer system houses all of the potential future professional players in Uruguay.  No young Uruguayan soccer player, regardless of his family’s financial resources, is denied the opportunity to play in Baby Futbol, and thus the opportunity to be identified as a potential professional soccer player is accessible to all Uruguayans.

Furthermore, identification and selection of talented players from Baby Futbol (“recreational soccer”) to professional academy teams (“competitive soccer”) in Uruguay occurs at U13, as opposed to at U8 in Canada.  Thus, talented Uruguayan players are not excluded from competitive soccer or the pathway into professional soccer at a young age.

Accessibility of all young soccer players to the professional soccer system, by way of Baby Futbol, is a key contributor to the overall success of Uruguayan soccer, because it means that there are literally no potential professional and/or National Team players who are excluded from the system.

There is potential that in Canada, better accessibility to competitive or “rep” soccer at the youth levels (ages 7-13) could lead to less exclusion of potentially talented players, and in turn strengthen our own professional and National Teams programs.

  1. We need to ensure that beyond the age of 13, coaches who work with talented young soccer players have a high standard of coach education.

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As mentioned previously, the best and most talented Uruguayan Baby Futbol players are identified by professional coaches and scouts, and placed into professional academy teams, beginning in the U14 age category.  From there, most professional clubs will have academy teams who compete in U14, U15, U16, U17 and U19 leagues, with the best U17 and U19 players eventually being called up to the clubs’ senior “First Teams.”

Coaches working in professional clubs’ academy teams are required, through the Asssociacion Uruguaya de Futbol (the Uruguayan Football Association – “AUF” for short) to obtain a Uruguayan youth coaching license, which is a 2-year diploma course comprising over 1400 hours of technical instruction, including both written and practical exams.

The content of the course has been developed by local and foreign coaches, as well as sports scientists and teachers, with background and experience at the highest levels of professional and international soccer.  Included in the curriculum are modules covering physiology, biomechanics, sport psychology, and periodization of training – and all the coaches working in professional academies in Uruguay must complete these modules and prove their knowledge and competence in these areas.

Once they reach the professional academy level – a level at which a high standard of coaching is required – talented young Uruguayan soccer players are placed in programs where they receive this high standard of coaching.

The comparative standard of coach education for coaches of competitive soccer players in Canada would be the Ontario Provincial and Canadian National “B” Licenses, each of which comprise 1 week of instruction and testing.  In Uruguay, coaches at the same relative level of competition must take a 2-year licensing course, with multiple written and practical examinations.

Perhaps, if we want to improve our ability to coach and develop our talented young soccer players beyond the age of 13 in Canada, we may need to raise the standard of our Canadian coach education programs for coaches working in these age groups.

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

Matches

Soccer in Uruguay – Day 10 -Reinforcing My Opinion

Today the Academy teams who played matches yesterday had a recovery session, while the teams who played on Saturday had an off day. I got a chance to get (slightly) caught up with all the other work from my business, while at the same time preparing for two long days of fitness assessments, which start tomorrow at 2:00pm.

A friend who I met in the old city a few nights ago forwarded me a link to an excellent recently written article by Nick Rider, posted on The Independent’s website, titled Exploring Uruguay, the world’s most successful footballing nation.

The author – although he visited Uruguay solely to watch professional matches and tour the country’s many famous soccer stadiums and museums –  seems to have coma away with a very similar impression of the country’s soccer culture as I have from my travels here.

If the title of the article isn’t enough of a giveaway, Rider goes on to say in no uncertain terms:

“And it’s true: Uruguay is without any challengers the most successful footballing country in the world, per capita. No other country this size has come even close.”

Rider also wonders aloud how some of the most humble Uruguayan professional clubs, like Montevideo’s Danubio, defy the odds by continually producing top quality players such as Edinson Cavani, Jose Maria Giminez, and Christhian Stuani – their youth academy has even earned itself the nickname “the University of Uruguayan Football.”

He visits the very largest and most popular clubs (Penarol and Ncional) and also some of the smaller, poorer, “barrio” clubs (unfortunately he did not visit the training grounds or home stadium of Canadian SC – maybe next time)!

And of course, no soccer fan’s visit to Montevideo would be complete without spending some time at the National Uruguayan Football Museum, located inside the Estadio Centenario, itself one of the most famous soccer stadiums in the world and home to the first-ever FIFA World Cup, which Uruguay won by defeating Argentina in the final match in front of 100,000 people.

This interesting and very well-written article made for a good read on my final day off in Montevideo.  Below is a link.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, and as always, please feel free to post your comments or feedback.

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/americas/uruguay-football-team-argentina-euros-luis-suarez-a7125561.html

Matches

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 8/9 – Player Development

This weekend we worked at 5 different games for the Academy, with teams ranging in age from U14-U19.   We got to see some other stadiums and facilities from professional clubs in the city, and of course got to meet and speak with the coaches and fitness coaches from all of the different teams.  Interestingly, there is one fitness coach who works exclusively with each Academy team.  And not just in our club – all of the clubs in Uruguay with academies have one fitness coach working exclusively with one of their teams/age categories.  Imagine that!

Among the topics I discussed with the coaching staff this weekend was the subject of player development.  More specifically, I was questioned by several coaches about the system we have in Canada, and the methods – if any – we use to develop our players.

In Uruguay, the development – and eventual sale – of players is an integral part of the livelihood of all professional soccer clubs, including Canadian SC, the club that I am working with.

While Uruguayan clubs do earn a small amount of revenue from the rights to television broadcasts of their matches, and an even smaller amount from live attendance at the matches themselves, the money earned from selling players developed through their own academies to other – typically larger and wealthier – clubs, is literally the only way for a Uruguayan professional soccer club to survive in the long term.

Prospective revenue from the sale of homegrown players is thus a primary incentive for all professional soccer clubs in Uruguay, to do the best possible job they can to develop their own players.  Furthermore, players developed through a club’s own academy can also play professionally for the club’s first team, thereby saving the club from the expense of having to purchase other players developed in other clubs.

This isn’t rocket science, and Uruguay is just one of literally dozens of counties around the world whose youth soccer systems function in this way.

Yet, when attempting to explain to my Uruguayan colleagues how our own Canadian system of player development functions, I found myself at a loss as to why – even in our own domestic professional academies in Major League Soccer – there is no financial incentive for youth clubs to develop and sell their own homegrown players.

I have written about this topic in the past, in an article which also questioned why our domestic professional clubs are not incentivised to win via a promotion/relegation system.  Below is a link to that article:

https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2016/04/04/the-2-missing-ingredients-for-success-in-canadian-soccer/

Among the different Uruguayan coaches and fitness coaches I spoke with over the weekend, the consensus regarding player development was clear: without a strong financial incentive to develop and sell players, youth soccer clubs and academies in Canada – even those which are connected to domestic professional clubs – will never truly be motivated to become experts at developing professional players.

Simply being able to say “I used to coach that kid when he was younger” does not constitute adequate motivation for any coach or club in Canada to really invest all of their time, energy and resources into proper, professional player development.

Until all Canadian clubs and academies have very clear financial incentives,  we will likely never reach our full potential when it comes to the development of professional soccer players.

After watching 3 straight Academy matches today, we capped off the day by catching the Euro 2016 Final between France and Portugal, which means I have basically spent the past 10 hours of the day watching soccer – and I’m still not tired of it!  Tomorrow is an off day before we get the last round of fitness assessments done with the Academy on Tuesday and Wednesday.

I am looking forward to seeing what comes next!

 

Fitness, Matches

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 7 – Underdogs

Today the Academy team had a light day of training, because it is a day sandwiched between 2 matches (yesterday and tomorrow).  We got a chance to walk around the “ciudad viejo” which stands for “old city.”  When it rains, it seems as though everyone in Uruguay stays inside their homes, but on a day like today where the sun was shining, the streets in the ciudad viejo were buzzing with people.  This part of Montevideo looks similar to other older European cities I have been to (like Barcelona, for example) but with a distinctive style which is uniquely Uruguayan.

In one of my conversations with the Academy’ Fitness Coach, I mentioned to him something I had noticed both during this trip, as well as the one I made here three years ago – that the players here appear to be more aggressive than the players in Canada, and that they seem to train and play with more intensity.

This aggression and intensity is visible amongst players not only in the youth categories and smaller professional clubs like Canadian SC, but also at the highest levels of Uruguayan soccer (remember Luis Suarez during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil)?

When I asked the Fitness Coach, he told me that in his opinion, aggressiveness is a trait which is inherently part of Uruguayan soccer, and that it is one of the factors that has allowed the country to punch well above its weight at the international level for over 100 years.

Uruguay might be the greatest underdog in the history of international sports – not just in soccer.  Based on its size (a population of just over 3 million people) and location (in South America, possibly the most competitive soccer continent in the world), Uruguay would seem to have no business even qualifying regularly for international tournaments like the FIFA World Cup, let alone achieving success in them.

To illustrate this point, consider that in CONMEBOL (the South American football federation in which Uruguay is a member) there are only 4.5 slots for qualification to every FIFA World Cup (and this number is greater than the 4 slots they had up to and including the 1998 World Cup).  This means that only the top 4 teams from South American qualification automatically advance to the World Cup, while the 5th place team must compete in an “inter-confederation play-off” with one of the lower-placing teams from Asia, North America, or Oceania.  The perennial qualifiers and giants of South America have traditionally been Brazil and Argentina, whose populations (200,000,000 and 42,000,000, respectively) both dwarf Uruguay’s.  Neither of those nations has missed out on qualification for a FIFA World Cup since 1970 (Brazil has never missed one) and between them they have won the tournament a total of 7 times (5 to Brazil, and 2 to Argentina).

Even the traditionally less-successful South American countries like Colombia (48,000,000); Chile (17,000,000) ; Peru (30,000,000); Bolivia (10,000,000), Ecuador (16,000,000); and Paraguay (6,000,000) are all between 2-15 times the size of Uruguay.  Yet still, somehow, Uruguay (with a population of only 3,000,000 people) has been much more successful at the World Cup than any of these aforementioned countries, and in the past was on par if not more successful than even Brazil and Argentina.

Uruguay won the first three official “world championships” of soccer (the 1924 and 1928 Olympics soccer tournaments, which were considered the world championship of soccer befre the creation of the FIFA World Cup in 1930, and, of course, the first-ever FIFA World Cup on their home soil that year).  Against all odds, they won the tournament again 20 years later when they defeated heavily favoured Brazil, in Brazil, in front of 200,000 people at Maracana stadium in Rio De Janeiro.  They refused to participate in the FIFA World Cups in Italy (1934) and France (1938), mainly for political reasons but if they had, they may well have won one or both of those tournaments as well.

Since 1950, Uruguay have not won another World Cup, but they have qualified for 11 of the past 16 World Cups, and have reached the semi-finals on more than one occasion (placing 4th in Mexico in 1970, and then again in South Africa in 2010).  They have also put together a run of success in international soccer which rivals even that of the most successful nations in the world, having won the Copa America (the championship tournament for South America) an incredible 15 times.

So what is the secret to the success of soccer’s greatest underdogs?  I have already written about the role that coach education, professional leagues and opportunities, and even poverty, has played in their success.  But perhaps it is the fact that Uruguay are underdogs in the first place, which has played the biggest role and had the greatest impact.

Canadian SC’s Academy Fitness Coach put it to me in this way:

“When you are smaller than everybody else, you have to fight.  We have always been smaller than everybody else, so we have always had to fight.”

Maybe Uruguay has felt that its back has been against the wall in soccer for over 100 years, and this has led to the development of aggressiveness and intensity which is now a common trait of every homegrown soccer player.  After having spent one week here observing the professional academy system, I would have to agree with this sentiment.

 

Uncategorized

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 6 – The Value of Sports Science in Soccer

Today we worked our first match, providing performance analysis to the U19 Academy team in their game versus the Nacional Universidad U19 team.  Not only was the weather much nicer – sunny with a slight breeze – the match was also played on one of the best fields in all of Uruguay – Nacional’s training pitch in the city of Canelones, which neighbours Montevideo.

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The players wore Polar Team Pro heart rate and GPS units, (also equipped with accelerometers), which is a brand new system available in Canada only through Coach Farzad and his company, Sports Performance Analytics Inc.  Using this system, we were able to give live information and feedback to the coaches and players regarding their heart rate/exercise intensity level, work rate, distance covered, number of sprints, and the speed of those sprints.

Later, a full match report will be provided to the coaching staff, including statistical analysis of the data recorded, comparisons to standards and norms for age, gender, and playing position, and suggestions for feedback to be given to the players.

It was a very rewarding experience for Coach Farzad and I, especially because we got to see how appreciative the coaches and players are of the work that we do as fitness coaches and sports scientists.

One possible reason that the coaches in Uruguay are so supportive of sports science is that they are all required to study the subject in order to obtain their coaching licenses.  I touched on this topic in a previous blog earlier this week:

https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2016/07/03/soccer-in-uruguay-day-2-the-importance-of-coach-education/

Whereas in Canada, often even in some of the higher levels of soccer that Coach Farzad and I have worked, coaches sometimes do not recognise, value, or use the information provided to them through performance and match analysis, here in Uruguay the entire coaching staff could not stop asking us questions about this information, even for several hours after the match was over.

Ultimately, the aim of a fitness coach or sports scientist must be to see and analyse the game from a different perspective, and then to simplify this analysis in order to provide concise information to the coaching staff, who can then use this information to alter and adjust their strategy and tactics if needed.  When we are included as part of the coaching staff and can work as a cohesive unit (as was the case this afternoon), the end result is more efficient training, and more effective match performance.

Tomorrow there will be a light training session, which precedes a friendly match on Saturday.  Looking forward to sharing more of this experience with you in 24 hours’ time!

For Parents

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 5 – Improvisation

Today the Academy teams had their first training session of the week.  The rain has finally stopped, but the training grounds are still overflowing with rainwater, so the coaches had to rent a small indoor soccer facility that is normally used as a Futsal court.

Because this club – like basically all of the clubs in Uruguay – has a very tight budget, the coaches were not actually able to confirm the location of the field until around 1:00 in the afternoon (3 hours prior to the start of training) and, since they had never been to the facility before, they did not know the exact dimensions or any other specifications of the field either.

Interestingly, the coaching staff was still able to plan and execute a very well-organised and professional training session, despite these potential setbacks.  On a field measuring just 23 metres long by 12 metres wide, they went through a full dynamic warm-up, technical passing combinations, a 4v4v4 group defending exercise, and a small-sided counter-attacking game.  The players were motivated and trained with intensity, and it was a very productive session for them.

Travelling to a country like this and experiencing its soccer culture really makes you realise how much is taken for granted in Canada.  In Uruguay, there are any number of reasons for the coaches to cancel or halfheartedly run their training sessions, and an equal number of reasons for players to do the same.

But they show up, they improvise, and they get their job done.

Tomorrow, Farzad and I will work our first match providing performance monitoring and analysis to the Academy U19 Team when they take on Nacional University of Montevideo.  I can’t wait to get started!

 

Fitness, For Parents

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 4 -Soccer For Life

Today we had a meeting with staff from the first team, to begin planning the pre-season which will start in exactly 20 days.  It was a very productive meeting, and for me personally it was great to finally see first-hand how a professional coach and a professional organisation functions.  I am very excited for the start of pre-season.

I also got to meet a very unique person today.  His name is Robert Carmona, and he is the Guiness World Record holder as the oldest professional soccer player in the world.  He has played professional soccer in many different countries and even in different continents, including in the United States, Europe and of course South America.

He is also 55 years old.

At an age when most people are nearing retirement from their sedentary jobs, Robert Carmona is still employed in one of the jobs that requires the highest amount of physical activity in the world.  A job from which even the fittest players typically retire around the age of 35 (my current age – and 20 years younger than his current age).

He lives the life of a professional soccer player too – including no drinking or smoking, no sugary foods or soda of any kind, and a daily exercise routine that would probably be a challenge for athletes half his age.

We discussed some aspects of his training and diet, and I gave him some suggestions – not that he necessarily needed any.  He also showed me some of the initiatives he has undertaken in Uruguay, including charitable programs for children’s soccer, as well as motivational programs to help adults improve their health and wellness through exercise (and through soccer).

Meeting Robert Carmona was a revelation for me.  So often as coaches we talk about how we want the athletes we work with, even if they are not successful at the professional or international levels, to remain involved in the sport for the rest of their lives.  Robert is someone who has been involved and remained involved in soccer for his entire life, and his involvement has remained at the highest level possible.  Best of all, in spite of all of his success, he is one of the most humble, down-to-earth people I have ever met.

If you’re interested in learning more about Robert Carmona and his Guiness Records, you can visit his Facebook page via the following link:

https://www.facebook.com/carmonayalbion

Weather permitting, we will begin fitness testing with the Academy teams tomorrow afternoon.  Fingers crossed!

For Parents

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 3 -Rain Delay

It has not stopped raining here for what seems like the past 48 hours!

Unfortunately, because of the persistent rain and poor field conditions, Academy training needs to be suspended here until Wednesday afternoon.

Today I did get to have a staff meeting with the Academy coaches, and it was great to see how experienced, hard-working, and dedicated they are, despite somewhat difficult working conditions.

In Canada, most youth clubs and academies (especially professional academies) have unlimited access to indoor facilities and/or turf fields, where inclement weather is hardly ever an issue.  Failing that, there is usually a patch of grass behind one of the training fields that can be used as a last resort.

In Uruguay, what few quality fields exist are strictly reserved for adult professional matches, leaving youth academies to train on poorly maintained grass that does not hold up well following heavy rainfall – hence the cancellations today.

It struck me that we Canadians should be a bit more thankful for what we have – that we can almost always find a place to have a soccer practice if and when we need to.  And that, for the most part, we get to train and play on good quality turf or grass fields, basically year-round.

Soccer survives in Uruguay and in many other countries whose players and coaches can only dream of training and playing on the kinds of fields that we have in abundance in Canada.  We all should think about that the next time we have to train on turf instead of grass, a school gym instead of an indoor field, or a different, lesser-quality field because the one we regularly train on needs maintenance.  Perhaps, changing our perception of our training environment can lead to an actual change not only in our attitude, but also in our performance.

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

 

Matches, Science

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 2 – The Importance of Coach Education

Today was an off-day, because the Academy matches were cancelled due to thunderstorms which continued basically all day long.  I did get to meet up with my friend and colleague who will also be working with Canadian SC, sports scientist Farzad Yousefian of Sports Performance Analytics Inc.  We watched the UEFA Euro quarter-final match between France and Iceland, a game dominated by France, who ended up winning 5-2 and will now face Germany in the semi-final on Thursday.

Much has been made of the success of Iceland, a nation with a population of just over 300,000 people, in this year’s tournament.  Not only did they qualify out of a European group at the expense of the Netherlands, they proved their worth in the tournament itself by drawing Portugal and Hungary, then beating Austria in group play to advance to the knockout rounds, where they subsequently beat England to reach today’s quarter-final match.

Following Iceland’s shocking defeat of England, many members of the media (including our Canadian/TSN broadcast team of Jason DeVos and Kristian Jack), in their attempt to search for answers as to how the tiny nation could have pulled of such an upset, pointed to the country’s strong emphasis on coach education.

I have blogged about Iceland and the secrets to their success in soccer before, in November of 2015, when I posted and commented on a article written by Icelandic journalist Tryggvi Kristjansson, published after the team had secured qualification for the final stage of France 2016.  In case you missed that blog/article, it can be viewed here:

https://soccerfitnessgols.com/2015/09/21/article-the-icelandic-roadmap-to-success-on-www-thesefootballtimes-co/

Kristjansson, like TSN’s DeVos and Jack, also highlighted the important role that coach education has played in Iceland’s “football revolution.”  Among the statistics presented in the article which stood out the most are that 70% of all of the registered coaches in Iceland now have a UEFA “B” License, and 30% of them have a UEFA “A” License.  These staggering numbers mean that Iceland has a higher percentage of its total coaches with UEFA “B” and “A” Licensed coaches than any other European nation, including perennial contenders Germany, Italy, Spain and France.

Interestingly, there are several comparisons that can be made between soccer’s newest underdog, Iceland, and Uruguay, which is perhaps the greatest underdog in the history of the sport. Among their many similarities (a relatively small population, a struggling professional league with few profitable clubs, etc..) one of the primary ones is that Uruguay, like Iceland, is also renowned around the world for its coaching education programs.

Coaches in Uruguay, even the ones who work with lower level youth/amateur players, must pass a rigorous licensing program provided through the Association Uruguaya de Futbol (“AUF” for short), which requires a minimum of 4 years to complete, and includes courses (and exams) in physiology, biomechanics, periodization, and sports psychology, in addition to the requisite technical and tactical training education.

According to the people I have met and spoken with thus far, Uruguay is one of the largest exporters of professional coaches in the world, a fact which speaks volumes to the credibility of their coach education programs.

DeVos in particular was adamant following Iceland’s victory over England, that it was the nation’s emphasis on coach education that had paved the way for this historic result.  He added that a similar emphasis on coach education would be required in Canada if we expect to become competitive at the international level.  After my experiences thus far in Uruguay, it is hard to argue with this sentiment.

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

 

For Parents, Science, Uncategorized

Soccer in Uruguay: Day 1 -It’s Not About the Facilities

Hi everyone,

I’ve begun my stay in Montevideo, Uruguay, where I am working as Fitness Coach with Canadian SC Uruguay, a professional soccer club in the Uruguayan ‘Segunda’ (second division).  While here, I will be blogging daily about my experiences, and some of things which stand out to me the most.

As soon as I got out of the airport yesterday, I could see that the sport of soccer is like a religion in Uruguay, and that is not an understatement.  Star players’ images, team logos and sponsors’ advertisements dominate both the physical landscape, as well as all other forms of media here.

Of course, every religion needs a place of worship or ‘church’, and in Uruguay, ‘church’ is ‘la cancha’ – the soccer field.

Today I got to see for the first time in my life, a training match between two U19 professional Youth Academy teams from Uruguay (Canadian SC versus Central).  The match was played at the official stadium of Basanez, a local ‘Primera’ (first division) club from Montevideo.

20160702_140358

Situated in the middle of one of the poorer neighbourhoods in the city, the Basanez stadium plays host to several of the U19 Segunda matches every week.  It is a spartan facility, with barbed wire fences, old stone walls, two small change rooms with no running water, a small dirt pitch in the back for warm-ups, and a grandstand with seating for about 100 people.

The field itself has probably seen better days, with poorly maintained grass, giant patches of dirt and mud inside both penalty areas, and basically no drainage.  On this particular day there was heavy rainfall starting about 1 hour before kick-off, which left several areas of the pitch almost unplayable due to the huge puddles of water that had accumulated there.

I spoke briefly with the Head Coach of the Canadian SC U19 Academy team prior to the match, and he asked me “what do you think about the facilities here?”  My only response was to shrug my shoulders.

When the match started I sat and talked with the club’s sports psychologist, and during our discussion it occurred to me that the poor state of the training and playing facilities in Uruguay may not be such a bad thing for the players – especially for their technical development.  Having to train and play on uneven, abnormally hard or wet surfaces forces players to sharpen all aspects of their technical performance.  Ultimately, this should lead to the development of better technical ability and a faster speed of play.  As he put it to me, “when players receive a pass here, it is not a ball coming towards them – it is a rabbit.”  If you can control a “rabbit,” then controlling a ball  – on a well-maintained grass pitch – will eventually become very easy.  Ultimately, it is very likely that Uruguayan players who grow up training to catch “rabbits” in youth soccer will end up far better prepared for the higher technical demands of the professional and international game.

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Perhaps Canadian soccer coaches and players – especially the great majority of us who work primarily in amateur youth soccer – need to stop worrying so much about the quality of the fields and facilities in which we train and play.  So long as major safety hazards like potholes and sprinkler heads can be avoided or mitigated, we may be able to improve the technical abilities of our young players simply by exposing them to different types of playing surfaces as part of their yearly training and competition schedules.  If I could take one lesson away from watching the match played at Basanez this afternoon, it is that player development is not about the facilities.  If it were, then Uruguay would never have earned its reputation as one of the world’s leaders in exporting professional players.

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

 

Fitness, Science

The Deadlift – Execution, Benefits, and How to Incorporate it Into a Soccer Player’s Training Program

Written by Soccer Fitness Strength and Conditioning Coach Jacob Ceccanese, edited by Richard Bucciarelli.

The deadlift is an essential compound exercise within a strength and conditioning program. In general, the deadlift offers many positive contributions to an athlete’s training and functional abilities.  Because it is a closed chain exercise, the deadlift is  often used for preventative and rehabilitation purposes. The deadlift is often debated as being a high risk for reward exercise, however, leading researcher Dr. Stuart McGill clarifies the significance of the exercise for us in strength and conditioning programs for athletes.  Dr. McGill refers to the deadlift as a posterior shift exercise maximising the potential to activate the gluteus maximus, a prime mover with respect to hip extension (McGill, 2006).

Increasing the effectiveness of the deadlift is primarily based on achieving correct posture while performing the exercise.  A key postural cue for athletes in keeping a neutral spine, this position is transferred to all different variations of the deadlifts (Eg: sumo, stiff leg, dumbbell or bar). A neutral spine position pulls the spinal column in a normal curvature keeping tension on the muscles instead of ligaments.  Adams and Dolan (1995) provided insight to avoiding injury during an anterior loaded exercise such as the deadlift (Adams & Dolan, 1995). Muscles commonly used in a deadlift such as the erector spinea and latissimus dorsi are primary postural muscles which eliminate flexion of the spine. The research suggests that keeping a neutral spine will eliminate the possibility of shifting the muscle function to the ligaments which are not meant to resist high loads. Adams and Dolan suggest avoiding full lumbar flexion which may allow for decreased risk and increased effectiveness (Adams & Dolan, 1995).

For simplicity, the most common deadlift motion is powerful hip and knee extension through loaded posterior chain musculature. The muscles which perform these movements play a critical role in soccer-specific movements such as vertical jump in a header and explosive acceleration to chase a ball down or close down the space between opposing players while defending.  Including deadlifting into a soccer player’s periodization program would allow them to achieve great performance benefits, as it would allow them to improve the effectiveness of these movements.

Many top strength and conditioning coaches incorporate the deadlift into a soccer player’s regimen for several different reasons, but the main reason it is used is to build general strength to allow an athlete to generate power more efficiently. Strength and power are two terms commonly mistaken as being the same, however, many differences exist between the two.  The force-velocity curve (see below) is a graph that represents the hyperbolic curve relationship between force (y-axis) and velocity (x-axis). Zatsiorsky and Kraemer (2006) explain the specificity in periodization programs to allow athletes to attain the adaptions gained in training to transfer to their sport (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006). The training specific to one end of the spectrum sometimes allows adaptions at the other end. While trying to increase strength, one must lift heavy loads which can only be done at slow speeds, but when trying to increase power or speed, one must lift lighter loads in explosive style lifts.

Force-Velocity Curve

When taking a closer look at the force-velocity curve, it is critical that athletes train to shift that curve to the right, which means that as time gets closer to the season, players have increased their strength to a level which helps optimise their speed and power. A challenge with this type of training is that athletes cannot optimally train strength while at the same time doing power or speed work, and conversely, power cannot be optimally trained while continuing with strength training.  Vladimir Issurin (2008) found that using a “block” periodization for sports such as soccer that depend on key characteristics like speed and power, to be critical for players playing at high levels.  The “block” periodization model is based on training residuals and how long the training adaptions can be maintained without de-training (Issurin, V., 2008).  Physiological adaptions such as improving aerobic endurance, anaerobic ability, as well as maximal strength, all take longer to de-train opposed to motor skill adaptions such as maximal speed (Issurin, V. 2008). Therefore, those characteristics are trained earlier and as the athlete approaches their season, maximal speed and strength endurance work specific to the sport are added in. 

Moving through a block periodization program for a soccer player would begin in the offseason; accumulation phase is step one. A deadlift exercise would be incorporated into the accumulation phase as training focus is to build basic strength and hypertrophy to set up for greater training intensity in future mesocycles. The accumulation phase –  as the name suggests – is a high volume and low intensity phase. During this phase, the deadlift exercise would be done using low loads and more sets and reps. Variation throughout the first phase can be done using different types of deadlifting techniques throughout the microcycles (weekly) to add variation.  Athletes then move from the accumulation phase to the transmutation phase which incorporates more maximal strength and power work. During the transmutation phase, medium load and medium to high intensity is used. The reason for the transmutation phase is to focus the training stimulus to adaptions more specific for performance.  The last stage would be realisation phase; the focus during this phase is power and speed.  The training volume is to remain low and training intensity is to be high.  Lowering the training volume during this phase allows for the accumulated fatigue to dissipate and specific training adaptions to be realised (NCSA).

Through the use of a block periodization, with a progression from phases starting with accumulation, to transmutation, to realisation, soccer players can incorporate the deadlift exercise into their routines and achieve improvements in performance. A specific goal of the use of deadlifts in a block periodization is to move the force-velocity curve towards the right side of the graph. This will allow athletes to increase the amount of force they can produce, at any given velocity or speed, and ultimately will allow them the opportunity to achieve peak levels of strength, speed and power simultaneously through a residual training effect (Hoffman,J. 2012).

 

 

Fitness, Science

Hamstring Injuries in Soccer – Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation

Written by Soccer Fitness Internship Student Dante Blair, edited by Richard Bucciarelli.

Hamstring injuries are very common in the world of sports, and especially in the sport of soccer. Injuries to the hamstring muscles can have a drastic effect on an athlete’s career and quality of life.  Audits were done on English Professional teams over two seasons and found that about 12 percent of all soccer related injuries were hamstring related. A hamstring injury can effectively sideline a player for up to 90 days. (Woods, Hawkins, Maltby, Thomas, & Hodson, 2004). It is clear that hamstring injuries pose a problem to athletes so it is important, as with any other injury, for players to participate in preventive measure to reduce the risk of injury. If/when a hamstring injury occurs, players should also follow proper rehabilitation practices and techniques in order to return to play as soon as possible and to prevent re-injury.

The hamstrings consists of three muscles on the back of the leg. The semitendinosus, semimembranosus and the bicep femoris insert at the ischial tuberosity in the pelvis spanning across the knee joint and then inserting on the medial tibia. The hamstrings function to extend the hip and bend the knee.  Hamstring injuries usually occur when there is a quick change in direction during a sprint or a jump. Often the injury occurs during the swing phase of running, prior to the foot touching the ground (Goldman & Jones, 2011). Many risk factors for hamstring injury have been described, being classified as intrinsic and extrinsic risk factors. Intrinsic risk factors include muscle weakness, imbalances, fatigue, poor flexibility and poor technique. Extrinsic factors include insufficient warm up, training parameters and playing surfaces (Goldman & Jones, 2011). Factors like age, sex and ethnicity play a role but are unmodifiable in nature. (Bahr & Holme, 2003).

Preventative measures can be taken to reduce the risk of hamstring injuries by increasing eccentric strength on the hamstrings. Studies have shown a 13 percent reduction in in hamstring injuries by implement a protocol which includes strength training to increase eccentric hamstring strength combined with warm up and stretching. This conclusion makes sense based on the fact that most hamstring injuries involved poor flexibility and muscle weakness. However, it was made clear that to effectively reduce hamstring strains, one must implement both a strength and flexibility component in their training regimen (Arnason, Anderdsen, Holme, Engebretesen, & Bahr, 2008,). An effective exercise that have proven to increase eccentric strength of the hamstring is the Nordic hamstring curl. Furthermore, athletes have to take into consideration the muscle imbalances they may have. Another study concluded that players with strength imbalances where 4-5 times more likely to receive a hamstring injury (Croisier, Ganteaume, Binet, Genty, & Ferret, 2008,). Unfortunately, this type of strength imbalance is common in soccer, because of the fact that many players develop a dominant or stronger leg. It is important to recognise any potential imbalances and implement corrective training measures to solve this issue (for example, participating in uni-lateral strength and flexibility exercises).

In the occurrence of a hamstring injury it is important to take the proper rehab precautions in order to heal as quickly as possible and reduce the risk of re-injury. A hamstring rehabilitation program usually consist of three stages; the acute, subacute and functional stages. In the acute phase of rehabilitation the goal is to protect the injury and minimise motion and strength loss. A common protective mechanism used to reduce inflammation is ice, but ultra sound and laser are used as well. At this time isometric strengthening should be done, with the use of knee flexion exercise at various angles. Once knee flexion strength is greater than 50 percent of uninjured length, the athlete may proceed to the next phase.

The second phase of rehabilitation (subacute phase) consists of concentric and eccentric training to regain strength and neuromuscular control of the hips and pelvis. Exercise done at this stage includes straight leg deadlifts, single leg windmills and the aforementioned Nordic hamstring curls. At this point the athlete should be within 20 percent of full strength and have the ability to jog forward and backward at a moderate speed.

In the final (functional) stage the focus of the rehab is on functional movement and eccentric strengthening and lengthening.  At completion of this stage athletes should have full strength and rage of motion. Bands are used to test the lengthening capabilities of the hamstrings. While using bands, the hips must be in a flexed position as the knee extends to ensure that the hamstrings are functioning properly. Tests that are commonly used to assess if an athlete is eligible to return to play are the H-test and the lengthening state manual hamstring test. Both test are designed to demonstrate full strength and range of motion of the hamstrings. (Schmitt, Tim, & McHugh, 2012)

In summary, injuries, including hamstring injuries, are an unfortunate part of participation in sports including soccer. It is important for all athletes, including soccer players, to take preventative action to reduce the likelihood of any type of injury. In the case of hamstring strains, strengthening the muscle as well as increased flexibility goes along way for injury prevention. If a hamstring injury ever occurs, following a rehabilitation protocol can be beneficial for a healthy recovery and the reduction risk of of re-injury.

Nutrition, Science

Everything You Need to Know About Carbohydrates for Soccer

JessicaDeeth

Written by Soccer Fitness Internship Student Jessica Deeth.  Edited by Richard Bucciarelli.

The word “carbohydrate” is synonymous with sports nutrition. The immediate impact of carbohydrate intake, or conversely its absence, on daily training and competition performance has been widely researched. Recent trends in society have suggested that low carbohydrate diets are beneficial for weight loss and other health benefits. In addition, different tactics based on fuelling for sports performance have become a popular discussion among scientists and researchers recently as well. Carbohydrates are a major fuel source for exercise, especially during prolonged continuous or high-intensity exercise.

Carbohydrates are stored in the body as glycogen within the muscles and liver, however this storage capacity is limited. When these carbohydrate stores inadequately meet the fuel needs of an athlete’s training program, this can negatively impact their performance. Resulting in: reduced ability to train intensely, diminish competition performance, and reduced immune function. For these reasons, athletes are encouraged to ensure adequate carbohydrate intake according to their requirements based on training regime.

Dietary carbohydrate requirements are dependent on the fuel needs of the athlete’s training and/or competition program. Exactly how many grams are required is ultimately dependant on the frequency, duration and intensity of the activity. The chart below outlines some general requirements, based on activity level, that are recommended by the Australian Sports Institute (ASI):

CHOsChart

Much like activity levels change from day to day, carbohydrate intake should vary based on these changes in training as well. On high activity days, carbohydrate intake should be increased to account for the increase in activity ultimately increasing energy expenditure. This will help to maximise performance from the training sessions and also promote recovery between exercise sessions. Alternatively, on low-activity training days and/or rest days, carbohydrate intake should be reduced to reflect the decreased training load.(“Carbohydrate – The Facts : AIS : Australian Sports Commission”, 2016).

An athlete’s carbohydrate requirements before, during and after training or competition will depend on a number of factors including: type, intensity, duration of exercise, frequency of exercise, body composition goals, training background and performance goals for the session. While ensuring an athlete is consuming a sufficient amount of carbohydrates it is also important to consider the timing of carbohydrate, specifically approaching competition. Carbohydrate ingestion before exercise should assist in topping up blood glucose levels and glycogen stores in the muscle and liver. This is especially important if the competition or training is taking place first thing in the morning or if the event will continue beyond 90 minutes in duration. Replenishment of carbohydrates during prolonged exercise can benefit the athlete’s performance in various ways. Carbohydrate replenishment will ultimately affect the muscle by delaying the onset of lactic acid build-up and fatigue. This will also directly affect the brain and central nervous system by delaying the decline in mental concentration, pacing strategies etc. Carbohydrate intake following exercise is essential for optimal recovery of glycogen stores. Often times, athletic performance is dependent upon the ability to recover from one session and perform it again and more efficiently in the next session. Incomplete or reduced replenishment of muscle glycogen stores between training sessions can lead to a reduced ability to train effectively, feeling fatigued physically and mentally and potentially leading to over-training. During competition, inadequate carbohydrate replenishment may also reduce subsequent performances where exercise sessions are repeated within or across days like tournaments, meets etc.

The rate of ATP synthesis is directly linked to the exercise intensity, which determines the substrate demands of skeletal muscle to generate ATP. During exercise, skeletal muscles use primarily Fat and Carbohydrates for energy, and at low exercise intensities, fat is the preferred substrate although there is always some glucose utilisation. At higher exercise intensities, ATP synthesis demand increases and fat is unable to meet the rate of ATP synthesis quickly enough therefore, glucose oxidation increases. Although the utilisation of fat for energy yields a much higher amount of ATP, glucose oxidation is much faster. This is why carbohydrates play a major role during exercise performed at high intensities. Fat cannot provide the required energy for ATP synthesis. Even at low exercise intensities carbohydrates are always being used. Therefore, for prolonged exercise lasting longer than 1:45-2 hours, proper carbohydrate and glycogen intake are crucial.

A potential benefit to a low carb diet is that it may help to reduce inflammation in the body. Sore muscles can sometimes hinder future workouts, and high levels of fat consumption can help to minimise post-workout soreness otherwise known as “DOMS” or “delayed-onset muscle soreness”. When carbohydrate intake is decreased below 50 grams per day, the response of the body is to produce ketones, which combat oxidative stress and have anti-inflammatory properties. This benefit can be important for high endurance athletes, because the intense training schedule pushes the athlete to their physical limits. As a result, oxidative stress builds up a tolerance in the body, and can lead to aging. But, with a low carb diet, the effects of oxidative stress can be reduced (“Can Endurance Athletes Thrive on Low Carb/High Fat Diet?”, 2016).

Multiple studies, however, have shown that fatigue and decrease in performance is often associated with low carbohydrate diets that result in glycogen depletion. When glycogen levels are low or there is glycogen depletion, the muscles then increase the utilization of protein and amino acids to produce glucose to use as energy. Since protein and amino acids are the building blocks of muscle, the muscle may become catabolic and break itself down. Essentially, the muscle starts to breakdown by increasing the amount of amino acids available to be used for energy. This situation can be harmful over time and may lead to muscle damage. It can further lead to chronic over-training, and after a prolonged period of time muscle damage can interfere with glycogen stores and synthesis.

 

 

 

 

 

Fitness, Science

Choosing the Right Aerobic Fitness Test for Soccer

Written by Soccer Fitness Internship Student Celia Palombella.  Edited by Richard Bucciarelli

Celia

Every athlete knows the importance of training specifically to the type of sport they play. The question is, which forms of training are optimal towards each sport, and why? Soccer is a sport that relies heavily on a combination of various energy systems, due to the nature of the sport. These components include: speed, agility, aerobic/anaerobic endurance, strength, power, and skill; utilizing all three energy systems (ATP-PC, Glycolitic/Lactic acid and Aerobic) (Baker, 2013). Aerobic fitness is a very important aspect to focus on when training for soccer players, with anaerobic fitness and agility trailing closely behind. Aerobic fitness is geared towards soccer players in the sense that they need to be able to sustain high intensities throughout the total 90 minutes of the game. Many different types of aerobic fitness training tests have been used towards prescribing intensities for soccer players during their training sessions. Some of these tests include the Yo-Yo test, the 30-15 intermittent fitness test, VO2max test, and various types of shuttle tests.

Sport-specific tests are tests that are used to mimic the nature of the sport. These field tests are often used to evaluate the effects that training has on their athletes, along with methods based on heart rate and rate of perceived exertion to establish the specific internal load needed when training. Modes of aerobic training have been proven to be an important component of physical training for soccer athletes. Studies have verified this showing correlation between athletes’ aerobic power (VO2max) and where they rank on a competitive level, as well as between their quality of play and how much distance they cover during a game. Aerobic training can enhance soccer performances including distance covered, time spent at high intensities and number of sprints and ball possessions during a match (Helgerud, Engen, Wisloff &Hoff, 2001). Training at high aerobic intensities has also shown to improve recovery during high intensity exercise, which is the typical type of performance and training a soccer player would undergo.

In terms of laboratory assessments, VO2max tests and blood lactate levels can be used to assess the condition of a soccer player when prescribing intensities for training. VO2max and lactate thresholds are considered accurate measures of aerobic power and capacity. Assessing these variables with the appropriate protocols when training, could provide coaches with useful information about the effect on the athlete’s central and peripheral factors (Impellizzeri, Rampinini, & Marcora, 2005). However, since most laboratory assessments, such as VO2max are difficult to administer due to equipment cost and time taken to perform them, field tests have grown more popular for coaches to be used towards their soccer training protocols specific to aerobic training. The 20-m shuttle run test can be used to correlate the maximal running speed reached at the end of the test with athletes VO2max (Impellizzeri, Rampinini, & Marcora, 2005). Equations have been made for field tests like this one to estimate one’s VO2max as an alternative to performing a full on VO2max laboratory test.

The 30-15 Intermittent Fitness Test was invented by Martin Buchheit. It measures the maximal running speed that can be used towards prescribing training prescriptions for athletes. This test consists of 30-second shuttle runs with 15-second passive recovery periods. When the test ends, the running velocity from the last stage completed is used as the maximal running speed or velocity. A calculation is done with the results to determine the player’s individual maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) (Footballscience.net, 2015). These results can be utilized when prescribing training intensities for athletes since each value is individualized to the athlete performing the test.

The Yo-Yo test is another form of an aerobic fitness test that is used by many soccer /strength and conditioning coaches for their athletes. It evaluates each player’s ability to repeatedly perform intense exercise. The results of the Yo-Yo test correlate with the high-intensity running distance that occurs in soccer games (Haugen & Seiler, 2015). The results can also be considered more valuable than measures done for maximal aerobic power. The Yo-Yo aerobic field test is set up as a 20-m long run with a 5-m 5-10 second recovery break in between. Each run is signalled to start from a beep, with beeps increasing times per each level. If the player does not make it to the opposite side before the second beep, the test is completed (Footballscience.net, 2015). Again, calculations for VO2max are done with a specific equation created for the Yo-Yo test.

Having an athlete’s VO2max results is very beneficial for coaches or trainers to know how to properly prescribe loads for athlete’s on an individual basis. For example, knowing the VO2max of one athlete can be incorporated into a training program using 75% of the athletes VO2max for a specific exercise intensity or load for a workout. Aerobic endurance levels of athletes can be tested in both laboratory and field settings. For players to be successful, aerobic and anaerobic capabilities must be at a certain level. Performance in soccer relies heavily on an athlete’s aerobic endurance. A study showed that individuals function at about an average of 70% of their VO2max, 80-90% of their HRmax, and blood lactate levels of 2-10 mmol/l, while covering a distance of 8-12km during a professional match (Footballscience.net, 2015). These results can be obtained through sport specific laboratory and field tests, such as the ones previously mentioned, to prescribe proper training intensities for athletes. The importance of an athlete’s aerobic system can also be seen when viewing the rankings for competitive teams. We now can form a conclusion around the importance of aerobic tests for soccer athletes specific to training.

Nutrition, Science

Electrolytes in Soccer – Everything You Need to Know

Written by Soccer Fitness Internship Student Kayleigh Mines, edited by Richard Bucciarelli.

Kayleigh

Electrolyte replenishment is very important during high intensity and/or long duration activities such as soccer. It is important to maintain hydration during these activities to sustain electrolytes levels. Sustaining electrolyte levels will allow optimal performance and ideal health for the athlete.

Before understanding how to replenish electrolytes we have to first understand what electrolytes are. An electrolyte is a substance in the body that produces an electrically conducting solution when dissolved in water, or H2O. Electrolytes carry an electrical charge and are essential for everyday life. They are found in your blood, urine and bodily fluids. Maintaining the optimal electrolyte balance aids in your body’s blood chemistry, muscle activity, and other metabolic processes. All higher forms of life need electrolytes to survive (Christian Nordqvist, 2016). In our bodies we carry electrolytes. These electrolytes comprise of minerals that include; sodium (Na+), potassium (K+), calcium (Ca2), magnesium (Mg2+), chloride (C1), hydrogen phosphate (HPO42-), bicarbonate (HCO3), and hydrogen carbonate (HCO3).

We need electrolytes in our bodies for many reasons. These reason include; regulating our nerve, organ, cell, and muscle functions, temperature control, hydration/fluid levels, glucose metabolism, ion and fluid transportation, pH levels, blood pressure, and aid in rebuild any damaged tissues. If we experience imbalanced electrolytes it is because the amount of water in the body has changed, either it is dehydrated or overhydrated. We usually experience this through exercising where we tend to sweat more frequently and heavily. If low or imbalanced electrolyte concentration occurs you could experience symptoms such as; muscle weakness or spasms, irregular heartbeat, blood pressure change, confusion, fatigue, nausea and more severe symptoms like chest pain, seizures or lethargy convulsions. Reasons for imbalanced electrolytes can be caused by kidney disease, vomiting over a prolonged period of time, severe dehydration, congestive heart failure, acid/base pH imbalance, eating disorders, and some drugs such as diuretics or ACE inhibitors (Christian Nordqvist, 2016). Treatment for imbalanced electrolytes include either increasing or decreasing fluids and mineral supplements may also be given by mouth or intravenously if the body is heavily depleted.

Electrolytes come from the foods and liquids we consume. These foods and liquids contain sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, phosphorous, and bicarbonate, all the key components that make up electrolytes. All of these components have a certain role as an electrolyte that is beneficial to the body. Sodium helps to control fluid in the body that is necessary for optimal muscle and nerve function along with impacting blood pressure. Calcium is important for the movement of nerve impulses and muscle. Potassium helps in regulating the heart and blood pressure along with aiding in transmitting nerve impulse to allow for necessary muscle contractions. Magnesium is essential in helping to maintain heart rhythm, regulating blood glucose (blood sugar) levels, and enhancing the immune system. Chloride is vital for providing equilibrium to the acidity and alkalinity, which helps to maintain optimal pH levels along with helping in digestion. Phosphorous is essential in aiding in the production of tissue growth and repair by providing energy to the cells. Lastly, bicarbonate’s role is to correspondingly aid in the body maintaining healthy pH levels along with regulating heart function (Cotter, Thornton, Lee & Laursen, 2014). Each of these components aid in the health of each individual and maintaining them will only prove their worth.

To maintain or restore electrolytes back to their optimal levels there are a few things we can do. Paramount among these is maintaining your body’s fluids by drinking plenty of water. It is advised that athletes drink 8 ounces of water 20 to 30 minutes before starting their exercise, drink 8 to 10 ounces of water every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise, and drink 8 ounces of water no more than 30 minutes after exercise (WebMD, 2016). You can also maintain electrolytes through your diet. Replacing electrolyte loss through eating foods high in the minerals that make up electrolytes such as; bananas high in potassium, salty snacks like nuts containing sodium, phosphorus, and chloride, milk products high in calcium, and leafy greens high in magnesium (Isabel Smith, 2014). Athletes can also replenish their electrolytes though drinking sports drinks such as Gatorade or PowerAde that contain carbohydrates (CHO) and electrolytes. These drinks replace sweat that has been loss during exercise along with aiding to retain fluid in the body/blood. You should only drink sport drinks when an exercise exceeds past 30 minutes since you need to replace CHO that have been used for energy and electrolytes that have been depleted through high sweat volumes. However there are “pro’s” and “cons” of consuming sport drinks. Pro’s include; replacing fluids lost during high intense exercise, replacing CHO used for energy aiding in bring blood glucose back up to normal levels, replacing protein, and the fact that in general the drinks are easy to digest, taste good, and replenish vitamins and minerals. The cons include; the acidity in sports drinks can dissolve teeth, they are expensive, they are often used to replace water when unessential, they are high in sugar, they may contain caffeine, and some also have unproven claims such as; improving one’s speed, endurance, concentration, agility, and overall athletic performance.  Companies who market and sell sports drinks do not have factual proof to back up these performance-enhancing claims (Lifescript, 2016).

With these alternatives it proves that there are different possibilities in maintaining or replenishing electrolytes loss during high intense, low intense, or long duration exercises. Keeping electrolytes in mind when exercising. Making it a priority to maintain electrolytes at optimal levels, so as an athlete you can perform the best you can in any activity you may be performing in.

Fitness, Science, Technology

The Soccer Fitness Drop Jump Test – An Efficient and Effective Way to Measure Agility in Athletes

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Written by Soccer Fitness Staff member Alexandra Giannone, edited by Richard Bucciarelli.

The drop-jump test is a vertical plyometric exercise that is used to evaluate an individuals
explosive power (Ebben & Petushek, 2010) as well as a measurement of their eccentric leg
strength and agility.

To perform a drop-jump one must stand on box, with one foot hanging off the edge and their hands on their hips. The individual will then step down, hitting the ground with both feet, once contact with the ground is made they must then rapidly explode and jump up
as high as possible.

For a more explosive jump it is crucial for them to utilize their stretch shortening cycle (SSC) to its full capacity. When the eccentric/concentric phases of a movement are coupled, a more powerful contraction is produced. During the eccentric phase, active muscles are pre-stretched and absorb energy. Part of this energy is temporarily stored and then reused during the concentric contraction phase of the SSC. A short transition between the eccentric and the concentric phase is necessary for this elastic energy to be used optimally (Flanagan & Comyns, 2008).

The ground contact time in these plyometric exercises are an important variable for strength and conditioning. Athletes that wish to increase maximum jump height can benefit from longer ground contact times, allowing them to generate maximum force and maximum jump height. However, an athlete that needs to improve their maximum velocity sprinting speed would require the plyometric exercise to have shorter contact times.

Examining the ground contact times of an athlete during these plyometric exercises will give a coach/trainer an excellent indication of whether the exercise being performed is beneficial to the athletes’ specific sport. In a recent study examining the use of the drop jump, male athletes were found to have had shorter contact times, and produced the highest maximum and and mean mechanical power, as compared to female athletes (Walsh, Arampatzis, Schade, & Brüggemann, 2004).
To evaluate an individual’s drop jump performance and explosive strength, their reactive
strength index (RSI) must be measured (Ebben & Petushek, 2010). RSI is equal is jump height (JH) divided by contact time (CT) (RSI = JH/CT). CT is defined as the time between the first foot contact with the force platform and when the subject’s feet left the platform. JH is characterized as the time between the subjects feet leaving the force platform and when they contacted it again (Stephenson, Ebben, Flanagan, & Jensen, 2011).

Drop jump and reactive strength index can be assessed using a variety of methods. At Soccer Fitness, athletes have the opportunity to be assessed using OptoJump, an
innovative system analysis and measurement, consisting of a transmitting and receiving bar. The system detects any interruptions in communication between the bars and calculates duration (ex. jump height and contact time) A system like this allows for assessment and optimization of performance to the world of competitive sport (Microgate, 2014).

Agility is a term that is very controversial due to the result of multiple factors and various
disciplines in sports science. A biomechanist, a motor learning scientist and a strength and conditioning coach can all have different perspectives as to what influences agility performance.  A comprehensive definition of agility would recognize the physical demands (strength and conditioning, cognitive processes (motor learning) and technical skills (biomechanics) (Sheppard & Young, 2006).

In order to assess agility the movement/exercise must feature an element of
reaction and/or decision-making in addition to the particular change of direction. There are multiple tests that determine an individuals change in direction ability, some include, the Illinois test, 5-0-5 test, and the Zigzag run test. However, these tests do not show a significant relationship with one another. This means that an athletes scoring on different change of direction tests depends on the movement demands of the test protocol. In addition, change of direction may also differ depending on whether the athletes cutting movements are executed with their dominant or non-dominant leg (Gamble, 2012). The drop-jump was also compared to a 20 metre sprint exercise that contained three- directional changes and was found that there was no significant correlation between the two. It was suggested that reactive strength, due to the SSC involvement, is a better predictor and has a stronger relationship with change of direction speed (Young, James, & Montgomery, 2002).
Overall, strength and power measures have an influence on change of direction speed
(CODS), but this relationship is only observed when comparing tasks involving CODS over
short distances. Sports that involve these short distances, such as badminton and soccer, strength and power have a stronger relationship with CODS than athletes who perform higher speeds over longer distances with directional changes (Negrete & Brophy, 2000).

Fitness, Science

The Problem With “Reaction Time” Training in Soccer – And What to do About It

There is girl in the United States that can strike out any Major League Baseball player.  Easily.  This is not a joke.

In The Sports Gene, a 2013 book written by David Epstein which should be required reading for any sports scientist or fitness coach working with athletes, the author discusses sport-specific anticipatory and reaction abilities, and how they apply to the learning of sports skills.

Epstein describes a famous United States National Women’s Softball pitcher named Jennie Finch.  She played some exhibition games in the early 2000’s where she pitched against top men’s baseball players like Albert Pujols, Mike Piazza, and Barry Bonds.  Although all of these players are expert hitters, who presumably possess exceptional “reaction” skills that allow them to routinely hit 100+ mph overhand fastballs in their own sport, none of them were able to hit Jennie Finch’s 50-60 Mph, underhand, softball pitches.

How can it be that the professional athletes considered to have the world’s best “reaction time” cannot hit an underhand pitch travailing at 1/3rd the speed they are accustomed to?  The reason Finch’s pitches are un-hittable for Major League Baseball players is not because she is possesses any super-human strength or power.   It is because men’s baseball players – even the elite ones – have no experience in softball or in facing underhanded softball pitches.

Over time and through the accumulation of repetitive practice, Major League ballplayers have been exposed to hundreds of thousands of overhand fastball pitches, and as a result they have developed the ability to accurately predict where the ball will end up – to “anticipate” – at about the time the pitcher cocks his arm backwards.  If the same players were to wait until they could actually see where the ball from a fastball pitch would travel, and then try to “react” to it, the ball would already be in the catcher’s glove by the time they would have started their swing.

As a function of their training and experience, elite professional baseball players are able decide where and how they are going to swing at fastball pitches – again, to “anticipate” rather than to “react” – with enough time to actually hit the ball.  This unique anticipatory ability, which has been studied extensively in sports science research, has been proven to be much faster and more developed in professional versus amateur ballplayers, meaning that elite players are able to “see into the future” far sooner than sub-elite players, and the extra time gained from this ability allows them to have a much higher success rate in hitting the ball.

Unfortunately, because these same players have never been exposed to underhand softball pitches, they have not accumulated enough experience to develop the ability to accurately predict where Finch’s underhand pitches will go quickly enough to react to them.  Their anticipatory skills are very specific to the type of movements and plays they have been exposed to in their particular sport, and are not effective in softball.  So they strike out.  Every time.

The Sports Gene cites several different research studies that have examined elite athletes in several different sports (including soccer) and the results are always the same.  Elite professional athletes are able to predict – accurately – what is going to happen in their own sport before it actually happens.  And they are able to do it quicker than their opponents.

There are a few caveats, however.  Firstly, elite athletes’ anticipatory skills in their own sport are not transferable to other sports.  In all the studies cited in The Sports Gene, when elite athletes (with exceptional anticipatory ability from their own sport) were asked to predict the outcomes of plays from other sports, they showed no significant differences in predictive ability as compared to average, sub-elite performers (and in many cases they were worse than sub-elite performers).  Furthermore and perhaps more importantly, elite athletes from every sport who were tested, including soccer, were not shown to have any significant differences in actual “reaction time” – the time taken from the perception of stimulus to the initiation of movement reacting to the stimulus – than either sub-elite athletes, or even from non-athletic members of the general population.

Thus, anticipation, and not reaction time, is the ability which separates elite from sub-elite athletes (and it is also the reason than no Major League ballplayer will ever hit Jennie Finch’s underhand pitch).

Armed with this information, how can soccer coaches and fitness coaches train their athletes to improve sport-specific anticipatory skills?  The good news is that the answer is very simple.  Research and science in skilled performance and motor learning has indicated that the best way to improve these abilities in athletes is not to use fancy “reaction time” or “agility” drills.  Instead, players need to play soccer, or conditioned small-sided versions of the soccer, as much as possible.

Through repetitive exposure to hundreds of thousands of instances where soccer-specific anticipation is required (for example, determining where a pass from a teammate or opponent will end up), players can develop and improve their ability to accurately predict what will happen, position themselves accordingly, and increase their chances of success.

When designing training sessions and exercises, coaches and fitness coaches should determine which anticipatory skills they would like to develop, and then select an appropriate small-sided game with the appropriate conditions (for example, field size, number of players, rules of the game, etc.) in order to help them to bring these skills out in their players.  If the goal of training is to the ability to dribble and beat an opponent forwards, use a 1 vs. 1 game with players attacking defenders head-on.  If the goal is to improve players’ ability to ability to connect passes and make combinations such as wall-passes, use a small-sided game like 3 vs. 3 or 4 vs. 4, and perhaps add one extra attacker to help teams in possession outnumber defenders around the ball. If the goal is to improve a goalkeeper’s ability to stop shots from medium-range, use a small-sided game with large goals and a relatively short field length that will encourage players to shoot.  You get the picture.

Eventually, through the accumulation of enough repetition and experience, players will improve their ability to accurately predict what will happen (“anticipate”), and take the action (“react”) that will give them the highest chances of success.  They will decrease the mistakes they make by improving their positioning and decision making.  And the team will play better as a result.

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

Uncategorized

Article – “Leicester City: The Science Behind Their Success” at www.bbc.com

Leicester City are the 2016 English Premier League Champions.

Last Sunday, May 1st, after having drawn 1-1 with Manchester United the day before, they confirmed themselves as champions when Tottenham Hotspur drew 2-2 with Chelsea, mathematically eliminating their closest rivals in the league table.

Leicester’s run to the Championship this season has been described by many in the media as a “fairly-tale” for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that the club has won despite having the league’s lowest annual payroll, and also because it is basically devoid of star players, having assembled their squad with players the other Premier League clubs – and even some of the 1st and 2nd Division clubs in England – didn’t want.

But was their Premier League title really just an incredible case of good fortune, or was it the result of carefully planned, meticulously executed strategies, including physical fitness and sports science strategies?

Below is a link to an excellent article written by Alistair Magowan, and posted to bbc.com on Wednesday, May 4th, titled “Leicester City: The Science Behind their Premier League Title.”  In this article, Magowan outlines the incredibly positive impact that Leicester’s sports science staff, comprising a team of experts in the fields of strength and conditioning, performance analysis, nutrition, and sports psychology, have had on both the individual players’ as well as the team’s performance.  Some of the highlights of this impact in the 2015/2016 Premier League season include:

  • Having the fewest total number of injuries this season
  • Having the least amount of time lost due to injury this season
  • Using the fewest number of players this season
  • Having the highest number of counter-attacking goals, and the highest number of counter-attacking shots on target, this season

Magowan goes on to highlight several of the strategies used by Leicester’s sports science team, including managing training volume and intensity, performance monitoring during training and match play, recovery and regeneration methods, nutrition and hydration, and psychological skills training.  This quote from Darren Burgess, former Fitness Coach for Liverpool FC who was interviewed as part of the article, neatly sums up the importance of a good sports science team in a professional club:

 “Quite often sports science is not used to its full potential but we’ve seen the results at Leicester and I would be stunned if other teams don’t jump on board…  This is one of the biggest upsets in the history of world sport and, hopefully, it will change some of the beliefs in football about the impact good sports science can have.”

Below is a link to the full article.  I hope you enjoy it and as always, welcome your comments and feedback.

http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/36189778

Uncategorized

Biomechanical Analysis of Throw-Ins – Soccer’s “Forgotten Technique”

Recently I made the decision to go back to school, and as part of the coursework, I was required to take an Advanced Biomechanics course, in which I am presently enrolled.  Our latest assignment for this course was to choose a sports movement that involves the upper body, and to analyse the movement from a biomechanical perspective – that is, what muscles cause the movement, what different types of movements combine to form the movement, and what can an athlete do in order for the movement to be executed efficiently.

For this assignment, I decided to examine what I believe to be the “forgotten movement” in soccer, the throw-in.

Honestly.  Think about it – when was the last time you actually thought about throw-ins?

If you’re a player, you probably fall into one of two categories with regards to your opinion about throw-ins.  You either completely ignore technique in favor of getting the ball as quickly as possible to an open player, or alternatively, you throw for maximum power, in an attempt to advance the ball as far forwards as possible.

Players who fall in the first category – i.e. those who ignore throw-in technique – may not necessarily want to continue reading.  If, however, maximum throw-in distance is your objective, then the insight I was able to gain from my recent project will definitely be of interest to you.

In my report, I summarized the findings from a recent study by Linthrone & Everett (2005), that used 2-D video to investigate which release angle (the angle formed between a horizontal line in the centre of the ball – the x-axis – and the line of trajectory of the ball, when it is in flight), allowed for maximum throw-in distance.  The diagram below (reprinted from the study) provides a visual representation of the throw-in technique, including the release speed (“v”); the release angle (“θ”); the relative release height (“h”); and the horizontal range of the throw-in (“R”).

Throw-In1

Researchers had subjects attempt throw-ins from release angles ranging from 10° to 60°, in 5-10° increments.  The results of their study indicated that a release angle of approximately 30° was most effective at maximizing the total distance of the throw-in.  This is because the relatively lower release angle (30°, as opposed to a larger angle of 45°) allowed for significantly greater release speed which, when factored into the equation, made the ball travel further.  The next figure below (also reprinted from the study) depicts the relationship between release angle, and release speed.  As you can see, higher release speeds were achieved with relatively lower release angles, and the highest release speeds were achieved with a release angle of approximately 30°.

Throw-In2

Based on the results of this study, a take-home message for soccer coaches and players is that, if they wish to achieve maximum distance in their throw-ins, they should try to shorten their release angle.  This can be done by slightly lowering the shoulders, and aiming to make the ball travel a bit more forwards and a bit less upwards.  This slight tweak in throw-in technique will allow players to maximize their release speed, thereby increasing the distance of their throw-ins.

I hope you enjoyed this article and as always, welcome your feedback.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

 

 

Fitness, Science

3 Simple Strategies to Train for Speed (On the Field, With the Ball) This Pre-Season

It’s the middle of April, and if you’re a youth soccer coach here in Canada that means you’ve probably started your pre-season in preparation for the outdoor competitive season, which typically starts sometime in May.

One of the most important areas of physical fitness that must be trained during the pre-season is speed.  If you have done a good job preparing your players with aerobic training during the past few months, then a transition into anaerobic – or speed – training during pre-season can be a very effective way to ensure that they are as fit as possible in time for the first regular season match.

Speed training, in its simplest form, requires athletes to perform multiple sets and repetitions of sprints at maximal or near-maximal intensity, while allowing for enough recovery between these sets and repetitions so that the intensity can be maintained throughout the entire workout.  In soccer, the best way to train for speed is on the field.  Below are 3 simple strategies that can help you to design appropriate exercises for your players that can be incorporated into your training sessions, on the field, and with the ball.

  1. Make the sprints soccer-specific:

The principle of specificity dictates that the adaptations which occur from a training stimulus are specific to the type of training stimulus used.  Thus, if you want your players to become better at running in a straight line, then linear running training in which they run in a straight line would be appropriate.  If, however, you want your players to become better at the types of running they must do in soccer (straight and diagonal runs, backwards and lateral runs, frequent decelerations and changes of direction, etc.) then these types of runs must be performed in speed training sessions.  In order to make speed training soccer-specific, coaches must design exercises where players must run and move at high intensities using the exact same movements – both with and without the ball – that are used in the game.

 

  1. Incorporate reaction time – and make the reactions soccer-specific:

Reaction time involves the time interval between the presentation of a stimulus, and the movement that occurs as a result of this stimulus.  In track and field, for example, athletes must react to an auditory stimulus – the sound of a gun after an “on your marks..get set..” countdown.  In soccer, on the other hand, almost all of the sprints and high intensity movements involve reactions to visual – not auditory – stimuli.   Thus, incorporating exercises that present players with visual stimuli (different color cones, hand gestures, movements of players, etc.) will make the reaction time training more relevant – and specific – to the sport.

 

  1. Make players compete – and punish the “losers”:

One of the greatest challenges you will face when implementing speed training on the field is trying to ensure that your players run as fast as they possibly can during each repetition or sprint.  If they do not – a problem which typically occurs because they are not pushing themselves – then there is little chance that the training will elicit any actual improvements in running speed.  An effective way to get players to push themselves during speed training is to make the exercises into a competition.  Have them compete directly, 1 versus 1 or in small groups, and keep score.  Incorporate some kind of reward for the “winners” of these competitions, and also a punishment for the “losers” (push-ups are an excellent means of punishment).

Below are some examples of speed training exercises, which have been pulled directly from our own Soccer Fitness On-Field Training protocols, and which (of course) also incorporate the three suggestions listed above.  I hope you enjoy them and as always, welcome your feedback!

  1. Linear Speed / Agility Competition:

Set-Up / Organization:

article 1

  • Players in groups of 4
  • ½ of the players on one side of the start cone, with a pinney tucked into the back of their shorts like a “tail”; the other ½ of the players on the other side
  • Coach uses a specific color cone to start the exercise (example: green cone); when the coach raises the green cone, players compete by running a 2×5 metre agility sprint, followed by a 15 metre linear sprint
  • Player without the tail is trying to pull the tail of their opponent; player with the tail is trying to get through the gate without their tail being pulled
  • Each player performs 4 repetitions with the tail, and 4 repetitions without the tail

2. Foot / Head Tag Game:

Set-Up / Organization:

article2

  • Players in groups of 2, both players inside the square; 1 player has a ball in hands
  • Players play a game of “tag”, where the player with the ball must “tag” the other by throwing the ball and hitting the opponent’s feet; only hits to the feet count as points, and if the throw is missed, the player who threw it must get the ball, go back into the square and continue playing
  • Perform 6 repetitions, for 15 seconds each (3 repetitions for each player as “tagger”, with 15 seconds of rest in between repetitions); the player with the least amount of points after the 4 repetitions must do push-ups as “punishment”
  • Perform another 6 repetitions (3 for each player as “tagger”), but change the rule so that the “tagger” must try to “tag” the other player with a self-header (throwing the ball towards the head and hitting it forwards)

3. 1 V 1 Game:

Set-Up / Organization:

article3

  • Players in groups of 8
  • 4 players on one starting cone (with a ball), 4 players on the other (without a ball)
  • Player with ball plays a pass to player without ball, then closes down into a defensive position
  • Player with ball must play 1v1, using fakes/feints and change of speed (over 5 metres) to beat the defender and dribble through the gate on either side
  • Next set of 2 players starts once the first 2 are finished
  • Each player performs 8 repetitions with the ball, and 8 repetitions without the ball

 

 

 

Matches

Article – “What if Women’s Team Argued ‘Fair’ Rather than ‘Equal’?” at Sportsnet.ca

Below is a link to a very interesting article written by Donnovan Bennett and posted earlier today at http://www.sportsnet.ca.  The article presents a different viewpoint on – and potential solution to – the recent controversy surrounding the United States Women’s National Soccer Team’s dispute with U.S. Soccer over wage discrepancies between their team and the U.S. Men’s Team, which eventually led to several members of the Women’s Team filing a wage discrimination claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Bennett’s argument in this article is that the members of the U.S. Women’s National Team – as well as other prominent female athletes in other sports – should approach the issue of wage discrimination not from a philosophical viewpoint, but rather from a commercial one.  As he puts it:

  “What if we reframed the conversation from “equal” to “fair”? Make it less of an arbitrary decision, remove any altruistic reasoning for why women’s pay should increase and make this solely a business conversation. We could look at the amount of revenue that both the men’s and women’s sides bring in for the federation—whether through gate revenue or jersey sales or TV ratings—versus the amount of investment made by the federation in the respective teams and then agree on a set percentage of soccer-related revenue after expenses that the teas should be entitled to. That might be a start.”

Personally, I think this viewpoint makes a lot of sense.  I attended two FIFA Women’s World Cup matches last year.  One of them – a group match in Winnipeg’s Investor’s Group Stadium between the U.S. Women’s Team and Sweden – attracted a live attendance of over 30,000 people.

I also got to work with our own Canadian Women’s National Team during the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto, where Hamilton’s Tim Horton’s Stadium sold out to its 12,000-seat capacity for some of the Women’s Football (soccer) matches, including Canada’s final group match versus Brazil on July 19th, 2015.

Of course, as Bennett points out, live attendance or gate revenue in only part of the total revenue that women’s soccer can generate (the other components being TV ratings, and sales of merchandise such as team jerseys), however, the sport is clearly gaining in popularity, both in North America as well as around the world.  He goes on to note that the Final match of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, between the U.S. and Japan, drew a U.S. TV audience of 25.4 million viewers (more than any game in the 2015 NBA Finals, or Sunday Night Football, or any of the coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi).

I say that, if the United States Women’s National Team can prove that they are able to generate as much – if not more – revenue than their male counterparts, then a strong argument can be made for their wages and compensation to reflect this ability.

Below is the link to the full article.  As always, please feel free to post your thoughts and comments.

http://www.sportsnet.ca/soccer/us-womens-soccer-teams-pay-equity-hope-solo-carli-loyd-alex-morgan/

 

Injuries, Science

How To Deal With Osgoode Schlatter’s Disease in Soccer – SFG Video Blog #25: 4/8/2016

Today in our Video Blog, we discuss some strategies to help soccer players manage (and strengthen muscles to reduce the pain associated with Osgoode Schlatter’s disease, one of the most common injuries that affects youth soccer players.

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

Matches

The 2 Missing Ingredients for Success in Canadian Soccer

Our Canadian Men’s National Soccer Team recently concluded the second of two FIFA World Cup qualification matches versus Mexico, in the 2nd stage of CONCACAF qualification, last week.  Unfortunately, we lost both of those matches, by a score of 3-0 in the first match and 2-0 in the second.

Canada’s hopes of progression to the “Hex” (the group of six teams which represents the final stage of CONCACAF competition) and ultimately of qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia now rest on our final two matches, versus Honduras on September 2nd, and then El Salvador on September 6th of this year.

Defensively, aside from the most recent games against the much stronger Mexicans, Canada has been solid.  We secured a 1-0 win versus Honduras back in November of 2015 at BC Place in Vancouver, before earning 1 point in a tough 0-0 draw away to El Salvador later the same month.

It has been on the offensive side of the ball, however, where we have looked deficient, having only managed to score the one – albeit game-winning – goal against Honduras six months ago.  This deficiency will need to be addressed soon, as the only possible scenario that would see Canada advance through to the final round of World Cup qualification would be to secure at least 3 points (at least one more win) out of the next 2 matches.

Why are we having such a problem scoring goals at the senior international level?  And by extension, why are we also seemingly having a problem developing soccer players who possess the attacking talent, skills, and insight necessary to create and score goals?  There are likely many reasons, including a need for better player development programs and coach education at the youth levels, more and better domestic professional opportunities for our best players, as well as better funding and programming for our National Teams programs.

The following two reasons, however, can most accurately account for our inability to develop creative and talented attacking players, who can in turn create and score goals for our National Team:

  1. Youth soccer clubs in Canada are not incentivised to develop players.

Why would they want to?

Canadian youth clubs and academies are not financially rewarded for producing players who become professionals (either locally or abroad) nor, in many cases, are they even recognized or acknowledged for the role they have played in the development of talented players who have progressed to these higher levels.

In most countries with successful national teams programs – especially in Europe where most professional clubs have youth academies – player development is treated as a business.  Professional youth academies, most notably those without investors or large budgets, are able to sustain their expenses partially through revenue earned when a player they developed – their “product” – is “purchased” by another club – the “consumer” – and signs a professional contract.

Unfortunately, in Canada, our own youth clubs and academies are disconnected from this “business” model, and thus there are no tangible, financial incentives for them to develop players.  This lack of incentive in turn means that the player development system in our country is fragmented, and we are not able to help our young players reach their maximum potential.

Furthermore, until very recently, the great majority of the youth soccer leagues and tournaments in Canada have only rewarded clubs for winning, irrespective of the quality of their play and/or the quality of the players they produce.  Thus, the primary aim of all Canadian youth soccer clubs has been, for decades, to win league titles and trophies at tournaments, not to develop players.  If these clubs are not incentivised to develop players, then players will not develop.

  1. Professional soccer clubs in Canada are not incentivised to win.

Once again, why would they want to?

Canada presently has three professional teams competing in Major League Soccer or “MLS” (Toronto FC, Montreal Impact, and the Vancouver Whitecaps), and another two in the North American Soccer League or “NASL” (FC Edmonton, and the Ottawa Fury).  Because neither MLS nor the NASL have a tiered-division system with promotion and relegation (whereby the top teams from the lower division are promoted to the higher division, and the bottom teams from the higher division are relegated to the lower division), none of the teams competing in these leagues (including the Canadian teams) are ever going to be truly motivated to win.

Of course, if a team in MLS od the NASL wins enough games, they will have the opportunity to make the play-offs, and eventually to win the league championship (the MLS Cup in MLS or the Soccer Bowl in the NASL), and this success could in turn bring more fans, exposure, and revenue to the team.  Regardless of any potential motivation that the prospects of success from winning games might bring, however, none of our Canadian professional teams will ever have to face the threat of being punished for losing through relegation to a lower division.  As long as they can continue to generate revenue by maintaining fans’ interest, attaining and maintaining a television deal, and attracting corporate sponsors, any of our professional clubs can survive and even thrive in MLS or the NASL without ever having to produce a winning team.

Interestingly, MLS and the NASL are the only professional soccer leagues in the world which function without tiered divisions and a promotion-relegation system.  In any other country, anywhere else in the world, soccer teams who finish in last place in their division (or, in many cases, also in 2nd or 3rd last place) get relegated to a lower division.  This means that the teams playing in MLS and the NASL (including the Canadian teams) are the only soccer teams in the world who do not have an incentive to win in order to avoid being relegated to a lower division.

There could not be a more perfect example of how the lack of incentive to win has affected a Canadian professional soccer team than Toronto FC, which entered MLS as an expansion team in 2007.  Here is a summary of Toronto FC’s record (point total, place finished in their division, and place finished in the league) sine their inaugural MLS season:

SEASON POINT TOTAL STANDING (DIVISION) STANDING (OVERALL)
2007 25 7th (out of 7) 13th (out of 13)
2008 35 7th (out of 7) 12th (out of 14)
2009 39 5th (out of 7) 13th (out of 15)
2010 35 5th (out of 8) 12th (out of 16)
2011 33 8th (out of 9) 16th (out of 18)
2012 23 10th (out of 10) 19th (out of 19)
2013 29 9th (out of 10) 16th (out of 19)
2014 41 7th (out of 10) 16th (out of 19)
2015 49 6th (out of 10) 12th (out of 20)

 

In any other professional soccer league, in any other country in the world, Toronto FC would have been relegated in at least two and possibly as many as five of their previous nine seasons in Major League Soccer.  And it’s not just Toronto FC; Montreal Impact, another Canadian MLS team, finished with just 28 points, 10th out of 10 in their division and 19th out of 19 overall in the 2014 MLS season.  You get the point.  It seems only logical then, that the Canadian players competing in these leagues and for these teams (many of whom end up representing Canada at the senior international level) may end up lacking some of the competitive edge needed to be successful in World Cup qualification and, ultimately someday, at the World Cup.

In conclusion, if we expect to develop better soccer players in Canada, then we need to make some changes to the paradigms which exist in our present youth and professional soccer systems.  What we need in order to be successful is to incentivise our soccer clubs.  Canadian youth soccer clubs and academies need to be incentivised to develop and produce talented players.  Canadian professional soccer clubs need to be incentivised to win.   If we can find a way to set up and enforce these incentives, then maybe we can be more successful at the international level.

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

 

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 www.changingthegameproject.com

Below is a link to a very interesting and well-written article, by John O’Sulivan of http://www.changingthegameproject.com.  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.

http://changingthegameproject.com/friday-night-tykes-the-armpit-of-american-youth-sports/

 

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!

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.

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!