Fitness, For Coaches, Injuries, Matches

How Canadian College and University Soccer Is STILL Hurting Young Soccer Players – And What Can Be Done to Change It

It’s hard to believe, but I originally wrote a very similar article to the one you are about to read, exactly 2 years ago (in early November, 2015).  Much to my disappointment, since that time nothing has changed in the Ontario and Canadian inter-university soccer competitive schedules.

The original article, which was published here on our Blog as well as in Inside Soccer Magazine and on the Red Nation Online website, discussed some of the problems associated with the current university soccer schedules here in Ontario and Canada – primarily the fact that too many games were being played without sufficient time off in between games.

Unfortunately, as noted above – and as you will see from continuing to read below – nothing has changed.  Despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating the significantly increased risks of injury for players who play 2 or more 90+ minute soccer matches per week and/or have less than 2 full days off in between matches, Canadian College and University Soccer is still hurting young soccer players with the same antiquated, congested schedule of 1.5-2 matches per week.

Below is a revised version of my original article, updated to include all OCAA, CCAA, OUA, and U-Sports competitive regular season and post-season schedules for the 2017 men’s soccer seasons.  I hope you enjoy reading it and I also hope it might motivate those of you in the soccer community to seek out ways in which changes can be made for the safety and protection of young soccer players nation-wide.

It’s also hard to believe, but we are now approaching the first week of November, 2017.  For college and university soccer players, if you’re lucky enough to still be playing by this time of year, it means you have progressed deep into the play-offs and are very close to qualifying for the National Championships, which are typically finished by November 15th.

In college and university soccer, the play-offs and National Championships are microcosms of the competitive season, with multiple 90+ minute matches scheduled over a very short period of time, including several instances of back-to-back matches, as well as periods of time with 3 games played over just 4 days.  As an example, take a look at this year’s CCAA (Canadian Collegiate Athletics Association) and U-Sports (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) men’s National Championship tournament schedules:

  • CCAA Men’s Soccer:
    • Match 1: Wednesday, November 8th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Friday, November 10th
    • Match 3 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Saturday, November 11th
  • U-Sports Men’s Soccer:
    • Match 1: Thursday, November 9th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Saturday, November 11th
    • Match 3: (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Sunday, November 12th

Of course, in order to get to the National Championships, teams need to have qualified from the play-offs, which are scheduled in a very similar way.  Typically, the first play-off matches in college and university soccer begin between 3-6 days after the conclusion of the regular season.  In Ontario, the play-offs finish with the OCAA (Ontario Collegiate Athletic Association) Championships, and the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) Final Four, both of which comprise multiple 90+ minute matches played over a 2-3 day timespan.  Below is a summary of these schedules for men’s soccer in 2017:

  • OCAA Men’s Soccer Championships:
    • Match 1 (Quarter-Finals): Thursday, October 26th
    • Match 2 (Semi-Finals): Friday, October 27th
    • Match 3 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Saturday, October 28th
  • OUA Men’s Soccer Final Four:
    • Match 1 (Semi-Finals): Saturday, November 3rd
    • Match 2 (Bronze and Gold Medal Matches): Sunday, November 4th

Working backwards even further, it is critical to note that, in order to qualify for the play-offs in Ontario college and university soccer, teams must endure the OCAA and OUA competitive seasons, both of which pack two and sometimes even three 90 minute matches per week, every week, from the beginning of September until the end of October.  Here is what the 2017 OCAA and OUA competitive schedules looked like:

  • OCAA Men’s Soccer competitive season:
    • 10 matches played from Saturday, September 6th to Wednesday, October 16th
    • Total of 10 matches in 6 weeks = 1.6 matches per week
  • OUA Men’s Soccer competitive season:
    • 16 matches played from Saturday, August 26th to Saturday, October 21st
    • Total of 16 matches in 8 weeks = 2.0 matches per week

I cannot help but wonder why, in the year 2017, we are still subjecting young student-athletes to this type of competitive schedule.  Virtually all of the scientific research done on the intensity and loading in soccer has indicated that a minimum of 24-48 hours is needed in order for players to optimally recover from a 90 minute match.

Furthermore, most if not all of the world’s leading authorities in soccer-specific sports science have recommended that players do not play more than one match per week in their competitive seasons.  This is because when players do play more than one 90+ minute match per week, they will experience both a significant decrease in muscular strength, speed, power, and endurance, as well as a significantly increased risk of over-training and injury due to inadequate repair and recovery from muscle damage caused during the match.

Compounding the problem for college and university soccer is that the great majority of the players are in school between the ages of 18-22, and their bodies are not fully physically and physiologically developed and thus are at an even greater risk of injury.

Several of the world’s most prominent soccer coaches and fitness coaches, including Jens Bangsbo of the University of Copenhagen, Raymond Verheijen of the World Football Academy, and Jurgen Klinsmann, former Head Coach of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team, have been critical of college and professional competitive leagues that require players to play more than one 90+ minute match per week.

In fact, Klinsmann was one of the harshest critics of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) soccer schedule (which also comprises an average of 2 matches per week), criticism which eventually led to a proposed change to a full academic year schedule (September to May) that took effect in 2016-2017 season.

If the rest of the world (including the Americans, who are traditionally resistant to change) has been able to structure their competitive soccer seasons so that they average a maximum of 1 match per week, there is no reason for Canada not to follow suit.

Competing in college and university soccer in Canada is a unique and rewarding experience.  For the great majority of young players who do not advance into the Canadian National Teams and/or into professional soccer, competing at the college and/or university level represents the highest competitive level they will reach in their careers.

If the CCAA and U-Sports are truly concerned with the long-term development and overall health of the young soccer players competing in their leagues, they should seriously consider revising their competitive schedules, to lengthen the season and/or to decrease the total number of matches played to a maximum of 1 match per week.

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

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For Coaches, For Parents, Science

The Potential Benefits of Early Specialisation in Soccer – An Argentinian Youth Development Model

In late June of 2017, I visited my friend, colleague and mentor, Rafael Carbajal, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he is in the final process of completing his Argentinian “A” License and validating his other “A” coaching licenses from Canada, the United States and UEFA.

During the trip I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to observe youth academy training sessions by Huracan FC, a professional club in the Argentinian First Division and the club regarded as the best player developer in the country.

While watching an Under-13 (2005) training session, it was not hard for me to see why the club has garnered this reputation.

The players were skillful, intelligent, crafty, coordinated and fit.  They were able to connect passes in small spaces with two or even one touch, in a manner in which few Canadian teams of any age category would be able to keep up with.

As I watched them train I could not help but think to myself that whatever type of training these boys were doing – including the amount of time they spent training each day and week, and the specific training mythologies used in their training sessions – it was clearly working.

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When I spoke with Coach Carbajal and some of the other coaches and instructors from the “A” License course, I learned and interesting – albeit not surprising – fact about Huracan and other Argentinian professional youth academies: even at the younger Under-13 age categories, teams train 5 days per week.

What this means is that aspiring Argentinian soccer players, as young as 12 years of age, have a practice every day, Monday-to-Friday, plus a game on Saturday or Sunday, every week of the year.

Interestingly, the time commitment required of Argentinian professional youth academies ensures that Argentinian boys who want to become professional soccer players must commit to or “specialise” in soccer at a very young age.  They really have no choice or option to participate in any other sports, as their training and game schedule simply does not allow time for any sport other than soccer.

In Canada, this type of early specialisation in soccer or other sports is discouraged.  The Canadian Soccer Association has for the past 10 years followed the “Long Term Athlete Development” or “LTAD” model, one of the tenets of which is a recommendation that athletes to not exclusively play one sport (in this case, soccer) until the age of 16.

Proponents of LTAD typically argue that late specialisation leads to less over-use injuries, less burn-out or drop-out from sports, and better overall athletic development, as compared to early specialisation.  The professional coaches and fitness coaches I spoke with in Argentina, however, all believed that these objectives could be achieved in combination with early specialisation in soccer.

Their rationale was that, provided youth coaches and fitness coaches are trained and educated in evidence-based best practices for working with young, growing and developing soccer players, these coaches should be able to put together a curriculum and training program that allows for early specialisation in soccer without experiencing some of the proposed negative effects.

The basic level youth coaching licences in Argentina, a minimum requirement for all coaches working with young players in professional Argentinian academies, comprises a 2-year, 1400-hour course with written and practical examinations.  Principal among the scientific subjects included in the course, in which coaches must prove and demonstrate their competence, are:

  • Physiology (to understand the loading placed on players during training and games, and allow for a well-rounded physical training program)
  • Motor learning (to develop and implement training sessions that maximise players’ ability to learn to execute simple and complex soccer skills)
  • Sport psychology (to discern how the physical and psychological demands of training and games are affecting players’ minds, and how to help them reach their full mental potential); and
  • Periodisation of training (to allow for the development of a comprehensive annual training plan, with the right amount of intensity and volume of training throughout the year)

Of course, if the aforementioned potential negative effects can be avoided, young soccer players do stand to benefit greatly from some of the advantages of early specialisation in soccer – most importantly, better technical skill development and a better understanding of the tactical side of the game.

Whether or not you agree with LTAD and the late specialisation it recommends, there can be no disputing the fact that in Argentina, young soccer players are developing the required technical skills and tactical understanding of the game to perform and succeed at the highest level.   Thus, it may be possible that the Argentinian model of early specialisation in soccer, combined with knowledgeable, educated and experienced youth soccer coaches and fitness coaches, warrants consideration in Canada as well.

Ultimately, the best way of assessing the effectiveness of any type of soccer training program – physical, technical, tactical or psychological – is to watch how the players actually play the game.  In this case, the evidence in support of the effectiveness of the Argentinian model of youth development is overwhelming.  It is possible that, with the right combination of enthusiastic and passionate players with well-educated coaches and fitness coaches, early specialisation in soccer may not be such a bad thing after all.

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

Fitness, For Coaches, For Parents

Three Ways to Objectively Assess Talent and Player Performance in Canadian Youth Soccer

On the first day of my FIFA 11+ Instructor Training Certification course in 2016, Matias Eiles, a FIFA Instructor and Coach Educator with the German Football Federation, told us that in his country, they have 1 National Team, but 80 million “National Team Coaches”.  While he seemed to be hinting that this problem – whereby literally everyone in the country considers themselves to be a “soccer expert” – was unique to Germany, upon hearing it I instantly felt that the same sentiment could easily be expressed here in Canada.

Everywhere you go in this country, you will find soccer coaches, parents, players and fans expressing their dissatisfaction with the lack of success of our Canadian Men’s National Team, as well as providing their opinions about what needs to change if we are to improve and become more competitive with the rest of the world.

Youth soccer coaches working in our amateur clubs and academies, in particular, will shoulder much of this burden, because they are the ones responsible for providing young soccer players with the foundation of technical skill, tactical knowledge, fitness, and mental toughness that will be required of them if and when they progress on to the international level.  While it may be fairly easy to point out what is wrong with the Canadian soccer system, developing strategies which individual soccer coaches can use in their day-to-day work that may be able to solve these problems is inherently more difficult.

How can our youth soccer coaches do a better job of preparing players for higher levels of play?  In my opinion, we must start with the development of objective standards, to which all coaches can be held accountable, and by which their players’ and team’s performance can be measured and compared to that of their peers.

Developing objective standards for player and team performance must be preceded by the development of objective assessments of different measures of performance.  After enough data has been collected, standards and norms for different levels of play can be determined.  This is the way we at Soccer Fitness have approached fitness assessment data, and over the past 10 years we have developed valid, reliable standards and norms for elite levels of play in male and female youth soccer that include the Ontario Provincial Boys and Girls Teams, the Canadian National U17 Teams, and the Toronto FC Academy teams.

So how can coaches objectively measure and assess player and team performance?  At higher levels of play, equipment and technology such as global positioning satellite (GPS), as well as advanced video analysis software programs, are used to assess performance, but these methods may not be practical or affordable to amateur soccer clubs and academies.

Our Canadian amateur soccer environment requires quick, simple, and efficient assessment methods. Below are three of my suggestions.

  1. Have coaches assess the performance of each of their own players, as well as that of their opponents, during every competitive league game.

This requires nothing more than a simple spread sheet (similar to the game sheets already distributed by game officials to both teams prior to the start of every game) including a list of rows with players’ names/jersey numbers on them, and a column beside each name in which their assessment score can be written.  For simplicity, I would suggest using a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 representing the lowest score and 5 representing the highest score.  Admittedly, this would be a subjective performance rating open to bias towards the subjective opinion of the reporting coach, however, having coaches assess the performance of their opposition as well as their own players will help to eliminate any subjective bias that may occur in these assessments.  Individual players’ performances can then be assessed and tracked over the course of the season, and any trends that may emerge from this data can then be dealt with accordingly.

  1. Have assistant coaches or team managers collect standardised statistics during competitive league game play.

Among the most relevant and easy to capture statistics to collect during each game are:

  • Successful / unsuccessful pass attempts
  • Performance/execution of set pays (goal kicks, throw-ins, corner kicks and free kicks)
  • Successful / unsuccessful build-up play and attacking attempts

Standardising the methods for this data collection would certainly take some work, but if we expect coaches to be able to accurately measure and track their team’s performance during and between games without collecting any data, then we are working under the assumption that coaches can assess performance purely by memory and by their own subjective opinions of what took place in each game.  The reality is that this is a skill not possessed even by the best coaches working in professional and international soccer, let alone the average Canadian amateur club or academy coach.  Collecting data in this way will also serve to get all teams’ assistant coaches and/or managers much more involved in the game, a notable secondary benefit.

  1. Have all competitive leagues store and share the data taken from these assessments, in order to track player and team performance.

Once again, this is something that will take a concentrated effort from coaches and league administrators alike if it is to work.  But competitive leagues already have systems in place to account for game scores, goal scorers, referee decisions like yellow and red cards, etc.  These same systems would simply need to be adapted and updated to include the data taken from team coaches’ subjective (player ratings) and objective (game statistics) reports.

Ultimately, if we expect the performance of Canadian amateur club and academy soccer players and teams to improve, then we need to know what “improved performance” actually looks like.  We need systems in place that will allow us to objectively measure players’ and teams’ performance, to track this performance over time and develop age- and gender-specific standards and norms, and to compare subsequent players’ and teams’ performance against these objective standards.

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