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!

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.