Fitness, For Coaches, Science

Explaining Our Research – Part 1 – Comparing Canadian and Uruguayan Professional Academy Fitness Scores:

One of the best things about attending the 5th World Conference on Science and Soccer was the opportunity to share and discuss my research with other academics, sports scientists and fitness coaches.  In this series of short articles, I will summarise and discuss each of the three different research projects that our team from Soccer Fitness Inc. and Sport Performance Analytics Inc. presented at the Conference.

The first study we will review is titled “A Comparison of Speed and High Intensity Running Abilities Between Canadian and Uruguayan Professional Academy Players”, which sought to examine any differences that may exist in physical ability, between players from two different professional academies (one being the Toronto FC Academy, and the other being the academy from Canadian SC Uruguay, a professional club in the Uruguayan 2nd Division).

We analysed fitness assessment scores from linear running speed tests (time taken to run 0-10, 0-20, n 0-35 metres) as well as the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery Tests, among academy teams in age groups ranging from Under-14 to Under-21.  Comparisons were made within each age category for Canadian and Uruguayan players, and between Canadian and Uruguayan players for each age category.

After performing a statistical analysis of the data, we found some surprising information.

Canadian professional academy players were faster and had better endurance than their Uruguayan counterparts, in all of the following age categories: U14, U15, U16, U17, and U19 but NOT in the U21 age category.  In that particular category, the Uruguayans had both faster sprint times (indicating better speed), and a higher distance covered in the Yo-Yo test (indicating better endurance).

Even more surprising was that Canadian academy players in the U21 age category had slower speed times and a lower Yo-Yo score than Canadian U19 players.

The root causes of these difference s in speed and high intensity running ability between Canadian and Uruguayan professional academy players are not clear, but based on the discussion and conclusions from our research, we have identified some proposed explanations.  They are listed below.

Why are Canadian players faster and fitter than Uruguayan players from U14-U19?

There are two potential explanations for this.  Firstly, that there may be a greater focus on speed and high intensity running training in North American professional soccer teams (including Canadian clubs like Toronto FC) than there is in South American teams.  I have personally only had minimal experience in South America, having worked in Uruguay on two separate occasions, but I did get the feeling there that their focus among youth training was on the development of technical skill and tactical knowledge and understanding of the game, rather than on physical training.

This may be representative of a broader cultural difference between North and South America and their sports training philosophies, and it is a topic that warrants further research.

Second, it may be possible that a selection bias exists in Canada, towards players who are bigger, stronger and faster.  Determining whether or not a selection bias actually exists would be difficult, because coaching and scouting talent is a largely subjective process and it is difficult to make direct comparisons between youth soccer players.

If, however, all players in a particular professional youth academy or high performance environment (such as the Toronto FC Academy) had their relative or developmental age determined, then more accurate comparisons between youth players could be made.  If a bias id exists, this would be the best way to identify it and of course to try to eliminate it.

It stands to reason that all high performance youth soccer programs in Canada, including the youth Provincial and National Teams programs, as well as MLS academies, should look to perform regular assessments of the growth and development of their players, try to identify early or late physical developers, and adjust their selection an identification processes accordingly.

Why are Uruguayan players faster and fitter than Canadian players in the U21 category?  And why are Canadian U19 players faster and fitter than Canadian U21 players?

I have grouped these two questions together because, in my opinion, the possible answer is the same for both of them.  First of all it must be noted that there I no physiological reason why an elite male U19 payer should have better speed or endurance than an elite male U21 player – on the contrary, males in  professional training environment should develop their peak running speed and endurance between the ages of 20-25, when testosterone levels are highest.

With that being said, the potential explanation for the drop-off in speed and high intensity running ability seen in Canadian U21 payers may be explained as follows:  it may be possible that Canadian players in elite youth programs like the Toronto FC Academy lose their motivation to stay in shape and continue to train hard once they realise that they are not going to progress immediately into professional soccer through the first team of their Major League Soccer (MLS) or other professional club.

Because, at present, there are no domestic professional options available to Canadian players outside of the three MLS clubs in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, (as well as FC Edmonton of the NASL and Ottawa Fury of the USL) talented young players from professional academies who do not progress into their clubs’ senior teams will likely end up attending an American or Canadian college or university (and playing on the Varsity soccer team for their school) or competing in one of the local domestic semi-professional leagues, such as Ontario League One or the Canadian Soccer League (CSL).

Unfortunately, neither the American or Canadian collegiate soccer systems, nor Ontario League One or the CSL, are sufficiently competitive to prepare players for the physical demands of professional soccer, and the end result is that players in these environments are simply not fit enough to meet the standards of professional training and match play.  Furthermore, the lack of more options for domestic professional soccer in Canada is likely causing many young players to lose their motivation to stay in shape and train as hard as they can, even within their amateur university or semi-professional environment.

In Uruguay, on the other hand, players in the U21 age category who have not yet progressed directly into a professional club are still likely to be highly motivated, due to the numerous professional options available to them.  Uruguay’s capital city of Montevideo, with a population of just over 1.5 million people, is home to a staggering 34 professional soccer clubs in their three divisions of their national professional league.  If a player is not successful in one club, he can simply seek out a trial with another one, sometimes just a few kilometres away.

The discrepancy in physical ability between Canadian and Uruguayan U21 players and the drop-off in physical ability between Canadian U19 and U21 players both highlight the need for Canada to have its own domestic professional soccer league, which would provide young talented players with more options to continue to train and play at a high level across the country.  The new Canadian Premier League, set to kick-off with a shortened inaugural season in the fall of 2018, may be the perfect solution to this problem.

Data such as that presented in our study highlights the need for some reform to our Canadian professional soccer structure and systems.  Firstly, elite or professional Canadian youth programs need to include assessments of growth and development of their players in order to prevent potential selection biases to occur.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, we need to form our own, domestic, Canadian professional soccer league, to ensure that talented young players who do not progress directly into the MLS, NASL or USL are still afforded opportunities to play professional soccer, and maintain the motivation required to train hard and stay in shape throughout early adulthood.

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