Here is what you need to know:
Part 1: Balanced Training
New teams need to prioritize playing soccer, so they can build an identity, grow playing relationships, and develop the game model. You can do this and build fitness in the process by understanding the physical demands of practice exercises and building a balanced week of training and games.
Part 2: Progressive Overload
No matter what type of stress or stimuli; the athlete’s brain will find solutions to adapt and overcompensate, so it can handle the situation better in the future. Be it physical, technical, tactical, or psychological; we must find the appropriate starting point for whatever we are trying to teach – then progressively challenge the athletes so they adapt over time. There are no shortcuts in teaching, and coaching youth is teaching.
Part 3: Work + Recovery = Progress
No training exercise is learned immediately! Even game insight or tactical awareness exercises are processed then further analyzed by the brain until it decides what to keep based on the relative importance of the information. For any of this to happen, both body and brain must have time to recover and make these adaptations. Just like muscles need time to recover and become stronger, so does our energy production systems and cognitive skills.
Summer is approaching and with it comes tournaments. For a while now, coaches and parents have talked to me about the difficulty of tournament demands over the summer for youth soccer players. Too many games are played, there isn’t enough time to prepare, and teams are just getting together after try-outs. On top of it all; players have been in and out of training, some off completely for weeks over the summer – so fitness may need to be built up as well. If this situation or similar is applicable to you, your team, or your players in the next couple of months – this 3-part article series is written for you!
Building Fitness, Technique, and Balance in Training – Weekly Rhythms.
If you’ve been through a soccer coaching license course, you have now at least a frame of work for organizing a practice session. Let’s call this frame of work your training system. All coaches work to develop a system, knowingly or not, to gain consistency on how they approach practices day in and day out. Your system consists of principles you’ve acquired over time and that you believe to be important for improving a soccer player, a position group, or a team. In Part 1 of this series, I will share insights on how simple performance development methods can be integrated into a soccer coaching system. More importantly; I’ll attempt to share how this is done by identifying the principles of technical and tactical coaching with those of fitness development that overlap and can be trained harmoniously. The goal is to build your Weekly Rhythm; a system where each day of the week consistently serves a function that best serve its purpose based on principles, both tech/tact or physical. Below I’ll list a few important principles that may give us a great starting point:
Train the Brain
As I mentioned early on – fitness must be developed for an athlete and team to perform at a high level. However; it is not necessarily critical that fitness be trained separately from technical and tactical aspects of the game. In reality; I’d go as far as saying technical and even tactical training is physical development, they can’t be separated. Think for a minute about what conditioning is. We cause a stress to our body with some level of consistency; the body learns how to deal with this stress, so it becomes more prepared to deal with this same stress in the future. It adapts positively. How it does so? Because we have brains. The brain identifies the challenge, chooses on how to response by recruiting the systems involved, then comes up with a solution and holds a memory of it for later. The more emotionally important the challenge and solutions are, the more memory about it that will be stored. One of the most important memories stored are the triggers. Triggers can be any type of stimulus that when it occurs, it causes us to respond by taking actions. An opponent’s movement, or the sound of a whistle are examples of triggers. (In the book “The Power of Habit” - author Charles Duhigg explains how important triggers are and how they can lead to habits cycles that make responses practically automatic). Actions comes from decisions we make, and if we want to make the right decision and make it quickly, we must have rehearsed the action before. So, what does the brain, triggers, and decisions have to do with fitness and technical development?
Both technical and physical development will come from repetitions of the correct action, based on the decision sparked by a trigger. If I send players off to run circles around the field, the brain will provide a solution to running around the field. The heart, lungs, and muscles will be recruited as needed to get the job done, and overtime, will become able to do so more efficiently. Since the heart, lungs, and muscles have become more efficient, some of this efficiency will translate to more energy on the field. However; energy demand is just one more challenge within a large group of stimuli the brain receives and must provide a solution for during a soccer game. Therefore; if I want to condition a soccer player, I should expose them to as many stimuli as possible compared to the game itself. For example; it takes energy to run towards a ball, apply the correct technique to redirect it, then send off a clean pass to a teammate. It takes the same amount of energy if an opposing player is getting close and could steal the ball away, but it is much more stressful emotionally, which means it will take more work for the brain to solve this challenge. If I can give the athlete the same heart, lungs, and muscle demand, while providing all the other stimuli to brain, this athlete may develop more complete solutions from this more advanced rehearsal. How can we do so? Use the game.
Adjust the Variables
The game itself provides great conditioning opportunities. Let’s look at Small Sided Games (SSG) as a fitness building opportunity, in comparison to the normal 11v11 game itself. The variables in the SSG can be adjusted to intensify any common stimulus of the 11v11. For example; if athletes play a 5v5 SSG on a field larger than usual, the spacing between the players will be bigger – which will create the opportunity for players to run and cover more distance and potentially reach higher speeds. With the opposite; with less space in between them, players will have to take actions more often which will likely involve more changes of direction and explosive movements, but they will be less likely to reach higher speeds. The physical demands change drastically as you adjust the field size/player spacing variable, but that’s not all that has changed. The larger field allows more time for players to read tactical cues and triggers, which can be helpful initially when introducing a new tactical model. It also challenges athletes technically by demanding more pace on the ball with longer passes. In contrast; the smaller field/player spacing will demand faster decisions and more accuracy with passes, while making less likely a player will strike a long pass. If compared to running laps around the field, SSGs seem to be a far greater option for developing the performance of soccer players. With great stimulus, comes great responsibility! So how can this be organized into a balanced week of training?
Balance the Loads
The adjustable variables of SSGs will lead to intensified stress on the body. With larger games and more space for players to achieve higher speeds, the posterior chain of muscles in the body (calves, hamstrings, gluteus…) will be more stressed relative to the anterior chain (quads group, groin, hip flexors…). This is because the mechanics of running at higher speeds, linearly, demand more of the posterior chain. Shorter spacing between players in SSGs lead to more stress to the anterior chain; by causing more actions and more changes of direction, which its mechanics are a lot like squatting patterns in various planes. So, to avoid undue overload to either chain, we pay attentions to these variables and make sure there is a close to even amount of both during the training week. Daily; practice exercises shouldn’t take sharp jumps in field sizes. It is smart to build from smaller to bigger spaces or the other way around, so the stress on the muscle groups can be built progressively. On a weekly basis, there should be opportunity for players to be challenged by both types of activities, so not one type is chronically stressed overtime. Take a moment to think about your favorite practice exercises and reflect on what category they fit in. Look to move them around the week to create a rhythm you can repeat and build on overtime.
Putting it Together
To summarize – we must train the brain to provide more effective and efficient solutions to challenges we face in the game. This calls for a holistic approach to training, where variables in technical, tactical, physical, and psychological demands are considered with every practice exercise. The bonus: players and coaches get more soccer for their time. Think of every minute spent running circles around trees and imagine if all these minutes had been spent with athletes being exposed to more technical skill, game insight, and tactical awareness. I like the sound of that.
On the next article of this series – we will take the next step in building training: applying progressive overload. Once we have considered the impact of practice exercises and built a balanced week of training, then next step is to progressively increase the challenge to continue getting better. We will share specifics on how to identify your team’s starting point, then build volume and intensity in training overtime.