3 Keys to Developing Speed & Agility

By Garga Caserta, BA, CSCS, USAW

There is so much more to speed and agility than quick feet over cones and ladders! In fact, those commonly highlighted drills on social media actually amount to little to no results on the field.

All too often; in this era of Instagram and Twitter Gurus and Experts, information is gathered in the form of 30-second video highlights of sessions featuring the outliers in pros of all types of sports. The misleading message that these sexy, dramatic drills, are actually what got these athletes to become pros in the first place has led coaches at all levels to copy and paste exercises with barely any context of what is being trained. Let me break it to you: these athletes made it to the highest levels despite these worthless drills. They made it because along with tremendous drive and focus, they were given physical attributes that once analysed, can give us normal humans some insights on how to improve our own performance in sports.

What Have We Found?

The greatest athletes make the most of their elastic strength. Elasticity is a term we use to describe the effectiveness in the use of the Stretch-Shortening Cycle. Simply put; the Stretch-Shortening Cycle occurs when a muscle is stretched rapidly, followed by a forceful contraction to generate movement. When the stretched muscle contracts, its tendon is stretched as well, then shortened rapidly generating an efficient burst of force. Like pulling an elastic band back and letting it go; this contractile property of our muscles, when used in good alignment, provides us with free power!

Another key to how athletes maximize their speed and agility is in how they interact with the ground. When it comes to movement in sports, the only thing athletes have to work with in generating power is the ground beneath their feet. No wonder why ground contact is so important for sprinters. Agile movers punch through the ground rather than slowly stepping into it then pushing off. This aggressive bounce generates a larger Stretch-Shortening Cycle rebound launching the body in whatever direction it was aligned to go towards.

Don't take alignment lightly either. Speed and agility are both very dependent on the direction in which athletes apply force onto the ground. It is key that the body itself is in good alignment to minimize energy leaks. All force produced should be applied in the desired direction and transferred through the body efficiently.

How to train it?

Notice none of the insight above involves physiological adaptations or changes in the body. For the most part; all of the components listed above are skill based, so they can be coached and improved with any athlete. Youth athletes; especially those who have not yet gone through maturation and may not yet be benefiting from the hormonal changes that allow for physiological gains from lifting, will also benefit greatly from improving their alignment, ground contact, elasticity. In fact, these type of training should be a focus at these ages.

Training Methods, GC Strength Team Methodology:

Plyometrics

Linear Hurdle Hop - Non Countermovement

Plyos allows for all three components above to be taught, practiced, and reinforced. It is important to manage volume of work here however; since plyometric exercises are all about impact and maximizing the stretch-shortening cycle, too much of it can lead to injuries. The key here is to follow progressions; from movement type, to number of reps, to 1 or 2 leg variation. Progress everything, one step at a time.

Medicine Ball Throws

Linear Step to Throw - Medicine Ball

Throwing things is another great way for athletes to express power. The force is still generated from the ground up, but since the ball is in the athletes hands, they must learn to transfer energy efficiently throughout the body. This will lead them to discover the best alignment necessary to transfer energy from their action against the ground, through the trunk, and onto whatever object their throwing.

Sprinting

Acceleration - Drop Start

Sprinting is the culmination of all the power work listed above. Add rhythm and timing to these components and you have quality sprinting mechanics.

GC Strength Team training methodology accounts for all of the above in Performance and Strength & Conditioning sessions. We've been successful applying these concepts with youth and professional athletes at the highest levels, and will continue to study the best ways to do so. There are other methods, more advanced ones, an athlete can progress as they become more skilled in training, but the ones listed above are a great starting point.

To learn more about coaching power and speed, please contact us here to set up a phone chat.

If you’d like to learn more about training with GC Strength Team, contact us here.

4 Steps for Better Preparation Before Practices and Workouts

by Garga Caserta, CSCS, USAW

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Not long ago, I was speaking with a soccer coach about integrating performance concepts into soccer practices. We were both fired up sharing our thoughts about how important it is that coaches understand how each component of practice may physically stress each athlete. We agreed every team should have a comprehensive warm up, and even further, they should have a systematic approach to it. At one point; I caught myself ranting about how every single exercise in a practice should relate to the other, which meant the warm up should be specific to each practice as well. After a few minutes of listening to me nerding out on the topic, the coach sneaks in a question:


“Yes, that all sounds really great, but … (I braced myself)

…  could you send me a warm up with all this stuff I can use for my team?” (yes he did).



I think he missed the point…


If a warm up is specific to the demands of a practice, it will need different details for each different practice. There isn’t just one perfect warm up! Now; trust me on that any warm up is better than no warm up in most occasions, but with a little bit of structure and consistency, any coach can become a master warmer upper.


Step 1: Activate (2-3 minutes)

Use general light movements like jogging, twisting, hopping, short passing, juggling, and any other low stress movements to get an increase in blood flow and temperature around muscles. Follow this with one or two sets of core exercise for the glutes, trunk, and shoulder complexes to ensure they are activated and ready to support and control major movements.


Step 2: Dynamic Stretches (3-4 minutes)

There are two key differences between static stretching and dynamic stretching. First; dynamic stretches are performed for repetitions of short duration versus the one long hold of a static stretch. Secondly; while static stretches are focused on lengthening an individual muscle group, dynamic stretches focus on moving through and challenging the range of motion of a movement pattern and all muscles units involved in it. Static stretches are great for increasing muscle length, but prior to a workout or practice, it could be an issue since it decreases the sensitivity of protective reflexive responses. So use dynamic stretches to prepare for demanding movement patterns.  



Step 3: Movement Integration & Dissociation (2-3 minutes)

Integrate practice movements at a slightly higher level than during activation early on, and use this moment to introduce coaching cues to these movements. For example; running technique drills like marching and skipping are perfect here, since it allows a chance for teaching better sprinting mechanics


Step 4: Central Nervous System Activation (1-2 minutes)

To finish boosting the connection between brain and muscles, decisions and execution movements, use rapid movements at maximum intensity over short durations. Quick feet actions against the ground like ladder drills can do the job here. Keep in mind the main objective here is to move at maximum quickness for a very short spam, no more than 5-6 seconds bursts.



Total duration 8-12 minutes! Don’t tell me there’s not enough time for this.


Give it a try before your next workout or practice and let us know how you feel here in the comments!

Top 5 Foods & Items for Every College Athletes' Dorm Room

By Wilfredo Benitez, MSN, M.Ed.

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A mini fridge with an even smaller freezer. Some shelf space. Maybe some storage room in my closet for larger items. That was all the space my roommate and I had in our dorm room for food and food-related items. It’s kind of like a slightly more glorified cupboard under the stairs situation.

We thought we had our priorities straight too. Our staples included cereal (I remember the Fruity Pebbles and Multigrain Cheerios boxes quite well), coffee, Splenda (because adding regular sugar was “bad for you”), bags of microwavable popcorn, Tostitos or pretzels, bags of instant mashed potatoes, Austin’s peanut butter sandwich crackers, and flavor-ice pops. We each had a meal plan and a dining hall across our dorm that would cover all our other needs, such as fruits and vegetables, but we never swiped into the dining hall to only grab fruit. If we had eaten any fruit or left with fruit in our backpacks, it was only after eating a plateful of many other foods we might not have needed at that time.

You might think that nutrition wasn’t a priority of mine, but that’s not true. I actually thought that I was eating well. I knew that Fruity Pebbles wasn’t the best cereal out there and I knew that ice cream after most dinners probably wasn’t the best choice, but I figured that I would just sweat out those calories later on at the gym or on a run around campus. “I’ll be fine,” was my inner mantra.

Wrong. On top of the weight gain that occurred, I wasn’t running well or feeling well on my runs, and I began to need many pre-set alarms to get me out of bed. I started to drink anywhere from four to six coffees with Splenda a day. I used to boast about being able to drink so much coffee and still go to bed okay, but that wasn’t the case. My body was evidently experiencing some changes, physically and chemically due to the quantity of these stimulating foods that were rampant in my diet, and looking back, I know that my not feeling great in various aspects of my life at the time was directly related to my nutrition.

Fast Forward

Now, as a nutritionist with a graduate degree in nutrition science, I’ve certainly changed my nutrition habits and my mindset when it comes to nutrition. I look back and I fully understand where I was going wrong and where I could have benefitted from some guidance. I also know that college life hasn’t really changed, and that far too many students and student-athletes are still eating the way I was eating, if not worse. And many of them, like me at the time, probably think they are eating as healthy as they could be. I encourage students, and especially student athletes to seek out professional guidance. There’s so much readily available information about nutrition, but someone who understands athletics and nutrition may be in a better situation to provide you with some more practical guidance.

When I’m working with clients, I am often asked about what kind of healthier snacks should be kept in one’s office desk or in the break room. I thought that college athletes and students might have some similar questions; I know I should have asked someone these questions. With winter break starting up in the next few weeks for most college students, it might be helpful to have some helpful nutrition tips that you can put to effect once you return from the break. Because Fruity Pebbles, Splenda packets, and flavor ice-pops aren’t the best foods to be eating nearly every day, these tips suggest what collegiate athletes (and maybe every college student) may want to consider keeping in their dormitory room or apartment.

So, here is my list of 5 recommended foods and food items that collegiate athletes should have handy while at school:

1) Fruit. Quick, convenient, and full of nutrition, fruit is great to keep on your shelf or in your mini fridge. Keep sliced or chopped fruit in the fridge for those times you just want to graze and keep whole fruit ready to grab on your way out. Rich in healthy carbohydrates, fiber, and a plethora of immune-boosting and inflammation-lowering micro- and phytonutrients, collegiate athletes should keep fruit as a regular part of their diet and having it nearby can help.

2) Canned beans. Beans, and other legumes, are a phenomenally nutritious food, supplying a good amount of carbohydrates, protein, and fiber to keep you full. Add them as a side to a dish or have on hand for those times when you're just feeling like snacking on chips and salsa with friends. Opening a can of beans to mix in with the salsa is a simple way to elevate that snack's nutrition. Another delicious snack idea is roasted beans (chipotle lime roasted chickpeas, anyone?) Yes, your friends may crack some jokes, but your improved health and athletic performance will be worth it.

3) Nuts. Ideally, these are non-oil roasted and you’re including a variety of good quality nuts. A small handful of nuts can do wonders for satiating that bottomless pit of most collegiate athletes. Nuts will supply you with healthy fats, protein, fiber, and a variety of minerals, each one just as important as the last. Nut butter could count, but you'll likely get less variety (most people just have peanut or almond butters) and you'll also want to be sure there's not added oils or unnecessary added sugars in the nut butter. Be mindful that nuts are a calorically-dense food, so this is a food for which practicing some moderation may be helpful.

4) Hummus and/or Guacamole. You're probably going to eat tortilla chips. This is college after all. When you can, enjoy them with a good quality hummus or guacamole to increase the nutrition you're getting and to fill you longer so that you're not only trying to fill up on chips. And of course, hummus and guacamole can also be eaten with plenty of other foods or even on their own.

5) Hot-Air Popcorn Popper and popcorn kernels. Popping your own popcorn is a great alternative to most microwaved popcorn, chips, and other heavily processed snacks. When your favorite show is on or when you're trying to stay up to finish a paper—and coffee or tea just isn't cutting it—go for the popcorn over the chips. Flavor the popcorn yourself with popular toppings such as olive oil, salt, black pepper, nutritional yeast, or you can get creative and try out other herbs and spices.

So that’s the list, and it’s a list I wish I had back in college to have better fueled my running and to have felt better and been more awake and alert. Having these foods and food items on hand is going to make snacking smarter easier to do, especially when it’s late at night or when you’re under stress—during both instances we tend to not make the healthiest choices. And if you find that things are going well after making some beneficial nutrition swaps, I encourage you to see what else you can learn and what other adjustments you can make. Of course, we here at GC Strength Team are always ready to help you be your healthiest self.

The Science of Learning & Coaching in Soccer

Soccer coaching threads on social media look like Fox vs CNN. Some coaches fighting for their right to isolate technical skills and get their 10 thousand reps in; while others cringe at the idea, and claim players are made Brazilian favela style: tape up a few socks together to make a ball, get out on the street, and let them play! To help us work together for a bipartisan solution for making our players better, I will share here some insights on the science of learning, the science of coaching, and how some knowledge of both may help you focus on what matters when trying to develop soccer athletes.

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THE SCIENCE OF LEARNING

Soccer skills are no different than any other motor skills as for how they are learned and improved in the brain and neuromuscular system. It would be smart then to look at other modalities where high level, autonomous motor skill is developed. Look at musicians; for example, who can play a guitar at phenomenal speeds, without even looking at their fingers, at times singing while doing so. How does one develop that level of skill? One place to start is the deep learning concept.

Deep Practice

In the book “The Talent Code”, Daniel Coyle explores the practice habits of highly talented musicians to discover a few principles that made up what he named the deep learning process. This process was characterized by performers being deeply focused on developing a skill and doing so by applying a few similar principles that overlapped regardless of the type of skill. For example; to master a whole piece of a symphony, a violinist would isolate one segment and master it first before moving on to the next. To learn that segment, the violinist would play that segment as slowly as needed based on their current skill level, then faster as the skill in playing the segment was improved. This progression, pushing the skill at the threshold of success with some struggle, was key to the concept. To continue developing to the highest level, variability was needed, and the musician would playfully speed up and slow down almost as if to show off how effortless the segment had become.
 
Break it up into manageable segments —> slow it down, speed it up —> push the threshold
 
Notice that in the entire process described above, one remarkable things missing is the interventions of a coach. Perhaps, the coach or teacher job within this concept is to introduce a skill and simply guide the athlete or student on how to learn it. This self-guided learning process is mentioned in Dr. Gabrielle Wulf’s book “Attention and Motor Skill Learning” as essential for long term skill acquisition and retention.

Neuromuscular Facilitation

What happens in the brain when motor skill learning is occurring aligns well with the deep practice concept. It is known that complex movements or skills are controlled by signals from the brain to the muscle units involved in moving the body segments required to accomplish the desired technique. These signals are transmitted through neurons that work like roadways to connect brain and muscles. In the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, author John Ratey explains that when we are learning a new skill, we repeatedly send signals through these roadways. The more signals sent and the more context we receive about the skill, the more they branch out into smaller streets that connect to specific units that control the smallest of movements. With a lot of practice, an expert performer develops a very complex and detailed roadway to precisely execute technical tasks. On top of this branching out that occur at the extremities, the main roadway also gets an upgrade as we practice a skill already learned. With precise practices, a fatty tissue called myelin wraps around the axon, our main roadway, insulating it to increase the speed in which signals travel through it. This biological process may explain how we develop the skill with practice, but a key component for this to happen is how the skill is presented and substantiated. Simply put, how does the athlete understand the skill and try to develop it.

The Discovery Learning Process

In her studies, Dr. Gabrielle Wulf found compelling evidence on the effectiveness of learning a motor skill through self-discovery. Most athletes; at one point, have experienced the moment in which a skill is performed correctly, the outcome is positive, and the execution of it now is known and can be repeated. The athlete may not be successful in all attempts of it moving forward, but they know what a successful repetition feels like! What is most interesting is that, athletes who discovered the proper application of a skill in a practice were able to recall that skill more effectively in games when compared to those who were excessively coached during their trials. This knowledge has been incredibly impactful in guiding best practices in Coaching Science and has helped shape better structure into how coaching can be delivered.

Habit Loops & Anticipation

An incredibly fascinating book, “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, dives into the world of habits and how deeply ingrained in our brain they become. Habits are built because one of the most primitive priorities of the human brain is to save energy for survival. So, if a task is important enough (because it’s required often enough), it will be ingrained into a deep part of the brain and become an autonomous habit. This process requires a trigger; as shown in famous studies with animals that involved a sound prior to food being available, that showed that overtime these animals would salivate immediately after hearing the sound. The studies showed us that our brain recognizes the subtle cues that anticipate an important event, and if exposed to this event’s triggers often enough, it will recognize cues at a subconscious level. This may explain why some players can “see the game” ahead of others. They may have developed habit loops around seeing the game moments and cues that allowed them to anticipate and respond with great efficiency. Most athletes who played at a highly competitive level will confirm that at times, in a fast pace environment, they’ve executed skills like making a pass or taking a shot, almost subconsciously. “It just happened!” – they say, as if they had no control over the decision and execution of the skill. That’s the anticipatory power of a habit loop.

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THE SCIENCE OF COACHING

Motor Skill (technique) Introduction

The coaching process has always been fascinating to me. At first, my motivation for developing as a coach was selfish, driven by my own curiosity on how coaching can be applied, rather than by the desire of achieving results with those I was coaching. Nonetheless, the results were achieved, because the coaching delivery was effective, and the students learned efficiently. What’s most interesting about this is that it was the happiness derived by the students from achieving the results that ultimately solidified my passion for education. Reasons aside; there are a few principles that made up what I found to be a successful motor skill delivery method. Or, simply put, coaching athletic skills:
 
Step 1: Skill Introduction - introduce the technique so athletes know what they are about to work on and begin to visualize and prepare to performance it. Name it descriptively so it can be recalled on in later progressions. Also, save words for the things you can’t demonstrate, remove all other fluff that will be clarified with the visual cues of the demonstration.
 
Step 2: Expert Demonstration - demonstrate it perfectly, or as close to perfectly as possible, since a lot more information is delivered and received by athletes visually. Also, do so every time you reintroduce this skill; because, as athletes work through the components of the skill, they will focus on different components of the demonstration. This does absolutely mean you should master the skill as well, if you plan on coaching it.
 
A bonus to group training is that athletes will learn from watching each other, and studies show learning efficiency in group training is 100% higher when compared to individual training.
 
Step 3: Establishing Purpose - relate the skill to the athletes' needs and motivations. Defending skills in soccer are primarily movement skills and hard work, substantiated by game insight. If we relate the deceleration and change of direction movement skills to high level defending, when introducing them to our players, the motivation to perform the exercise at a high intensity will be much higher for our defenders. Purpose drives motivation, and motivation drives focus & effort!
 
Once an exercise is effectively introduced, we must back off and allow discovery learning to take place. However; if an athlete is achieving nothing but failure, we should guide them back into the path with cues and by providing feedback, while being careful to minimize negative interference with the process.

Triggers & Non-Verbal Communication

To be even more precise; exercises should be built around a recognizable trigger and built to condition athletes response to them. Take individual defending, for example, where a player must recognize they can sprint and close the space while the ball is travelling to an opponent. The ball travelling is the trigger, closing the space is one response option. As opponent looks down to take a touch, defender must begin to decelerate to be prepared to move any direction in response to opponents first touch. At this point, the trigger is simply the opponents head going down, the response to it is slow down and prepare to respond. The value of conditioning responses like this is that you can do so with minimal intervention, just sharing the triggers with the athlete you’re coaching, and allowing them to develop the deep practice habits around it. If we teach this early on, to substantiate the neuromuscular pathways explained above, opposed exercises later will provide the variability and increased challenge necessary to solidify these defensive skills for the athletes. Triggers exist all around us; they can be visual, verbal, or simple sounds, and with this perspective you will recognize them around all moments of the game. They can be derived from non-verbal communication from teammates and opponents, as well as precise cues created by the coach in training. “Get close!” could be the cue, for example, for the example described above. This gives you a chance to allow players to make decisions, while you are simply pointing out the triggers that can be recognized by them. Players making their own decisions is another important part of the discovery learning process.

Repetition Without Repetition

The heading above is confusing at first, but it applies to a very simple concept. We’ve established players need deep practice to efficiently develop technical skills. An important part of deep practice is to reach a threshold around the skill level during training, and that variability is necessary to continually grow the neuromuscular pathways or roadways for brain and muscle communications. Even more important, is that players recognize triggers that lead to them making decisions on which skill to use, as a final step to substantiating context around techniques. All the above allows coaches an opportunity to layer thousands of repetitions in training without repeating the same exercise over and over into monotony. By focusing on triggers and the responses to them, coaches can use a variety of different exercises that share the same triggers and responses that lead to similar skill execution. Also, by sharing a trigger, simple low-level exercises and high complex opposed exercises can be connected. An individual defending walk through can be connected to a lively small sided game by sharing the “ball travelling” trigger. Coaches can relay this perspective to athletes when introducing the practice to establish purpose to the whole day. Defenders on the team would be fired up when they understand that the whole practice is seamlessly integrated to layer the skills they thrive on. They will get a chance to focus on improving one important aspect of their game connectedly through four or five different practice exercises. They will get a lot of repetitions without the exercises being repetitive.

Cues and Feedback

The most common mistake in eager, passionate young coaches, is over-cueing. This happens when good coaches, excited by their ability to see errors and mistakes in athlete’s performances due to their trained coaching eyes, decide to correct all of them all at once. A barrage of guidance through cues and feedback gets fired out of their faces and athletes are led right into analysis paralysis. This is a term often used in business to describe when too much information and its analysis leads to overwhelm and an inability for decisions to be made. A coach must understand that all communication interferes with the learning process, so if we must cue, it needs to be done minimally and effectively. Research shows that cues should be delivered no more often than 30% of the total trials performed in a series. The sweet spot to maximize learning efficiency and recall being around 16%. Two concepts studied around contextual interference in psychology studies can help guide coaches around this:
 
Positive Cueing: tell athletes exactly what to do when trying to correct a mistake rather than cueing around what not to do. If you tell me to not raise my hand in the roller coaster, I may still reach them out to the sides like I’m in the Titanic. But; if you tell me to keep my arms inside the car, I have no other alternative where I might lose a hand.

Bonus - athletes must also communicate in positives and be very clear in this communication. Yelling out “turn” towards a teammate will help, but “pass” is too limited in information. Tell them where to pass, to who, and initiate it by getting their attention with their name. “Tommy, go wide!” may give you a response, especially if “go wide” has already been conditioned as a verbal trigger.

External vs Internal Cueing: movement, especially complex ones like skills performed in sports, are achieved by the sequencing of muscle units firing and the synchronization of different segments of the body. An internal cue focuses on the activation or relaxation of a single segment (ie. Lock your ankles) while an external cue is focused on the outcome of the movement (ie. Get under the ball and cut the grass). Studies show that external cues lead to more effective skill acquisition, while internal cues often lead to internalization, which is a heightened focus on one individual segment that becomes disconnected from the rest and increases the likelihood of the athlete suffering from paralysis over analysis.  
 
Bonus - external cues can be built around triggers, and favor the discovery learning process; since the focus is on a holistic solution to the task (in response to a trigger), the athlete will still work through finding the best sequencing and synchronization (decision making) to accomplish it.
 
Feedback Types: There is a difference between giving a cue, to guide a learner back towards a discovery learning path, and providing feedback. The latter; can be delivered in different forms led by the coach or the athlete at the end of repetitions. Early on, more feedback is given, and when the coach finds it necessary. As the athletes’ skill level becomes more advanced, less feedback is necessary and often should be requested by the athlete when needed. Feedback focused on the results of the exercise can be given, but feedback around the performance is shown to have a higher motivational effect. Also shown in studies is that when athletes do request feedback, it is usually following a successful repetition, as if they simply want confirmation that what they felt was right also looked right. Even further, it was very clearly established that negative feedback is redundant and only works to negatively affect athletes’ motivation.
 
Bonus - remember that advanced athletes have become advanced because they learned how to practice; they know the difference between when they are practicing a skill and will eventually accomplish it, and when they are struggling and may need guidance. Therefore; the more advanced an athlete becomes, the more focus that goes into the training environment providing increased variability to challenge athletes to reinforce their technical skills.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

In the next few weeks, I will expand on the application of these principles into technical, positional, and tactical practice exercises. Also, I’ll share insights on how the conditioning for “fitness” and conditioning for skill and tactical development are very similar in terms of progressive overload, so the same exercises with manipulated variables can not only improve players skill level, but also develop their physical capacity over time.

Recovery Concepts in Soccer

Understand practice stress to balance training and maximize recovery

Sports Science has brought fear to the lives of Soccer coaches everywhere. It seems like anytime there is an injury; in the past people would question the medical team or the athletes themselves but now, Head Coaches are in the hot seat. The physical demands of the game have increased overtime, just like athletic feats have become more impressive and records have been broken all throughout Olympic events. There is very compelling evidence for example; that sprinting distance has increased across all levels in Soccer. As the game evolves, new styles of play are pushing athletes to not only sprint more throughout the duration of a match, but also sprint for longer distances each time they sprint. At the top level of Women Professional Soccer, players at certain positions are sprinting (running above 21 km per hour) for as much as 10% of the full distance they cover in that match. Some athletes I coach have consistently covered 12 km in matches week in and week out, with 1000-1200 meters of it being at sprinting speeds! So, what does that mean? Players are working harder than ever, especially in the US, and where there’s hard work, recovery must happen as well.

Planning Recovery

Practice is important, and even more important is to practice at a high level, with good intensity, purpose, and effort. With a little bit of planning and some understanding of how exactly a practice might stress a team and its athletes, recovery opportunities will begin to look to be essential if a coach wants to maximize the continued outcomes and growth from training. For example; if I like to apply high pressure to my opponents, and I want to practice this – I should do so on a day all athletes on my team are ready to go after it. In contrast; if I plan on walking through tactical exercises, set pieces, or other technical work that doesn’t require high levels of physical output, I can choose to do this on a day where it will serve me best. The important message here is to plan out your practices beyond day-by-day, looking at a whole week (and longer the more proficient you become) to identify your easy-medium-hard days. This simple exercise will allow you to discover principles in planning practices that will help you maximize the outcome of each day. We call this building a Weekly Rhythm.

 

Weekly Rhythms

We don’t focus on recovery to maximize rest, we do so know we can increase the demands of training overtime. Building a Weekly Rhythm, by assigning a purpose for each day you get to train, will give you the type of consistency that reveals what parts of your system are working and which ones are not. For example; if my team always plays on Saturday, then players are off on for the following two days, I will plan my Tuesday session to be a “Re-Entry” day. I’ve labeled it re-entry because I look at it as a returning to practicing rhythm after a couple of days away. Some coaches are tempted to make this a hard training session, assuming players are fresh and ready to perform after some rest. However; I’ve learned overtime that although their fatigue levels are low, muscles and joints aren’t quite ready to go – so hard sessions on first days back, or re-entry days, seem to lead to muscle injuries. Athletes need that initial stress of a low or medium session to get things started prior to really going all out. The following day to a re-entry day is likely the most appropriate day for a hard session. And; of course, if a team just went through two meaningful days of training, it would be wise to make the third day safer, perhaps even a recovery day. You see now; Weekly Rhythms allow you to balance your week of training, learn from the outcomes of it, and develop principles from your own systems and exercises.

 

Exercise Types and Variables Matter

Within the consistency of Weekly Rhythms, some of the first principles that will emerge are around the types of exercises and variables within them that give the team the best response from training. We’ve noticed, and I mentioned this on the previous articles in this series, that exercises that are performed with small spacing between players elicit a higher stress on muscles in the anterior portion of the body (like quads, hip flexors, and groins). This type of movement profile is predominant in training defensive topics, and they seem to cause too much damage on re-entry days. With this in mind; it became a principle for us that high intensity defensive exercises would not be practiced on re-entry days. We are still able to work on defensive topics, but we favor those that can be trained with exercise that put the athletes at a lower risk of injury. Other principles have been developed in similar ways; for example, the day after a hard practice, when players sprinted longer distances and covered a lot of ground in general (stressing the anterior chain, including the hamstrings group), it seems to be wise to avoid and overload of long range passing and shooting. Since increased sprinting distances fatigue the posterior chain, and long-range shooting and crossing put it under great strain, it shouldn’t be a surprise if a player injures a hamstring under these circumstances.

Recovery Sessions

Adaptations from great stress occur when the body and brain have time to rest and reorganize. Therefore; most learning and rebuilding happen during these days and fail to happen in the absence of them. To make the most of its benefits, there are a variety of recovery modalities that can help with the process. I’ve had many coaches ask for a designed recovery session, so they can give to their athletes, but I’ve learned that most impact I’ve ever made with athletes in their recovery has come from educating them in basic habits that influence recovery efficiency. Sleep, nutrition, and movement habits make a great impact on an athletes’ recovery daily, so the focus should be on teaching them the impact of each. Other recovery modalities such as massages, cold water immersion, and stretching do have a role and can help – but not all athletes respond positively to it. This makes it even more important for the strategy to be centered on athletes taking ownership of this process, and for coaches to simply share the knowledge they can use to do so.

*Side Note: emotional and psychological stress can greatly impact the physical load of exercise. Keep this in mind following games. Any athlete who participated in 30 minutes of an 11v11 practice and 30 minutes of an actual game can tell you the latter is much more demanding and yields a lot more fatigue even on the day following the event. It is a trap to think a goalkeeper who didn’t get much action, or a player who played low minutes, will not be fatigued the next day.

Putting it All Together

To summarize; a big step in improving training outcome and recovery between trainings, is to better understand how exercises stress athletes. Consistency exposes outcomes and allows for principles to be built on experience – creating an ever-evolving system of improved training. Recovery modalities are certainly helpful, but most effective when athletes are educated to make their own decisions to take care of their bodies.

If you are curious for more details into modalities for recovery sessions, reach out to us at garga@gcstrength.com. I’m happy to dive into what may be most appropriate for your setting and environment.

In the next series; we will focus on athlete preparation and share concepts and strategies to help athletes prepare for their upcoming college and high school seasons. We will share details on strength and conditioning programs designed to prepare players for the demands of pre-season, as well as share thoughts for coaches on how to approach pre-season training.

Performance in Youth Soccer Team Practice

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.