5 myths about physical development in youth soccer

Part 2

In the first post (here), we touched on the notion that all youth soccer players should play multiple sports to avoid injury, increase athleticism, and prevent “burn out”. The opinions of these posts are those of my experience with training youth soccer players, over the past 6 years and are meant to bring a clear approach on how these Myths are simply traditional misconceptions, totally unfounded by research, or are theories that do not hold merit within the culture and demands of competitive youth soccer. I invite you to create a discussion around my views and conclude, in your specific situation, whether these arguments are appropriate.

Myth #2 – Speed is purely genetic and cannot be coached. Speed training, in soccer, is developed through endless sprints with little rest, just like the game is played.

Obviously, within my profession and our programming, we are adamant about the fact that speed training can definitely be taught and it’s fit into the game of soccer should be specifically designed for developing players, young and old. In fact, just like any skill on the ball, speed is a complex neuromuscular pattern and needs to be taught consistently, for effective results to occur.  I believe that the more important conversation and questions are as follows:

  1. What does speed training for soccer look like?
  2. Are certain ages (biological) more susceptible to speed development?
  3. Can speed training be added into practice?

 What does speed training for soccer look like?

SONY DSCThere is much research about the specific demands of the game and how many sprints take place, on average, within a match. Most research states that, within a 90 minute match, players run upwards of ~6 miles and make an estimated 19 high speed sprints (straight) per game with an average duration of 2 seconds, each. We should also include the fact that players are performing anywhere from 700-900 different changes of direction within each game, and speed does not just include the work performed in straight sprinting. Lastly, It is worth mentioning that statistically, the game is played at a much higher speed than even 10 years ago. In professional soccer, the number of sprints and high intensity activity per game has doubled, since 2002. Not only is the ball moving faster, but the players are as well, so speed becomes a very critical portion of youth soccer development.

So with all of this being said, how should speed training be conducted for soccer athletes? Even though the majority of runs, within a soccer match, are executed at less than 100% speed (due to energy demands), the ability to increase the overall speed of the player enables the lower speeds to become faster. Thus, in order for your training to become effective speed training, the drills must be conducted at 100-110% of maximum velocity for effective change. You must teach your body to become fast. If you train speed at 80%, then your body only knows 80% to be its highest speed potential.

**Yes, it does exist to train above 100% max velocity, through a number of ways that may be discussed in other posts

Secondly, if you are going to train at this level of intensity, then the duration, recovery time, and volume must be appropriate. In other words, you must sprint short enough distances to enable 100%+ speed, you must give your body the ability to recover so that you can repeat that same intensity, and the volume must be high enough to create a positive change and low enough so that the body is not in a chronically overloaded state. Complicated, right? Here are some guidelines:

  • Duration = 10-40 yards or 1-5 seconds
  • Recovery = work to rest ratio of 1 to 20-40, or for ever :01 second sprinting give :20-:40 recovery
  • Volume = for youth players, within general practice sessions, the volume should be kept to ~50-100 yards of total quality/high intensity sprinting. If the session is totally dedicated to speed, then you can move the volume closer to 200 yards, depending on the desired outcome.
  • If changes of direction or plyometric exercises are included in your speed work, I would recommend more recovery and lower volumes, due to the neuromuscular fatigue that takes place within these movements.

Lastly, but most importantly, the sprint training, just like any other skill, must have clear and concise coaching objectives for effective change to take place. The normal youth soccer player, albeit very athletic, is extremely inefficient and ineffective in their technical running form. Quick changes made by simple cues, will give an immediate progression of speed ability. Do not let your players add volume onto dysfunction. If the player is running incorrectly, the issue will only continue until changed, therefore the progression for speed will be much less effective. Here are some simple cues for linear speed training (cues for change of direction and quickness are different):

  • Arms must work from chest to clear the hips
  • The foot must make ground contact underneath the hip to push backwards
  • The player’s posture must be such, that the hips extend forward, generating efficient acceleration

Are certain ages more susceptible to speed development? 


The answer to this question is, yes, but that does not mean that speed training should be ignored outside of these ages. Biological age is different from chronological age, in that the individual body grows at very different speeds. You can look at several 13 year old boys and girls in a line and see that one player may be much more physically developed then the others. This means that the bodies ability to train and develop certain skill sets are much different, due to the integrity of the skeletal, neuromuscular, and cardiovascular systems. The concept of biological vs. chronological age is very important for physical development of players.

Speed development is best trained at two separate times of biological development:

  • Females Speed 1 = at a biological age of -6 to -4 (6 to 4 years away from the body’s fastest growth spurt) or 6 to 9 years old.
  • Females Speed 2 = biological age 0 (during or just after the fastest stage of growth) or, typically around 11-13 years old.
  • Males Speed 1 = biological age -7 to -5 (7 to 5 years away from the fastest stage of growth) or, typically around 7 to 9 years old.
  • Males Speed 2 = biological age 0 (during or just after the fastest stage of growth) or, typically around 13-16 years old.

Can speed training be added into practice?

Although there are few different types of training that will increase speed, within a soccer player, a large majority of these training modalities can be done on field within a practice. We have already discussed recommended intensity, duration, and volume of runs for speed, but another important aspect of speed development is strength training. Common sense will tell you that the more fit and strong a player is, the faster they will become. Research shows that the more a player can squat, the faster they are within their acceleration sprints of 0-10yds. We will be touching base on appropriate strength and fitness training in later posts, but I would like to add simple guidelines to speed work within training.

  • All speed training should be performed at the beginning of the session, just after the players are warmed up.
  • Have a technical objective within the speed drills performed that aligns with your objectives for the rest of the practice. Make sure that these drills are performed with quality technique to create good habits.
  • Plyometric and strength training can be performed on field, but should be done intelligently, at the correct volumes and ages.
  • Make sure that players of all ages (even 7-8 years old) are going through age specific strength training, in order to increase speed potential and decrease injuries.

Please let me know if you have any questions

Till next week

John Lytton