5 myths about physical development in youth soccer
After some time between the last few parts of the series, I want to pick back up with our 4th myths by inviting you to go back and read our first three here: (Cross Training, Speed, Strength). As always, feel free to post your comments and questions below.
Myth #4 – Soccer fitness comprises of long distance and slow running. Youth players should run extensive miles to get fit, just like older players do.
This myth can take quite a few angles and I believe that fitness is still to be considered individualistic (especially when referring to youth players in developmental ages) and relative to situations. It is never a black and white discussion about what is best for youth players and fitness, but the stance has to be one that is researched and follows physiological logic and never detrimental to performance. The common theme that still exists in youth clubs is the lack of progression and understanding of fitness from coaches and clubs.
As I have said many times, training (especially physical training) of the individual athlete should largely reflect the biological age of the player and what is best for their long-term development. If you do not understand what I am referring to, refer to our Philosophy of Training.
I will try to stay away from too much science…however, it is very important to state that, in order to fully get a grasp of why coaches and parents should not push the general conditioning of the young athlete, you must understand three specific facts:
- The term fitness needs to be defined appropriately.
- Fitness for soccer performance demands specific parameters for best practice.
- Every young player is effected by training differently…especially in growth phases.
Soccer Specific Conditioning?
Which type of athlete would make a more effective soccer player?
One of the most basic yet most important principles in sports performance is the SAID principle. Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands is the reason that soccer players may not be the best swimmers and ice hockey players are not meant to run marathons. You must train for the demands of soccer (time, intensity, movements, frequency) in order to achieve an adaption in the body that produces effective results in any skill set, especially fitness.
Think of it this way…Lance Armstrong has one of the worlds highest recorded VO2max scores (debatable, yet most accepted score testing fitness capability) in history and is considered one of the most fit athletes to ever compete in cycling. However, in 2007 Lance Armstrong finished 232nd in the Boston Marathon, after removing himself from cycling and focusing on training for marathon running with some of the great runners of our time. 231 people finished ahead of Armstrong, although he is largely considered the most fit athlete in the world. It justifies that no matter fitness levels, you must train for the demands of the performance. Cross country running does not = soccer fitness.
As I stated in point #1, soccer is referred to as an alactic-aerobic sport, which basically means that it is an intermittent activity or consists of many intervals of high intensity movement with long bouts of rest or low intensity. This lends a never-ending debate, from PhDs, of what form of conditioning is best for soccer players. What we can take away from the term, soccer specific, is that the aerobic system (the form of conditioning we often see by long slow running over long distances) is only a portion of the specific energy utilized within the game. The remaining parts are shared by the other two dominating anaerobic energy systems:
- Phosphogen System – dominates movement that lasts a very short duration (up to 10 second). Examples are lifting weights, 100% sprinting less than 100yds, etc…
- Lactic Acid System – dominates movement that last a medium duration (~less than 2:00). Examples are 400m sprinting, grueling training that all out effort as long as possible is expected.
*Note: there is never a real separation of energy systems, as they all combine at certain times to create movement at most every intensity and duration. To give the best idea of which system is dominant, it is most often simplified to the duration of training listed.
Research and statistics show us that professional soccer players are covering around 6-7 miles per game, and youth elite players (under 18) are covering almost the same (~5.8 miles). I would expect that the younger players are moving much less than this number and potentially working at a higher % of intensity*. The interesting point is that the specific numbers within these movement statistics include players making 700-900 changes of direction per game, and 5-9 repeated sprint bouts per game (100% intensity, ~3 sprints per bout, with ~5 seconds between sprints). Between these bouts of intense sprinting there is vast majority (96%) of movement at a very low intensity.
*The high work rate of young players is due to the notion that youth teams do not have the skill and experience to understand how to be efficient with their movement, therefore resorting to “outworking” other teams, as well as the typical win at all cost of youth clubs encourages the more direct and physical style.
The traditional mistake made by all soccer coaches, not limited to youth, is that we do way too much of the Aerobic conditioning (long and slow) and Lactic Acid conditioning (work as long as you can and as hard as you can). A lack of an understanding in energy metabolism would suggest that these are the best ways to train, since the description of the game is defined by these two speeds. Aerobic conditioning (at appropriate ages) has its place and is necessary for absolute effectiveness in recovery between high intensity sprints. However, when you look closer, training primarily aerobically does not prepare us for the parts of the game that make the biggest difference, namely increasing the speed within the repeated high intensity sprinting. Additionally, when breaking down how the body responds to aerobic progressions, we can see that the vast majority of practices (1.5-2 hours at <60% intensity) could suffice for the majority of aerobic work.
We do not need research to tell us that the most decisive parts of the game is made through movement at high speeds off the ball. If players can move faster, they are able to create more dangerous opportunities more often. The body learns to progress this speed through a fine combination of correct timing with aerobic training and a consistent effort at speed development (100% effort and long rest). Beyond this training, coaches need to better understand the need for the body to recover between bouts of movement and between intense training sessions. This is the only way for the body to not break down to injury, but instead create a positive effect that puts a player in a better opportunity to execute technical ability.
The cardiovascular aspects of a young player must mature, just as the other parts of the body have to mature. Everyone is aware of the false notion that young players should not lift weights, because of the inability of the body to be able to handle the stress…yet we are putting young players in a considerable amount more stress (5-7 x body weight on joints in every step, during jogging) when we have them repeatedly running countless miles.
We can see, through research, that the “sweet spot” for aerobic training in youth players is during their Peak Height Velocity (PHV) where the aerobic systems are more developed. You can read more about PHV, here.
Physiologically, there is not much evidence that Vo2Max (quantifiable test that is most often considered the scale for “fitness”) increases with training, before PHV. After the peak velocity of growth, there is considerable effect of this type of training.
Before this PHV “window”, conditioning for young players should be prioritized through the technical demands of the game. what aerobic conditioning that can be gained is more likely to be progressed by consistently performing the nature of the sport. Namely, technical work and game-like scenarios.
However the PHV is individual, this should not excuse coaches to blanket training for all of their players. Understanding that PHV usually does not occur in girls before 12 and boys before 13/14 years old, there is no reason to do endless running drills for young players. The result will only cause injury instead of huge conditioning effects. What we do see, with this training is a high increase in “overuse” or chronic injuries that are caused by too much unspecific conditioning with little rest that tend to be common amongst young teams (have heard it from players as young as 8 years old).
The one aspect of specific running that should be prioritized and shows results through conditioning is speed development. This window (there are 2) is shown at 6-9 years old and 11-14 (girls), 13-16 (boys). Speed is largely dependant on a genetic number of fast twitch fibers, however there are a large number of fibers that are awaiting the body to transition them to slow or fast. Long, slow, aerobic conditioning will force these fibers to slow twitch and lose the ability to create fast movement later in the athlete’s career.
For more info on how you can apply these principles for your player or team, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org