5 myths about physical development in youth soccer
One of the many reasons that I love working in the sports performance industry is because the field is expanding and improving, daily. With new research and world-class coaches readily available, I can honestly say that I am learning new information that I can practically apply, every day.
Conversely, one of the most frustrating aspects of this industry is how much of the training by current coaches, players, and parents are detrimental and uneducated. Most coaches and trainers do not seem to follow the same continuing education path that is necessary to work with young soccer players. So much has changed in what we know about the how the body responds to specific training stress, yet I continue to see the soccer culture making the same mistakes from coaches decades ago.
With this being said, over the next 5 posts, I have decided to touch on 5 of the biggest and most detrimental misconceptions and myths that I commonly hear from soccer parents and see from youth coaches within the development of young players. I want to keep this short and not get carried away in any sports science jargon, but I believe each one of these aspects deserves an entire post. All points made are generalized and are not directed to any one club or coach.
Myth #1 – Playing multiple sports (cross-training) is always good for Long Term Athletic Development and will keep my child from incurring injuries and “burnout”.
It is believed that playing 1 sport, too early, does not allow the maturation and development of specific muscle groups and coordinated skills, therefore creating susceptibility to chronic injuries due to repeated stress on the same part of the underdeveloped body. For young soccer players, we see this manifest itself in such ways as: plantar fasciitis, Sever’s disease, Osgood Schlatter’s disease, jumpers knee, spondylolysis, and hip flexor/quad/groin strains. It is amazing that I regularly hear of 10 year olds with chronic injuries that should be more commonly found in middle-aged long distance runners. This has become more of the norm than an anomaly.
Due to the repetitive skill sets in soccer and the recurring stress due to similar movements throughout the game; youth soccer players are commonly asymmetric, with extremely strong and tight quads and hip flexors and adversely weak glutes and hamstrings. The constant change of direction and jumping creates a ton of stress on the body, and the asymmetries aforementioned can wreak havoc on the body and create these overuse injuries. This, coupled with the long competitive soccer seasons and imprudent practice to game ratio, has youth soccer organizations mixing a cocktail of inevitable issues that parent and coaches are calling “just a part of the game”. It may be part of the game today, but does it have to be?
The “cross-training” rationale, of playing multiple sports, is intended for young players to create an aptly prepared body forthe rigors of soccer (or whatever sport they choose), by changing the nature of the sport and skill sets while developing strength in the typically weak areas of the body. This should, in theory, give the overstressed muscles and joints a recovery period, whilst still being active and developing athletic skill sets, and discovering the sport of choice. This model has been shown only to be successful if some very important principles are followed.
- Appropriate strength and flexibility training is developed along with the sport skills, throughout all ages of soccer development.
- 1 sport is played at a time. Never play multiple sport seasons or play on multiple soccer teams at the same time.
- Intermittent months throughout the year must be utilized to separate the player from COMPETITIVE soccer. This means taking a second look at participating in winter indoor leagues, 3vs3 leagues, endless camps in the summer, or using soccer as a means of babysitting when your child has nothing else scheduled, unless the programs have an understanding of how to properly develop players for long term athletic success.
I believe that this argument for “cross-training” was valid (and still can be), a decade ago, however the competitive nature of youth sports today has far exceeded the recreational nature it once had and is not a valid justification for injury prevention. Nowadays, competitive soccer starts at 7 years old and often plays the traditional 2-season (spring and fall) club year. The pressure and demand that parents (therefore clubs) put on these young players is immense, while commonly having as many games on the weekends as practices during the weeks. When players continue to play other sports, each respective sport and their teams are equally competitive and do not care nor take into consideration that these kids are going from competitive sport season to competitive sports season, without rest. More often, I find that young soccer players are playing in two different competitive sports in the same season or on two different competitive soccer teams (club and school, multiple clubs) and are moving from practice to practice, sometimes in the same day.
“I often see the best athletes, at young ages, being the players that are suffering the most. Every soccer team wants them to play as many games as possible and other sports try to draw them into their respective seasons. It’s a recipe for disaster.”
What was once a great way to develop a myriad of sport skills may end being more detrimental on the body than ever realized. The absence of an off-season, or more relevant, the absence of lower intensity and appropriate general preparation training, within the soccer season, accumulates fatigue in the central nervous system and trauma in the soft tissue and muscles. This is when injuries start to occur. The developing joints, bones, and circulatory systems are not able to rebuild as fast as the player is breaking down, causing the body to induce inflammation and pain in order to force the body to slow down. Players, at the advice of parents and coaches, tend to play through these pains. Too many games and not enough practice then throw the overly fatigued and underdeveloped players to the “wolves”, where 1 false move/tackle/run can mean trouble.
So what are the solutions? I think that there are many ways to solve this problem, but it has to be done with education on your goals within youth soccer participation and following some strict guidelines. I am not in the opinion that youth players should avoid playing other sports, actually I think it is extremely beneficial. The point is that parents need to be careful of over doing the competitiveness of multiple sports and avoiding portions of the year when they are able to separate themselves from the competitive game. We need to understand the collective work volume that a player is putting in, each week, that leads to injury and “burnout”. Coaches need to be empathetic with players that are playing several sports at the same time and need to dial it down a notch on the competition and demands at young ages. Here are some guidelines that, I believe, would allow the benefits of multiple sports without the potential for injury.
- Play one sport at a time and change the sport each successive season
- When sport seasons overlap, avoid over competing and under training. Also avoid conditioning for 1 team and training for another. They do not compliment each other.
- Avoid coaches and teams that tend to spend time “conditioning” players off the ball, before age 13.
- Players that just play soccer (really all athletes) should participate in athleticism programs to develop necessary skills that are not commonly developed by the sport or club and necessary strength and flexibility that will keep the player injury free for the long term.
- Make sure that young players are keeping their sport environment recreational, until it is appropriate. That means, club soccer is not best for players that share sports in the same season until after 13 years old (or biological age equivalent).
- If you do seek out an athletic development training program, make sure that they understand biological age vs. chronological age, training history, injury history, and soccer-specific needs and seasons. It may be just as detrimental to throw your child to programs that train your player like every other sport, regardless of season. Especially at the high school ages.
In every other country, around the world, soccer has been the only sport played by nearly every youth player that develops within the game. Are overuse injuries as prevalent? Although I do not have any research or numbers to back it up, I would say yes and no. No, because of how much training and developing foreign clubs tend to do with their players. They have complete control over the nature of their training, at youth ages, therefore the technical development is priority and the competition is not. Clubs around the world are beginning to put in physical development programs in with their technical programs, and understanding the importance of developing athletes to physically peak at 26-29, not 17-19 years old. Yes, because these physical programs have not reached the vast majority of clubs, so players are breaking down there, just as they are here.
Below, I’ve listed the topics that will be discussed in the weeks to come. I welcome your thoughts on this subject and look forward to the next blog.
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Myth #2 Speed cannot be taught.
Speed and conditioning is the same thing and trained the same way.
Myth #3 Soccer players should not strength train.
Players should not begin a strength program until 16 years old.
Myth #4 Soccer players need to run long distances.
Young players should run to get fit.
Myth #5 Injuries are a natural part of the game.
There is nothing you can do to prevent injuries.