Strategies in Using Soccer Games for Fitness and Conditioning

By Mike Cullina, Director of Soccer/Technical Director, Prince William Courage, Woodbridge, VA (Reprinted with permission from Performance Conditioning Soccer)

In order to consider conditioning soccer players, the most important thing is to determine at what level the players are with whom we are dealing. The first level is U10. For this group, I recommend no additional conditioning. If working with players 11-14, I do as much as I can with the ball. Because of limited ability in players 11-14, I can do everything I need with a ball at their feet or a ball involved in some way.

When you start getting into the high school and college ages, you must supplement some of the training with establishing an aerobic baseline and that takes place without a ball, on or off the field, both aerobic and anaerobic. At this level, the demands of the game start to increase so the players have to be ready.

U-11 to 14 Considerations

With ages 11-14, there can be several different situation positions, and for a truly recreational level, I think some of these things don’t necessarily apply. If we take the 11-14 age group trying to play at a competitive level, they want to go win a tournament or be considered one of the better teams in the state and play for the state championship. In this situation we are dealing with the understanding of when the events take place and what is important to the players, coaching staff, and parents as was set in the preseason meeting. We consider what they feel is important; the events in terms of winning and losing; the events in terms of developing an understanding that winning may not be a direct result of the decisions we make leading up to and during the regular games. If we are just developing players for the sake of development and trying to make them better, that group can really do a lot more with the ball.

If we are working toward a specific event, understanding the substitution policies you are dealing with is an important consideration. Increased activity isn’t done the week before or the week of the event. It’s done as many as 7-10 days before the week of the event so the few days prior to the event is used for getting focused on the specific event itself.

Another consideration is setting conditioning priorities in a given league game against a team you are going to play three times in a year. Winning is always an important consideration but considering a major tournament or championship game carries some additional issues. For example, it may be advisable to lengthen the duration of play for given players—let them play through their fatigue so their bodies can accommodate this level. This is where we are starting to talk about doing fitness development within the game where game conditioning is your optimal goal and winning isn’t necessarily your goal. Then, when you get to a given point in time when the game result is important to those who are playing it, you will have identified the players you would like to have on the field at that critical moment. You have the assurance and they have the confidence that their fitness level can rise to the challenge because they have played through tough situations in league play. They have experienced fatigue and played under pressure.

We don’t just pull them into these conditioning development games because it could cost us a goal. Sometimes having it cost a goal is important to learning fitness and pacing, etc. That is why I think the coach has a tremendous responsibility within a given game. S/he must understand the importance of the game; what they are trying to accomplish; and if they stretch a player a little too much, they understand the short-term consequences. But what are the long-term ramifications? So much can be done if you stretch a player’s minutes and instead of shuttling kids out every 4-5 minutes, you tell the kids they will play half of every half or they will play a half straight or whatever timeframe you decide. This is why league games are so critically important to developing fitness. Any coach who understands that and will play players for a little longer will see positive results. By using games to develop fitness, that means practice time can be dedicated toward skill enhancement and decision making, and improved fitness becomes a by-product of working hard in those particular exercises. The best way to gain fitness is to overload the players in game situations.

Creating Game Situations in Practice

Practice can be of value in conditioning. One of the reasons that we end practice with a game is to reward the kids—they like to play. From a coaching standpoint, we get to evaluate the worthiness of our session, especially if the activities and coaching points we make have an effect on the players. It’s also the best opportunity one has to replicate an actual game. Small-sided games are as good as we can get in replicating a big game. However, the only way to have big game experience is to play a big game. Some of the techniques we use involve a 3-to-1, work-to-rest ratio earlier in the season. As the season progresses, it gets closer and closer to 1-to-1 and at times even less rest than that. One thing you can do in terms of utilizing small-sided games is a numbers up, numbers down situation. Obviously, numbers down is used to replicate several things. One, it is quite possible and it does happen with some regularity is that a team plays with a man down for whatever reason: injury, waiting to bring a player back on, etc. Another reason to use some those things is because it’s so economical and you can work on the skills and technique and psychological competitiveness. Players in the numbers down must learn to work more as a collective unit to win the ball back, but they must also work harder and that fitness level and desire to work harder to win the ball back will necessarily help in terms of developing fitness.

There are other techniques that can be used to help develop skills and fitness. I think the biggest one is utilizing small-sided games in practice to take snapshots of the game and to replicate the big game at practice. It is also practical where you don’t necessarily want to have fitness as your main objective. You can get fitness out of 1v1 practices. 1v1 battles solve so many coaching ideas and one of them is clearly fitness. It certainly is the most often seen equation in any team sport. While you are doing 1v1 in practice in a small-sided game, you necessarily bring forward fitness.

There are some of those techniques in terms of work-to-rest ratio and in terms of numbers up, numbers down scenarios that will replicate a game. For instance, instead of just straight working hard then resting, can there be active rest? Can we do things during rest time that might replicate the game? For example, make a run forward at 80 yards and recover 50 yards. Sprint 150 yards at full speed. There must be things a player can do when on the sidelines resting and trying to get his or her wind back. Can we replicate that in a game while the players are resting? What are they doing? Can we juggle or interpass. Can we be a neutral player or a wall or bumper being played outside the game so we are getting some touches on the ball while we are tired. The time most mistakes take place is when one is fatigued. Making active rest an integral part of the work-to-rest ratio is important. 

It’s almost impossible to be in game shape until you play the game. That is the reason sports such as the NFL have preseason games. You can’t replicate the emotional high that a player has in a real game with the red team versus green team. The amount of energy expended and that excitement level or peak stress can’t be replicated in practice—only in a game. Having said that, using the games toward the end goal is critically important to developing fitness. Obviously, there are things players can do on their own or you can do in practice, even though you have limited time. Scrimmages and practices are as close as we can get to a game, but it’s still not the same. It’s not the same thing as having a coin toss, fan support, cheering, and everything that comes with it. What that does and being able to play is a totally different feeling. You don’t often hear a players coming into practice and saying they need to get their second wind. They do all the time in a game and that is because of a heightened stress level that comes with playing the game. Having said that, using those early season games to build fitness is critically important.

We deal with fatigue a lot in high school. The reality is that our schedule is child abuse when you consider the amount of games we ask these kids to play in a short time. You look at the ACC and Big 12 tournaments and wonder if it is better for a team to lose and get out early if you are in a tournament. I think to some extent that goes through our minds as we go through the district and conference tournaments where we will literally play 9 games in less than 3 weeks, which is insane. There’s no great answer to that other than time and rest. When you get to that time of the year when you are playing those types of games, it is one reason why we have gone to one game per day.

Big Event Considerations

Many youth soccer tournaments involve playing 3, 4, 5 games in a given weekend, which is also insane. That may be saving on costs and travel involved with going to these events, but is it worth it? In our most important events—state championship and regional championship—teams are only playing one game a day because we want players to be able to play at their highest level.

In dealing with these multi-game tournaments it is critically important we understand what we’re doing to these players when we put them in the environment to play so many games in such a short amount of time. I don’t know if there is a good answer for that—players will be naturally fatigued. The only real answer is have you done enough throughout the year in the conditioning games to develop depth in your team; have you put players that you may not otherwise rely on in critical moments of a game? If you don’t, how do you know you are absolutely not going to need him/her at that time? If winning the game is important, every player on your team becomes critically important. The New England Patriots play every player on their roster, and I think there’s a reason they do that. Because everyone feels important, but also at a critical moment when a player becomes injured, they have someone available.

In terms of a tournament schedule, there isn’t much you can do except teach kids and parents through constant application of parent education the importance of nutrition and proper hydration. Teach parents not to eat at McDonald’s right before a game or to eat right when they show up for a game—the body doesn’t work that way. Educating kids and parents about how the things they eat fuels the body and aids in recovery is critical. Also critical is teaching them the importance of proper rest.


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Performance Conditioning Soccer

Ken Kontor is founder and president of Performance Conditioning Inc. His company is the world’s largest single source of sports-specific conditioning information. Among the educational resources provided are Performance Conditioning Volleyball, Cycling and Soccer newsletters now in their 14th year of publishing and 15 sports-specific conditioning books and training card systems. He is a founding member of the USA Volleyball Sports Medicine and Performance Commission and was instrumental in the establishment of the Volleyball Conditioning Accreditation Program (V.C.A.P.) curriculum offered through the USA Volleyball Coaching Accreditation program. Among his contributions to this program was writing the curriculum. He has established the Off-bike Conditioning curriculum promoted by USA Cycling. In the past he has worked with USA Roller Sports and USA Triathlon producing conditioning specific newsletters. Prior to the establishment of Performance Conditioning Inc., Mr. Kontor was a founding father, executive director and publications editor of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for 14 years an organization of over 16,000 sport conditioning professionals. He was an original member of the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist committee that established the internationally recognized C.S.C.S. credential. He has traveled extensively throughout the world including the former Soviet Union, East Germany and the Leipzig Institute of Sport, Hungary and Bulgaria with the purpose of introducing their strength and conditioning methods to the NSCA membership. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association Inc. and the National Strength and Conditioning Association of Japan. He has lectured extensively on the conditioning of athletes throughout the world.