This is an article by Ian McClurg, Founder of 1 v 1 Soccer, UEFA “A” licensed coach and former Toronto FC Academy staff coach from his book, Play the 1v1 Way: Soccer Tips from an Emerging Talent Centre.
I frequently get asked how much training young players should do, and how much training is too much. It is my belief that this depends on the athlete — and also the type of training they are following.
I’m a firm advocate of the 10,000-hour training rule — the theory, as advocated by Malcolm Gladwell and others, that if you truly want to be good at something, you have to devote at least 10,000 to practicing it. That means that if young players wish to become world-class at their chosen sport, they should be training anywhere from 10- 20 hours each week.
Of course, the type of training a player follows is also crucial. In soccer, for example, I believe that young players can train for more than the 10-20 hour/week range, without negative side-effects, if the training is based on technique and players are enjoying playing small-sided games. They also have to be in an environment where there is no expectation on winning and losing. At professional clubs in Europe young players typically start training in academy teams at U9 (aged 8). They may have had two years of “informal training” once or twice a week until then, before entering a more structured environment at the U9 level.
At the U9 levels young players in Europe typically train 4-6 hours/week in a team session and 1-2 hours in individual technical sessions. At the U9-U12 levels, training time can increase to 8 hours/week for team sessions and 2 hours in technical sessions. Changes to the academy system in the UK have increased coaching contact time from U9 to U12 from 4 hours/week to 8 hrs/week. For the U12 to U16 age groups the coaching contact time has been increased from 12 hrs/week to 16 hrs, mainly by having the young players attend the academy 1 full day/week instead of attending school. At the U17 to U21 levels the players are typically training 16 hours/week.
By contrast, let’s consider what happens in other sports. Young athletes in the British national cycling program train 10 hours/week at ages 12-16 which increases up to 40 hours/week between the ages of 17-21. Elite British swimmers typically train 15 hours/week from ages 12-16 and 25 hours/week from ages 17-21. Between ages 12-16 young performers at the Royal Ballet School train 25 hours/week from ages 12-16 and 17-21. Even though the physical demands of these activities are different than those placed on young soccer players, it is still clear that in terms of the sheer commitment in time, these other sports ask a lot more of their participants when young.
In North America, young soccer players typically start playing as young as U3 and can be involved in club academy programs by age7 or 8 and training 2-3 times/week by then. In my opinion, it is not the volume of training hours that places physical and psychological stress on these young players but the quality of the work. Having young players work on their technical ball skills with futsal-type training where they are training the majority of their time individually with the ball or within small groups, allows young players to develop at their own pace without the pressure of winning games. They can take responsibility for their own development in these types of environment, experimenting with new things.
At European academies there is no real focus on physical development until the age of 14. This contrasts with the environment in North America, where the pressure on coaches to win games in order to qualify for the highest-level leagues, means that development becomes short-term. Coaches in this environment tend to believe that they can improve team results through a greater emphasis on fitness and other physical attributes. As a result, a greater physical demand is placed on young bodies that are still growing and developing.
Another significant difference from elite player development in Europe versus North America is that in Europe, programs typically run 42 weeks. That’s right — and it can be hard for North Americans to believe — there are 10 weeks during the year when players get to take a break. Youngster are given significant time off at Christmas, Easter and also during the summer months. In North America, players typically do not take time off during the course of the year, other than perhaps a quick few days at the end of the summer competitive season. All elite athletes should have significant down-time during the course of their 12-month training cycle in order to recharge mentally and physically.
Here’s another factor we need to keep in mind when thinking about over-training that is often overlooked, but makes so much sense it’s amazing we don’t do it more often — we need to check with the players themselves about how they feel their training load is affecting them. When parents ask me whether their children are over-doing it, I typically ask that the athlete keep a log on their physical energy levels and mental state (mood) after each activity. This allows athletes and their families to fully understand which activities, club team, academy team, school or other sports are placing the greatest demands on the athlete, especially those athletes who play multiple sports. If the athlete is physically or emotionally overwhelmed, then it is time to either cut back on some activities or alternatively work with their coaches to block off “rest days.” The athlete will know their body and mental state better than anyone else so I always recommend that they are central to the decision-making process.
Remember — our bodies are quick to tell us when we are doing too much. We have to listen to them — and when working with young athletes, we must help to make this “listening” process clear.
In 2014 I published a book (Play the 1v1 Way!) that documented by own quest to develop young players that were skilled, creative, passionate and had the vision to play attractive attacking football (soccer). Hopefully the book can assist young players, coaches and parents to strive towards developing more of these types of players. Find out more!