Understanding the Development of Soccer Players

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By Don Kirkendall, University of North Carolina

Don is a lifelong soccer player, experienced coach, and member of both the FIFA Medial Assessment and Research Centre and the U.S. Soccer Sports Medicine Committee.

Developing soccer athletes is a complex issue with multiple factors that interrelate. Presented
below is a list of developmental factors coaches need to be aware of when planning the development of their athletes. This is not a comprehensive list but rather provides important areas for future discussion and emphasis.

#1 To Train for Soccer, Know the Game of Soccer

In training for soccer the most obvious place to start is training for the game—one needs to know the game. This is in relation to the physical requirements and how tactics of the game may affect the physical aspect of the game. This formulates the design of what the coach wants to accomplish with his/her athletes. It may seem like an obvious statement but there are coaches who have not grown up with soccer and are unaware of the specific demands and requirements of the game. For example, around 90% of all possessions in soccer are of 4 players and 3 passes or less so there is some logic for training 4v4; it’s the essence of the game.

Once the concept of the demands are established, the next step is to try and come up with activity during practice that will get the coach into the direction of meeting the demands of the game. Lack of skill development also goes hand in hand with the lack of physical development—the two are connected. As a personal philosophy, I don’t like the canned approach many coaches use in their approach to conditioning training. I feel coaches need to know and understand the concepts first and then develop a program based on needs of the athletes and use of their coaching imagination, experiences and instincts.

#2 To Develop Right, Eat Right

For some reason athletes in individual sports have embraced the concept of nutrition whereas in team sports, such as soccer, nutrition, to a great extent, is ignored. Twenty-five years ago you could find a research abstract that indicated soccer players aren’t getting enough carbohydrates. Today you can find research abstracts that indicate soccer players aren’t getting enough carbohydrates. Nothing has really changed in this regard. After physical training, the thing that contributes most to performance is sound nutritional

#3 Injury—Work Toward Prevention

The first aspect of injury prevention is to know how the injury happens. Coaches need to educate themselves on root causes so that prevention strategies can be implemented. In observing soccer played below the collegiate level, lack of the proper concepts of warm-up is often apparent. Warm-up is an important aspect of injury prevention strategy and is frequently conducted improperly. Coaches just don’t know how to do it. The coach needs to establish an injury prevention strategy that incorporates proper warm-up and stick with it. Go to FIFA.com then click on ‘player’s health’ for a link to a proven prevention program, the F-MARC 11.  (Additional injury considerations include underdevelopment and overplay, which are explained in the next two issues).

#4 The Perfect Storm of Under Development

A perfect storm is an occurrence, cataclysmic in nature, which happens because several independent, seemingly benign factors come together at the same time. This analogy can be used in looking at the way young athletes face challenges of proper development. In soccer development, this perfect storm started to happen when Title IX took effect in the 70s, which expanded women’s opportunities in sports.

The second event, which happened around this time, was the substantial elimination of physical education within school systems around the country due to budgetary constraints and other factors. The results were kids coming into sports without the necessary motor developmental opportunities that lead to natural progressive development and maturation. Kids haven’t learned basic movement skills such as hopping, skipping and jumping. Consequently, the foundation of an injury prevention program needs to start with learning and developing basic motor skills and motor control.

Another aspect of this storm that has contributed to a perfect storm is the lack of general play. Kids used to go out and play in their neighborhoods. Today everything is organized. Monday and Wednesday are soccer. Tuesday is for piano lessons and so on. This has limited the opportunity for free play. Kids spend their free time (what little they do have) in front of their computer , TV or other sedentary distraction. In this country one’s skill teacher is the coach—in Italy or Brazil the skill teacher is one’s older brother, father, uncle and the kids they play with. There’s a big difference between the multi-coach approach of soccer nations and the uni-coach approach to skill development we have here.

I remember hearing a college coach talk about taking a group of U-14 to Mexico where they trained for a week with a local team. The coach said the U.S. kids where bored to death. This was because the training session would start with warm-up and the next hour of a 90-minute session would be devoted to skill development. At the end a pick up game would occur. In the U.S. it’s just the opposite. A practice consists of 15 minutes of skill development and the rest of the time devoted to play and small group activity. When the kids in Mexico got into game situations, they would win easily because of their superior skills, especially their first touch and pace of passing. Two ways of preventing injury according to research is to be in good condition and be more skilled—the more highly skilled players have fewer injuries.

#5 Overplay and It’s Influence on Underdevelopment

Research has shown that the lowest rate of injury occurs when the ratio of weekly training to matches is four- or five-to-one (that is training for four to five units of time and compete for one unit of time). This research was done following the Korea-Japan World Cup. In the month leading up to competition, when the amount of play increased and training decreased, the rate of injury increased and the level of play decreased. In this country the ratio is one-to-one or two-to-one at best. If a tournament is played on the weekend, the training-to-play ratio goes down substantially. The groups of soccer athlete that come close to ideal are high school
players who play two games a week and have three training sessions, but that is still substantially below the more ideal 4-5:1 ratio. In football, because of nature of the sport, play is only once per week with four practice sessions during the week. This is more toward the ideal.

It is my opinion that soccer coaches understand this inverted pyramid of play to training and development; however, it comes back to the decision makers as to how many games the kids are going to play. I don’t bemoan a club for hosting a tournament; this is a way they make some of their operating budget. But the question is, how many games does a team have to play? I know of teams that play upwards of 140 refereed games in a calendar year. These may be abbreviated games (25-minute halves) with three games on Saturday and two on Sunday, but the volume of annual play is unbelievable. The result of this is that soccer athletes must learn to pace themselves. They can’t create or try new skills/tactics because they haven’t spent enough time training to be comfortable enough to use their new lessons in a competitive match for fear of failure. Development is about training, not about competing.

Additional problems occur with knowing how to eat and rest to recover in order to have something in the tank for the next game. If you’ve been to a Hispanic tournament, the day is an entire event. Here you play, go back to the hotel and then go back and play again. There’s a disconnect in that players lose the opportunity to observe and learn. Exposure to the game they get is much different then what our kids get.

In Holland, the entire developmental system is to teach young kids to play like the national team does. It needs to be pointed out that the Dutch have a playing culture that everyone buys into. The U.S. doesn’t have a culture that uniquely identifies us as U.S. The English, Brazilians, Argentinians, Germans have an identifiable way of development; our’s is evolving. This may be good because what it means is that one gets a melting pot of many soccer cultures combined to create great soccer players.

I was in Florida in January and saw the U-23 and U-17 play each other. As you might expect the U-23 won easily but I came away impressed. They have 40 kids in the program comprised of multiple races and nationalities. This flies in the face of the typical demographics we see in soccer today in this country. Hopefully, this diversity is a very healthy thing for future development of soccer in our country.

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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.