By Eric Udelson
As a former collegiate soccer player at Boston University, I have gained significant experience with various modes of human enhancement, whether it was becoming proficient in the weight room, developing aerobic fitness, or even enhancing my skills with the ball that directly translated to the soccer field. Beginning in high school, I became fascinated with seeing the fruits of my labor on the field and then further, the physiological processes behind these adaptations that separated adequate athletes from dominant, elite ones. The field of human enhancement excites me. With this article, I hope to share some of the perspective and insights I gained from my experience with high-level athletics.
Even a Stumble Can Be a First Step Forward
A crucial part of my journey into the world of human performance was my transition away from my previous passion of physical therapy. As everyone knows, college is a time to decide which field you will devote your studies (and life) to, which is, of course, a daunting decision. While at BU, I knew I had a real interest in human physiology, so I decided to enroll in the Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, majoring in PT.
Throughout the rest of undergrad, I took mostly generic health classes, such as human anatomy and health care policy, as well as some chemistry and physics courses. However, it wasn’t until I began with the professional Doctor of Physical Therapy graduate program in the summer of 2018 that I began to have reservations concerning my potential career choice. I soon realized that I was not totally certain that I wanted to be a PT, which made the 10-hour study days especially miserable.
Of course, it was a very low feeling to have put such a colossal effort toward the demanding classes and ultimately not receive the degree at the end. However, I felt it was time to chase something that I was truly passionate about—merging my appreciation of human physiology with my love for athletics. Now, instead of focusing primarily on injury recovery, I could direct my efforts toward athletic enhancement.
Although I did not earn a degree from the DPT program at BU, I left bolstered by an advanced knowledge of human anatomy both in terms of nomenclature and in a functional sense, which can be directly applied to the human performance world. Additionally, in learning about musculoskeletal pathology as a strength and conditioning professional or sports scientist, I can be especially aware of appropriate levels of volume or intensity to push an exercise, workout, or even entire program. Besides an awareness of appropriate workload, I can more easily make corrections on potentially harmful techniques that may put unnecessary stress on vulnerable tissues. At any rate, I am now in a field that I am truly passionate about and I’m eager to see where it takes me.
The Transition from Rehabilitation to Performance
One aspect of human performance that has always fascinated me is how the body handles certain workloads for certain schedules, as I endured periods of immense volume as a Division 1 soccer player at BU. From a relatively early age, around 13 years old, I began to take soccer very seriously and implemented a strict training schedule. From that point on, having a structured schedule for the week with only one day off and sometimes multiple sessions per day enabled me to surpass other players who had previously been superior to me based solely on talent. I truly became a grinder, and it’s always a welcome feeling to have absolute confidence that your competitors are not putting in the same quantity or quality of training as you are on a weekly basis.
With this consistent schedule, I was able to develop extra sharpness and assurance in my technical ability, which ultimately allowed me to get recruited to BU and be an important player for the team for all four seasons of my eligibility. Specifically, my weekly routine fluctuated based on the period of the season, but even now, as I am in season with Boston Bolts USL2 team, I make sure to get in individual sessions in addition to our team training sessions so I can maintain extra sharpness. Of course, while in season with multiple games per week, it is crucial to monitor your volume and take honest self-assessments of how your body feels. However, there are ways to still do quality individual work without producing enough fatigue to cause performance decrements in the more important team sessions in which you are trying to earn or maintain a starting spot.There are ways to still do quality individual work without producing enough fatigue to cause performance decrements in the more important team sessions. Click To Tweet
For instance, the normal weekly schedule for our team these past few weeks is team training sessions on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, with games on Wednesday and Saturday. Directly before driving over to our training facility, my strategy has been to go to a different field for 20-30 minutes. During this time, I can get in an extra warm-up and make sure my body is ready to go at full capacity.
I also work on my first touch, dribbling, and passing skills while being mindful not to burn myself out before the team session. I make sure to work on both right-footed and left-footed passes against a wall, which allows me to involve directional first touch work as well. Then I move on to close-control dribbling drills with quick cutting at about 90% intensity. Ideally, by the end of this pre-session work, I will get a decent sweat without feeling heavy or lethargic. When it is time for the team session, I feel sharp from a technical skill standpoint as well as in a neuromuscular sense, meaning I feel like I’m moving smoother—getting in and out of space quicker with more fluidity.
This sort of excess work—whether it’s extra sessions to improve skills, physical attributes, or extra recovery—becomes all-important when making the jump from high school to college athletics. Possibly the largest difference between the two is the respective schedules. Crucially, if a college team’s staff has spent time and effort recruiting a player and possibly awarding them a scholarship, the expectation is that when the player arrives at the college or university, they will plan their daily schedules around their obligations as a Division 1 athlete. Depending on which period the athlete is in—meaning preseason, in-season, or off-season—they will have to find time to lift, participate in team training, and get in conditioning work all in the same day.Excess work—whether extra sessions to improve skills, physical attributes, or extra recovery—becomes all-important when making the jump from high school to college athletics. Click To Tweet
During the preseason, the training volume and intensity is extremely high, with players eager to make the best first impression they can. In-season volumes completely depend on whether the given athlete is an impact player who must be relied on to play 90 minutes in games or a bench player. In the latter case, they would replace the lack of volume from games with excess work in the gym or conditioning work. The off-season directly after the season begins with general conditioning work to simply maintain fitness, but then as preseason edges closer, volumes and intensities increase. Either way, the college schedule is far more demanding and structured than high school.
Evolving from High School to Division 1 Sports
During my transition, I found that there was a stark difference between high school and college soccer regarding the physicality and sheer competitiveness of the game. This can be explained by a multitude of reasons.
First, the average player at the Division 1 level has vastly greater athleticism than the average high school player. This means that you instantly go up against opponents who are stronger, faster, and more skilled—meaning the only way to survive is to adjust to the pace. You have to be ready to evade or hold off a potentially much stronger opponent breathing down your neck.
With this increase in the speed of the game, there also becomes a requirement for increased awareness on the field. In other words, you can no longer receive the ball then make your next decision. Instead, you have to have awareness of the next play before receiving the ball so as not to get tackled and lose possession, possibly costing your team in the process.
Another major difference between college and high school soccer is the introduction of resistance training. In a sport like soccer, where weightlifting is not necessarily paramount to performance—especially for youth players—most athletes have not participated in a consistent, structured resistance-training program before arriving at college.Most athletes haven’t participated in a consistent, structured resistance-training program before arriving at college. This lack of experience creates a great opportunity for maximal gains. Click To Tweet
This lack of experience creates an excellent opportunity for maximal gains. Sure enough, at least judging from my experience at BU, there is a consistent pattern of freshman soccer players gaining at least 10 pounds of muscle from the beginning to the end of the season. Consistent commitment to a new schedule meant major gains in strength and power, which helped me immensely with my development and performance. However, you must be mindful of putting the body under too much load for the first time because it could increase the risk of injury.
Learning to Lift Like an Athlete
Being introduced to strength and conditioning during my freshman year on the team at BU gave me a real appreciation for a completely new type of training. Previously, all my focus had been on skill work and aerobic fitness, but I soon found out that I would have to do some serious work in the gym to match the strength and speed of much older opponents. We would normally lift 2-3 times on a weekly basis, most of which was lower extremity work. Our strength and conditioning coach involved all of the basic multi-joint exercises like back squat and trap bar deadlift, combined with some single leg work like split squats and RFEs. Additionally, we worked through Olympic-type lifts like hang cleans and dumbbell snatches.
Early on, as for any novice in strength training, it was about mastering technique before adding more load to the lifts. The hang clean, in particular, was a very difficult skill for me to learn. Over the course of a few weeks, my motor skills gradually improved and I became at least proficient and could add additional load.
After being subjected to this new stimulus of resistance training, I saw major improvements in my athletic ability that manifested on the soccer field. First, I felt bigger and more powerful. I could hold off opponents who had previously been much stronger, and I could throw my weight around more than before.
My gains in strength made me physically more effective, but they paid dividends from a psychological standpoint as well. Crucially, before being subjected to a strength-training program, I had felt like a boy running around with men four years older than me. This unquestionably affected my aggression and I could not help hesitating when going into a challenge against a much bigger, older opponent. It was only after an entire year of resistance training that I was psychologically able to be fearless and much more aggressive in my defense as I was now confident in my athletic abilities relative to my opponents.
Additionally, it is very likely that my consistent commitment to resistance training since my freshman year on BU soccer has served a large role in preventing injuries. My weekly schedule in and out of season involves a large amount of volume and pounding on my tissues, so it is important that those tissues are strong enough to withstand the stress. Similarly, making sure to prevent large strength imbalances in opposing muscles likely played a part in preventing injuries as well. For instance, this could take the form of consistently involving hamstring work so as not to create a potentially dangerous imbalance of quadriceps to hamstring strength.Although gains in strength and power were necessary for my development and transition into the college game, it is aerobic conditioning that is king. Click To Tweet
However, although gains in strength and power were necessary for my development and transition into the college game, it is aerobic conditioning that is king when it comes to the beautiful game. The ability to outlast your opponents and still have the energy to execute quick, powerful movements makes all the difference. Furthermore, as much as fitness level can have an invaluable impact for soccer players, it can also have a massive negative effect if a player doesn’t possess adequate fitness.
For instance, if it’s the dying minutes of the match and even one out of 11 players on the field simply cannot sprint back because they are out of breath or their legs are gone, that play could lead to a goal, which could ultimately decide the result of that game and possibly the season. Other than the ability to still execute powerful movements late in games, a solid fitness level can produce sharpness of thought. At any given moment in a match, a player has hundreds of decisions to make, especially at the higher levels in which, as mentioned before, a player must make their decision before they receive the ball. Therefore, feeling fresh late in the game can help a player remain clear-headed and make significant decisions quickly.
Fitness Is More Than Practicing the Game
My aerobic capacity was something I took immense pride in early on, even before I developed a fascination with human performance. It’s possible that, genetically, I began slightly ahead of others, but just like seeing real improvements with resistance training, it is about maintaining a consistent schedule for a course of at least several weeks. Besides maintaining basic fitness, I looked to about two months before pre-season to begin developing my fitness so I could score as high as possible on our fitness tests, namely the Yo-Yo Intermittent Test. Essentially, my routine would involve three conditioning sessions to go along with my lifts each week for the first few weeks and then aim to progress to four sessions per week while steadily increasing the difficulty of the individual conditioning exercises. I stuck diligently to this schedule, and because of my commitment, I was able to have the top score on the Yo-Yo test each preseason that I was at BU.
Throughout my training period, I engaged in various methods of developing aerobic fitness, including treadmill workouts, gassers from sideline to sideline, and 150s, so as to create specificity towards the Yo-Yo test during preseason. Regarding specificity, it was always important for me when developing my conditioning to try to simulate movement specific to soccer. This means that the fitness drills would always be high-intensity interval work, mostly involving some sort of cutting, as this is what would be required when enduring a 90-minute match.
Appreciating Rest and Recovery After College
One additional modality that I have used for conditioning is pool workouts. However, I used them for a different purpose than the other aforementioned conditioning methods. I have found that pool workouts are excellent for maintaining conditioning while completely removing the pounding on the joints and muscles. So far, I have utilized pool workouts on the days after a demanding game for the purpose of recovery. That way, I can maintain my fitness levels while not adding more unnecessary volume onto my legs.
Keeping with the topic of recovery, I have learned through the years that performance levels are not completely determined by putting in hours of hard work and becoming as powerful and fit as possible. Overall health can also determine a massive aspect of performance, which can lend itself to better abilities on the field and promote better recovery. Recently, I have been monitoring my health, as well as completing blood tests to examine various biomarkers. From these tests I have gathered what I need to change in order to optimize my own performance.
The two main deficits were my sleep and my level of vitamin D, both being crucial enough to potentially lead to performance decrements. In an attempt to improve my sleep, I have limited the use of electronics right before I plan to go to bed and I simply turn out the lights earlier in the night. Hopefully, this will aid my recovery and give my tissues more opportunity to rest and repair.
Regarding the vitamin D deficiency, I have been taking supplements for a few weeks now and plan to stay on a consistent schedule. I hope to see an improved figure on my next blood test. As you may know, vitamin D plays an important part in muscle contraction as well as bone health, so you can imagine that it is vital for an athlete in season, which is why I am focused on correcting this deficiency.
Invest in Your Training and the Return Is Infinite
In this day and age with elite athletics, the margin between impressive athletes and world-record beaters is tremendously small. It ultimately comes down to who takes advantage of objective science to support their training, as opposed to essentially guessing at which methods provide desirable results. We see now that elite athletes all try to take advantage of the latest, most intricate technology with the hope of giving themselves some sort of a competitive advantage.The margin between impressive athletes and world-record beaters is very small. It ultimately comes down to who takes advantage of objective science to support their training. Click To Tweet
This cultural shift necessitates that inventive sports scientists and trainers push the boundaries of what has already been discovered, and this is what excites me the most about entering the field. Equipped with my background in physical therapy and my experience with high-level athletics at BU, I hope that I can make a difference in the sports science world. At the very least, I’d like to give the athletes I work with the best opportunity to optimize their performance.