Mike Soboff is the founder of TheProProject, a performance and mentorship program for professional and elite youth soccer players in the U.S. He founded TheProProject after a professional playing career in the U.S. and Israel. Mike consults with athletes, academies, and universities throughout the country in all areas of player development and holds a UEFA-B license and USATF Level 1.
Freelap USA: You have added more training to a soccer athlete to help reduce injuries—a concept that sounds paradoxical. Many kids are competing more, but you focus on preparing them with general training and adding a lot of care in managing their practices, so they are in better shape without just adding in junk minutes. Can you explain in detail why you are able to help athletes stay healthy by improving speed and strength and managing practice volumes?
Michael Soboff: Given that players come to us from various academies, schools, colleges, and professional teams with varying degrees of training experience, our starting point is always the following two questions:
- What does the individual athlete need in order to improve?
- Subsequently, how can we build what they need into their current schedule?
For us, this requires a deep understanding of a player’s goals and current abilities along with an audit of their current training, match, academic, social, and family requirements to guide how we can program in what they need in a way that augments everything else they are doing. We try to project this out several months at a time and then make micro updates for each athlete as needed.
Frequent and open communication with all of our athletes is the foundation of this and allows us to make individualized decisions within the collective group. This becomes the difference with regard to managing practice volumes and deciding when and how to dose the speed, strength, and tactical-technical work each athlete needs. They believe in the prescriptions we give because they feel a part of the decision-making process, and that is really why we are able to keep athletes healthy and developing while adding to what they do.
Freelap USA: Athlete speed without compromising fitness is tricky. I see that you spent a lot of time with speed work this summer and past winter, and their fitness improved after adjusting for speed reserve. Would you share how sprinting and weightlifting enhance durability by practicing more and why just adding laps and miles dulls speed and skill? It looks like you have high volumes of practice but are actually getting athletes faster, and endurance is also trending.
Michael Soboff: We know from the scientific and empirical evidence often shared on resources such as SimpliFaster that faster and stronger athletes have higher outputs while also having better recovery from intense bouts. Given how much the athletes we work with compete on a yearly, monthly, and weekly basis, the key for us is to maximize any periods where we can increase the volume of sprints and lifts while blending the two during denser competition phases. The scheduling work we do with each athlete allows us to efficiently plan these periods and reallocate resources when needed.
By manipulating field dimensions, number of players, and the work:rest ratios of our soccer sessions, we can always maintain or improve the aerobic/anaerobic qualities of our athletes without compromising their tactical-technical development along with their speed and strength abilities, as is often seen with distance-based running programs for soccer athletes.
Freelap USA: Athlete skill is huge in soccer, and it seems that you are able to get more out of athletes when you insert athletic development without the ball. With parents and other coaches wanting to add touches, you have spent time making sure each touch counts and improving their athleticism when not with the ball. Explain how this works.
Michael Soboff: I don’t have scientific evidence to support the following theory, but it does seem that of all the players we work with, those who move the best without the ball are also those who move the best with it, and this seems to compound over time.It does seem that of all the players we work with, those who move the best without the ball are also those who move the best with it, and this seems to compound over time, says @michaelsoboff. Click To Tweet
In order to enhance players’ athletic abilities within the context of soccer, we prioritize games and exercises, both with and without the ball, that require interactions with their environment and decision-making, always emphasizing quality and artistry of each movement and not merely the execution. Putting players in situations where they have to perform athletic actions based on ever-changing stimuli translates nicely with the addition of a ball, opponent, and rules of the game, and this works in the other direction as well.
Freelap USA: Life after and before practice matters. Kids have homework, friends, video games, and religious obligations. During the summer, kids who were focused and rested responded well, but not all kids know how to manage their life after practice. Can you share success stories of reaching those kids who simply can’t keep their life balance at the right standard?
Michael Soboff: For this, I believe that a real heart-to-heart with an athlete is the starting point, and our coaches are proactive with these conversations. As coaches/mentors, I think it is our obligation to make every attempt to understand what each individual athlete is dealing with on a personal level. It doesn’t mean that we’ll have an immediate solution, but I know I was guilty in the past of thinking in terms of “most players,” and that simply doesn’t work with a larger population.
Getting to the root of an athlete’s dreams and goals makes uncovering what stands in their way easy. It’s really an organizational necessity to strive for continuous improvement, and we try to create that environment with the players we work with as well. We’re all here trying to be better versions of who we were yesterday and to get closer to our ultimate goals. Once athletes acknowledge and are comfortable with that, the reorganization of their schedules becomes pretty straightforward.
Freelap USA: The U.S. has so much talent that seems to fall through the cracks or isn’t managed properly. Can you share the necessary steps to getting athletes better for the elite level without burning them out?
Michael Soboff: It’s a great and often-asked question that has massive scope. I certainly don’t claim to have an all-encompassing answer, but I think it is easier to invert the problem and ask what is preventing more American players from reaching the highest levels of the game. When thinking of the question in this way, two immediate ideas come to mind: First, I don’t believe that “more” is currently holding American players back or causing burnout. On the contrary, getting U.S.-based players more exposure to high-quality training and competition (athletic, tactical, technical) is really a substantial obstacle.
So, then we need to answer the questions: How do we give the players more, and what is higher quality? These can be answered by improving the collective knowledge of our soccer community within the context of the game itself AND our unique American culture. This includes but is not limited to coaches, club directors, players, parents, strength coaches, sports psychologists, trainers, and more.In U.S. soccer, we need to spend less time thinking we’ve acquired all the knowledge we need and more time collaborating to improve our ideas and references in all domains related to the game. Click To Tweet
I’ve gone through phases of acknowledging how little I know, to believing I have knowledge, to where I am now—again realizing how little I know and how much there is to learn. There are so many amazing resources to help us improve our knowledge and easy ways to connect and share ideas with each other. But as a soccer community, we need to spend less time in the phase where we think we’ve acquired all the knowledge we need and more time collaborating to improve our ideas and references in all domains related to the game. I believe this will make us more autonomous and lead to player development solutions that take into account the realities of the country and environment we live and function in, as opposed to simply trying to apply what other programs have done with completely different dynamics.
With this improved knowledge, I think we then need to commit to the natural ebbs and flows in a player’s development and guide them through these periods. Objective and long-term mentors, equipped with better objective knowledge about the game, can then truly support—and prevent burnout of—the top talent through their journey to the highest levels.
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