Mike Whiteman is the strength and conditioning coach for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Development Academy. For the past six years, he has worked to develop athleticism within a broad age range of elite soccer players from youth to professional, both males and females.
Freelap USA: Athlete speed requires fitness to leverage it later in the game. Without running more or doing circuits, how do you prepare athletes for the game outside of practice?
Mike Whiteman: In a sport that requires a high degree of technical and tactical proficiency, such as soccer, I try to utilize means that are most time-efficient and provide the biggest bang for the buck. To that end, I really like sled work for conditioning my soccer athletes because of the sled’s versatility and the myriad attributes that it develops simultaneously. The very nature of soccer is stressful to the athlete due to the high volume of agility work and the neural fatigue that accompanies it. Rapidly decelerating many times during a competition or a training session imposes a lot of eccentric loading on the soccer athlete.I really like sled work for conditioning soccer athletes because of the sled’s versatility and the myriad attributes that it develops simultaneously. Click To Tweet
Sled work then provides a way to condition, strengthen, and induce recovery simultaneously, while avoiding any extra eccentric loading. Sled work promotes concentric muscular activity, which does not elicit the same level of soreness that eccentrics do. Athletes can use sleds to strengthen the entire body through all planes of motion by pushing, pulling, and pressing them, crawling and rowing with them, and dragging them laterally. By manipulating intensity, duration, and recovery of the sled sessions, an athlete can develop aerobic or anaerobic qualities depending on the goal.
Freelap USA: Change of direction requires a lot of eccentric strength and plyometrics are great here, but what is the progression and solution for large groups? Some athletes may struggle with exercises while others may get bored because they are more skilled. What do you do?
Mike Whiteman: When I establish progressions for my teams, the needs of the group supersede those of the individual. I try to focus on what I perceive to be the aggregate need of the group. To the credit of my young athletes, they have completely bought in to the “not what we do, but how we do it” mantra. They are wise beyond their years regarding the value of a firm foundation in general physical preparedness and always maximizing the quality of their ground contact when doing speed work, hops, jumps, or bounds.To the credit of my young athletes, they have completely bought in to the ‘not what we do, but how we do it’ mantra. Click To Tweet
Through experience, I have found that integrating a competitive element into the skill work goes a long way. You can take a very simple skill like a basic broad jump and the instant you throw down a measuring tape, the training goes to a whole new level. Constantly changing the variable being challenged keeps things fresh as well. Sometimes it’s beating the stopwatch, and other times it’s who can do the most reps, last the longest, etc. With that said, I always make sure to have a few minor progressions and regressions built off the primary theme to accommodate those who excel or those who struggle, just in case.
Video 1. Young athletes in the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Development Academy perform a range of strength, speed, and mobility exercises.
Freelap USA: Athletes often do too much competition, but games are big business. How do you address the density of fixtures and what is your philosophy for managing the workload of the developing player?
Mike Whiteman: With young athletes identifying with just one sport at increasingly younger ages, overuse injuries and burnout are becoming more prevalent. Although this is not optimal for long-term athletic development, it remains a reality that must be dealt with. Managing the loading of an athlete who is both competing year-round and maturing provides a unique set of circumstances. For young athletes in their pre-teen years, volume should never be a concern and it is most important to establish proper motor patterns.Learning how to train is a process unto itself and should be treated as such. Click To Tweet
Learning how to train is a process unto itself and should be treated as such. This initial introduction to the training process should develop broad athletic concepts, be highly skill-based in nature, and, most importantly, be FUN! As the athlete matures into their early teens and becomes ready to train specifically to compete, more traditional type loading schemes are employed. Quality still supersedes quantity, but certain performance standards are closely monitored in regard to speed, strength, and fitness.
I personally prefer a variation of Westside’s conjugate approach, as traditional block periodization for an athlete who is constantly in season just isn’t pragmatic. Developing speed, power, and maximal force and focusing on raising weaknesses year-round has been very effective. A common micro cycle for an athlete coming off a weekend competition and preparing for another competition would look something like this:
Monday: Active recovery (sled work, mobility)
Tuesday: Dynamic effort squat, bench (65-80%), auxiliary, jumps, plyos, throws
Wednesday: Off (rest)
Thursday: Max effort squat, bench variation (85-90%), acceleration, core work
The highest volume is after recovery work early in the week and a quick high-intensity, low-volume session a few days prior to competition is great for keeping the nervous system sharp. Bar velocity is more important than load for the lifts and if the athletes aren’t feeling it on a particular day, we move on quickly.
Freelap USA: The U.S. has a lot of gaps due to the academy option being privatized outside of education. What do you think strength and conditioning coaches need to know in order to get more out of the time they work with athletes? Perhaps general athleticism?
Mike Whiteman: Strengthening an athlete’s weaknesses typically goes the furthest in a limited amount of time. This may seem to be counterintuitive, but addressing a young athlete’s weak points keeps them healthy and on the field. After all, there is no ability like availability.
The anterior nature of soccer lends itself to overactive hip flexors, adductors, and quads. Therefore, spending most of the time developing the muscles of the posterior such as the glutes, hamstrings, and back has proven to be excellent at not just mitigating injury, but increasing performance as well. This requires an anti-sports-specific approach to athletic development.This may seem counterintuitive, but addressing a young athlete’s weak points keeps them healthy and on the field. Click To Tweet
For an academy athlete who is maturing, you truly cannot go wrong generalizing and simplifying, particularly if requisite strength levels have not yet been attained. As an analogy, it’s as if you’re a mechanic and the athlete is a specific model of car. Every so often, that car must come in for simple maintenance to keep it running smoothly.
Freelap USA: Teaching speed requires time and effort. How long does it take for an athlete to appreciate you teaching speed rather than just training it? With athletes needing to learn how to run fast, it seems that drills and skill work may be a longer process, and this could lead to frustration for a modern athlete. How do you keep the athlete patient and focused?
Mike Whiteman: Most of the academy athletes I have encountered over the years are typically very attentive and engaged at even young ages. They understand that the process of learning is just as important as doing, and that is what typically draws young soccer athletes and their parents to our brand. Legitimately, this is what they sign up for. Development, not results, is the foundation on which both the Riverhounds Development Academy and the speed and strength program are built. Establishing habits that will yield long-term success is far more important than collecting trophies when young. In all endeavors, development begets results, and I would challenge anyone to find examples to the contrary.Establishing habits that will yield long-term success is far more important than collecting trophies when young. Click To Tweet
Specifically, I really stress to my athletes that they approach speed development as a skill. Sprinting is not running as fast as possible. It is a well-choreographed, rhythmic skill that requires a lot of practice. To develop speed properly, it should be trained in an environment with little to no fatigue.
I also challenge my athletes to be able to think critically and educate them as to why I have them train a certain way. The Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for the day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” pretty much hits the nail on the head as knowledge truly is power. To that end, always making subtle variations around foundational-type skills doesn’t just stimulate further progression, but also keeps the kids mentally engaged.
Always similar but very seldomly congruent is a great prism through which to view training. Take a standard wicket run as an example. Changing arm positions, adding light weight in different spots, moving hurdles to disrupt cadence, etc. all push progress and keep things fresh. I have found through experience that kids love to be challenged. The harder the progression, the more engaged they become.
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