By Carl Valle
“I shall either find a way or make one.”—Hannibal
The ages of 12-18 offer a tremendous opportunity for soccer players to develop as athletes. But in the US, we hardly maximize this training window. We’re struggling to close the gap with international play, which obviously has soccer skill and tactical problems, but we’re still constrained regarding physical athlete development.
As a private coach who works with soccer players, I’ve seen many different training programs fail time after time because of logistical nightmares. High school level coaches are working in the trenches, and here in the Northeast, the weather and culture pose challenges for all athletes. My coaching duties focus mainly on performance training and finding time to organize skill groups if possible, so I have a lot of bases to cover. I’m often forced to make compromises that favor player wellbeing over progressing performance. I know we can do better.The current structure for middle and high school sports isn’t cohesive enough for athlete growth, says @spikesonly. #LTAD Click To Tweet
International soccer develops talent as a business. Here in the States, though, we grow club revenues—we don’t grow value for the future. I want club and school programs to succeed, but the current middle and high school sports structure isn’t cohesive enough for athlete growth. I keep hearing the phrase long-term athletic development (LTAD), but all I see are soccer practices repeated from the past with different cone shapes and sizes.
And now the smartphone generation is making the coaching process the equivalent to Uber, where they can pick coaches like a rideshare program. While I want Coach-Up and other services to succeed with tutoring athletes and matching them with the right coaches, we still see too many tournaments designed to grow profits instead of players. For example, I consulted with one local athlete who finished a winter season sport and, within weeks, was traveling to soccer tournaments multiple times before spring track started.
I’m not a complainer; it’s my job to fix what’s broken. To explain my recommendations, however, I must share the all too common soccer culture issues here in the US. We have a fragmented club system and high school coaches who are sometimes underappreciated by parents. Athletes are forced to either seek out private coaches and get tutored and sometimes work with a strength coach in isolation. We also see plenty of amazing local coaches who are overlooked because they don’t market their knowledge and results—instead, they’re busy running programs and teaching.
And there are times when athletes need to stop all sports participation and focus on fundamental strength training. This is a mess that became my responsibility, and like every coach who works with athletes privately, we can only do damage control. What I’ve learned over the past few years are things I’m sure other coaches are facing today.
Here are the challenges I see today with soccer, specifically at the middle school and high school level.
Speed and Skills With and Without the Ball
Team coaches love speed. We need them to love speed training. As Tony Holler said, “Without sprint training, soccer breeds horrible sprint mechanics and slow runners.” Team coaches love skilled players, but private clubs cater to parents who want to see game improvements for instant gratification.
The starting point for developing speed and skill is knowing when it’s sensible to get away from the ball and game and focus on skills relating to soccer. A few years ago, I mentored an athlete who was caught in a vicious cycle of injury and pain because he was spending more time in tournaments than preparing for them. Nobody wanted to hear the words stop playing, including some sports medicine professionals linked to the club. The story didn’t end in tragedy, but his career likely ended earlier than expected because he lost passion for the game.
I bring this up because, in the Northeast, I’ve seen many athletes break down from playing on hard indoor surfaces. Because futsal is similar to soccer, players and parents are misled into thinking that playing a different form of soccer helps with LTAD and counts as playing the game. The issue is not whether they should play futsal. The real talking point is how many total games and practices is realistic for youth sports in general, regardless of the sport or mix of sports.
This past winter I observed a program that invested nearly all of their soccer training time in athletic development and exercises that one would do in gym class. Nobody else had the courage or awareness to do what was right for the athletes except that program. For nearly 90 minutes, the athletes spent time doing athletic development and improving coordination with very little work on typical game skills. It looked like a lot of track drills—typical physical education movements we’re all familiar with. Their coach coached his heart out, kept the repetitions appropriately high, and instructed the players on how to move better.
Many coaches are moving away from drills, but it’s not about teaching athletes how to run better later, it’s how to do more athletically with patterns that have relevance in the long run. Teaching is about knowing what you need and getting the athlete to do it without compromise: no hiding and no smoke and mirrors instead of real athlete development. Accountability is everything for athletes, and there are programs out there that do invest in athletic development for their youth.
Random training produces random results. And while I like a little chaos to challenge learning, too much becomes junk reps in a blender. I can’t count on random games looted from PE books when athletes find themselves in high school or college. My philosophy is that sprinting is like reading: you’re never too old to learn and, while it’s harder to make changes later, giving up is not acceptable. Even an athlete near retirement can make a small change worth fighting for. It’s easy to say “keep them healthy,” but if you don’t find ways to refine the process as athletes grow, they’ll keep repeating the same mechanics that don’t help them improve movement.
Game Speed Is Tactical Track Speed
Let’s talk about speed on the field versus what we see watching the Olympics. I’ve worked with athletes who were always fast but struggled with injuries because they ran tight and raw. I started an organized speed program with a few athletes in the offseason. They not only got faster, but their fitness also skyrocketed, as they ran better during fitness training. One athlete, who at first struggled to finish a conditioning program, set a conditioning record after college. He had worked over the years to handle 90 plus minutes while getting faster. I never thought I would be the guy who could hang with the endurance guys. And I learned the hard way that being fit helps reduce injuries only if speed is there. Working harder longer is no guarantee that you won’t also sustain a pull or tear.
During a game, not every sprint runs in a straight line. I get that. We can tame and transform the ability to run fast globally with multi-directional work on the field. Linear speed raises the ceiling for what an athlete can do sport-wise. When an athlete is fast on the track, exposure to games, practices, and movements elevates what they can do on the field.When an athlete is fast on the track, exposure to games, practices, and movements elevates what they can do on the field, says @spikesonly. #gamespeed Click To Tweet
While the NFL is a faster game, even the combine has controversy, especially about what will translate to the field. My response is simple: keep testing general speed and do a better job measuring speed on film with context to the sport. We can take the same approach with soccer, as advanced tracking and video applications like Dartfish can solve the mysteries of field speed and track speed.Keep testing general speed and do a better job measuring speed on film with context to your sport, says @spikesonly. #gamespeed Click To Tweet
The hardest part of speed development in general is making it a priority every session. This would mean not going hard in practice and giving the athletes time off. In soccer, however, not practicing and keeping workouts easy and short will only groom fast athletes who lack stamina and skills—not better players.
The compromise is giving up some speed growth. Speed coaches must accept that the ability to pass and control the ball is a necessary part of the sport. I’d like to note that the best way to learn from track and field is to avoid the subject of misfiring, which brings trouble to the sport. Track and field is a wonderful sport, but even pure events can get caught up with esoteric information. Sprinting is not complex, but it’s also not “just sprint and turn left” as some have claimed.
I recommend learning from dozens of sprint coaches who spend their autumns coaching soccer or American football. A speed or performance coach who is also a team sport coach quickly learns what works in the real world as opposed to someone who may not have skin in the skills game. You can also read the posts by Noah Kaminsky, Hunter Charneski, and Mario Gomez.
Start with the Basics When Monitoring
Monitoring is often seen as overzealous sport science or something to do when training is limited. I agree that we may be too fixated on getting data. But if we’re using it to train harder and smarter and it’s not cumbersome, what’s the big deal? Looking at the market for athlete monitoring systems (AMS), it’s clear that everyone has a wellness questionnaire. And some strength training programs have added a survey so they can claim that they’re providing athlete monitoring.
Although some AMS companies have pulled API data from common team systems, such as GPS data and heart rate measurements, kids need to learn the ratings of perceived exertion (RPE). I hated reading the RPE research when I was in college because it was dry and not very compelling. That was a mistake. We need to explain effort to athletes so they can calibrate pacing and know when something isn’t right during practice, even if they don’t write down RPE or input it in their phones.Athletes need to understand #RPE so they can calibrate #pacing and know when something isn't right when playing, says @spikesonly. #AMS Click To Tweet
I would rather a kid remember feeling fresh for sprints and the discomfort of conditioning tests early in their development rather than having individual GPS units and reading their heat maps when they’re more developed. The technologist in me loves objective information, but anyone in sports needs to remember that character development starts with honest dialogue, not just biofeedback.
After developmental athletes learn RPE, it makes sense to add a short survey so they can extend their lessons regarding effort on the pitch compared to effort off it.
We see a lot of #injuries with young athletes that likely result from under-recovery, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The hardest part of sport is instilling sacrifice, and that means making choices that are not fun in the short run. Sleep, nutrition, and stress management are lifestyle choices, not talent measures. My best friend, who was the best assistant coach I have ever had, helped me come up with the time pyramid, and it still works after decades.
We started the time pyramid in the early 2000s after we noticed kids getting small illnesses during heavy testing periods and remembered our own sleep challenges as athletes on the same high school team. I’ve learned that sport is a very selfish endeavor, and you have to prioritize sleep and academics first, then add sport and social activities. Kids today are so focused on the social side of life, they compromise their sleep. We see a lot of injuries that likely result from under-recovery, not because kids did not play Duck Duck Goose as kids.
After learning from subjective interactions during practice from monitoring, we can start focusing on data rather than dialogue. Simple ways to start are looking at attendance records and wellness questionnaires if they’re dedicated. And I like speed and jumping tests for shock value. The record, rank, and publish momentum is great, but keep in mind that times and distances are results, not processed information.
It’s fine to add physiological monitoring and player tracking at the high school level, but remember the monitoring platform is only as effective as the foundational lessons taught early. Some talented kids will always run faster than a less talented athlete who puts in the work. But if a gifted kid sees their gap narrow because they’re not improving, they may wake up. Not all athletes are reachable, though, and even the best athlete whisperer can come up empty. Who knows, maybe repeatedly giving honest feedback will turn a kid around. And keep in mind that when coaches are worried about keeping stars happy, things may turn ugly down the road.
Transforming Testing into Training
If you don’t do basic testing, you’re doing your athletes a disservice. I encourage every team soccer coach to have their own speed and jump testing equipment in the back of their SUV with the balls and cones. While it’s not a secret that individual skill is everything in soccer, some athletes are too slow to make plays as the game advances. If you don’t test speed, parents, coaches, and athletes will remain stuck in the false belief that an athlete is fast when they’re just a big fish in a small pond.
During the winter training, we hammer the value of speed as much as possible. Just the act of measuring is a big step forward. Athletes will simply run faster when they are timed, regardless of the program employed. I don’t care if you use one system versus another, testing speed frequently equals better workouts. And better training transforms into better performance down the road.Take care not to crush the hearts of young athletes who spend Februaries looking at MLS and NFL combine numbers, says @spikesonly. #athletetesting Click To Tweet
Jump testing. I do standing broad jumps for distance, which is easy even if you have to modify landings. Jumping for height requires some equipment. You can use the apps or JustJump. And be careful not to crush the hearts of young athletes who spend their Februaries looking at MLS and NFL combine numbers.
Remember that hopping is a huge skill that is rarely tested. Test as many types of jumps and hops as you can, including repeated jumps and bounds. An athlete can improve their vertical height from a steady diet of jumping exercises, or just get stronger and see changes. I care about fluency and comfort with bouncing, skipping, bounding, and even prancing, if needed.
Conditioning tests. Although conditioning tests can involve anything, the best measure is an athlete’s game speed at the end of a match. Inexpensive online video apps are affordable, and you can see exactly how fast an athlete is by using the velocity features. By all means, do a beep test or a conditioning test of choice, but make sure you see what happens in a game when wins and losses are on the line. Often willpower—not metabolic power—matters. Athletes need to be tested only a few times a year for conditioning, and it’s important first to see how practices are working; it’s only necessary to test game fitness when they are competing. As for practices, athletes need to be prepared with speed and strength and build up slowly.
Strength Training: Learn to Be Adaptable
I love the weight room, mainly because dedicating so much time in it as an athlete made me relevant. My program came from a strange cocktail of bodybuilding magazines, movie montage workouts, and dry land swimming exercises, but I improved. Soccer in the US does have one advantage—Americans love weight training and gyms. The number of training facilities is off the charts, and with CrossFit increasing the popularity of barbell training, we see more soccer athletes aware of strength training. The problem nobody has a grasp on is how great or how poor the training is. The only transparent information we have comes mostly from Instagram highlights of athletes who look like they’re training.
If you come from a speed and power program, you’ll have a rude awakening when you start a program for soccer athletes from the ground up, especially if the youth programs did no strength training. Now, a lot of great youth programs are attacking the problem with solid training.
If you’re going to build a strength training program, fight for gym time. Many coaches invest in flywheels, kettlebells, sandbags, and medicine balls for on-field training, which is a good solution for those who don’t have a facility. And I’ve seen plenty of tents propped up so kids can train. Bodyweight training, including partnered exercises, are also great.When an athlete enters a gym, things change. Goals change. Attitudes change. Expectations change, says @spikesonly. #strengthtraining Click To Tweet
But when an athlete enters a gym, things change. Goals change. Attitudes change. Expectations change. Best of all, having an actual ceiling makes a difference to athletes who need a place to call home that’s off the pitch. Access to a gym, or allowing an athlete to work with another coach following an agreed upon program, is better than dealing with compromised programming and constantly feeling like a drifter. John Garrish discussed building a high school strength program in a Freelap Friday Five, and Nick Garcia posted about simple ways to apply velocity based training with high school athletes.
Now for programming. Because gripping a bar makes all the difference, start as soon as possible so athletes know where they need to go. You don’t need to clean, deadlift, bench press, or even squat to be a great player. We all know that. But when you create barriers to modalities, expectations are likely to lower the standard of what athletes can accomplish with hard work.
I’ve spent time with a few athletes who learned to snatch a good percentage of their body weight over time because they knew what was possible from sharing their time and space with division one football. For all the criticisms of NCAA football, remember it has the opposite problem where too much training leads to injuries.
Coaches who don’t provide enough training need to understand that their athletes don’t need to be monsters in the weight room and that walking lunges with training plates is not the answer. I don’t care how you program, but consider this: In three years, regardless of whether an athlete is still training with you, did you instill a vision of hammering out loads that will transfer and protect them?
One NBA strength coach who received the coach of the year award taught me the value of the “drip method.” He ensured that every time he was in the weight room, his athletes hammered low repetition and high-intensity exercise like their life depended on it. Not all athletes came in, but if you can manage to get your athletes in, avoid babying them. Weak-mindedness and poor training habits are contagious. And as soon as one athlete becomes way too conservative and pretends, they poison the well. With 52 weeks in a year, getting 76-92 lifting sessions is not a lofty goal when you demand it. It may not happen in your first season, but after a few years, the culture will rise from athlete awareness about what the plan is to their needing to be their best.Explaining a good training plan to your athletes creates enormous buy-in, says @spikesonly. #strengthtraining Click To Tweet
Another NBA strength coach, Chris Chase, made a wonderful point about having a plan and sharing with your athlete the expectations of what happens after you implement the plan. While gamification and some motivational charm help, explaining your training plan to your athletes creates an enormous buy-in. Trust needs to be earned, and sharing your plan early in the process is better than hoping an athlete will fall in love with the weight room overnight.
Putting the Puzzle Together
Here comes the punchline. The analogy of putting pieces together to form a puzzle may be overplayed, but it makes sense. If you’re a private coach, your job is to fill in the gaps of the puzzle by either finding the right piece or knowing how to make your own. Too many times you have to accept a gap will remain, but at least it will be smaller and most pieces will be in there.
Every morning, I make calls to physical therapists, team coaches, strength coaches, parents, agents, and the athletes I am hoping to help. It’s a long day, sometimes getting home at 11 pm after a night session. I am immensely passionate about helping the game I was terrible at as a kid. And I know that if I’m going to be part of putting the US back on track, it’s not going to be from sitting on the sidelines complaining. You don’t need to train a horde of soccer players, I don’t work with clubs or teams, but you can make a difference by helping a few athletes who need guidance in the right direction. Soccer is a sport that I now enjoy, and while I am not a fitness coach or high-performance manager, the work I do brings me great joy.