As the saying goes, the only constant is change itself. Change merely for the sake of change is foolish; innovation as the result of new information and acquired experience, on the other hand, is the foundation of progress in any field. This requires both curiosity and humility. Having a genuinely inquisitive mind and a steadfast desire to get it right—as opposed to being right—have largely served me well.
Looking back and reflecting, I now find brutish and downright cringeworthy much of what I valued when I first began my coaching journey. The process is always incomplete, and God willing, I will be saying this same exact thing 15 years from now in reference to current training practices. Throughout this entire process, efficiency has been the one steady, driving influence. Getting more from less has led me to omit more than add: distilling training down to what is necessary and nothing more has led to broad shifts in my views on the fundamentals of athleticism and how they specifically relate to soccer.Distilling training down to what is necessary and nothing more has led to broad shifts in my views on the fundamentals of athleticism and how they specifically relate to soccer, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Quite simply, soccer players must play soccer to get better at playing soccer. Consequently, this has forced me to adopt a supplemental approach to performance work in developing attributes that soccer players would otherwise not acquire through play alone to ensure athletic balance and, ultimately, long-term sustainability. This requires constantly confronting ability as opposed to inability and progressing or regressing accordingly.
As a result, I am constantly reminding myself that my athletes’ immediate needs care not about my predetermined plans for them. For instance, well-planned speed work after an impromptu technical training session earlier in the day often means quickly pivoting to a less-stressful alternative, such as power or strength. Higher performance then comes as the natural by-product of aggressively pursuing health. As a result, these are how my thoughts on speed, power, and strength have evolved over time, with changes in my beliefs specifically on agility and conditioning likely warranting an entire article of their own.
Soccer is primarily an acceleration-based sport—only very infrequently do soccer athletes have the opportunity to truly demonstrate top-end speed within the natural confines of a game or training. In my coaching infancy, I leaned heavily on nothing but acceleration development as a result: starts from different angles, resisted accelerations with mixed loads, and med balls were my favorite tools.
This was effective…but only to a point.
Athletes would quickly improve and just as quickly stagnate. Over time, building a more holistic approach to speed by including traditional maximum velocity work with timed flys, wickets, and floating sprints has contributed to more consistent, continued speed development. In fact, despite being counterintuitive, more maximum velocity and less acceleration has shown to be most effective at improving speed with the soccer athletes I have worked with.
I believe this is in large part due to an athlete’s need for a constant, subtle variance to sustain improvement regardless of desired adaptation. Soccer athletes accelerate frequently in training and in games, and staying true to the narrative of supplemental skill development, max velocity work provides the necessary outlet to liberate growth, as it is similar enough but not completely congruent.
Top-end speed teaches soccer players how to sustain momentum and rhythm. Doing so necessitates a more efficient acceleration to achieve max velocity. Also, it is important to note that what initially allowed me to stumble upon this revelation was, in fact, the pursuit of greater health. Attempting to push back at clichéd Nordics for injury prevention, I began doing fly-in wickets with an emphasis on coordination under velocity from about 30 to 60 yards to inoculate hamstrings under more realistic conditions. Without fail, after two- to three-week mesocycles of top-end speed emphasis, acceleration times would improve. As it stands, for every acceleration-based session, I also do 2–3 max velocity sessions for the soccer athletes I train.
As it relates to rate of force development, my initial training inclinations mirrored that of a traditional strength and conditioning template designed for a skill-position football athlete. To be clear, this was wildly successful at developing performance for soccer athletes both youth and pro alike, because it filled a glaring strength and power hole that existed in the athletic repertoire of most soccer players.
For individuals who were inherently agile and fit because of the specific demands of the game, integrating basic progressive overload with a barbell via back squats, front squats, deadlifts, and cleans went a very long way. Analogous to speed, however, this was only effective to a point. Time and experience then gradually led me to question the overly vertical nature of those previously mentioned movements, as well as the singular response nature of well-known power tests such as the vertical jump.I began to value efforts that demonstrated an athlete’s ability to sustain HORIZONTAL movement as a better barometer of relevant athleticism for soccer, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Soccer is primarily horizontal—and certainly more continuous than football—so I began to value efforts that demonstrated an athlete’s ability to sustain horizontal movement, such as consecutive broad jumps, alternating bounds, and even the flying sprints as a better barometer of the relevant athleticism for soccer. Currently, to better develop horizontal displacement, I gravitate to sleds, hills, bleachers, and plyos for distance more than their “up and down” power cousins.
Perhaps my biggest philosophical change has come regarding my view on strength as it relates to soccer. As stated above in reference to power, my initial training templates looked very similar to something that would be effective for a skill-position football athlete, which in turn meant a disproportionate amount of absolute strength development. Again, at first great, but lacking the nuance necessary for better sustainability in soccer. In the beginning, there were two important distinctions between soccer and football that I failed to account for:
- First and foremost, soccer is continuous, and football is start-stop. This creates the biggest difference between soccer and football: soccer is a contact sport, and football is a collision sport. In fact, this puts football in a league of its own, even when compared with other very physical sports such as rugby and hockey.
- The continuous, flowing nature of soccer mitigates forces upon impact with other players. The start-stop nature of football lends itself to far more violent collisions. Quite simply, the actual mass of a football player is more valuable than that of a soccer player. If velocity is then considered, we arrive at momentum—which is defined as mass multiplied by velocity (p=mv). Momentum matters in all sports because it takes into account both size and speed, but in my estimation, it is more important for a football athlete because of the direct role added mass plays in allowing an athlete to both deliver and handle violent collisions more effectively.
- The second fairly obvious distinction I failed to factor in was the innate fitness differences directly reflected in the total duration of play and the distances traveled, and as a result, the slightly muted intensities for a field player in soccer when contrasted with a football player. Field players in soccer play a continuous 90 minutes that requires both offensive and defensive responsibilities.
- I recognize that in youth football many players do play offense, defense, and special teams, but for the most part, as a football athlete rises in competition level, they likely specialize in either offense or defense. Added mass to a soccer athlete can become a burden throughout the entirety of a game, so the trick is building a bigger engine without changing the mass of the chassis for a soccer athlete.
Over time, the natural correction of the two initial oversights regarding the mass of an athlete and the intensity-duration relationship of the two games has led me to greatly value relative strength much more so than absolute strength. Relative strength demonstrates how effectively an athlete can move their own body weight, favoring the velocity part of the momentum equation with an intrinsic fitness quality as well. Specifically, I have yet to encounter an athlete who has improved their relative strength metrics and simultaneously got less fit. Yes, the concession is absolute top-end power, and that is quite all right.Efficiency is everything to me, so developing multiple attributes with limited exercises is optimal, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
I prefer soccer players to be a “jack of all trades” as opposed to a “master of one” when considering all athletic qualities. For a track and field analogy, I liken the more diverse athletic attributes needed for soccer athletes to the skill sets necessary for heptathletes and decathletes. Building absolute strength will always be necessary, but the frequency of top-end strength sessions and the intensities within those sessions are now much lower than when I first began. I now build more around calisthenics exercises such as chin-ups, pistols, and dips, while squatting and deadlifting slightly less has ironed out the subtle differences necessary to better meet the mass-energy needs. To this point, it is very important to note that calisthenics should not be so quickly dismissed as a subordinate option to weighted resistance, as they successfully marry relative strength with both core stability and flexibility.
As stated earlier, efficiency is everything to me, so developing multiple attributes with limited exercises is optimal. For instance, as proficiency grows beyond a standard of 10 pistol squats, 10 chin-ups (full hang), and 20 strict push-ups (full lockout), advancing into concepts such as L-sits, muscle ups, planches, front levers, handstands, and dragon flags, etc. is necessary to push intensity as opposed to volume. Completely analogous to the Olympic lifts, there is still great value in even regressed variations and derivatives of these movements, and it truly is relative to the ability and willingness of the individual athlete to expand their skill set. This does not mean I am suggesting soccer players become gymnasts, but rather that there are ways to achieve more desirable, nuanced strength beyond that of a barbell and dumbbell.
Reflection and Revision
Performance training for soccer athletes is truly a unique puzzle. The diverse athletic skill set combined with a demanding intensity-duration relationship means there is much to be prepared for. I have been actively trying to refine this process for the past decade and a half, so hopefully this has provided insight into what I currently find most effective and, more importantly, how it came to be.
Years of daily reflection, on both objective data and subjective markers, have driven constant, subtle corrections that over time have led to larger philosophical changes. The trick is remaining patient and resisting the urge to do too much too fast.Years of daily reflection, on both objective data and subjective markers, have driven constant, subtle corrections that over time have led to larger philosophical changes, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
The origins, albeit suboptimal, may be good starting points in themselves for those looking to begin, as I would be foolish to dismiss what has brought me to this point. I do vehemently implore you that, when dealing with your athletes—particularly the youngest—you aggressively pursue health first by supplementing what they are lacking. In doing so, performance will organically follow.
Lead photo by Justin Berl/Icon Sportswire.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF