In an increasingly impatient society that’s continually searching for instant gratification, it’s easy to chase results at the expense of the process. As it relates to youth soccer, this often means investing a disproportionate amount of time and energy into participating in a seemingly endless cycle of ID camps, college showcases, and random futsal tournaments while neglecting the underlying technical, tactical, and physical foundation that must be in place. With more attention now being paid to long-term athletic development (LTAD), most parents and athletes are aware of this, but feel pressured into keeping up with the Jones’. After all, development with no competition or exposure doesn’t put an athlete on a top college coach’s radar or get them a professional trial.
Admittedly, the risks of putting the cart before the horse or toiling in anonymity are both less than optimal. So, what’s best if development and results appear to be at odds with one another? I’m here to argue it’s not about putting your eggs in one basket or the other but distributing them accordingly at the appropriate time. For years as the strength and conditioning coach for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds Development Academy (RDA), I’ve witnessed time and again the power of a highly refined, nuanced approach that promotes development without devaluing competition and early success.
A thoughtful, structured approach for long-term development checks the appropriate boxes at the appropriate times. This is a critical distinction, as the timing is arguably the most important part of the process. The timing is far from one-size-fits-all either. When dealing with a young athlete’s maturity, personality and individual psychology are huge components. Some athletes are just ready to progress quicker than others and that’s great, but it’s very important to be aware that young athletes should dictate their own pace and not have it dictated to them by a coach.A thoughtful, structured approach for LTAD checks the appropriate boxes at the appropriate times. The timing is arguably the most important part of the process, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
As a result, it’s necessary to foster an environment that can quickly adapt to progress or regress an individual athlete’s needs and still be able to express majority rule by doing what is best for a team. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s a constant work in progress. Truly, sometimes failure must come before success. The payoff in the end is well worth it and embracing the process, as opposed to fixating on results, has yielded tremendous success for our RDA athletes to the tune of multiple U.S. Club National titles, five All-Americans (four female, one male) in the past three years, and alumni at top programs across the ACC, Big Ten, Big East, and A-10.
More Strength, More Skill, Better Skill
Strength wins at all ages, but it is probably most evident at the earliest stages of development, as the disparity between those who have strength and those who don’t is most apparent. Whether through natural physiology or training adaptation, the difference between an early bloomer and a late bloomer can be glaring. Regardless of how strength is achieved, the strongest athlete is typically also the fastest and, in most cases, the most coordinated as well. This is most likely because, before adulthood, strength is more about inter- and intra-muscular coordination and proper motor unit recruitment than the size of a young athlete’s muscle.
Strength then provides an important motor link to desirable on-field attributes such as enhanced skill and speed by developing high levels of self-awareness and body control at lower velocities. At the youngest ages, the name of the game is relative strength. Mastery of body weight and expressions of that mastery through running, jumping, landing, twisting, and throwing are a must first, and only then, as young athletes mature and earn the right through proper progressions, can they train for load and more traditional absolute strength. Isometrics (holds) and eccentrics (slow stretches) are fantastic at giving real-time feedback to beginners and engraining proper positions and signaling pathways.A subtle by-product of getting strong young is an increased affinity for actively doing more skill work. An energetic athlete is a motivated one, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
The link between strength and skill is relatively clear, but another more subtle by-product of getting strong young is an increased affinity for actively doing more skill work. Stronger muscles are more resilient and recover more quickly from prior training and competitions, so young athletes are more likely to demonstrate spontaneity and get on the ball just because they have more energy to do so. An energetic athlete is a motivated one, and the value of feeling good cannot be overlooked. Youth sports should be enjoyable, and the desire fades if soccer starts to resemble more of a chore than a game.
Let’s face it, if athletes are sore and tired, they are more likely to reach for the PS4 controller than get touches on the ball. Over the marathon that is long-term athletic development, a little bit truly goes a very long way. If one athlete organically does more quality skill work, speed work, and gym work, it will matter in the end. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard” may be a bit too simplistic of a cliché, but when comparing two athletes with similar skill sets, the athlete with the ability to handle more work over time will always be at an advantage.
Building a Better Athlete
To build a well-rounded athlete, you must dedicate time and energy to making speed, power, and fitness the primary focuses. In theory, it’s that simple. However, it requires effort to first make the commitment and then demonstrate the discipline and expertise required to follow through and put it into practice. This means devoting entire sessions specifically to developing athleticism away from the ball.
Due to the highly technical nature of soccer, it’s critical to be on the ball as much as possible, but it is still necessary at times to make sure physical development doesn’t become a watered-down afterthought. Warming up with laps around the field and finishing with haphazard sprints, push-ups, and crunches does not constitute building a better athlete. Stand-alone sessions with specific themes of speed, agility, power, and strength really allow young athletes to dedicate the adaptive reserve necessary to improving those skill sets.
This is protocol at the Riverhounds Development Academy. Our youth teams train with me a minimum of once a week throughout the year, and our older teams train twice a week. This is deeply embedded within the cultural fiber of our club, and the kids have really taken to it. With so much soccer all the time, this provides a nice change of pace for them both mentally and physically.
The success of those who have previously come through our system creates the initial buy-in, and from there it doesn’t take long for them to personally experience the benefits. These benefits are typically characterized by moments on the field in which the young athlete feels different physically, in a positive way, whether it be turning a corner, winning a 50/50 ball, or not fatiguing late in a game. These seemingly trivial, highly subjective moments on the field mean more to young athletes than running a faster 30 meters, posting a higher countermovement jump, or improving upon their max aerobic speed. These same moments breed high levels of confidence and demonstrate the value of prioritizing physical development, as actions truly speak louder than words at early ages.The value of supplemental development and strengthening weaknesses is even greater, as the days of the multisport athlete are being jeopardized, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Prioritizing physical preparedness also promotes healthy, sustainable, long-term development. Continually playing soccer and repeating the same movement patterns lends itself to overuse injuries, and injuries are the quickest way to disrupt the longevity of a young athlete’s career. Setting aside time specifically dedicated to addressing these concerns with general strengthening exercises to fill in the gaps will keep young players much healthier in the long run.
For vitality, it is best to be contrarian and avoid sport specificity by developing muscle groups typically underutilized in soccer like the glutes, hamstrings, and back. The value of supplemental development and strengthening weaknesses is even greater as the days of the multisport athlete are being jeopardized. Playing many sports naturally created a broader, more robust skill set, and the dawn of a new season brought about a new movement pattern and different substrate to perform on that naturally protected against overuse. With athletes now identifying with one sport and playing that sport year-round at a much earlier age, it is becoming increasingly necessary to have strategies in place to handle these concerns.
Don’t Worry About Conditioning
It is important for young soccer players to understand the value of fitness, but it is not necessary for it to be an actively developed focal point until the young athlete becomes a teenager. The organic rise of fitness should be the result of well-organized technical sessions that keep kids engaged and active throughout, as well as the acquisition of higher strength and skill levels pertaining to running and sprinting. Encouraging free play and staying as active as possible naturally builds volume when young, so the athletes have a nice aerobic base to build intensity on later as they mature.It’s important for young soccer players to understand the value of fitness but not necessary to actively develop it until the young athlete becomes a teenager, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Although I may not directly condition, I do find it beneficial to teach good habits that develop positive attitudes as it relates to conditioning. I am a firm believer that strong runners make good sprinters, so distinguishing between jogging, running, and sprinting is helpful. Having young athletes maintain skill and rhythm at different speeds and be able to efficiently switch gears as needed is very important for energy maintenance. Young athletes are typically all or nothing: walking when fatigued or away from the play or going like a bat out of hell once they think they have a chance to make a play.
Being able to assess when to cruise or step on it is a skill that I like to develop with very low-volume extensive tempo work and fartleks. I think the impact of treating conditioning more as a skill when young is just as important as the physiological changes that should occur later. A more skilled approach can create the perception that a young athlete is becoming fitter.
Compatibility with Other Sports
We now know that a broad athletic skill set with varied movement patterns is best for the longevity of a young athlete’s career. On the surface, it would then appear that participating in multiple sports at a young age is the answer, but is it the only answer? We have all heard the stories of legendary athletes and their prowess at multiple disciplines. Dave Winfield was drafted by the MLB, NBA, and NFL before finally settling on a Hall of Fame baseball career. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders both played in the MLB and NFL, and it is well-documented that Michael Jordan did nothing but golf in his off-season.
Is this practical or even possible now, as the natural evolution of all sports has led to bigger, faster, stronger, better—in large part due to specializing at earlier ages? While playing many sports throughout the year might be ideal, long-term athletic development in 2019 may face a new reality. To that end, I believe it is our job collectively as a strength and conditioning community to solve this problem by providing the necessary physical balances a one-sport athlete may need while considering the depth that a multisport athlete may already possess. As with many things, there are many paths that can lead to the same destination.It is our job collectively as an S&C community to provide the necessary physical balances a one-sport athlete may need while considering the depth that a multisport athlete may already possess. Click To Tweet
Taking a supplemental approach in which we identify and address weaknesses will be of increasing value as young athletes continue to specify at younger ages. The diversity that playing multiple sports once addressed naturally will have to be replaced by well-thought-out and well-timed performance training. Building a broad athletic skill set that teaches athletes how to run, jump, land, cut, twist, push, pull, and hinge in all planes of motion at varying velocities and tastefully challenging with light loads as needed will optimize both health and performance.
Deliberate rest periods will also begin to take on greater significance. While #rest may not move the needle like #hustle or #grind, it’s just as important. Particularly at the youngest ages, rest is too quickly dismissed. Kids adapt, learn, and recover quicker from training stress, but they also require a lot of energy to grow and mature.
The Difference Between Burnout and Boredom
Striking the appropriate balance between competition and training at young ages is a very important task and we should not do it haphazardly. Competing too much can limit technical and physical progress, as well as burn a young athlete out physically, mentally, and emotionally. Conversely, not playing enough might lead to boredom, as a young soccer player might begin losing sight of the reason they train. Prioritizing training while integrating friendlies, tournaments, and ID camp attendance as barometers of progress is optimal.Competition is subordinate to training during the critical early years of athletic development, and not the other way around, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Hand-selecting events around training that can challenge at certain times and breed confidence at other times is an art. Success is more motivating to young athletes than failure, but they must learn how to fail. Never experiencing adversity at a young age will leave the athlete ill-prepared later. The trick is to simultaneously know the capabilities and personality of the player as an individual and collectively as a team, while never losing sight of the fact competition is subordinate to training, and not the other way around, during the critical early years of development.
Too often, parents and their young athletes fall prisoner to the moment and place too much stock in results, whether good or bad. It is highly unlikely both that the sky is falling, and the young athlete is destined to be the next Christian Pulisic or Alex Morgan. The answer lies somewhere in between, and there is something to be said for treating triumph or disaster as the imposters they are and focusing instead on the totality of a growing body of work.
You should build the foundation for the long-term success of a young soccer athlete on a broad technical base with a high volume of quality touches on the ball with all surfaces of the foot and various parts of the body. Specifically, the Riverhounds Development Academy utilizes a juggling log. It is simple, highly effective, and a great way to hold our athletes accountable to getting quality touches daily, as opposed to just smashing balls at a goal or wall. They must record their progress and are subject to spot checks during training at any time. The goal is 1,000 unbroken juggles, and then we have the kids progress to seated juggling.
There are regressions as well for the super young. Balloons and bounce juggles are effective at prepping for actual juggling. Building comfort on the ball while simultaneously building a broad general skill set is the key to longevity and success, particularly if an athlete identifies with just one sport. It’s simple, but it requires discipline and postponement of immediate gratification. Long-term athletic development is not a sprint; in fact, it’s not even a marathon. It’s an ultra-marathon with an Ironman thrown in for good measure, so stay patient.Long-term athletic development is not a sprint; in fact, it’s not even a marathon. It’s an ultra-marathon with an Ironman thrown in for good measure, so stay patient, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Start with the End in Mind
Development and success are not at odds with each other, but rather go hand-in-hand if done properly. Committing to establishing a firm foundation based on technical skill and general athletic enhancement will always be the best way to create winning results while sustaining longevity. An appropriate balance of training and competition that favors development and uses games primarily as a litmus test should always be the goal.
Chasing results and cutting corners might bring about more immediate rewards but be warned that it’s fool’s gold. Foresight and vision are necessary to grasp the 30,000-foot view that long-term athletic development requires. Stay the course, as it is the disciplined, conservative investments in training and physical development early that will yield the greatest dividends in the end.
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