In 2014, my mind was made up: I was going to be a basketball strength and conditioning coach. It was my favorite sport, and I had played through high school as well as club in college, so it was a no-brainer. Up until this point, I had followed that path and carefully planned every step to achieve my goal. Then, in the spring of 2017, my head strength and conditioning coach took another position at a different university and I was asked to take over our college’s soccer teams.
As strength and conditioning coaches, we pride ourselves on being able to work with virtually any sport, team, or individual. With court sports, I was in my element—tracking jumps, heart rates, GPS metrics, all of it. I was able to account for the rigors of practice and multiple factors and adjust the physical training program accordingly. Soccer, though, was a different game. I had been around field sports and assisted with them in the past, but now I was THE GUY.
Many performance coaches are in a situation where they may only be in charge of the weight room, while the sport coach takes care of the conditioning work—that, however, didn’t seem to be the best approach for me. I wanted it all. I wanted to seamlessly integrate the on-field work with the weight room work and be an extension of the coaching staff in the way that performance coaches operate at the pro level. My problem? I was in a mid-major Division I school with few resources—and even less time—to devote to the soccer programs in addition to my other teams.
I needed help.
I reached out to some generous and skilled coaches and was able to connect with Charles Burdick of the Portland Timbers, Damian Roden (then with the Seattle Sounders), Josh McAllister (then with Minnesota United), John Cone from Fit for 90, and Tony Jouaux with the New York Red Bulls. Through conversations with these coaches, as well as reading Raymond Verheijen’s work, I was able to learn about tactical periodization and a few of the different methods for implementing it in a soccer program.
Background: On the Pitch and in the Gym
The planning of soccer training ranges from highly complex and esoteric systems to far more simplistic (and outdated) approaches, and it most commonly falls between the two ends of the spectrum. For most universities, soccer is not a revenue-earning sport and therefore does not get the focused attention it deserves.
Typically, training programs have been separated into the “on-field practice” and the “in the weight room” development period. In fact, many soccer coaches cease all weight training during the season in order to maximize practice and recovery time while trying not to make the players “sore.” Although this outlook has some merit (the focus of soccer is to play better soccer, not to lift heavier weights), the implementation is largely flawed. If we spend a large portion of the off-season developing physical qualities in the weight room—such as strength, power, elasticity, etc.—then the qualities will last for the pre-season and perhaps at most for the early part of the regular season, based on what we know about the residuals of each of these training effects.
During the in-season phase, while we want to maintain the focus on actual play, we cannot neglect physical development and maintenance. Often, coaches will see sharp play with the team performing very well and then a notable drop-off that correlates to the cessation of weight training. At that point, injuries start to increase and resilience decreases, leaving the coach looking for someone to blame…with the strength coach often the scapegoat.
Enter Tactical Periodization
While most performance coaches have been at least exposed to the term “tactical periodization” and a great many have likely implemented a version of it, this article serves to lay out one particularly effective way to implement the concept. Essentially, tactical periodization is the preparation of team sport PLAYERS. This is an important distinction, because we are not solely working on athleticism—we are trying to develop players in relation to the game.The focus of tactical periodization is on four moments: offense, transition to defense, defense, and transition to offense, says @JuanCTPerez. Click To Tweet
The focus of tactical periodization is on four moments: offense, transition to defense, defense, and transition to offense. The whole training scheme is then organized around these qualities, but it also takes into account the physical qualities necessary to play at a high level by harmoniously combining the physical preparation with the technical and tactical qualities needed for in-game performance.
Organization of Training
When planning for optimal performance in sport, coaches should start with the destination in mind and work backward. For soccer programming, you will often see the equation match day +/-(x), with x being a number from 1-6. This is simply a way to plan out how many days there are before game day. For example, if the match is on Sunday and it is now Monday, it is match day -6. In the same circumstance, Tuesday would be match day -5 and so on until the actual day that the match day is played, which is match day 0. (The day after the match can also be referred to as match day +1, and so on.)
The goal of training, as always, is to be as rested as possible for game day, while still keeping the necessary training load. From my coaching experience working with men’s soccer, for example, the day after a match was a movement day. This allowed us to flush out the muscles and promote blood flow to help recovery, with the following day being the designated off day.
Moving forward through the week, we rotated technical and tactical days, with the tactical work being more of a difficult day and the technical day being more of a lighter day. We also matched that up with our physical training schedule, so our tactical (or harder) days were our weight training days. Our technical days during the season were more of a recovery day, where we could apply a stimulus such as some quality sprint work, but we decreased overall volume to a level that left the players feeling fresh. This doesn’t always work, but in a setting where everyone is on board, it provides for heavy loading when necessary but also optimizes on-field work and helps to promote readiness for match day.
Characteristics of Soccer Performance
During this planning phase, it is important to keep in mind the four moments, which can be condensed into three categories: attacking, transition, and defending. We take these categories into account by focusing on the “characteristics” of the sport, which are:
- Performing better actions.
- Performing more actions.
- Maintaining good actions.
- Maintaining many actions.
Better in this context means sharper/more explosive actions. What’s nice about this system is that you can almost tie these categories directly to certain physiological adaptations. For example, if you want better actions, then that will correlate with explosive training (more on that later).
Whether activation, pillar prep, or whatever else you would like to call it, this time is almost a “pre warm-up.” While it may sound redundant, splitting your prep time into activation and then warm-up can help keep your team much more organized, as well as provide for opportunities of leadership among the team itself.
For example, in our activation time, we would start on the ground with foam rolling and soft tissue prep. We would then move to prone, supine, and quadruped hip mobility and core stability, and conclude with some standing band activation work. Having this time when players could dial in on problem areas flowed into a smoother warm-up and duly served as a time to mentally prepare for the activity to come. Additionally, this was a sequence that the team could do on their own, so as to use their time wisely instead of standing around.
While there were many similarities between our activation and that of other sports, we spent a good portion of time focused on the musculature surrounding the hips, knees, and ankles. Additionally, one of the main differentiators that was almost a bridge movement right into our warm-up was how we trained the vestibular system and balance. In soccer there are many instances where a player may find themselves on the ground and have to reorient and reestablish their position. We aimed to focus in on this by incorporating starts from the ground (laying on chest or back) and rolling variations (front roll, back roll) into a run.
While warm-ups are often overlooked as a necessary evil, you can also program them thoughtfully to assist your training session and overall training load. By implementing key components into the warm-up, coaches can provide more exposure over time to that stimulus. Another point to keep in mind is that players CAN reach a point of diminishing returns with a warm-up, so it is helpful to adapt certain aspects over time.
When I say this, I don’t only mean physically—although this too is a factor—but more so mentally. When you implement different movements into the warm-up at key points (though never before a game, as you don’t want the player uselessly spending their mental resources at this point), engagement instantly increases, as the players are mentally stimulated by the change. By periodically progressing the warm-up, just as you would progress an exercise in the weight room, it will directly benefit the work that follows.By periodically progressing the warm-up, just as you would progress an exercise in the weight room, it will directly benefit the work that follows, says @JuanCTPerez. Click To Tweet
The focus of the warm-up can change with the focus of the week, in accordance with the characteristics. For example, in the pre-season, my weekly focus was on accumulating volume (perform more actions)—so in my warm-up, I implemented extensive endurance. To adapt my warm-up to this focus, I increased the distance of warm-up activities as compared to the intensive warm-up, which included more short burst and higher-intensity drills (perform better actions). If your focus is intensive endurance, you could include more repeated short sprint efforts (maintain good/more actions).
While the focus of the week may change, when working with team sport, we know that there will always be some sort of short burst included. One way I accounted for this was by including acceleration runs over shorter distances. We implemented this right before the main work was done, and at times it even preceded the on-field ball work during our extensive endurance weeks.
Another category I included in our warm-up was extensive interval training. To implement this, I used longer timed intervals, but also included longer timed rest.
If this is confusing to follow, a quick rule of thumb when categorizing is as follows:
- Extensive endurance—incomplete rest, longer distance (perform more actions).
- Intensive endurance—incomplete rest, shorter distance (perform more actions).
- Extensive interval training—complete rest, longer intervals (time) (maintain more/better actions).
- Longer acceleration runs (maintain better/more actions).
- Repeat short sprint ability (maintain better actions).
- Shorter acceleration runs (perform better actions).
*Keep in mind that this is how I correlated the runs to the characteristics. Additionally, I manipulated the characteristic I was targeting based on the rest. As you can see, I categorized some of the runs we did under multiple characteristics. This may look different for you.
In conjunction, we laid out the on-field work to go in a cycle of larger spaces to smaller spaces. This parallels our physical preparation and ensures that each quality gets the necessary stimulus to adapt.We laid out the on-field work to go in a cycle of larger to smaller spaces. This parallels our physical preparation and ensures that each quality gets the necessary stimulus to adapt. Click To Tweet
In practice, this would look like the first two weeks with larger spaces (think full field), whereas the next two weeks would be moderate-sized spaces (partial field), and the last two weeks would be even smaller spaces/small-sided games. With this implementation, the practice goes from longer, slower movements to much more fast-paced/rapid movements and sharpness of play.
While it may seem counterintuitive to have larger spaces for slower movements, it works very well—the reason for this is that in the larger spaces there are more players, so much more passing is involved. This decreases the number of shorter bursts, quick cuts, and eccentric load you may see when one player challenges another for possession in the smaller spaces. Though the players may reach a higher velocity in certain scenarios in bigger spaces, this is mitigated over time and by the conditioning level of each player. (Early on, players will likely not be in as good shape, so coaches can specifically encourage more of a passing game.)
You can keep the cycles for as long as you’d like, but from my own implementation, the two-week phase allows for more positive adaptation to the stimulus.
This part of the training program is often overlooked, maybe more so than the warm-up. Post game, it is HIGHLY important to:
- Refuel the player with proper nutrition.
- Help restore proper blood flow to the extremities.
- Jumpstart recovery: The team that recovers faster will naturally be in a better position to train during the week and play come next match day.
*A Note on Bench Players
While these steps are imperative for players in the regular rotation, players on the bench need a different approach. These traditionally overlooked players have essentially lost a training day, and so they NEED a stimulus to help maintain their readiness. This can be determined in different ways depending on your means (whether or not you have access to GPS or metrics), but the most essential part is that the player is exposed to some high-intensity intervals of some sort, much like they would be in the game. This too will fall under the characteristics of soccer performance I wanted to target, so for me, the stimulus changed depending on the week.
There are many different approaches you can implement to be successful, and this is by no means the only way, but the results speak for themselves. That year I began, the team was comfortably over .500 through the regular season and earned a first-round bye in the Sunbelt Conference Tournament (this after ranking in the bottom of the conference and averaging more losses than wins just two seasons before). Most of the credit belongs with the phenomenal coaching, as well as a good job recruiting talented players. Having said that, though, most of our starting 11 consisted of returning players, so let that be food for thought.
After that season, my career took me in a different direction, so I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked with the team—and shortly after my departure, the university unfortunately cut the program as a varsity sport. To truly confirm these results, I would have liked to work with the team for two to three more years, but I will forever value the time I had, and the results of the approach still shine through.
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