Erica Suter is a certified strength and conditioning coach in Tampa, Florida, and online for thousands of youth soccer players. She has worked with kids, starting at the elementary level and going all the way up to the college level, for the past nine years. She believes in long-term athletic development and the gradual progression of physical training for safe and effective results. She helps youth master the basic skills of balance, coordination, and stability and ensures they blossom into powerful, fast, and strong athletes when they’re older. Beyond working with kids, she mentors coaches of youth athletes in her Total Youth Female Athlete Fitness Video Course and Community. Erica is driven and excited to provide youth coaches with simple, actionable drills to build their athletes into strong, fast, and healthy humans.
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Freelap USA: Youth athletes are more injured than ever before. What patterns have you picked up on that you personally believe are causing this trend?
Erica Suter: Kids are being overtrained and underprepared. Of course, there are many layers to this discussion, the first one being a lack of long-term athletic development that works on basic motor skills through backyard and neighborhood play and being exposed to a variety of movement patterns.
Many youth athletes are under a year-round organized sports model that pushes them into specialization and too much focus on sport-specific skills. What this does is cause overtraining of a small number of muscle groups, while ignoring others. This leads to compensations and imbalances in their later years, with the majority of young athletes manifesting overuse or non-contact ACL injuries in their high school years. Other layers of the discussion go beyond physical training and permeate into a lack of nourishment and sleep and being sympathetically dominant from tech use.
Freelap USA: Women’s soccer is known as one of the most injury-plagued sports in all of athletics. Why is that? In what ways can we mitigate injury risk in women soccer players?
Erica Suter: Women’s soccer is becoming faster paced and more physical, so players need to continue to build robust bodies to handle the increasing demands. Soccer players lack two main pieces: speed and strength. Too often, women players shy away from the weight room to go on more endurance runs because they need to get “fit.” Lack of fitness is not an issue, as this bucket is already filled in the small-sided and large-sided games they do at practice.
Additionally, the average distance a women’s soccer player covers in a game is around 5-6 miles. Strength is critical for women to be exposed to a higher stimulus than the game, so their muscles can handle the high forces. Most non-contact ACL injuries are caused by a weakness in the muscles and inability to handle force, so it ends up going to the joints.
Eccentric training is also paramount, and I would prefer this to formal “agility” training so players can focus on landing mechanics on one leg and in multiple planes; firing the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings; and really feeling what muscles need to be activated.
Looking to hamstring pulls, they do not happen as much in the women’s game, but they still happen due to a lack of strength as well as exposure to maximal velocity runs. This is why players need to speed train year-round in an oscillating manner, working on low-cost movements in the season to dial in coordination, rhythm, and balance. Low-volume sprint work or submax sprint work is excellent.
Freelap USA: The female athlete ACL epidemic is still ongoing. What are some key guidelines that will help coaches mitigate ACL injury risk?
Erica Suter: All coaches need to incorporate a proper warm-up for their girls. The warm-up should focus on the basic motor skills such as coordination, balance, and spatial awareness, as well as be enough to excite, not fatigue, the nervous system with jumping and landing mechanics and a few acceleration runs in various planes to prepare for training or the match.
The standard needs to be set...to strength train year-round so girls build the muscles that protect the knee. At this point, strength training needs to be non-negotiable for young girls. Click To Tweet
I am a big fan of hip bridge variations to fire the glutes and reset the posture before a game, as well as work on breathing through the diaphragm. The majority of soccer girls are slumped over, with shoulders rounded and head forward, which is the cause of a lot of knee pain and lack of control of momentum when cutting and changing direction.
The standard needs to be set within the team culture to strength train year-round so girls build the muscles that protect the knee—from the foot to the calves to the quadriceps to the hamstrings to the gluteals to the anterior or posterior core. At this point, strength training needs to be non-negotiable for young girls. U.S. soccer even states that girls are 4-8 times more likely to tear an ACL, so these numbers should alarm coaches and inspire them to take action.
Freelap USA: Young athletes are on the go and often in some variation of a competition season. What are some suggestions for parents and coaches on how to combat the inevitable grueling club circuit that players participate in to get exposure?
Erica Suter: Parents either leave the system or continue—there are no other choices. The youth sports system is not going to change its year-round model because parents are feeding it money. Why would clubs stop this business model if so many dollars are coming in during the year?
I recommend parents let their child take at least three months off from the grueling model, so they can give their bodies and minds a break. If the coach has a problem with this, then parents can tell the coach that during these three months off from practice, they are going to have their child build their body in the gym, revamp their nutrition plan, and take a vacation to recover, and then they’ll be hungry when they come back for the season. If a coach has a problem with this, the child has the wrong coach.
Freelap USA: With your experience with so many youth athletes, how can practitioners create an environment that encourages youth athletes to train rather than turn them away?
Erica Suter: Trainers can create an environment for youth athletes to train by first making it fun. The more kids can leave a workout with a big smile on their faces, while also feeling like they had a solid workout, the better. Training young ones can be both intense and fun at the same time, with clever games like dodgeball, handball, wall ball, and tag variations. All of these games can achieve the physiological stimulus kids need to improve aerobic and anaerobic performance, while also focusing in on physical qualities like coordination, balance, and spatial awareness. The best part is, kids don’t even realize they’re hustling during these games because they are having so much fun.
I also recommend coaches focus on culture first before getting into the nitty gritty of sets, reps, x’s and o’s. Coaches should set a fun and competitive culture that inspires kids to love movement and learn good health habits young. Beyond physical training, kids need to be taught the other components of performance, such as nutrition, sleep, and recovery. I recommend coaches journal with their youth athletes weekly, have consistent discussions on nutrition, and build them into better humans who eventually can be autonomous to take care of themselves later in life.
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