The skill and athleticism necessary to compete amongst the best soccer players in the world has been front and center during this year’s World Cup. 32 countries handpicked their elite 23 players to represent their national pride. Of over 239 million male soccer players world wide, these 736 athletes face a very small margin of error as they progress through the tournament. To put this into perspective, these 736 men represent nearly 0.000308% of registered soccer players in the world.
I am not a soccer player, much less an enthusiast, but I still respect moments of perfect execution. These are without a doubt the top athletes in their international arena. That said, I still observed opportunities to improve pieces of their movement.
I would target: seamless and effortless movement through space, lack of arm swing, hamstring injuries at top speed, and power’s role in game changing moments. This article will address specific adaptations a S&C program must drive to not only help athletes competing in the World Cup, but anyone outside of the 0.000308 who are gunning for 2018 in Russia.Increase Workability
As with all sports, the only way to get better at soccer is…playing soccer. Soccer has become a year round sport, from youth to the international level. The last thing a player needs is for a strength and conditioning program to detract from their soccer skill development. I observed many skills that involved a soccer ball that no amount of time in the weightroom would have helped them accomplish. Wait… so if a strength program cannot help soccer skills, what can it do? Simple, increase workability.
For year round athletes, especially ones at the high levels, a strength coach needs to focus on short term adaptations that drive long term success, gradually developing multiple short term and systemic training effects on the body. During a year round season, the focus of adaptation needs to be increase in power and speed of movement. To effectively accelerate these adaptations, the athlete must demonstrate body control through space, CNS efficiency and kinesthetic awareness. Believe it or not, even some professional athletes still can improve these factors.
Moving Through Space
Kinesthetic awareness is a primary component for success at soccer, making it a primary component of a true training program. Every warm up before training, practice and games is an opportunity for the athlete to train their kinesthetic awareness and get them in touch with their Central Nervous System. Much of soccer relies on knowing body positioning relative to the goal or sideline, feeling where your opponents’ or ball location without looking, and effortlessly moving through space. The victor of field sport is often determined by who is better at moving through the same space against an opponent. Thus, addressing this component is crucial.
There were countless displays of athleticism that combined kinesthetic awareness with explosive power, especially the leaping goal pictured above. Feats like this require maximal motor recruitment. S&C coaches inexperienced with training for power cannot differentiate true high intensity, high motor unit involvement from times the body is not utilizing a large amount of muscles. Movements we like to use to challenge kinesthetic awareness, fire the CNS and recruit the highest amount of motor units include the Power Clean, Clean and Jerk, Power Snatch, as well as plyometrics and maximal sprints.
A 100% performance doesn’t mean 100% contraction. More precisely, it equals the best interplay of muscles the athlete can achieve per task. On a stage such as the World Cup, the margin for error is extremely small, and rare opportunities to make a play must be seized with precise vigor. Athletes must prepare the mental side of this, and training for explosive power offers that opportunity. Rep ranges of 1-3 at near maximal loads do not leave much margin for error, forcing an athlete to execute under control in high pressure situations. Training explosive power has many physiological adaptations, but the incumbent mental toughness and swagger becomes even more valuable when the game is on the line.
Top End Speed
Each of the team’s top player use pedometers to track distance they covered during the game, essentially taking an endurance approach to a sport requiring speed for success. This will not prepare the athletes for the highest level of competition like the World Cup. Instead, Implementing top end speed into a year round program better fits the sport’s demands.
Speed improvement occurs within a much narrower intensity range than strength and endurance. For example, improvements in maximal strength occur mostly within the 80-100% intensity range. By contrast, speed improvement only occurs at intensities over 95% of objective performance, not perceived effort. To maintain true intensity and drive a speed adaptation, there must be a full recovery between runs. Replicating speed is essential to success in soccer, but without raising the top end bar, the replicated speed will not be optimal for performance. The body’s ability to tolerate sprinting at the necessary intensity to drive a speed adaptation is very limited, so a balance of intensity runs, volume training and practice is required.
One glaring observation was many of the soccer players’ arm swings while sprinting. The arm swing affects cadence and stride length – the vertical arm swing (punch) controls the stride frequency and the back swing (hammer) controls stride length. Some soccer players were not utilizing their arms to drive their sprint, slowing them down. The counterbalance a powerful arm swing allows an athlete to run straighter, maintain balance when contacted and reduces leg workload.
Training top end speed also stretches the hips and hamstrings in a manner impossible to replicate at lower intensities or during cool down stretches. If a player gets into an all-out sprint situation in a match without having trained full ROM at true intensity for their hamstrings, the results could be drastic.
Applying the above techniques to soccer strength and conditioning and focusing on those adaptations will dramatically improve performance economizing energy through optimizing movements per demands. Tissue sensitivity to adrenaline decreases, streamlining energy distribution (Verhoshansky, 532). This conditions economy, which ensures mobilization of respiration and glycolysis required during games.
Increasing optimal speed versus accumulating miles makes it possible to have level increases in the heart cavity volume and after this, myocardial power forming adequete peripheral vessel reactions. Consequently, the function in the slow and fast contracting muscle fibers needed for each task is improved (Verkhoshansky, 536).
There are active rest and recovery times naturally built into the game of soccer, but these moments are not what the greats are remembered for. That unexpected ‘moment of greatness’ requiring complete control, precise muscle action, and the swagger to execute needs preparation.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. (2009). Supertraing: 6th Edition. Rome: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.
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