It is now time to address the third of the four components (pillars) of soccer known as fitness. We generally call the component that deals with the physical abilities of a player, fitness. The obvious and most noticeable physical quality that a player may or may not possess is speed or pace, as some like to call it. However, it is not the most necessary quality a player must have to be a successful US Youth Soccer ODP player. The one quality that is vital to a player’s success is endurance or work rate.

1) Player Endurance or Work Rate – One phrase that coaches say quite often is, “A player doesn’t play soccer to get fit; he must be fit to play soccer.” It has always amazed me when I would see players in a tryout (ODP, HS, College, Professional levels) situation and they have poor levels of fitness. The one thing the player can control without anyone’s help is their own fitness level. You can be sure that at the end of the tryout, the coach evaluating players will have noted one of two things in regard to player fitness:

– The player was fit.
– The player was not fit.

It is that simple.

Coaching candidates of the US Soccer National Coaching Schools are currently taught that one way to improve a player’s conditioning is through Speed Endurance Training. Without getting too technical here, there are generally two types of Speed Endurance Training -production training and maintenance training.

Production training usually involves training exercises that are for short periods of time (20 to 40 seconds). The rest periods are in the range of 2 to 4 minutes, and the players are always working at a high level of intensity.

Maintenance training involves training exercises that are for longer periods of time (30 to 120 seconds). The rest intervals should be as long the exercise periods that are used, and the player will become progressively more fatigued as the work to rest ratio cycles continue.

A player who trains following the above guidelines will certainly help them to improve their power (distance covered or ability to maintain work rate) output. This system allows the player to train at a higher intensity level during the training session and for a longer period of time.

The importance of a player having a quality such as work rate allows the player to become a more effective player on both sides of the ball. For example, when coaches’ decide that the team needs to change tactics and go into a high pressure defending situation, coaches need to feel comfortable with the knowledge that all of their players can still be effective once the ball has been won. A player’s ability to recover and work further is essential. A player’s work rate and level of fitness will affect a player’s choices made during a competitive match – the choice to track back and pick up opposing players or the choice for the player to push forward on attack from their outside back position is certainly easier for the player who is fit.

2) Agility – Itis usually sport specific, by that I mean that soccer agility will be, at times, different than what is required of the tennis player; although, there are many similar carry over values in the various components which comprise the players overall agility.

Agility consists of a player’s balance, coordination, reflexes, speed and even strength. A soccer player needs to possess all of these traits. Think about all of the moments during a soccer game when a player has to:

– Jump to head the ball
– Change direction with or without the ball
– Quickly move forward to close down an opponent
– Move sideways across the field, or backwards during transitional moments during the run of play
– React after either losing their footing or getting knocked to the ground to be able to react quickly and get back into the game

Soccer players must possess the ability to react both physically and mentally to the movements of their opponents and to the movement of the ball during training and matches.

Most experts agree that agility training exercises such as fast footwork training with ladders, obstacle courses with and without the ball (limited leaping and bounding exercises for younger players) and exercises where players have to react to commands or a signal from the coach (these would include stop and go exercises, up, turn and run exercises, etc.) will all have a positive influence on improving a players agility. The above exercises are great for agility training in young players, but as a player becomes older (US Youth Soccer ODP age groups), then it is an acceptable training philosophy to increase both the intensity and duration of these exercises.

Unfortunately, there will always be a debate in soccer of whether a player should be a soccer player first and an athlete second or vice versa. The merits of the physical component in soccer certainly do not outweigh the merits of a sound technical base for the player. However, if a player wants to achieve success in the US Youth Soccer ODP, then that player must possess some physical abilities to go along with their technical ability and tactical knowledge. Improving ones soccer agility will certainly improve the chance for success at all levels of soccer competition.

3) Starting Speed – A player who possesses quality starting speed creates significant advantages for themselves during both training and match play. This player will have the ability to reach the ball first, possess the ability to beat an opponent 1 v 1 and have the necessary explosiveness to overtake an opponent. Most soccer coaches will agree that the first three steps that a player takes in the various competitive soccer situations are more crucial than the later steps.

It does not necessarily mean that the first person to get to the ball is the faster player, but that the player most likely has a combination of decent starting speed and speed of thought (tactical speed, which in this instance would be their ability to anticipate). Think about all the situations in soccer when the player has to step in front of an opponent to win the ball, turn and move in another direction, move backwards or sideways, or use a quick burst of speed after getting by an opponent on a dribbling run. These are all situations where possessing good starting speed will help the player be successful in these soccer moments. There have been many players who have lacked blazing speed, but yet because they possess good starting speed, they have had successful playing careers at both the National Team and Professional levels.

In order for the player to improve this quality of the fitness component of soccer, the player first has to look at those explosive moments in a game and be able to analyze that performance. How quickly does he move from one point to another?

There are many athletic performance facilities popping up all over the country that specialize in speed training, acceleration training, strength and power development, etc. If after this self-diagnosis, the player feels the need to improve in this area, then that is one possible solution to solve this deficiency. Plyometrics and weight training are also common training methods to improve a players starting speed. It is important that the player be aware that training activities with and without the soccer ball should be utilized to improve this aspect of player fitness.

4) Essential Training Habits – This quality would cover the player’s understanding of hydration and nutrition, proper warm-up and cool-down and knowledge of prevention and care of common soccer injuries. Soccer is one team sport where the player needs to understand that proper hydration and nutrition is necessary because of the constant physical demands (stop and go activities, speed and agility movements, etc) of the sport. The player needs to begin training sessions and matches properly hydrated. During exercise the player needs to understand the importance of rehydrating. At the completion of a match or training session there is a need to replenish any accumulated fluid loss that occurred because of the match or training session.

The Gatorade Sports Science Institute offers the following facts on hydration,https://www.usyouthsoccer.org/coaches/Hydration.asp.

The player needs to understand how important proper nutritional habits are to enhancing their performance. The player needs to have an understanding that there should be a pre-workout high-carbohydrate snack or meal 2 to 3 hours before training sessions and matches. The player should also understand that within 30 minutes of finishing the training session or match, there is a need to replenish lost energy with a carbohydrate-rich snack.

Understanding the need for properly warming up the body for training sessions or matches, is something that the US Youth Soccer ODP player must believe to be crucial to ensure quality performances. The player should have knowledge of dynamic stretching exercises (taking the body through the types of movements that it will do during the activity), static stretching exercises (holding the stretch for about 15-20 seconds – no bouncing), and how to move the body from some light jogging to some short sprints just prior to beginning the activity. The player should also understand that following training sessions and matches that it is essential to properly cool-down. A proper cool-down would include some light jogging and stretching exercises which can go a long way to assist that players body to recover quicker before beginning the next training session or match.

The player needs to fully understand that proper warm-ups and cool-downs, proper hydration and proper nutrition go a long way to aid in the prevention of athletic injuries. Other precautionary measures include:

– Blister prevention when the player is preparing to wear a new pair of soccer shoes in training or a match (ideally the player should have two pairs of shoes – one that is broken in and another pair that the player is gradually breaking in during training sessions)
– An appropriate level of overall fitness to play competitive soccer.

Finally, once injured, the player needs to have the knowledge of how to care for athletic injuries. Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (RICE) is still an effective plan in dealing with most injuries. The bottom line is that the player has to know when to compete and when to rest—playing at 80 percent of one’s normal performance level at times may be effective, but at other times may be creating more harm than good for the player.