Preseason Conditioning

As August approaches many teams in the Midwest United States are starting their preseason program, including my U12 girls. At this age I think it’s important for the kids to have a break during the summer months and have time to just be a kid. This makes preseason even more important because I need to get them in some kind of shape before we get on the field.

Conditioning for soccer has changed a lot since I was in college and 5 miles runs were an accepted preseason tradition. Now condition is much more soccer specific.

The program I use was introduced to me by Scott Moody of Athlete F.I.T. Scott has worked with hundreds of soccer players in the Kansas City area and his web site has educated coaches and athletes around the world. He also has a very useful blog that has been a great resource.

The conditioning program has five stages. The stages can be spread over five weeks or can be down in as little and two and a half weeks. I prefer to complete the stages by doing two sessions a week over two and a half weeks.

In each stage the goal is to cover as much distance as possible and more than you did the last stage. It is best to do these runs on a track where the distance is easily measured. The goal distance that I refer to is for my U12 girls. This would be longer for older players. Here is how the stages breakdown:

Stage 1 – 24 minute run – 2 3/4 miles
Stage 2 – 2 x 12 minute runs (5 minute rest) – 3 miles
Stage 3 – 3 x 8 minute runs (3 minute rest) – 3 1/8 miles
Stage 4 – 4 x 6 minute runs (2 minute rest) – 3 1/4 miles
Stage 5 – 6 x 4 minute runs (1 minute rest) – 3 1/2 miles

Obviously some players will not be able to meet these goal distances initially but the goal for everyone is to steadily cover more distance during the preseason. This will give all of the players a solid aerobic foundation that they can build on throughout the season.

What do you do with your teams during preseason? What have you found works best?

7 Comments

  1. Justin Neese says:

    Nice post!

    The U12 age is a difficult age for both coaches and players. As US Soccer’s Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States says: “The U12 age group seems to be the moment in youth soccer that causes the most discussion concerning player development. Are these players young adults or are they still children? As soccer players, they are still young. Although there are some areas of the game where the players are beginning to make progress, this is an age where ball skill and soccer instincts must be encouraged above the results” (page 27). Also, as The Official US Youth Soccer Coaching Manual argues: “Teetering on the edge of childhood and adolescence, the the U-12 player presents a myriad of problems, but a gold mine of potential. Not only can they follow complex instruction, they now have the ability to create their own variations of the games. When compared to younger players, the U-12 player demonstrates a greater degree of analytical thought, which enhances tactical understanding. Still, their performance during match play will be inconsistent. Much of their training should consist of small-sided games with various playing or field conditions placed upon the players” (page 40).

    We can see from this advice, as well as from the tremendous drop out rates at and around the U12 age band, that we need to be very careful with the U12 and that we need to ensure that we are continuing to focus much of our attention (if not all) on building a strong foundation of soccer skills and savvy from which the player / team will be able to build on as they progress in soccer. To do this effectively, then US Soccer (as evidenced by Best Practices), USYSA (as evidenced by The Official Manual), have recommend the following: “Coaches in the U12 age groups should be focusing on (some of) the building blocks of successful soccer players: FUN, skill, athleticism, and “individual and small group decisions, in the attack and when defending” (BP, page 29).

    The issue that is relevant to your questions is ‘athleticism’ and I think that we will want to make a distinction here between ‘athleticism’ and ‘conditioning.’ To me, athleticism will include things like strength, agility, balance, coordination, explosiveness, stability, body awareness, hand:eye or foot:eye coordination, etc, while conditioning will include mostly non-soccer specific aerobic running (as your practice session plan would suggest). In my mind, it is more beneficial to address athleticism than it is to address conditioning at this age because athletic lessons can be life long lessons, and conditioning lessons can and will be lost as soon as the players stops or decreases the conditioning work. And, as these players are near the beginning of their soccer /athletic development cycle, I think that we need to focus on those activities that will give us the most benefit for the longest period of time, and I feel that that is athletic training rather than conditioning training. Indeed, Sam Snow, the Senior Assistant Technical Director for US Youth Soccer, in his paper on soccer growth ages, “At What Age Should a Soccer Player Peak?” argues that at the U12 level, athletic and fitness training should be confined to “[soccer specific] endurance, rhythmic movement, flexibility, and running mechanics.”

    Based on this advice, I think that coaches in the U12 age groups should be focusing a tremendous amount of energy on skill acquisition. As Best Practices argues: “The most fundamental skill in soccer is individual mastery of the ball and the creativity that comes with it” (page 4). If the players train these skills in an environment that challenges them all four levels of the game (technical, tactical, physical, psychological), then they are developing realistic skill, as well as realistic decision making ability, realistic athleticism and fitness, and a realistic soccer psychology. If coaches devote energy to realistic skill acquisition, then they will also be focusing energy on realistic athletic skills. Of course, coaches can and should highlight or isolate either the athletic side or the skill side of a specific soccer movement or chain of movements to increase the players ability to both understand and perform the “athletic soccer skill,” but the key is that the players are still performing realistic movements and skills in a game like environment. With the above two points in mind, and to efficiently follow the advice above, I think that coaches in the U12 age group should adopt a small sided games methodology in their training sessions because it is the most economical method by which (youth) players can be trained, meaning that players can develop all four pillars of the game at the same time.

    So, the question now becomes, how can a U12 coach best prepare their players for the demands of the coming season, while at the same time providing their players with a training environment that will support their growth in all four pillars of the game. Here are a few suggestions:

    I think that the third practice is good idea (Best Practices recommends a 3:1 training:game ratio for this age group). However, rather than only focusing on “conditioning” in this session, I would focus on athletic development and skill development. I would also combine these ideas by developing fundamental activities that place the players in game realistic situations (realistic space, part of the field, time, pressure from opponents, reception and use of the ball, etc.), that ask the players to perform both athletically and skillfully, and that are highly repetitious.

    In these sessions, I would think that U12 coaches can play several variations on small sided games. Here, however, rather than creating games that have a technical / skill or tactical objective, I think that coaches can develop games that will place physical stresses on the players. For example:

    If you play a game that, either, has very extended boundaries for the number of players, or no boundaries at all, then you will find that the games become very physically taxing for the players in a very short period of time, especially if the numbers stay fairly small;
    •If you develop scoring methods that are more physically demanding (dribble through goals, dribbling over an endline, stopping the ball on an endline, dribbling the ball past a certain point and then shooting on goal, etc.), you will find that the players are physically taxed;

    I would also recommend manipulating the time that the players play. For example, if you develop a game where the players will play 2 v 2 for 3 minutes no matter what happens (ball out of bounds, scored, etc.), the players will be forced to play for the required time and, because it is a small sided game, they will not be able to hide or not participate in the action (especially if there is a competitive edge to the session). This will, in effect, place the players in a game-like environment, and ask them to develop game like fitness.

    One benefit to this kind of a method will be that you can now use the principles of interval training (manipulating rest:work ratios for specific gains). So, now, you are not only playing the game (so the players are developing game realistic abilities), the players are having a tremendous amount of fun (soccer is fun!), you are using proven fitness development methods (interval training), and you are also allowing each player to work and rest so that their overall performance is better throughout the session (the gains from this in particular would help you to address the “end of the match” questions that you asked about). This would be economical training at a great level, and I think that the individual and team gains would be huge.

    In the end, though I think that the progressive method that you have outlined above will be very beneficial for your players’ aerobic fitness levels, I would think that you can achieve the same ends in a more economic way, and that doing so will offer your players more “life” lessons than solely doing aerobic training would.

  2. tommura says:

    Justin,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I agree with much of what you said. 99% of the training I do with my team is focused technical development. During the season I use small-sided games to provide most of the players conditioning.

    The preseason conditioning program I use is meant to jump start the player’s fitness so that they have a base to work from when we start our practices (the week of our Stage 5 run). This focus on fitness gets the player’s bodies ready for athletic activity before we start to add a ball and an opponent and the risk of injuries.

    The reality is that many (if not most) of my player have limited athletic activity during the summer months. I think this break is important and I encourage it but the side effect is that the kids are not ready to jump right into SSG’s the first day of practice. It’s been my experience that doing so is a recipe for injuries.

    Building a fitness base for two weeks (five, 45 minute sessions) allows us to get right into skill training and playing SSG’s from day one of practice. That means that they’ll be ready to play games when league begins in the second week of August.

    Thanks again for your post.

  3. Justin Neese says:

    Tommura,

    I can see your point and I definitely understand your challenges (I spend a lot of time training our U12s).

    From my perspective, though, I find it easier and more economic to begin with small sided games, and to use certain conditions and restrictions to effect aerobic fitness levels in those games than to start with non-soccer specific fitness and work towards SSG. I think that this progression keeps the player’s focus a bit better, that it is a way to train fitness without ever really addressing it, that it is a more economic use of time, that it will help me to identify themes and topics for the coming season, that it will help to prevent injuries, and that we will be able to train “soccer specific” fitness, rather than simply an aerobic base. That is just my opinion, though.

    I do wonder, though:

    1.Do you think that you could achieve the same aerobic results if you were to construct activities where the players were simply moving for the allotted time, or do they have to be doing track running? Can you follow your progressive time and distance method, but use a ball during your activities?

    2.If you were to spend the allotted time training the ABCs (agility, balance, coordination, and speed) in movement scenarios, would you be able to achieve the same ends (establishing an aerobic base)?

    3.If you follow the outlined model, how will you follow this up to train anaerobic fitness? And, why would we not want to train these two things together, especially as the game is a mixture of walking, jogging, fast jogging, and sprinting?

    Just some thoughts…

  4. Tom Mura says:

    Justin,

    I don’t believe you can achieve the same results in the same time by adding a ball and playing games. When you add a ball you get technical improvements but you also lessen the aerobic/anaerobic benefit. This is an acceptable trade off 99% of the time. The lack of touches for these two weeks is more than made up for by the fitness and overall conditioning benefits.

    During the rest of the season we play SSGs that achieve tech/tact/conditioning benefits together in one activity. I’ll describe some of these in future posts.

  5. Nick Adams says:

    Whilst we all want our players to be fit enough to compete, I would question this level of running for 11 year olds and no ball being involved.
    Just simply making kids run won’t make them better players and prepared for the season. There are may excercises that can combine aerobic/anaerobic conditioning with ball skills.

    No offence but I wonder if this is a trait of American coaching in general where many sports rely more on athleticism rather than technical ability?

  6. tommura says:

    I think it’s important to understand that these conditioning runs were done in five, 45 minute sessions before our club training sessions began. This was not a case of trading a technical/tactical session for fitness. Had it not been for these sessions, the girls would not be doing any training at all.

    Of course there are MANY drills, exercises and ssg’s that include aerobic and anaerobic conditioning that also improve ball skills. When you combine fitness and technical training you will obviously sacrifice a percentage of both. The FASTEST way to improve fitness or technique is to do things that focus on them as much as possible.

    This might sound contradictory but stay with me. I’m a huge believer in ‘Global Training’, where you train the technical/tactical/physical/psychological at the same time. The majority of the training we do involves fun games and ssg’s of one type or another.

    I believe that we are better able to do this because the kids start from the first day of practice with a great foundation of conditioning. What we do in five running sessions would take a month of ssg’s progressions to achieve. And since we don’t use one minute of our scheduled training time, we can accomplish even more technical development because the kids are not limited by their low level of fitness at the beginning of the season.

  7. Scott Moody says:

    Nick, Tom and Justin,

    Awesome banter back and fourth here! I wish I would have noticed this post earlier. I think you are all right (if that is possible). At U12 we see many changes going on in the young females, and more specifically, different levels of maturity (physically, emotionally, technically, etc.).

    I agree with Tom’s point about preparing physically in the pre-season, so that we don’t waste time during the season trying to build a base. And here is what you may not understand about the u12′s in this area…They are not doing anything all summer (not touching a ball, not running, not doing much of anything).

    I have seen hundreds of players from dozens of area clubs sit around all summer long, then report to the first practice where the coach tries to put in some fitness based SSG’s only to find that technical skills is terrible, so he stops the game to teach (now we are losing the fitness component). Or maybe he allows the game to continue (now we are losing the the technical component). And what happens on almost every team is several of the players are put into a “fitness” based SSG, and they get tired, their skill level drops, they get out of position and they end up reaching, slipping or extending in a way they normally wouldn’t and they end up pulling a hamstring, groin or hip flexor!

    We are about 3 weeks into the season right now and have already played games. I just had one of the players I train tell me her coach just prescribed a month of 4 days a week of 3 mile runs (on non practice days), and he wants them to text him their timed results!

    He was so upset with the fitness level of his team that he is having them do something that will tear down their speed, fatigue their legs and ultimately hurt their short term technical ability in practice due to fatigue (also increasing risk of injury). The player I work with is concerned because she is in great shape compared to the rest of the team, and is smart enough to know that this is not good for her at this point in the season.

    Had this coach prescribed this in July, his team would be better prepared to work a combined fitness/technical SSG type practice in August.

    Ultimately it comes done to preparation, and if you tell some younger players to get out an work with a ball, they might do it. They might not. But if you tell them that they need to get out for 4-6 sessions and increase the pace of their runs so that they will pass their preseason fitness standard test on the first day of practice, most of them will do it.

    In a perfect world the players would be with us year round and we would never have to go through this level of decreased fitness and technical ability, but in some areas, it is just the way it is and we have to do the best we can with it.