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Some call it soccer, others football, but there is no question that it is the world's most popular sport, with an estimated 270 million people actively playing (1). There is no doubt that to be successful at the elite level, one must possess various athletic attributes from strength and power to aerobic endurance and speed (1). It has also been noted that the physical demands of soccer increase year on year; therefore, the game requires players to be more athletic. Robustness is another attribute elite players need as they must handle up to 200 training sessions and 60 competitive games in one season (2).
In recent times, sports science and strength and conditioning have expanded considerably to enhance performance enhancement and injury reduction. For S&C's working in soccer, these two elements are clearly inter-linked; simply because the athletes who stay injury-free get ample opportunity to enhance their sporting performance - from a physical, technical, and tactical perspective. This leads to a positive cycle, as the more they train, the more robust they become, reducing the chance of future injury.
Before we can detail the key elements in soccer from the perspective of the S&C coach, we need to consider the bigger picture. The below circle diagram is a basic breakdown of the training planning process that underpins an effective soccer-based S&C and injury prevention programme. It will provide you with an excellent way to conceptualise the essential and cut out the clutter, and as such, focus on quality and not quantity.
Yes, I am stealing the term from Simon Sinek; "because it doesn't matter what you do, it matters why you do it". There needs to be a clear rationale for every intervention you put into place, and carrying out a thorough needs analysis is how it all begins. For this to be performed, the following categories should be investigated:
Going into more detail around these 3 categories is outside this article's scope, but the following is a brief outline of male, elite soccer demands;
In regards to player injury, the following are some interesting stats that coaches and medical staff should be aware of:
Soccer insight #1 – Teams tend to perform significantly less high-intensity activity when winning in comparison to losing or drawing (11).
Soccer insight #2 – Home teams cover greater distances compared to away teams (11)
Once you’ve completed a full needs analysis, selecting the relevant tests should be straightforward. The needs analysis acts as the road map, providing a rationale for specific testing to be carried out. If coaches don't carry out performance testing and screening, they have no guidance on which areas players need to work on. Coaches and medical staff must have a solid understanding of the basic principles of testing and screening to be carried out effectively.
Having in-depth knowledge of these principles is fundamental, and understanding concepts such as variability (standard deviation), effect size, z-scores and confidence intervals are essential for test analysis and interpretation. This knowledge provides practitioners with reliable and valid information to aid in decision making further down the road. For further reading in these areas, readers are recommended to look up the work of McGuigan (10).
Due to time constraints and cost, laboratory testing can be inaccessible to many clubs; therefore, field-based tests are widely popular. It is recommended that testing is carried out up to 4 times a year (start of pre-season, end of pre-season, mid-season, and end of season).
Testing is conducted to assess a player's progress and make any program adjustments if necessary. Regarding a full testing battery outline for soccer, along with testing recommendations, readers are directed towards the work of Turner and Stewart (1).
Soccer insight #3 - The use of z-scores is a great way to gain between player comparisons.
Soccer insight #4 - At youth level, linking performance testing scores with maturation data is a great way to get a full picture of each individual player.
For the whole system to work at its peak, everything needs to work in tandem. Now replace system with team and everything with everyone. This is very much true, as for a soccer team to perform at the highest level, all support staff must work closely to ensure no stone is left unturned and performance is maximised. This involves clubs stepping away from the 'silo' effect and changing mentality from an 'us' and 'them' to a 'we' mentality. Player-focused approach works well here.
By coming together as a multi-disciplinary team (MDT), a more holistic approach is taken to help the player reach his/her highest potential. From an S&C and injury reduction point of view, the S&C/Sports Science and medical staff must come together and set specific targets and objectives for each individual player.
It is essential to point out that there must be a rationale for each goal set, and the implementation of a needs analysis and testing battery, along with talking to the technical coaches, helps identify this rationale.
Soccer insight #5 – Use player rehab as a "window of opportunity" to work on areas they need to improve on.
This article focuses on the key elements and considerations when planning an S&C/injury prevention program in soccer, but due to there being no single 'correct way' for implementing an S&C program, the following are little pointers I have learned along the way.
Soccer insight #6 – Be sure to implement accessory prehab work in your gym sessions such as calf raises, copenhagen's, and nordic hamstring curls.
To maximise the training effect, coaches need to understand how certain training interventions will produce a specific physiological response. This is where the monitoring of training load has become a significant element in enhancing performance and reducing soccer injuries. In relation to monitoring, there are internal (RPE, Heart Rate) and external measures (GPS, accelerometers), but the key is that monitoring is consistent.
If coaches are not consistent, they will be unable to track trends and changes over time, leading to a potential decrease in sporting performance and an increase in injury risk. A hybrid approach is recommended if one is carrying out monitoring among Soccer athletes, which will involve both internal and external measures.
The following is a breakdown of measures that coaches are recommended to monitor
Soccer insight #7 - Tracking ball rolling times during sessions is an excellent metric to measure as it will help guide technical coaches.
This is an area that many coaches fail to address and is the most important as it helps identify what elements went well and others not so well. In soccer, this can be done at the end of the season and can be done in various ways:
Soccer insight #8 – Be sure to get feedback from your players also, as they can provide great value.
Download our useful sports physio and rehab ebook for expert advice on injury risk mitigation, rehab strengthening, hamstring injuries, concussion management & more - a great resource to have!
Michael Mullane is the current Head of Academy Sports Science at Leyton Orient Football Club. Michael is an experienced multi-sport practitioner having previously worked with London Gaelic Football and the University of East London. Michael holds a Masters degree in Strength and Conditioning from Middlesex University and is an accredited Strength and Conditioning with the UKSCA and NSCA.
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McGuigan, M. (2019).Testing and Evaluation of Strength and Power. Routledge.
Turner, A. (Ed.). (2018).Routledge handbook of strength and conditioning: Sport-specific programming for high performance. Routledge.About the author(H2 Heading)