Conditioning for Soccer Players

Player Conditioning and Physical Development

Playing soccer in the TPSC are over 650 children between the ages of 4 and 19. Towards ensuring their health and safety, the TPSC board has undertaken to review standards and professional recommendations for the conditioning of these children.

Our research led to a host of regional and national experts, including the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, the American Academy of Pediatrics, a variety of children’s sporting organizations and physicians, coaches and trainers all the way to that of the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team.

The results were perhaps surprising to those of us laymen as some findings are 180 degrees from the “common knowledge” and coaching philosophies that we grew up with. However, it’s clear that more is known now than even a few short years ago, and there are clear guidelines that we can draw on.

Aerobic Conditioning
It is physically impossible to increase a pre-pubescent child’s aerobic capacity by more than 5-10% beyond their individual innate level. That’s so counterintuitive for us adults that it bears repeating: Running lots of laps to increase a child’s heart or circulatory capacity will yield only minimal gains.

And, in fact, given that most children are extraordinarily active during the day (witness any school playground at recess), their physical capacity is being appropriately stretched outside of team practice anyway. This is very different from adults and late adolescents who can see aerobic gains of up to 35% through exercise.

What does this mean? Just this: You will achieve far more results for your practice time if you train “with the ball” than running without it. As many coaches firmly believe, “If it’s not with a ball, it’s not worthwhile.”

As a prepared coach who is following the accepted coaching precepts of "no lines, no lectures, no laps," your practice should be designed to minimize inactivity and maximize time with the ball. Use active drills that involve ball movement, sprints and small-sided games rather than laps around the field.

Anaerobic Conditioning
Weight training should not be part of a TPSC Rec coach’s program. That being said, please use the following as general information if you are asked about it. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that anaerobic conditioning either helps or hurts the physical development of children.

Workouts with light free weights are probably okay for most children. Many experts commenting on weight training will suggest that more repetitions are better than more weight.

With weight training, it is uncommon to see great changes in muscle mass in young children. While many children may want to see giant biceps or washboard abs as a measure of their development, what they will in fact see are incremental increases in the number of repetitions they will be able to do or increases in the weight that they will manage (however again, emphasize repetitions over weight: children should not overdo weight training!).

You may be interested to learn that the children’s sport with the highest incidence of injuries per player is Girl’s Cross Country. Soccer ranks between 5th and 10th, also below football, wrestling and a few others. The most frequent body parts injured in all childhood sports are ankles and legs.

Stress fractures, while not unknown in younger players, are three times more likely to occur in adolescent players. These often develop when there is a change in activity and require an absolute cessation of the activity during the healing process, with a gradual return under a doctor’s supervision.

Our experts tell us that “children do not fake injuries.” If they are telling us that they hurt, they do. Please refer to the TPSC coaches’ manual for instructions as to how to approach specific injuries. It goes without saying to always err on the side of caution where injuries are concerned.

Spend a few minutes at the start and end of each practice to warmup/cool-down and stretch. With soccer players, particularly concentrate on the lower extremities: ankle, calf, quadriceps, hamstring and groin. While the muscles and soft tissues of children are much more pliable than adults and they therefore rarely “pull” muscles, developing good workout habits early will serve to reduce the incidence of injuries throughout a player’s sporting life.

By the U-12 level and above, increased emphasis on flexibility (stretching) must be part of each team workout.

Motor and Skill Development
No amount of drill and practice will enable a child to master a skill if they are not developmentally ready to master it. The corollary to this is that many of the gains we may see in a particular child from season to season (or even month to month during a season) may be as much a function of their natural motor development as from practice or experience. It is important for us to set reasonable expectations for each child and to recognize that there will be great variations in ability from child to child based on their individual motor development alone.

What the American Academies of Pediatrics and Orthopaedic Surgeons have to say...