With the fall soccer season winding down I wanted to highlight three ways that can elevate your athleticism and specifically targets minimizing injury risk as a soccer player.
Soccer is a physical sport that requires strength, speed, agility and conditioning at a very high level. Not only that but soccer players need these qualities while their opponent is trying to wrestle the ball from them, knock them off the ball completely or impact their path to the ball.
Needless to say, soccer players have their hands cut out for them when they are trying to make their impact on the game.
In order to best help these athletes it is critical that we understand the unique demands of their sport and how proper training can help them excel at a higher level.
- Establishing Proper Hamstring & Glute Function
Yes, it may not come as a surprise to you that soccer players need to play close attention to their hamstrings to make sure that they remain healthy. What many are not aware of are the best practices so that hamstring complex is doing what it is designed to while at the same time preventing the hamstrings from over compensating.
The major roll of the hamstring muscles is to eccentrically control knee extension during running. This means that as your leg comes through during the sprint cycle your hamstrings prevent the knee and shin from flying out in front of the body’s center of mass. The major roll that is NOT the job of the hamstrings is hip extension. This means that it is NOT the job of the hamstrings to bring your hips fully through during the sprint cycle with the plant leg.
Why this is important? Strains happen because of the inability of the hamstring muscles to effectively control this deceleration mechanism of the knee and shin. Athletes who are used to only doing squats and machine based training programs are therefore not enhancing the hamstrings ability to control deceleration through the gait cycle. When the hamstrings fatigue during long soccer runs they lose the ability to properly control the knee and shin and therefore over extend their reach… thus creating that dreaded strain!
Furthermore, when the glutes are not firing and properly extending the hip the hamstrings take over and create a mechanism called synergistic dominance. This means that the number two muscle in the contraction (the synergist) is over-compensating (dominance) for the number one muscle in the contraction… in this example it is the glutes. Because of this roll reversal the hamstrings again get over extended during the extension part of the running cycle… when fatigue happens we experience hamstring strains!
In order to enhance eccentric hamstring strength WHILE teaching glute hip extension our favorite exercise are hamstring curls on either sliders or a yoga ball. The key when you are doing this exercise is to keep your hips fully extended and your glutes firing. This reinforces and strengthens both qualities of the hip and hamstring complex.
When soccer athletes use this exercise consistency and properly they become safer and more explosive as they have taught the hamstring and glutes to work together efficiently.
- Mastering Movement Agility
A common tool that soccer players, and many athletes use is the agility ladder. While we love this tool we feel that soccer athletes have never been taught and therefore tremendously benefit from learning what we call “movement agility.”
The beautiful component of watching soccer is to see players glide, change direction, sprint, stop and do so in tight spaces on the field. This reality of the sport requires that players are better able to use their bodies in small spaces to reposition themselves so that they are best able to get to get to the ball.
In the game this looks like players cutting, twisting and turning through movement but doing so in a way that is powerful and graceful.
This is movement agility. The difference between movement agility and ladder drill agility is that using ladders is predominantly your feet moving around your body a few inches. The ladder drills require your center of gravity to move by inches instead of yards.
Movement agility is challenging your body to control momentum as you maneuver several yards in 360 degrees. In order to best implement these skills soccer players need to be able to move their feet AND hips around their body at a moments notice, create angles that optimize force transfer and feel comfortable putting force into the ground to maximize change of direction power.
When you combine movement agility AND ladder drill agility the game completely changes for soccer players. They become safer because they cannot be pushed off balance. They become more efficient because they can take the quickest and shortest line to the ball. They become better players because they seem to be ‘all over the field.’ They become more confident because they are more in control of their body than they have ever been on the field.
Teaching movement agility as a coach is also a lot of fun and very rewarding. On a personal level, these skill sets create a sense of clarity between the player and coach. The player sees the angles, the movements, the body control that is created with these skills and so it becomes a common language between coach and player. Further, the player immediately sees how these skills can benefit them once they get on the field.
Ladder drill agility is a very important quality. Imagine what is capable when the soccer player is as skilled with movement agility?
- Enhancing Acceleration
The goal is in sight, you are jogging up just approaching the 18 and all you need is that one extra touch and you can burst to the ball and finish this run with a great goal. Unfortunately, from your jog you can’t break free from your defender to create the space necessary to get a clear angle for a shot.
This missed opportunity happens all the time during the game. The team is moving the ball down the field on a nice run, one player has a decent angle and try’s to make that extra run to get distance from the defender to score a goal. The problem is that the player does not have the acceleration ability necessary to break from the pack and get in the position to score.
The ability to accelerate, or rapidly explode in one direction for a short distance, is so critical for soccer players. Soccer can be a very congested sport if spacing breaks down. Even when spacing is above average, players need to have the ability to instantly create distance and separation to take advantage of a striking opportunity.
In order to maximize acceleration soccer players need to create strength-speed in the weight room. This means that after they get strong they need to use sub-maximal loads to move weight more rapidly. This transfers directly over to the field of play to use as game-speed acceleration. In order to do this we like to use an elevated split squat with about 50% of the athletes 1-rep max. The goal being is to move a lighter load than usual at a very fast rate. When athletes are able to move lighter weight fast in the weight room it gives them the ability to propel their body at a significantly faster rate as well.
In addition to this technique soccer players need to train their speed in short distances, ideally around 10 yards. This forces the players to learn how to apply all of their force in a short distance and get as fast as they can in a short amount of time. This is the best speed strategy for maximizing acceleration because we are not focusing about top end speed, only the ability to get fast, fast!
Soccer is a very demanding sport that requires unique aspects of performance to ready players for the game. Understanding how the hamstring and glute complex work together is essential to prevent injury and maximize performance. We love teaching players movement agility as well as ladder drill agility because it puts together both pieces of the movement puzzle. Lastly, when players enhance their acceleration they become a much more feared and noticed threat on the field. If you want to become the best soccer player that you can become, apply these three principles to your off-season programming!
If you would like to learn more about our comprehensive approach to athlete development please feel free to reach out via phone or email.
All the Best,
Gary Vesper, XPS, FMS, CSAC, Pn1
Founder and Head Coach