Every year, college and high school soccer coaches are confronted with the same dilemma: how best to get their team into game-shape in the limited amount of time available for pre-season. This time typically ranges from three to four weeks, and with a full agenda on the schedule such as tactical and technical training in addition to conditioning, it can be a daunting task to optimize the training to get the most out of the limited amount of time. Pre-season is also the most critical time of the entire soccer season. It is the time in which the coach gets to set the agenda for training and build good habits without the interference of matches. It requires proper planning and a step-wise procedure. So, to help with this process, here are ten simple things to keep in mind so that pre-season training is as efficient and effective as possible.
1. Use a dynamic warm-up before training.
The optimal way to get your athletes prepared for a training session is to have them do a dynamic warm-up incorporating movements and speeds approaching those they will see in the actual training exercises. The traditional warm-up of light jogging then 5-10 minutes of static stretching is actually detrimental to the strength, speed, and injury potential of the athletes. Begin the dynamic warm-up after a 5-10 minutes of jogging to raise the body temperature and get blood flowing through the muscles. Follow with several sets of movements (skipping, twisting, quick starts, cutting, etc.) that gradually and progressively approach the intended activity of the training session.
2. Emphasize proper hydration.
Proper drinking habits prior to, during, and immediately after training could have the biggest effect on the athletes. Make sure that your athletes begin training with a “full tank”. Allow adequate intervals every 15-20 minutes for replenishing during training. This will enable them to last for the duration of the workout. And encourage drinking sufficient volumes of carbohydrate drinks immediately after training in order to replace what was just burned, help reduce muscle soreness, and prepare for the next day of training. These are habits that will pay dividends as the season gets longer and tougher.
3.Eliminate slow, continuous jogging as a means to train aerobic endurance.
As a general warm-up, for the first 5-10 minutes of training, slow continuous jogging is fine. As a training method for soccer players to increase their aerobic capacity, it is terrible. The absolute best method for increasing a soccer player’s aerobic capacity is interval running/training in which they alternate short bouts of intense running or sprinting with bouts of recovery (jogging or walking). This simulates the game for which they are training. Better yet, use small-sided games in an interval format (e.g. 4 sets of 4 min. 4 v 4 games with 3 minutes of rest between) to make the training as soccer-specific as possible. Players are much more motivated to train with the ball. Remember, if players train slow, they will be slow in the game – and that does not make for a winning strategy.
4. Incorporate sprinting and speed work in as many drills as possible.
Train your team to be fast by having as many drills and exercises as possible emphasize high speed running. Make it competitive by using races and relays. Incorporate the ball into these drills. Make the distances sport-specific by ranging from 10-30 yards. Monitor fatigue – allow sufficient recovery time when speed and form are the primary concerns. When speed endurance is the focus, that is, the ability to perform repeated sprints in a fatigued state, reduce the recovery time between sprints and increase the number of reps. Don’t forget to use obstacles (hurdles, cones, poles) and make it multi-directional.
5. Jump-start the central nervous system.
Lead off all your training sessions, after a dynamic warm-up, of course, with a set of exercises designed to jump-start the central nervous system and get the players primed and ready for a high intensity training session. Agility exercises such as ladder drills and mini-hurdles will help your players learn how to move faster and improve their coordination. Ten to 15 minutes per training session will make the work afterwards proceed at a higher intensity and speed. It’s also fun and the players love the challenge.
6. Use lines to manipulate the work-to-rest ratios.
Drills with long lines may be bad in certain situations of training (small kids, technical training, etc.) but for conditioning exercises, using lines of players is the best way to enforce proper work-to-rest ratios. It is imperative for specific types of conditioning that players get sufficient rest between reps and sets. Speed, agility, and coordination work, in which the brain is learning how to control the muscles in an efficient manner, require that the players not be overly fatigued. Organize these drills so that each player has several seconds to a few minutes between exertions. For endurance exercises such as speed endurance, lactate threshold training, and aerobic endurance, lines should be reduced or eliminated so that the players do not get too much rest.
7. Add a cool-down to your training regimen.
A proper cool-down at the conclusion of training will bring the players heart-rates down in a controlled manner, help reduce DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), reduce the chance for injury, and start the process for preparing the athlete for the next training session. A proper cool-down includes light jogging then static stretching. It is also a good time to replenish depleted fuel stores with Gatorade or some other carbohydrate sports drink.
8. Encourage sound nutritional practices.
Not only do the vast majority of high school and college soccer players have a poor diet, many do not know how critical a good diet is to an athlete. Eating a proper diet during the season can be the difference between a starting position and sitting on the bench, or taking home a championship trophy and finishing in second-place or lower. It can also be the deciding factor in close games. A poor diet can undo all the hard work that is done in training by preventing the body from recovering, adapting, and improving. Coaches should instruct their players what is good to eat and what to avoid. They should also give guidelines for what and when to eat before games and training. Finally, they should identify the foods that should be avoided at all costs during the season such as candy, high fat foods, deep fried foods, alcohol, and high sugar beverages. If players follow these guidelines for proper nutrition throughout the season the rewards can be great!!
9. Consider the order of exercises in a training session.
Exercises conducted in an improper order can reduce the effectiveness of the drills, interfere with learning and skills acquisition, and increase the chance for injury. Exercises should always be conducted in order of decreasing neural demand. Always start training with a proper dynamic warm-up then progress to agility and/or coordination exercises. These drills are short and intense, requiring a high neural demand and therefore should be done with plenty of rest between reps and sets. Next, progress to any sprint/speed work, excluding speed endurance. This would also include strength or plyometric exercises. After this stage, move on to the technical/tactical component of the training. This will normally occupy the bulk of the allotted training time. At this point the athletes should be getting a bit tired from the exercises and a general build-up of fatigue. It is at this point that endurance activities should be conducted. This includes aerobic endurance and speed endurance exercises. Finally, always finish with a cool-down.
10. Plan on 6-8 weeks to build the necessary aerobic capacity in your athletes.
Coaches must be realistic and plan properly for the start of the season. Unless the athletes come into pre-season with a high level of fitness, it is unrealistic to plan on for less than 6-8 weeks of training in order to get them to the proper condition for soccer. This means starting gradually and training in a controlled and progressive manner. More harm is done each year by having poorly conditioned athletes come into the first week of training and running them into the ground. Often, the injuries picked up from this first “hell week” of training lasts through the whole season. This could mean the difference between a successful season and a mediocre one; and the difference, for a young athlete, between a phenomenal break-out season and a frustrating, injury-riddled few months. Coaches should plan two to three days per week of aerobic conditioning exercises during the first six to eight weeks comprising the pre-season and early competitive season in order to build the required aerobic capacity in their athletes so that they can compete effectively. It is unrealistic and foolish to plan for anything less.