Separating fitness and skill (part 2 of 2)
By Jennifer Schwartz
Editor’s note: Jennifer Schwartz is the owner of Impact Fitness DC, a professional private training company providing fitness services to female athletes, teams, individuals, and small groups in Washington, D.C. She holds a certified mastery in biomechanics with a specialization in resistance training and muscle activation techniques™, and is also a United States Soccer Federation-licensed coach with the Alexandria Soccer Association. Soccer Wire is very pleased to present Jennifer’s perspectives on biomechanics and injury prevention.
In the first part of Separating Fitness and Skills, my intention was to shed light on the theory that soccer athletes can be conditioned to withstand the aerobic and anaerobic demands of a full-sided game within the proper academy curriculum. I also hoped to clearly establish that the duty of the fitness professional is not to add to the wear and tear of an athlete, but to keep them injury-free by strengthening their muscular system’s tolerance to perform at a high level.
The “old school” approach to training athletes has been to run them into the ground, leaving them sore from high intensity training. However, a deeper look into potential training adaptations and sensitivity of the muscular system will show you that training ‘smarter’ does not necessarily mean ‘harder.’
Part two of this series will begin to introduce conditioning for endurance and speed as a portion of in-season programming.
The topic of discussion in my most recent Virginia Youth Soccer Association coaching seminar was the development of midfielders. All the greats of modern midfielders were mentioned, including the highly acclaimed Xavi of FC Barcelona. The question of distance conditioning for midfielders was brought into play, along with the fact that no one typically sees Barcelona midfielders struggling with endurance.
Even with extremely high amounts of defensive pressure, most players won’t see more than three consistent minutes of running at any given time. They’re efficient as much as elegant, and their contribution to the sport has played a major role in the resurgence of skill development. They challenged the conventional ideas about fitness and athletic stature on the pitch.
As anticipated, the VYSA instructor informed us that we could meet these same conditioning goals when we involved a ball in the training process. If we followed a comprehensive development approach, only 5% of training to would be dedicated to increasing speed, and none to endurance conditioning. To offer a little more perspective, a team training 180 minutes per week during the season would only have nine minutes of speed-centered training over all. For my team, and many like it, that equation would shrink the time down to seven minutes.
The nature of the game and conditioning are synonymous. The nature of soccer, its repetitive motion of running, and being “injury free,” are not two terms you hear in synonym though. Running alone is taxing on most people’s joints. A full-sided soccer game will have a player running six to seven miles during a match. Transferring the same distance to a track for training won’t equate to a good model for training. If you do the math, there are 5,280 feet in a mile, and with the average gait of a runner at 3 feet, this equates to between 800 and 900 strides per leg! In the way that repeating one, single word over 800 times doesn’t make you a better reader, putting higher and higher mileage into training will not make a better soccer player.
Logic alone may not be enough to convince some coaches and parents to discontinue their five-mile endurance runs or hill sprints, but hopefully a zoomed-in view of the specific mechanics may be enough to deter even the most hardened skeptic. Doing 800 repetitions of motion for the hip, knee, and foot will cause more damage than good to the muscle’s ability to contract efficiently, than a training adaptation of stronger knees. When you shift the focus to tendons, a strong tendon is a positive adaptation to training versus tendonitis.
A callous, versus a blister, is another example of a positive adaptation to force distribution on a surface over time. Exercise choices and adaptations are all influenced by appropriate application. A quote from the Resistance Training Specialist Manual offers this perspective: “There are no good exercises or bad exercises. This is not freedom from making bad decisions. Every exercise presents both costs and benefit. The question is for whom and when during the progression are those appropriate.”
Joint Structure and Function, 5th edition (Levangie and Norkin) offers extensive figures and measurements published to explain muscular participation and joint angles in running gait. According to this information, we can expect only a handful of muscles to have a greater amount of mechanical advantage, therefore they must be active to generate internal forces throughout the gait cycle.
Gluteus maximus, Gluteus medius, Tensor fascia latae, Adductor magnus, Iliopsoas, and Adductor longus take the highest percentage of use over less mechanically-influential muscles in a pattern of running gait. Compound forces acting on the joints can equate to roughly 200% of a person’s body weight when running. Upon every single strike, the foot muscles must accommodate for this considerable force, which is no small task for the nervous system either.
These compound forces will move through the body while the nervous system responds with an orchestration of muscles that pull on the bones to rotate them, and then propel the athlete forward. I can without a doubt state that running more does not equate to being able to tolerate these forces any better. Muscle tissue tolerance will not increase with this amount of overload. Instead they become fatigued and unable to perform at their best.
What amazes me about the mechanical aspects of the skeleton is that the tissue conditions don’t have to be perfect every single time we put our body to the test. However, if tissue threshold is exceeded time and time again without full recovery we can expect a failure. These failures come in the form of muscular tightness, weakness and inflammation. An athlete needs exercise that improves the tolerance and performance of the tissues involved in the gait cycle.
Athletic prowess is a blend of attitude, muscular efficiency and skill competency. These are the qualities that need to be developed over time through volume of training, comprehensive learning, recognizing mistakes, the building blocks of genetics, and overall health. Soccer matches are a battle between two teams trying to use time and space to their maximum effect. If you have observed Barcelona’s ‘tiki taka’ style and can relate to the Xavi example from earlier, you understand why Xavi is such a power in the midfield without the flashiness we traditionally expect from a central midfielder.
Where is a team’s/club’s development of the management of space and time? How many of us are recognizing the importance of this movement? If a club or academy is able to teach this fine-tuned execution of playing the game, then how does this transfer to strength development? I hope that it has become little more clear why there is no need to spend 15 minutes of precious training time on running, also known as overstressing an athlete’s ability to move efficiently, and strengthen joints rather than wearing them down.
I am the head coach of the Under-13 Girls travel program at the Alexandria Soccer Association; they have been my girls since U-10. I have built a group training regimen around both skill development, tactical applications of skills and increasing overall strength. Our speed training occurs on the pitch during the season with small-sided activities and games that challenge their ability to sprint and recover.
Very few times over the years have I ever had them line up for sprints the way most soccer programs do. There has been only one incident of being sidelined for an overuse injury since their U-10 season. In-season, we include specific abdominal exercises and isometric exercises in our warm up/recovery activity. In the offseason, they play basketball, futsal, participate in strength training with other female athletes and some receive Muscle Activation Techniques.
I believe that if a coach or trainer thinks they can create a better soccer player by replacing skill work with high-intensity training or conditioning, they are not true fans of the ‘beautiful game.’ What I believe, and what sports performance professionals really need to focus their attention towards, is keeping the athlete injury-free while improving their ability to recover from the physical and mental stresses placed on the modern athlete.