Performance Conditioning for Soccer – Part 1
by Tom Phillips, Conditioning Coach
I became interested in the conditioning coach field when I was studying Kinesiology at California State University, Hayward. One of my professors had worked as the conditioning coach for the Golden State Warriors NBA team. Although I had been a distance runner in college, soccer had become my sport. Since I had not played soccer at a high level, being the head coach of an elite team was not in the cards for me. My background in Sport Science coupled with experience in track seemed to point me to the conditioning coach field. I passed the CSCS exam, the credential for conditioning coaches, and used university research assignments as an opportunity to find out what has been written about the science behind soccer.
In the 1996 season I began as the conditioning coach of the San Francisco Bay Seals USISL team. My workouts include a factor that was, and remains, controversial. This program puts great emphasis on aerobic conditioning without the ball, particularly in the pre and early season. Soccer people insist that running without the ball does not get you “game fit”. I received my sport science training from professors who believe the specificity principle is the guiding light showing the way to maximum performance. I believe in the specificity principle, but only as a principle, not a law. If the specificity principle was a law, for example, weight training would not work. Yet, evidence of the value of weight training is manifold at the highest levels of sport.
When I began with the Seals mid season, it was difficult to fit intensive physical training into a 3 days/week workout schedule. I started small, with interval training when players were out between small sided games. The head coach split the squad into 3 teams, 2 play small-sided games while I conducted fitness training with the 3rd. During a 5 minute game I fit 3 intervals of 160 yards, 3 sides of a small field. Times were 25-30 seconds, with 1 minute rest between. The players felt this detracted from the intensity of the small-sided games, and we soon went to doing the intervals after the technical workout. I then used the time between games for upper body conditioning. The players reported good results on the field as a result of this conditioning, but I wanted a more scientific way of evaluating my program. Here again, the specificity principle would seem to rule out any off the field testing. Having read research done on soccer teams using field tests to measure conditioning, I decided we needed testing. Our practice time was and is limited; I wanted a test that allowed further activity after its performance, so I picked the 1 1/2 mile run for aerobic capacity testing. The 300 yard shuttle has abundant data, and is of a proper distance to measure sprint endurance, so I picked this test to measure anaerobic capacity. (Anaerobic capacity is the ability to exercise very hard with short rest periods. Everyone agrees that this is essential to a soccer player).
I am still experimenting with the 300 shuttle, but a tentative conclusion is that it is most useful for selecting players than in evaluating their progress. A player without an ability to perform repeated sprints will be a liability on an elite soccer team. There seemed to be a positive correlation between the team getting fitter, as measured by the 1 1/2 mile run, and playing well at games. Many people, such as the head coach, noticed this phenomenon. As a result, we began putting more emphasis on running without a ball, and even had fitness days where most of the workout was devoted just to physical training. I introduced some longer intervals, such as 1/4 mile repeats, and the 1 1/2 mile times came down dramatically. As you might expect, this was not universally acclaimed by the players. I believe the hardest thing to do in this world is to change human behavior. Many players are not given a proper fitness protocol during their college playing career, and changing these players’ mind about the priority fitness deserves on an elite team is one of the challenges a conditioning coach faces. I have, when we were on a long undefeated run, physically dominating our opponents, been accused of trying to turn the Seals into a track team. Even with our 1997 successes, this is still an issue.
The 1996 season ended with the Seals finishing second in the USISL Premier Division national playoffs. I felt I had a mandate to continue with the emphasis I had put on aerobic conditioning. During the off season I pushed for more players to practice weight training, and I published a workout calendar with some kind of conditioning five days out of the week. During the off season the Seals were invited to accompany the Mayor of San Francisco and his delegation on a sister city visit to Shanghai. We played that city’s club team, which was the Chinese champion, to a 1-1 tie. This team had several Bulgarian players, and Chinese internationals. Our head coach felt that it was our fitness that carried the day against a team that was clearly technically superior. The most important result of that game was that our confidence level went sky-high. Our players believed that they could play with anyone. Confidence is an important offshoot of superior fitness.
For the 1997 USISL season the Seals stepped up to the Division lll professional league. Qualifications for the US.Open Cup from the USISL are based on early season league play. We nearly failed to qualify because of an oversight on my part. Once a conditioning coach is accepted as a partner by the head coach, the head coach may come to rely on the conditioning coach for sport science related information. We played two games within 24 hours in California’s Central Valley heat. We won the first game in overtime, but lost the second with the players looking slow and tired. Clearly this was a case of insufficient heat acclimatization and fatigue. If you practice in a mild climate but play games in heat stress conditions, as we did, you must acclimatize your players.
Another lesson is that to play a schedule that includes back to back games; you must have a large bench that can play at the same level as the first team. But we did qualify for the US. Open Cup, and began a run that will be remembered for many seasons. Our first round opponent was a Sunday team that provided us with a measure of our place in the San Francisco Bay Area soccer scene. Some soccer people here disparage USISL teams, saying that local Sunday teams are better. We dominated this game in every possible way.
The Seattle Sounders came to town for the second round looking confident. They were the defending A-League champion, and had recently signed two Canadian internationals, Geoff Aunger and Mark Watson. Our home field at the time, Negoesco Stadium, is 120 X 75, which allowed our fitness to shine. We played a solid game and won 1-0 on a Marquise White goal that previewed why he was picked up by MLS for the 1998 season.
Getting matched against the Kansas City Wizards for the 3rd round set us back on our heals, but we stepped up our fitness protocol to try to force an early peak for this career-making game. The players worked so hard for this game, even I, an old distance runner, was in awe. I was incredibly proud as we stepped out from the locker room for the start of the game. Being a part of something that is bigger than you is a rewarding and humbling experience. Our game plan was to play our speed against their big, slow backs. This resulted in two Marquise White goals, and a 2-1 win. The Wizards tried very hard to tie us in the final 15 minutes, but our fitness allowed us to prevent chances from developing, and our keeper made great saves of those that got through. An image that will live in my memory forever is Ron Newman walking by me after the game, headed for the locker room. His fists were clenched at his side, face beet red
Next we were matched with The San Jose Clash, our Bay Area rivals. I felt that we had achieved a physical peak, and made the workouts more anaerobic and included more conditioning with the ball. About this time we instituted a special training group for those who had not met the aerobic fitness standards. We came to the Clash game confident that we were evenly matched and prepared to fight for credibility among Bay Area soccer fans. The result was another 2-1 win for us, and another final 15 minutes where the Clash threw everything at us to tie, but our superior fitness and commitment prevented that from happening.
The fifth round (semi-finals) game was played at a neutral site against D.C United. Bruce Arena made the statement to the press after the game that he was just glad to get out of there with a win and go home. I believe him. Both teams had one goal from the field. The difference was a D.C. penalty kick goal. Marquise White again showed the superior anaerobic fitness of an impact player by losing his marker and 1 touching a pass by the D.C. keeper. In spite of the fact that the game was played on a 90 X 65 field, our fitness again was apparent as we came at them repeatedly and created two great chances in the final minutes. (End of Part 1)
Next issue, Part 2 of “Performance Conditioning for Soccer”