"Are you match fit?" The definition being, you are fit enough to play at a high pace for a full match.
Now the problem is not that coaches and players do not try to get soccer fit, it's that the approach is a bit haphazard and inconsistent. You may have noticed that I refer to "match fit" and "soccer fit" as opposed to simply physically fit. That's because players and coaches must follow the S.A.I.D. principle to achieve the type of physical fitness needed for soccer. Coaches learn this principle when they attend the "D" License coaching course.
The S.A.I.D. principle is Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. This means that the human body will adapt to the physical demands placed upon it. Hence, the physical demands in a training session must be similar to the physical demands of a match.
Furthermore, the physical fitness training conducted must be specific to soccer. This means coaches should do away with running laps around the field. Soccer is not long distance running. It is a series of short sprints, jumps, jogging and walking over a full match.
Predominately soccer is anaerobic in nature. This means the muscles must work for short bursts without oxygen. Long-distance running (jogging around the field) is continuous movement with a steady supply of oxygen. Go out in the yard and run straight for 30 yards at a jogging pace and then do three 10 yards sprints and you'll notice the difference.
So how do coaches and players make their soccer fitness training specific to the demands of the game? Simply play soccer!
Is there a place for fitness training without the ball? Sure, but the majority of weight training, wind sprints, two-a-days, etc. should be confined to players 16 years old and older.
Older teenage and young adult players are well into adolescence and their bodies will respond better to the demands of overload training. Chances are also high that players those ages will be participating in highly competitive club, high school, ODP, college and/or professional soccer. They will certainly need the extra fitness for the demands of the game at the highest levels of play. But can players get fit enough for soccer by simply playing soccer?
Unequivocally yes! If, the coach and players put sufficient demands into a training session much can be accomplished. Then both fitness and technique, and possibly tactics too, can be trained. This is called economical training.
The problem is that most players' train in second or third gear and the coach allows them to get away with it. Then comes match time and they must play in fourth gear, and occasionally in overdrive, and they are not up to it. The lack of fitness is even more noticeable in extreme weather conditions, especially high heat and humidity.
Certainly there are training sessions where the players should not be pushed to play at match pace. When learning a new ball skill or tactical concept the pace will need to be slower. This is so the players can have success and build their confidence.
Once the technique or tactic is well-learned, then to improve players must train at match pace. Can a team train at match pace for an entire training session? No, and a good coach would not want them to do so.
A proper warm-up and cool-down are essential. The first few activities during a training session must ease into a higher pace. The last two or three activities of a training session are the ones done at match speed.
However, even in a training session intended to broach new topics the overall rhythm of the session should be quick. Far too many training sessions drag along and thus become boring and insufficient demands are placed upon the players. You cannot expect to train in a nonchalant way, in second gear and then perform well in a match.
So the key is that when the training session has reached the match condition stages the players must push themselves, and be pushed by the coach, to perform at match speed. This one factor alone is missing in most training sessions. With it the competitiveness, speed of thinking (tactical decision-making), technical speed and fitness improve.
The players have a responsibility here to push themselves. Don't wait for the coach to have to yell at you to play at a pace that you yourself wish to perform at come game day. You get out of training what you put into it! Train in second gear and you'll play in second gear and when you try to play faster you'll fail.
Players need to push themselves first and foremost. Only then do you have a right to expect that your teammates should do the same. Then the coach is there to push you along when you need the help. The coach has the responsibility to relay these expectations to the players and to set the tone at the appropriate training sessions and at the proper time of a session.
By training often during a season at match pace the team will be prepared for the specific demands of the match. If the team trains this way then the need for calisthenics and running laps is eliminated.
Match pace training brings out the best in everyone. Finally, while playing at match speed is indeed physically demanding, it's much more enjoyable because the ball is involved and you are actually playing the game. That's always more fun than wind sprints.
Enjoy the game!
(Sam Snow is US Youth Soccer 's Director of Coaching Education. This article first appeared in U.S. Youth Soccer Blogs, which can be read at www.usyouthsoccer.org/Blog.asp )