Interview by Mike Woitalla
John Cone, who most recently served as the Portland Timbers Director of Sports Science and fitness coach, is a health and fitness consultant to the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and the youth national team program, and a USSF coach educator. We asked Cone to address fitness training issues for youth players.
SOCCER AMERICA: What are the biggest mistakes youth coaches make when it comes to fitness training?
JOHN CONE: I see a number of mistakes that are fairly consistent across levels of coaching. 1) They don't make fitness specific enough to the level of players they are working with. 2) It's often not specific to the demands of the game; involving the ball or not, they ask the players to perform running that is irrelevant to what a player does in a game. 3) Fitness should not be exhaustive; a lot of coaches think that for fitness to be effective the players need to end up in a heap. 4) The coaches don't give the players enough rest between exercises; it is important to balance the intensity and duration of an exercise with recovery so the players can perform at a high level.
SA: What are the perils of your third point?
JOHN CONE: When coaches do this, two risks are being taken. First, working players too hard leads to their movement quality decreasing, this immediately results in an increased risk of injury. Second, this type of work often requires several recovery days due to the buildup of fatigue. The result is an increased chance of overuse injury over time.
SA: At what age does it make sense to have fitness training without the ball?
JOHN CONE: It's less a question of age, and more a question of the situation. In team training it seldom makes sense for the players to do activities without the ball at any age. Above the ages of approximately 13 in girls and 14 in boys, performing fitness without the ball may be important if the individual player is in an off period of training, returning from injury, or supplementing training. Even at these times, there are activities with the ball that can be used to simultaneously increase fitness and soccer-specific technical ability.
SA: Should running laps still be part of a youth soccer practice?
JOHN CONE: Absolutely not. While it is less than ideal for the players to run without the ball, this type of steady state running is the most problematic for a couple of simple reasons. 1) The lack of fluctuation in intensity does not emphasize one of the most important components of soccer-specific fitness, the ability to recover rapidly from work. 2) Because of the lack of change in intensity, the muscles are not taxed in a manner specific to soccer.
SA: How many weeks or months should youth players take off from organized soccer?
JOHN CONE: This is an important question that for me over-simplifies a larger problem. It's more important to consider the ratio of games to training, combined with the length of the season relative to their time off. Unfortunately, the youth through college schedules tend to pack a large number of games into a relatively short period of time. The result is an extremely dense schedule that leads to a relatively dramatic increase in soccer-specific work that then precipitates the need for "time off."
We really need to address a number of components because giving the players more or less time off does not adequately address the issue. At the core of this is the fact that each team's season needs to be periodized with a focus on balancing the intensity of training with the games played. Additionally, the time off from soccer needs to be appropriately planned to include periods of recovery and training, where the focus includes increasing general athleticism and soccer-specific fitness and athleticism.
SA: What advice would you give coaches of players in the earliest years of youth soccer?
JOHN CONE: Make sure the players are on the ball as often as possible, and focus specifically on challenging how well the players move. Developing the movement abilities of young players goes a long ways in developing overall athleticism and ultimately soccer-specific abilities.
SA: What advice would you give coaches of players in their teens?
JOHN CONE: Be aware of the individual differences that develop among your players as they grow and mature. For me, this is the most dynamic and therein most challenging group of players due to the constant change that accompanies growth and maturation, and the large disparity that may occur within a single team. The ability to address an individual within a team is a big challenge. This can only be done by using an effectively periodized training plan.
John Cone has a Ph.D. in kinesiology, an M.S. in Exercise Physiology and several coaching licenses, including the USSF A. He recently completed a stint as the Portland Timbers Director of Sports Science that was preceded by assistant coaching duties with the Carolina Dynamo and the Sporting Kansas City (nés Wizards). He has coached youth and college ball, and has worked with U.S. Soccer in several capacities, including as Sports Science Consultant, coach educator and U.S. Development Academy scout, since 2005. Cone also heads Fit for 90, a soccer fitness and injury prevention consulting service for players and coaches.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)