Why no laps -- and other fitness & health insight (Q&A: John Cone)

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

Soccer America on Twitter: Follow Soccer America | Mike Woitalla

11 comments about "Why no laps -- and other fitness & health insight (Q&A: John Cone) ".
  1. Brian Something, December 13, 2013 at 5:34 p.m.

    My default is to always do any sort of fitness with a ball. It's not really hard to develop exercises that increase fitness even as the primary exercise is ball work (which is what most of our kids need more).

  2. Kent James, December 13, 2013 at 5:55 p.m.

    While I generally agree with the advice offered here, I have two reservations. First, I do think 5 or 10 minutes of intense sprinting (where players are taxed in each rep, but given time to rest between, and the number of reps is not high) at the end of practice can be beneficial. Physically, I would think it helps build aerobic capacity as well as improves overall speed, but more importantly (and the reason I think it should not be eliminated) is that it builds mental toughness and team spirit. Getting players to push themselves (and each other) builds their confidence and their will to win. My second point is that while I would never advocate having a team run laps as part of practice, I don't think distance training is useless. I began distance training in high school, and essentially never tired during soccer games (until I got older!). While it is clearly not as useful as soccer-specific training, as an off-season means of keeping in shape it has a number of advantages; mainly that it can be done anywhere, at anytime, doesn't take too long (20 minutes), it doesn't require special equipment and it makes you feel good when you're done (and is also a healthy habit to develop). So yes, practice should focus on intense activities that are game specific, but I think it is okay to occasionally do short periods of fitness/speed training during practice, and in the off-season, distance running can be helpful.

  3. Kent James, December 13, 2013 at 6:02 p.m.

    My previous comments are applicable only to U14 and up competitive age groups. I agree that fitness specific training should not be a part of most youth soccer programs. And I HATED running laps in 6th grade, but by the time I was in 10th grade, found that I enjoyed distance running. So distance training should also be reserved for more physically mature kids, and I would never force someone to do it if they hated it.

  4. David V, December 13, 2013 at 8:26 p.m.

    First: JOHN CONE said: "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"

    What is meant by "challenge" and "how well the players move"? Move? in what way, what movement, type, frequency, not sure what this looks like on a field.

    Again, what is "movement abilities" ?

    Second: If kids need to build up fitness, and it is generally not pleasurable at a certain point, do you want them using a ball so that there is then an association with a ball and lack of enjoyment? Or would you want to have them connect a lack of enjoyment without the ball?

    athleticism and ultimately soccer-specific abilities.

  5. clarence gaines, December 13, 2013 at 9:42 p.m.

    Wrote this a couple of years ago when my son was a BU12 soccer player to the Director of Coaching after observing a practice - Part 1

    Coach conducted conditioning, plyometrics, body weight strengthening exercises, etc. for over an hour at Monday's practice. I pulled my son at exactly 8PM because I thought what he was doing was ridiculous. Practice was supposed to end at 8PM and what Coach was doing was punitive & not beneficial to the psyche of his young troops or relevant in terms of developing technical or tactical skills. When I told Coach it was 8PM, Player 1, who has been injured for nearly two weeks clasped his hands together and said thank you. Did Coach stop. No, he continued to run the entire group & told my son to go with me.

    I wrote a blog in June entitled "Do No Harm:"
    My opening sentence: "Do No Harm is an axiom in life that should be a guide post for those who are in leadership or authoritarian positions. 'Doing no harm' to those who are under one's tutelage or supervision should be foremost in a leader's mind when determining policy and procedure." I will add that "doing no harm" should be Rule #1 for all coaches in constructing and implementing a practice plan.

    I asked my son what prompted Coach to engage in this type of behavior. My son said (paraphrasing) "Coach was upset that 7 balls were relatively flat so he had us run 7 ups and backs. Then Player 2 arrived late without a ball and he made us run 2 more. Then he said to the boys (according to my son) that since we didn't have enough good balls, that we can't have a regular practice and we'll just run." Is that a good reason to conduct a marathon condition and strengthening session with young soccer players. Hell no and it's not something a coach should ever do with a team of any age or level. Petty and sophomoric.

    My son came out of practice saying his knee & achilles hurt. Player 1, who has A-team level talent and is one of the most important players on this team has missed two games and two weeks of practice because of pain in his right hip or groin area and Coach subjects him to this type of training. Not only is that harmful, but it's stupid. Young boys at this age are susceptible to overuse injuries and coaches have to be aware of this fact. Many are doing other sports, which provides additional stress on their growing bodies. Do no Harm!

  6. clarence gaines, December 13, 2013 at 9:47 p.m.

    Part 2 -- I think you have enough information from me. I've had conversations with Coach about his training philosophy (conditioning side) and have sent him numerous e-mails to enlighten him on the subject. Coach prides himself on having teams that are well conditioned. In his first ever meeting with the parents in March he emphasized conditioning more than the technical/tactical side of the game. I have a simple philosophy when it comes to conditioning. If you train/run slow, kids are going to stay slow; so train/run them fast; with a caveat, "Be quick, but don't hurry." I believe that you can get conditioning in practice if you properly design & implement drills and games in practice. This was best exemplified last Monday, September 16 when another coach conducted practice with the boys. Boys got tons of touches with his ball drills, shooting drills, and small sided games. Other coach finished practice off by conducting a fun & competitive team running drill that impacted the anaerobic capacity of the boys. It was a tough, beneficial and comprehensive practice. Conditioning is important, but it needs to be done with a purpose and integrated as much as possible in drills and games that are designed to impact the technical & tactical level of the players and team. I call it Functional Conditioning.

  7. clarence gaines, December 13, 2013 at 9:52 p.m.

    Highly recommend reading the linked article - Aerobic Capacity and Training Ability - Aerobic capacity refers to a child’s ability to sustain a certain level of aerobic activity for a certain length of time. An aerobic activity is one that requires oxygen exchange in the blood to a greater degree than other activities, such as running versus strength training. Being able to sustain aerobic activity for longer periods of time depends on the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the tissues and muscles of the body and then use it efficiently once it gets there. In the scientific world, our aerobic capacity can be measured and is called VO2 max.

    In a broken nutshell, VO2 max is the maximum level of the body’s ability to effectively take up oxygen, transport it, and use it for sustained exercise energy.

    Normally, in adults, this ability to use oxygen can be improved with training and exercise. Improvements can be made with as little as 15 to 20 minutes of exercise 3 times a week. If you exercise more, your aerobic capacity can continue to improve to a certain point before it levels off. The interesting point about children is that even when recommendations for adult exercise are used, only small improvements (approximately 5%–10%) in aerobic capacity are seen until your child reaches puberty. Additional improvements can result simply from their ability to do the movements more easily, more efficiently, and with more motivation.

    On the other hand, some youngsters do not show any improvement with the amount of training that often leads to predictable gains in adults. Don’t despair! Once your active youngster goes through puberty, aerobic capacity can blossom. So let me reemphasize—training kids as adults does not necessarily lead to adult results and can often lead to adult injuries. Training kids as kids within their bodies’ boundaries can lead to their best potential results. Another important concept is that your child may genetically have a better ability for aerobic activity, but she still has to have the motor development and motivation to use it for a positive effect on ability and the sports experience.

  8. clarence gaines, December 13, 2013 at 9:53 p.m.

    Acceptable levels of training will accomplish many good results and allow your child to progress nicely when the appropriate levels of development have been reached. I feel you tapping me on my shoulder.

    Yes, there are kids whose development is so progressed that they can train as adults even when they are young, and I have seen many of them. Think about teenagers in the Olympics, for example. It was very exciting for me to be one of the Olympic doctors and see some teenagers produce stellar performances. I realized that they had been able to train at significant levels even at younger ages because their bodies had matured earlier and were ready to handle such training, and also because of genetic influences. The timing of puberty obviously has a profound effect on gaining aerobic improvement, among other things. Sports readiness such as this will be significantly different among youngsters of the same age. Some will be ready a lot earlier than others because they develop and reach puberty more quickly. In some cases, their motor development is already capable of responding to the early maturation of aerobic development, as was the case with those young Olympians. In other cases, youngsters go through puberty early, but still need their motor skills to catch up with their new and improved aerobic abilities. Each athlete is different.

    Some improve at an early age; some improve much later. Some improve a lot; some barely improve at all. How far and in what direction these improvements occur still depend on the genetic makeup of your child and where along the genetic spectrum she lies—anywhere from pure strength and power sports, to medium strength and aerobic sports, to very aerobic sports and anywhere in between.

    The general concepts still apply—until puberty, there is a limited ability to improve aerobic capacity just by training alone. Once puberty is reached, improvements in your child’s ability to use oxygen occur rapidly and progressive gains can be made. Although it appears that there is a certain unseen upper limit to improve aerobic capacity before puberty, this does not reduce or lessen the need to train aerobically.

    This is a very important distinction. There is strong evidence that young athletes with a good foundational base of aerobic exercise can have even better improvements in aerobic ability once they reach puberty than those who start aerobic training at a later age. For example, a swimmer or runner who has already had some years of moderate training before her growth spurt has a better aerobic base from which to improve once puberty arrives. Kids who train in aerobic sports also better their performance because of improved technique and efficiency of movement, advancing skill level, maturing coordination, and growing motivation.

  9. clarence gaines, December 13, 2013 at 9:55 p.m.

    Understanding the place of aerobic development in the bigger picture is important in the younger years to take the focus away from competition, time or speed qualifications, and excessive training schedules. This understanding allows your child to focus instead on having fun, improving technique, learning different sports skills, and developing a strong base level of aerobic conditioning.

    Hopefully this is clear. Read my lips—there is no need for elaborate, excessive, and exhaustive training programs for children and pre-pubertal athletes. This does not suit their needs or interests.

    Parents, coaches, and kids who are not informed about this process may be the victims of discouragement when children do not get significantly faster as their level of training increases. Unfortunately, in those circumstances, increased training continues to be enforced with the thought that more is better and necessary to get the desired effect. When these training loads increase beyond a certain point, young bodies and minds start to break down. On the other hand, when training is kept at the right level and combined with positive reinforcement, support, emphasis on technique, opportunities for participation, new skill trials, and a focus on having fun, young bodies and minds can develop and accomplish their maximum potential ability more successfully.

    What’s the “right” level of aerobic training, you ask? Every child will be different because of stage of development and chemical makeup. The important thing is to pay attention to your child’s development. If puberty has not started to show signs of its debut, maintaining moderate aerobic training loads is adequate. Your athlete can still improve by perfecting technique, consistent training, and maintaining good nutrition. When the chemical bonanza of puberty arrives, then ta-da! At that point, increased aerobic training will have much more potential to add to motor skills and enhance ability if there has been enough patience in you, your child, and the coach to avoid the temptation to over-increase training.

    This is an extremely important concept to grasp. Consider the following 2 scenarios. Julie A has more genetic talent for aerobic sports and easily achieves some wins at an early age, but has a coach and parents who feel that the only way for her to get faster is to continue to increase her training load. When her improvements start to level off (as she reaches that upper limit of aerobic ability before puberty), she is pushed harder and subjected to heavier and heavier training loads. She gets hurt with an overuse injury and then loses her desire. Once she reaches puberty, she lacks the motivation to train hard enough to take advantage of her increased physiologic ability. She does not have enough wins to consider herself successful (or to be considered successful by her parents), so she suffers from burnout and eventually quits the sport.

  10. clarence gaines, December 13, 2013 at 9:55 p.m.

    On the other hand, Johnny B has less genetic ability, but is fortunate to be trained by a coach who spends more time refining his technique, building his confidence, and maintaining an adequate conditioning program. His parents encourage him to be patient for puberty while his teammates are growing all around him, and they show great support by showing up to his events and cheering his improvements whether he wins or loses. He concentrates on doing his best and uses his better form and technique to challenge his competitors. When he reaches puberty, he is ready to respond to the aerobic challenge of harder training sessions with dramatic improvements in performance, leading to many years of achievement in his sport. Who had the most talent? Julie A. Who achieved reality success? Correct answer—Johnny B. I know, because that was me.

  11. Kent James, December 14, 2013 at 12:05 p.m.

    Clarence, thanks for the informative post. I'd like to second the important difference puberty makes (and how useless/counterproductive specific physical fitness training is for kids who haven't reached puberty). My oldest son was not naturally athletic, but a very smart kid. I was his primary coach for most of his career, and I always emphasized technical skills. Since he was relatively slow (and not particularly aggressive) when he was young, he was only an average player (technically he was good, but he just couldn't get to the ball as fast as other kids). But things changed dramatically with puberty; he became much more aggressive, and while he did not become a speedster, lack of speed was no longer a great liability. He also worked on his athleticism on his own, and became very strong (even though he has a relatively slight natural build). He ended up being one of the best players on his High School team (making his father proud). So I think the key is to not do anything that will kill a player's desire to play (like running them to death will), give them the opportunity to develop their technical skills as early (and as often) as possible, and leave the rest to them. As you say, "first, do no harm".

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