Many of my readers know my passion for soccer and the proper development/protection of players. I have an dual interest in this topic. While my first interest stems from sheer love for the game, a close second revolves around the endless physiologic complexities of training, development, and injury prevention.
So much as been said recently about the risk of concussions and sport related injuries. US soccer even changed some of their youth training recommendations in hopes of decreasing head injuries for our youngest players.
As I ponder injury prevention and for that matter how to improve performance, I want to remind players, parents, league organizers, trainers, and coaches to not overlook the power of proper periodization.
What is periodization?
Periodization refers to the systematic planning of athletic or physical training. The goal is to reach the best possible performance in the most important competition of the year. It involves progressive cycling of various aspects of a training program during a specific period.
There is good evidence in human physiology and sport research that suggests ignoring basic rhythms of training, that is cycling intense work with less intense training, leads to less performance gains.
Research also has shown that injury rates increase if proper rest (a relative term) isn’t properly spaced into training routines.
In fact, “Going hard” all the time doesn’t always translate into big biceps or greater fitness. Genetic potential, age, maturity, diet, hormone balance, and training intensity all factor in to measurable performance gains and injury prevention.
How does this play out with elite youth soccer athletes?
Periodization Predicaments for Elite Youth Soccer Players
Let’s take a teenage competitive soccer player competing on a club soccer team while simultaneously competing with a High School Team. (A relatively common scenario)
During any given week, the player might train 2.5-3 hours daily with the High School squad, followed by 1-2 hours in a club setting. The High School teams often compete in 1-2 matches weekly, club sometimes overlapping 1 match in the same week.
Compiling matches alone, we’re talking about potentially 200+ minutes of “Full speed/full contact” game time for the average starter. Now, conservatively also estimate at least 45 minutes of each training session would consist of high intensity work both at the club and HS level. Collectively, this same athlete might accumulate an additional 90 minutes daily between club and HS team training–DAILY.
Assuming 4 training sessions for High School weekly and 2 for Club, we’re looking at an additional 6 hours of high intensity training + 4.5 hours of game play….
The research is very clear with injury rates (Concussions, joints, overuse issues):
The more high intensity play the greater risk of injury.
Frankly, the pattern described above is devastating from a injury standpoint and leaves elite players teetering near injury for entire seasons.
As a physician/Coach I have seen the results first hand. My practical observations fit the research.
Tired, dead-legged athletes are clumsy, prone to awkward movement and joint failure.
Most coaches and trainers agree and understand the literature. However, hyper-competitive parents/coaches, peer pressure, competing or conflicting seasons/leagues/organizations lead to this environment.
Ignoring research places our young athletes at risk.
Ironically, injury risk aside, the research also suggests these athletes also don’t perform or develop as well. Bodies torn down by overuse do not develop strength, speed, or coordination as quickly as a properly trained, properly periodized player would develop.
Periodization simply requires the understanding that rest is equally important to training. Rest doesn’t necessarily require “Couch-time.” Training can be physically light. Training could focus more on tactics, technique, skill, or game cognition. Coaches could hold film sessions, thought exercises, or pattern recognition games rather than intense back to back physically taxing training sessions.
In my track days at Baylor University, as our big meet approached, Coach Hart would decrease the repetitions but increase intensity as we “Sharpened” for a key race. This form of periodization or tapered training allowed for high quality work load balanced with the necessary recovery.
Soccer training works the same. Two matches in one week? Most training sessions in between should reflect lower intensity, allowing for greater recovery time. Players with less playing time would increase training loads while high match-minute players have the requirement of less stressful training.
At the highest levels of soccer, top players move between club teams, national teams, and various tournament venues. Professional trainers “cycle” these players. Periodicity in this setting means they cycle heavy minutes of play with customized lighter windows of training prescriptions.
For our elite youth players the same expectation should follow. In fact, given many teen athletes are in some version of “Peak-Height Velocity” (Injury prone growth spurt time), responsible work load monitoring would make even more sense given greater injury expectation as compared to a seasoned, fully mature professional athlete.
Personally I would like to see more coordination and customization of training regarding elite young players. One size fits all training regimens are both simplistic and ignorant. Responsible training environments ideally should monitor and adjust training loads to account for all sport participation, as well as seasonal variables and goals.