17 Dec Building Female Soccer Players Into Athletic, Strong and Powerful Women
I’m on blog #720 something.
If you sift through my past pieces, there’s not one topic missed on training the female soccer player. There’s everything from reducing ACL injury, to developing speed, to learning kinematics, to progressing plyometrics, to bolstering endurance, to building healthy relationships, to handling abuse, to meditating, to finding purpose, to navigating eating disorders, to nourishing and fueling the body, to getting recruited for college soccer.
Did I miss anything? ;-O
As much as I’ve written on training female soccer players and glossed over every topic, there’s still so much to talk about. I know I know, it’s as never ending as the Walking Dead series, with so many more twists and turns and adventures.
As I approach year 9 of training girls, I feel I’m just warming up to finding new insights.
Eh, I actually feel behind.
There’s always a new research study to read. There’s always ten webinars happening. There’s always virtual conferences every month. There’s always a million podcasts.
But there’s always me caught in the middle of coaching, with little time to sit down, sign into a conference, turn on a podcast, or dig through the literature.
Full disclosure: I’ll scan a research study, jump to the conclusion, highlight the main points on Twitter, then exit stage right.
Of course, there’s a healthy balance between evidence-based research, and experienced based. I tend to poo-poo on anyone who shouts “show me the science!” and requires a Pub-Med reference in-hand any time a young girl does a Squat. We’ve seen a lot of “show me the science!” people this year, who push one view, one source, one crowd.
It’s dangerous, to say the least.
I’d be remiss not to mention being in the trenches of coaching day in and day out, with over 10,000 in person sessions under the belt, and over 1,000 programs written, it has been one giant research study, and many coaches who work in a hands-on setting day in and day out can say the same: coaching is research.
Mind you, seeing young girls go from elementary school munchkins to high school and college boss ladies is my own longitudinal study. ;-O
Combining the scientific literature with the in person art has helped me learn a wealth of information on training the young female soccer player. And though I’ve written on almost every topic out there, there’s more to digest, as well as simplify to other coaches of young girls.
My mission now is to continue to keep my own craft sharp as I continue to embrace being deep in the trenches of in person coaching. Too, my mission is to break down the complexity of training young female soccer players for coaches to execute on their own, whether it’s in a practice setting or gym.
Without further ado, this blog is dedicated to putting all of my former articles together into one dissertation on how to build the female athlete into an athletic, strong and powerful woman.
Let’s do this.
1. Focus on movement quality.
Upon initial evaluation with a new female athlete, I’m not there to impress the parents. Nor am I there to have a girl going through pre-adolescence test box jumps, the Pro-Agility, or run a Timed Mile.
Movement quality is paramount for girls, taking them back to the basics of balance, coordination, trunk stability and control, ankle and hip mobility, and posture. I see coaches freezing in their tracks when evaluating movement quality because they don’t know what to look for.
Here’s what you need to know: “if it looks awkward, it probably is.”
Are they moving their opposite arm and opposite leg in a contralateral, coordinated fashion as they skip?
Are they keeping their core stable as they move their limbs?
Are their arms flailing as they sprint, or are they under control, keeping the trunk upright and stable?
Are they taking an extra deceleration step when changing direction, or are they getting in a good athletic stance?
The good-old fashioned eye of the coach is critical when watching your athletes move.
If it looks like it’s bad, it probably is.
2. Break things down.
…And if it’s bad, break things down.
Don’t be afraid to stop them over and over again to get them in the correct positions, or have them hold the hardest part of a movement to truly nail it down.
Even the most basics movements, some girls cannot get right off the bat.
And I know you’re screaming in your head, “it’s so easy! Why can’t she get it?!” but you have to remember girls’ bodies are going through an incredible amount of body composition and neuromuscular changes as they grow and mature.
Here is a video of a female athlete on her first day in the gym, and me breaking down opposite arm and leg coordination:
It looks so simple, but on any girl’s first day in the facility who is new to this type of trying, a drill like this can be intimidating and disorienting.
So break things down, allow them to get their groove, and watch them thrive. It’s magic.
Looking back on this teaching video from over a year ago, this amazing young athlete is now one of my strongest and most explosive movers:
3. Athletic Stance is king.
Once girls nail this down, the rest just blossoms.
Here’s what you need to know about Athletic Stance:
– It serves as the foundation for every movement in the game (decelerating, cutting, changing direction, shuffling)
– It is a hinge in the hips, with soft knee flexion, ankle dorsiflexion
– It keeps the knee joint stable, allows them to change direction under control and avoid injury risk.
Here is a video explaining in depth how you can incorporate into your practices:
Beyond the dyanmic movements in the game, Athletic Stances also is the foundation for being able to build posterior chain strength in the hamstrings and gluteals.
If an athlete masters the Athletic Stance movement pattern, then she’s ready to get under the iron and do things like Deadlifts and Single Leg Deadlifts for posterior strength that help with ACL injury reduction.
As warm-up though, I like to have all ages and levels of girls start with a drill called Athletic Stance grooving, to wake up the nervous system and prepare for loaded movements:
Then, we can progress to the badass stuff:
4. Celebrate muscles.
Speaking of lifting heavy, we need to celebrate girls building muscle.
We need to flip the paradigm from being less to being more. Too often, I see female athletes worried about gaining muscular weight because of what is pushed by pop culture and social media, a perpetuation of skinny and less weight, less fat, less muscle.
How about we pivot the message into inspiration of athleticism and more muscle, more power, more speed, more mobility, more confidence?
As coaches, we have the opportunity to educate girls on these amazing benefits of putting on muscle – for speed and power development, injury reduction, mental health and confidence.
After all, the weights lifted in the gym are a valuable life lesson on getting uncomfortable. Discomfort is where growth happens, and strength training is the ultimate adaptation for young girls – to be able to undergo immense amounts of duress, in fact, failures, in order to blossom into warriors.Discomfort is where growth happens, and strength training is the ultimate adaptation for young girls - to be able to undergo immense amounts of duress, in fact, failures, in order to blossom into warriors Click To Tweet
5. Focus on quality plyometrics.
I understand the urge to jump to fancy plyometric drills to make it appear your session is cool and your girls are working hard.
But let me ask you this: what is the goal of the drill?
Plyometrics are designed to build muscle elasticity, durable tendons, and produce power, so it is in your best interest to ensure your female athletes are focusing on explosive, quality reps.
There’s no need to get wild with plyometrics for girls. Keep the goal the goal.
There's no need to get wild with plyometrics for girls. Keep the goal the goal. Click To Tweet
Too, the appropriate progression needs to be in place. It wouldn’t be wise to have girls kick off their plyometric journey with a lot of speed or load, until they nail down the control of the movement first.
Starting with being able to absorb force allows them to eventually produce force.
Here are a few progressions that will help:
6. Problem: ACL epidemic. Solution: get them strong.
Every coach knows this problem runs rampant in young female athletes. Now what are they going to do about it?
The solution: getting girls strong.
The anterior cruciate ligament’s job is to resist rotation of the knee and provide stability. Young girls are more susceptible due to anatomical differences in hip width and a smaller intercondylar notch, which can cause a break down in motor patterns such as ability to decelerate, cut and change direction safely.
2-3x a week of total body strength, with a focus on hamstrings, hips, glutes, and anterior core, build the female athlete into a force to be reckoned with – one who is more resilient to ACL injury, and who can undergo fatigue and the dynamic cuts, turns and brakes in the game.2-3x a week of total body strength, with a focus on hamstrings, hips, glutes, and anterior core, build the female athlete into a force to be reckoned with Click To Tweet
While the posterior chain strength is a staple part of an ACL program, so is unilateral quadriceps strength. In order for the knee to handle the high eccentric forces from a deceleration, the quadriceps muscle surrounding the knee still needs to be strong.
7. Faster and more agile girls = less injury.
The most fascinating and amazing part of performance training for girls is you can kill two birds with one stone: you can make girls less susceptible to injury, while also making them fast and agile.
Injury reduction and performance enhancement, to that end, go hand in hand. They’re one of the same.
So long as you are focusing on a faster, strong, more agile and more efficient moving athlete, less injuries are a nice byproduct.So long as you are focusing on a faster, strong, more agile and more efficient moving athlete, less injuries are a nice byproduct. Click To Tweet
8. Lead by example.
Your female athletes are watching. They notice your body language, your demeanor, your confidence, and your lifestyle habits. True leaders understand the X’s and O’s of athlete development, soccer tactics, and exercise science, but they also practice what they preach so they are shining examples to their girls.True leaders understand the X's and O's of athlete development, soccer tactics, and exercise science, but they also practice what they preach so they are shining examples to their girls. Click To Tweet
Consider yourself a second parent. These girls spend the second most amount of time with their coach, so the way you talk, act and inspire have a lasting impression on them on the field and off.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be the world’s biggest health nut. Nor does it mean you need to take ginger shots with your players.
Hey, if you decide to go this route, it doesn’t hurt. ;-O
You don’t need to be a perfect, healthy butterfly, but you do need to exude a degree of health and strength because these girls take notice and are impressed upon for life by how you behave.
9. Stop talking and listen.
As much as you think thousands of coaching cues, stops of play, unwanted pieces of advice and instructions help, sometimes, you just need to listen. Female athletes go through emotional and social oscillations as they grow through puberty, some uncontrollable due to hormones.
Be mindful of this.
This reminds me of the scene from Knocked Up when Seth Rogan jabs at the uncontrollable eruption of hormones (disclaimer: profanity in this clip):
It’s a comical scene, to say the least, and also incredibly true.
Speaking as a woman who still goes through hormonal storms, just know this: sometimes you need to shut up, let me vent, and listen. The release young girls and women get from doing so is immense, and it’s better for them to express themselves fully with a genuine ear who is willing to listen and support.
Holding in emotions is never good, especially for cognitive function – focus, energy and creativity – during practice. Expression of self helps girls regain their focus and feel revived, so listen to them intently.Holding in emotions is never good, especially for cognitive function - focus, energy and creativity - during practice. Expression of self helps girls regain their focus and feel revived, so listen to them intently. Click To Tweet
10. Menstrual cycle needs to be part of the discussion.
Many coaches shy away from this topic, but it must be a non-negotiable part of the discussion. Period. <— see what I did there?
Tracking the menstrual cycle helps ensure female athletes are nourishing, sleeping and recovering properly during Phase 3 and Phase 4 when they feel bogged down, foggy brained and bloated.
An app I urge my athletes to use is FitRWoman, where they can track the first day of their cycle, and take notes on their symptoms at each phase.
Once they track over a long period of time and recognize the consistent symptoms of fatigue on certain days of the month, they can tweak their nutrition, before-bed habits, or sprinkle in extra recovery to feel at their best during these tough times.
11. Be vulnerable.
I’m far, far from perfect, and the more I leaned into this and showcased my human condition to my girls, was the more they could relate to me, as well as feel comfortable speaking to me about their traumas and problems.
Now, this doesn’t mean you need to spill your guts and tell your entire life story that is similar to a Lifetime movie. Rather, it means owning up to your shortcomings and mistakes, then sharing how you became stronger from your rock bottom moments.
It’s the dark stories that allow you to have an impactful teaching moment, in fact, a life changing one.
Maybe you suffered a severe injury, then came back strong. Maybe you got cut from a team, then made an even better team. Maybe you were in an abusive relationship, then found your power again. <— oh, hey! That’s me.
To shed light on the impact of my story, one of my young female athletes read my article Soccer Saved My Life, and told me it helped her get out of her abusive relationship and recognize her worth again.
Even if it feels uncomfortable to share the heavy stories from your life, you are doing your female athletes a service to take charge of theirs. You never know who you are inspiring or saving with your vulnerability.
12. Encourage them to be warriors.
I never think of my girls as soccer players. I think of them as warriors.
I am preparing them for the battles of life, as much as the games, the practices, and the tournaments. When soccer ends, I want them to be armed with the tools to be able to handle any high stimulus, whether it’s sickness, divorce, job lay-off, or rejection. I also want them to know how to physically prepare for the obstacles that come with aging, and to reduce chance of arthritis, cranky joints, bone mineral density decrease, muscle atrophy and so much more.
The body needs great care for a lifetime, even when the whistle of their last game blows.The body needs great care for a lifetime, even when the whistle of their last game blows Click To Tweet
Performance training is more than timing 30 yard dashes, monitoring training load, and chasing Deadlift records. It’s about looking at the girl through the holistic lens as a human who needs to be strong, nourished, well-slept, and confident to go through life empowered and fulfilled.
It’s about building young girls into athletic, strong and powerful women.
Get the Total Youth Female Athlete Fitness video course to learn how to teach female athletes strength technique, speed, and change of direction mechanics for injury reduction and performance, as well as learn about growth and maturation considerations, menstrual cycle, nutrition, and so much more HERE