Conditioning for Youth Soccer Players: Stop Jogging Laps.

Conditioning for Youth Soccer Players: Stop Jogging Laps.

If everyone would take their children to the playground for an hour a day, run around it fast with quality sets at maximal speed, run hard for 60 seconds or more, rest to eat oranges for a few minutes, then repeat, I wouldn’t need to write this article.

Alas, here I am: writing on conditioning for under 12-year-olds.

I’ve been involved in youth coaching for a while now, and this isn’t to toot my own horn, but rather, to let you guys know what I see on a daily basis.

Parents ask me all the time how to build endurance for their 8-year-old, or how to give their U10 team more stamina in the second half.

Admittedly, I’m not sure what people expect me to respond with.

To run their kids through Manchester United fitness tests?

To record their times for the YoYo test?

To have them sprint up Mount Everest with an altitude mask on?

To have them run 10 laps around the field after every practice?

So when I reply with, “run fast, move more, and play more on the playground,” people look at me like I’m a hobbit speaking Elvish.


Before I dive into specific “drills” on conditioning for youth athletes, let me return to my opening point above: take kids to the playground first. 

Or the front yard.

Or to the play area at the local mall.

Or to the McDonald’s juggle gym.

Anywhere.

Anywhere that is a space where you chase them, they can run fast, or work on climbing, jumping and crawling all while jacking up their heart rates.

Ah, yes, heart rate. In fact, there’s no better way to elicit a high intensity cardiovascular response than doing these things with your kids.


Want to know something better?

It’s free.

Now, given the world we live in today, kids do need a youth strength and conditioning coach because the reality is, kids aren’t getting outside to play enough.

Kids need coaching professionals who are exuberant, and can bring the energy and motivation. Adding on, these coaches love teaching. They love working kids hard, while they’re smiling at the same time.

To that end, both working hard and having fun are possible for our young athletes.

We can condition them and improve heart health, while touching on physical development skills that prevent overtraining and injury.

Take this game Crawling Dodgeball, for example:

Even 30-60 seconds of this is enough to make players feel like their hearts are going to explode out of their chest. Phenomenal conditioning effect, yet fun.

Or, take conventional dodgeball for example:

Or from a simple aggression drill that teaches kids how to shield and be tenacious, is enough to spike a conditioning effect and gas them:

Nothing is more enjoyable, or wipes you out more than meticulously planned conditioning drills that are fun, yet tweak work-to-rest time accordingly.

Oh, and there’s something to be said for the agility, reactive and physical development pieces under fatigue here: they’re immense. (Dave will discuss how to design more bang-for-your-buck conditioning drills later in the article).

With that said, conditioning does not need to be overly technical, or similar to a Liverpool training session, or the old-school run-your-young-ones-into-the-ground mentality. Remember, these are under 10-year-old kids!

And humans.

I will let Coach Dave Gleason take over from here before I get so heartfelt.

But yo. I care for these kids, and my main goal after a session is to ensure they 1) worked hard but 2) had a BLAST. Moreover, they get into the car with their parents as sweat pours down their face and they say, “I want to do that again! That was so fun!”

Anyway, Dave is about to go into more specific programming for the younger ages here. Enjoy:

I’ll preface my comments with a bold statement.

By in large kids today are deconditioned and malnourished. That is, they’re relatively out of shape and do not eat well enough. Period. I think you’ll agree, we’re a far cry from “the way things used to be” in terms of outdoor activity before school, during school and after school for sure.

In general, kids were never in a position when they had to “get in better shape” to play soccer. Sure, we weren’t always in game shape, but let’s face it. We always had a baseline of fitness that would enable us to play and do just about anything.

It took very little time to get into top condition for whatever sport we were playing in that single season because we always had a base of fitness to work off of.

Fast forward to today. We now have created an environment where parents and kids are looking to organized sport as their primary source of exercise…and it’s not enough.

A few years back I came up with a concept I call the Talent Continuum to establish a framework for coaches and parents to understand better. It’s more relevant than ever. So I’ll share it with you now.

What we grew up with back in the day:

The first commonality here is although there were different types of “athletes” in the youth population (as illustrated above), we all moved as kids. We did SOMETHING outside. There were single seasons of sport. In between and during sport we played outside.

Remember the days of coming home from practice, having a snack or early dinner and going outside to play until dark?

We may have not been in “game shape” for a particular sport, however we weren’t nearly as sedentary as today’s young athlete.

The second commonality is the unfortunate fact that the top coaches primarily only worked with the more elite athletes and players.

Fast forward to today.

The image below depicts the conundrum of two types of athletes (kids). The sedentary and the over-scheduled, specialized athlete.

They too, share the common trait of having only the top coaches to help the most established young players.

The parallel here is (the ugly truth) that most of today’s young players are in fact lacking a foundation of fitness and athleticism, they are quite often fatigued or with low energy, malnourished and injury prone.

This phenomenon has resulted in fitness and conditioning programs for kids and borderline abusive running drills in practices.

In the eyes of unknowing parents and coaches, our kids need to ‘get in shape’. That is, they need to get fit. They need “conditioning”.

What kids really need today is a comprehensive look at physical activity. As professional performance coaches we’ve been able to dissect what kids require to be better athletes and in turn better players.

All-inclusive programming will help any young athlete be in better condition without suicides or conditioning drills for the sake of conditioning. It will light a fire in them that can quite possibly last a lifetime. We call this developing a physical culture. They’ll learn how to have fun while giving effort at the same time.

Without this approach we risk the creation of yet another adult who will have the same New Year’s Resolution every January 1 while gaining weight and avoiding exercise like a vegan at a burger shop.

The paradigm of replacing out door physical activity with organizing sports needs to be replaced by providing an environment that encapsulates what they are missing socially and physically by not playing outside freely in the backyard or neighborhood.

Here’s a short break down of the elements that must be in a program for younger children.

  • Movement discovery and exploration
  • Active range of motion
  • Muscle activation
  • General Prep
  • Object Manipulation…beyond foot to the ball.
  • Coordination Enhancement – Reactivity, rhythm timing, balance, contralateral coordination, spatial awareness kinesthetic awareness.
  • Systemic Strength
  • Game Play

All this must be done is a concerted effort to provide an amazing experience. Let’s dig into each of these buckets that need to be filled with appropriate activities better health, performance and yes, conditioning.

If you’re rolling your eyes like a 5th grader getting berated by an overzealous coach with a whistle and lungs full of repurposed high school aggression, take a breath and open your mind. If you’re willing to understand that aerobic conditioning is rather non-specific for young kids …anything they do builds the strength of their developing cardiovascular system.

This lets you and them off the hook and allows for more appropriate exercise.

This means we don’t need to cross our arms as we watch them get run into the ground for the sake of fitness. Using these elements, we can give kiddos what they NEED.

Movement Exploration and Discovery – Boys and girls ages 6-9 are still discovering how to move, and in some cases, they are actually performing some movements for the first time. Within this discovery process they require the opportunity to change elevation, roll, crawl, climb, skip, and run. 10-12-year old are generally in a position to learn how to move better.

In either case, take advantage of the neural plastic nature of the CNS (Central Nervous System) by keeping your verbal, visual and kinesthetic cues to a minimum.  An overabundance of cueing can lead to goal confusion and frustration…both of which are detrimental to the physical culture and potential physical literacy of the student or athlete.

Active Range of Motion – We tell our young athletes that active range of motion is a fancy way so saying “stretching out by moving”. Programming 4-6 movements that will help their muscles gradually lengthen after a long day of sitting in school is paramount. This method also helps young athletes reconnect with their body as they feel the stretch, followed by the sensation of a release or relaxation.

Muscle Activation – This helps young athletes flip the switch, if you will, turning on local and global muscular systems. The local, smaller muscles that stabilize joints as well as the big, global movers need to be fired up. Spending time here also aids with injury resistance starting at a young age.

General Preparation – Often dubbed a dynamic warm-up this is an area that is loosely taught to most young players, yet neglected by most coaches. This leads to a half assed effort with little to know benefit with most players when left to their own devices.

That said, light jogging, skipping, side shuffles, carioca, high knee pulls, heel kicks, straight leg marches and hops are all great ways to give an uptick to their brain and body in preparation for what’s to come.

NOTE: In case you are thinking “I never had to do all of this when I was a kid. I just went out and played”, we are not talking about you. We are discussing what kids need in today’s world of hypercompetitive sports with a less than adequate amount of physical activity outside of sport.

Object Manipulation – The ability to handle and control an object through space, whether weighted or not, is another critical aspect of human development.

Coordination Training – Not merely the coordination that we grew up with as either having it or not…coordination training will encompass balance, rhythm, reactivity, kinesthetic differentiation and spatial awareness to name just a few ideas for you. For kids 6-12 years old this should be the majority of their training. Coordination training, including speed and agility training will have the biggest impact on young players.

Systemic Strength – The opportunity to build head to toe strength is essential for any young child. Body weight, resistance bands and appropriate externally loaded activities are acceptable means of training systemic strength. Take great effort to frame systemic strength activities such that they are task oriented rather than strict repetition and set schemes.

Pushing, pulling, crawling and ground based change of elevation are all great systemic strength exercises.

 

Game Play – Game play is the most important element of our training systems. The justification of game play in any performance program is lengthy. We can begin with this short list:

  • Games are a super way to reward for hard work. Instead of punishing with exercise lets begin to reward with it!
  • Use competition to your advantage. Kids will absolutely get after it with any sense of urgency during game play. This is also a fantastic opportunity to teach them about competition and how to deal with winning and losing.
  • Transition time to get them out of their world and into yours! Playing games is a great way for younger athletes to shake off sitting in school all day, engage their brains and ready themselves for a great session.
  • Reinforce specific skills to aid in transference to sport and life. An example of this is working on skipping mechanics, immediately followed by playing tag and every participant must be skipping.
  • Reinforce general athleticism to aid in transference to sport and life. A game like tag, for instance, is a fantastic way to teach kids about spatial awareness, avoidance and pursuit. In other words, they learn how to find gaps to avoid being tagged…just like getting open on the field.
  • It is unequivocally the easiest way to induce an effort that gives them the best training effect. In other words…they get after it without anyone uttering an ounce of external motivation.
  • Assessment tool. There is no better way to assess the manner in which an athlete moves than to do so while they are under duress.
  • Just plain FUN

The cumulative affect of what I’ve covered will lend itself to a foundation of athleticism and conditioning while inducing a strong sense of physical culture that will last a life time.

Yes, THIS is conditioning for a young child. Youth sports alone are not an adequate replacement for free play unless practice sessions begin to incorporate these elements for the over development of the human first, athlete second and player third.

Anyone can make a young athlete sweat. It takes a coach to make them better. Be the coach they deserve.

 

For Part 2: Conditioning for the High School Soccer Player, go HERE.

For more consulting and programming on conditioning for youth teams, contact Dave and Erica HERE

2 Comments
  • Colin McCullough
    Posted at 12:29h, 10 November Reply

    Great article coaches. Keep up the great work!

    • erica
      Posted at 13:27h, 10 November Reply

      Thank you, Colin! We appreciate it! Glad we can help 🙂

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