“The show goes on.”
I said this to a group of athletes as a dark cloud of merciless evil hovered over the soccer field. A storm was upon our session.
It looked similar to a scene in Lord of the Rings when Saruman summons the darkness. Or, like the end of the world. Or the scene from The Day After Tomorrow when everything got wrecked.
Alas, it was peak week for off-season training for my players – the week when I push them to the limit in terms of physical conditioning and fitness. We had to get in this session. I wasn’t going to call it and make them go home. We had productive stuff to do, so rain or shine, the show went on.
As the hail pounded down, my athletes continued their conditioning with fervor. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off of sprints. Tabatas are intense, yes, but their intensity amplifies when there’s a storm as the back drop.
This meager event was just one piece of the off-season shenanigan pie this summer.
Looking back, a tremendous amount of hard work, strength feats, conditioning records, and mental battles were accomplished.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: besides Christmas and any day after tax season, off-season training is my favorite time of year. Not because I’m a freak, but I truly believe there’s something magical about diving deep into training for several weeks to prepare athletes for their season.
Admittedly, when summer rolls around, I have an evil grin on my face and get pleasure in plotting the crazy shenanigans I’m going to put my athletes through during the off-season.
Wow, that was quite the robust introduction. You scared yet?
You’re probably wondering what hell happened. What does Erica do in the off-season? Does she rocket soccer balls at her athletes? Does she put Justin Bieber Despacito on repeat during 300 yard shuttles?
Let’s get started:
1. Phase 1 – Hypertrophy and Adaptation, Linear Running, Aerobic Base
Alright. I can’t scare athletes right off the bat.
Phase 1 entails getting them acclimated to a structured training environment. For the newbies and veterans, we are still going over the basics – how to run with contralateral coordination, how to squat, how to crawl, how to breathe during a plank, how to laugh at my jokes.
Here is an example of one of the fundamental positions I teach athletes the first few weeks:
The basics matter in any comprehensive strength and conditioning program to ensure athletes stay safe, and don’t get too terrified. They’re also better able to move their feet and react quicker once they nail down athletic stance:
Off-season training, to that end, should be a niiiiiiice, gradual progression. More often than not, my athletes say to me in phase 1, “the workouts are so easy.”
Little do they know, it’s. About. To. Get. Real.
2. Phase 2 – Strength, Multi-directional Running, Anaerobic Endurance
Oh, holy blueberry muffins. It’s Phase 2…just when athletes thought things were a cakewalk.
This is why I love off-season…because it’s a beautiful progression.
Expounding further, it’s an amazing time to pull some serious weight and get after it.
Since I was lucky to have most of my athletes for 10+ weeks, it allowed me to get creative in my progressions.
Here is a video of one of my D1 girls performing a 10 pound weighted pull-up:
What happened behind-the-scenes for this was weeks of progressive overload and pull-up variations: eccentrics, paused reps, and full isometric holds.
Other shenanigans we progressed to in this phase were multi-directional drills and anaerobic endurance. The majority of the conditioning runs involved the use of Polar Heart Rate monitors when players would work up to 85-90% of their HR max. In this phase, the runs have little change of direction and they’re more straight line sprinting for 50-60 yards to reinforce maximal speed running mechanics.
My athletes truly enjoyed the use of heart rate monitors because the conditioning was customized to their fitness levels. The last thing I wanted was to have a stringent time placed on conditioning with a set rest time. Not everyone can perform an intense run with just 30 seconds rest. Some need 90 seconds or more to recover, so they can give the run their best, most pristine running mechanics.
For agility, we’re learning proper change of direction like this:
And doing an extended movement prep warm-up to prepare everyone for an intense agility session. This movement prep includes mobility, stability, and coordinative work in the frontal plane:
3. Phase 3 – Maximal Strength, Hybrid Linear/Multi-directional Running, Anaerobic Endurance
The next phase is when we peak with strength training in the main lifts of squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and split squat. For these, we’re going to as high as 93-95%1RM, or 9/10 on the RPE scale.
And as far as agility, I’m beginning to introduce more cognitive load with reactive type drills like this:
Or fun small-sided agility games that force players to decision make based on an external stimulus from an opponent:
To complement agility sessions with strength, we’re doing a lot of frontal plane work as well.
One of my favorites from this summer:
In order to ensure athletes were honing mobility as well as strength to improve agility, I also enjoyed this TRX Lateral Squat:
And this fun, but challenging crawling variation with resistance band around the ankles:
4. Phase 4 – Power, Small Sided Conditioning
The power phase is my favorite phase. It’s putting your strength and mechanics together and saying, “time to put force into the ground!”
In the power phase, we’re doing things like jump progressions, medicine ball movements, and resisted sprints progressions.
I’m a big believer in earning your sled sprints.
I feel athletes need to nail down sprinting mechanics first and have a baseline of strength before attaching a sled to their torsos, otherwise we’re training inefficient power production.
But hey, that’s just me. Any Instagram speed coach would disagree and strap a sled on a kid at age 8.
Power training ensures we’re preparing athletes for the demands of the game. They’re getting faster and more explosive. They’re learning how to accelerate. They’re training their muscles to absorb eccentric force (injury reduction).
In fact, one of my favorite power formulas for performance and injury reduction is contrast training:
Deadlifts super-setted with vertical jumps.
Need I say more?
Here is an excellent article on the benefits of contrast training.
For conditioning in this phase, it becomes far more sport specific, meaning, we’re playing soccer in a small space to increase the anaerobic conditioning effect as well as the COD effect.
I prefer small-sided games because it loads players for the demands of pre-season.
Most of these small-sided games were done barefoot for a couple reasons:
– kids have more fun with barefoot soccer
– they learn gliding as well as spatial awareness
– they have to hone quick decision making
– they feel more carefree from its “pick-up” play style
5. Phase 5 – De-load, Fun
So after all of the off-season shenanigans, it’s time to de-load and have some fun.
Well, athletes can only go all-out for a certain period of time.
To that end, off-season training must be done in a wave-like periodized fashion. Not every week can be spent maxing out, or running high volume COD drills. There must be some weeks where they cut back on load so their muscles are able to recover and perform.
Some of the fun activities we did included barefoot soccer, soccer tennis, as well as “break dancing” competitions that put together movements we learned:
Yes, we hustled this summer, but we also had fun.
We laughed. We sweated bullets. We punched bags:
^Yes, I took my players boxing. This became the birth of my famous “Soccer Girl Fight Club.”
Oh, and on top of all of this physical training, I added in a mental component where we discussed different themes each week, like overcoming adversity, pushing your teammates, and enjoying the process. The physical side of soccer won’t be at its optimal level if athletes don’t hone the mental side. Admittedly, I need to include mental skills training more and more in the future.
Wrapping It Up
So there you have it. My secret off-season training recipe of shenanigans: strength, speed, conditioning, barefoot soccer, and “soccer girl fight club.”
Sure, there are a million ways to structure an off-season program, but each year, I tweak how I do things. Moreover, it’s an ongoing experiment of figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
After all, that’s the art of coaching. ;-O
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