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Training Speed, Agility and Strength in Youth Female Soccer

Training Speed, Agility and Strength in Youth Female Soccer

In today’s world, youth female soccer is similar to a UFC fight.

The competition and stakes are high, and there’s little room for error.

Youth female soccer is competitive. It’s exuberant. It’s rigorous.

It’s also a blossoming space with more and more young girls entering the system to showcase their technical, tactical and physical talents. The integrative dance of these three components is becoming more critical for girls to dial in on, and build upon for the length of their careers. Players who demonstrate all three are not only better soccer players, but more resilient athletes who have a better chance of having a healthy career.

Let’s get this out of the way first: female soccer player ACL injuries are on the rise.

U.S. Youth Soccer even states that girls are 4-8 times more likely to tear their ACLs due to lack in proprioception/balance training and functional strengthening.

Expounding further, more literature is coming out on impact of neural factors, such as lack of perceptual awareness and slower reactivity for increased ACL tears. In this study, noncontact anterior cruciate ligament—injured athletes demonstrated significantly slower reaction time, processing speed, and performed worse on visual and verbal memory composite scores when compared with controls.

Another study suggests that  errors in judgment or unanticipated stimuli may cause a momentary loss of situational awareness or startle responses, and if the brain’s executive functioning is unable to successfully negotiate the rapidly changing environmental conditions, then the action-planning networks are disrupted and task uncertainty ensues. The subsequent loss of neuromuscular control and inability to optimally regulate knee-joint stiffness diminishes dynamic stability (Swanik 2015).


When we reflect on the literature, we see with eyes wide open that ACL injury prevention for female soccer players needs to be approached through a holistic lens:

  • Movement Patterns
  • Strength
  • Power and Speed
  • Cognitive and Chaos

Even the girl with the strongest eccentric strength and a jaw dropping Nordic Ham Curl can blow her knee if she cannot control her momentum and react to the defenders around her rapidly.

Even the girl with the strongest eccentric strength and a jaw dropping Nordic Ham Curl can blow her knee if she cannot control her momentum and react to the defenders around her rapidly. Click To Tweet

Where Girls Need To Start

When girls begin their physical performance journeys, it’s important reinforce basic motor skills that support more complex tasks. These are movements they need to own and execute with perfect form. This is why hiring a performance coach who understands child development, namely in female athletes, is a massive help. Luckily, more and more youth soccer clubs are making the physical piece a part of their year-round programs and hiring qualified professionals.

However, given the increased push for specialization ages 6-12, more skills trainers, more club-wide technical training nights, it’s becoming harder for girls to squeak in physical training, and worse yet, it’s harder to come across a motor neurally mature female soccer player.

Given the increased push for specialization ages 6-12, it's becoming harder for girls to squeak in physical training, and worse yet, it's harder to come across a motor neurally mature female soccer player Click To Tweet

Nowadays, girls struggle to skip, cartwheel, crawl, hang from a bar, and balance – all fundamental movements that require total body coordination and awareness of one’s body in space. Too, I’ve come across girls who can’t catch or dodge a dodgeball, which plays into the perceptual awareness and cognitive issue for ACL injury risk.

So this begs the question, if they cannot do these simple, childhood tasks, when they get into more intense environments and play at higher levels when older, are their bodies prepared for what’s to come?

While a young girl may seem fine and healthy now under a year-round soccer model, her injuries might manifest in her later years if she doesn’t take action now to develop into a better functioning human.

Here are several movements for girls to own that will enhance their athleticism for more complex tasks and advanced strength and speed drills:

  • Crawling
  • Skipping
  • Balancing
  • Squatting
  • Hinging
  • Hanging
  • Pushing
  • Pulling

These are movements that even the most advanced girls need to revisit year-round to reprogram their nervous systems during busy game schedules that can get them into funky patterns with certain muscle groups overcompensating.

The nervous system is highly adaptable, so girls need to ensure they’re reinforcing basic physical skills year-round, just like they do their ball work.

The nervous system is highly adaptable, so girls need to ensure they're reinforcing basic physical skills year-round, just like they do their ball work. Click To Tweet

Progressing Gradually

Given girls commit to physical training year-round, they’re allowed to progress faster. All parents want their female soccer players to be fast, agile and conditioned, but if their daughters pop in and out of workouts with no real commitment, the progression will be much slower.

All parents want their female soccer players to be fast, agile and conditioned, but if their daughters pop in and out of workouts with no real commitment, the progression will be much slower Click To Tweet

First, they need to own the basic movements for several months, if not, over a year or two as they finish their most rapid periods of growth.

As girls grow older and begin to settle into their body’s adult stature, they can up the ante with loading movements to build hamstring, gluteal, anterior core, and quadricep strength.

Movements like these should be slow to start out, so girls can continue to own the positions and feel the muscles they’re firing.

Too, they should be multi-planar and get girls out of the linear plane to reflect the multi-directional aspects of the sport.

To sprinkle in more variability, female soccer players need to give their upper bodies love. For a sport that is so lower extremity dominant, namely with the quadriceps and hip flexors, building posterior strength becomes paramount so their body doesn’t compensate with forward head posture, slouched shoulders, and you know, the typical slumped over soccer player posture.

Enter: pull-ups.

For those of you who have followed me for a length of time, you know I have an affinity for pull-ups. I’ve done weighted, paused, switch grip, and even towel grip:

There isn’t a single variation I haven’t tried because I love pull-ups and have seen the immense physical benefits – from helping my posture, to improving body composition, to making me feel like a strong queen.

This mental confidence is huge for youth female athletes, and when they do get their first pull-up, they realize how incredibly capable their body is of amazing feats of strength.

Acceleration and Speed

For acceleration, girls need to learn proper positioning of the shoulders and hips for optimal horizontal force production. Various wall drills, resisted accelerations, chest to ground starts, and hill sprints are some of the greatest tools for boosting acceleration.

Speed, also known as max velocity, is all about vertical force production, so positioning – upright posture, hip flexion (knee drive), with ball of foot strike are of utmost importance, especially with a neurally malleable middle school girl who is learning speed for the first time and needs to get into proper position.

Adding on, speed training needs to encompass drills that work on a rapid stretch shortening cycle for greater production of vertical forces, such as vertical jumps, depth jumps, and knee tuck jumps.

Agility

Agility is the combination of being able to control deceleration, then perform a rapid re-acceleration in another direction, coupled with the cognitive component when a female soccer player reacts to an external stimuli, such as the ball or a defender.

Agility is the combination of being able to control deceleration, then perform a rapid re-acceleration in another direction, coupled with the cognitive component when a female soccer player reacts to an external stimuli, such as the… Click To Tweet

I’m not big on blowing my whistle and running girls through rehearsed agility drills. We do a lot of work on having crisp landings with jumping drills, and honing in on good eccentric control on both legs, single leg, linear, frontal, then rotational to get them in new environments.

Taking the conversation back to the ACL literature, girls need to be taught how to react to unpredictable situations and build up their awareness in space. If there’s any predictable drill I’m going to conduct, it’s done sub-maximally and focusing on getting them in Athletic Stance so they can re-position their ankles, hips and shoulders faster:

Then, we cap off an agility session with fun games with various cues, preferably cues that force athletes to keep their head up and scan. It bodes well to change where the cue is so they are forced to look around the field.

Frequency of Speed, Agility and Strength Training

The honest truth: this needs to be a year-round pursuit.

Female soccer is becoming more fast-paced, more physical, and more demanding that performance training needs to be a non-negotiable. Mind you, performance training is one and the same as injury prevention training. The basics over and over again compound into a better moving, motor neurally adept, faster and stronger athlete. This goes for all levels, beginner and advanced, alike to revisit fundamental movements.

Girls bodies need to be equipped to handle a lifelong battle, even when soccer ends.

Get them into disciplined habits now.

RESOURCES ON TRAINING FEMALE ATHLETES

Get the Total Youth Female Athlete Fitness video course as well as join our high level private Facebook community of coaches and parents 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

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REFERENCES

Swanik C. B. (2015). Brains and Sprains: The Brain’s Role in Noncontact Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries. Journal of athletic training, 50(10), 1100–1102. https://doi.org/10.4085/1062-6050-50.10.08

Swanik, C. B., Covassin, T., Stearne, D. J., & Schatz, P. (2007). The Relationship between Neurocognitive Function and Noncontact Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(6), 943–948. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546507299532

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