It’s a favorite word for coaches who want to punish players. A dogmatic cry for those who want their players to be in the best shape of their life, especially at the U10 level. It is one of the most misunderstood concepts of the game and the proof lies in visiting any park around the country to watch some practices going on.
How often do you have to question whether or not what you’re watching is a soccer practice or a CrossFit session? Soccer balls are hidden from sight, running shoes are on, and a group of nine year old boys or girls are sweating as their coach puts them through an intense suicide sprint activity followed by some push-ups. How often do you see the last ten minutes of the twice-a-week session turn into a triathlon to ensure that the players “improve their fitness,” as if twenty minutes over the course of the entire week will inspire the development of Olympic athletes.
Ultimately, the issue lies in the fact that more often than not, fitness is implemented incorrectly at the younger ages.
How often do we lecture six year olds for 5 minutes without touching a ball and get angry when they lose focus and stop listening? Fitness is often used as a punishment by coaches who have got it all wrong from the beginning. Is there ever a reason to punish players at practice? Maybe, but more often than not, the fitness that is doled out is for mistakes made by the coach rather than the players.
When a 9 year old shows up to practice, they may have 2 hours of soccer for the entire week with their team. They are there for soccer, not baseball, not lacrosse, and especially not cross-country or CrossFit. Fitness is an aspect of the game, but never forget that the ball rules all. We may have 120 minutes of practice with a young player each week, so what happens when the last ten minutes of practice is devoted to push-ups and sit-ups after the occasionally suicide sprint? We’ve now lost 1/6th of our allotted weekly time to time spent without the ball.
Over the course of 15 weeks, that translates into 5 out of 30 hours where soccer is not being played or even closely resembled. Why? “My players aren’t fit enough in games and therefore we always give up goals in the last twenty minutes because they’re too tired.” There are numerous reasons as to why coaches or parents feel that generic fitness is a necessity, but it always goes back to players being “unfit.”
Why are your players unfit? That is not as simple a question as it sounds. What does it say about your session that the players require extra fitness at the end? What have they been doing for the first 50 minutes? Has it been one large warm-up leading into the final fitness session?
You can’t control everything your young players do when they are not with you, but you can control what they do when they are at practice. Can you structure your sessions in a way that they resemble the game and are competitive enough to force players to run at different speeds, change direction, and have “fitness” improve as a by-product of the session. At the younger ages, fitness should never be the sole focus of any session.
People like to say that the game is the best teacher, so then let the game also help work on your players’ fitness. Small-sided games are a great way to improve fitness and it keeps it game-specific, because now there are quick transitions, recovery runs, full out sprints and also changes of speed and direction that directly impact a player's game specific fitness.
Instead of push-ups for five minutes, can you put your players through an individual technical workout where the ball is the focus? Can they get 250 or 300 varied quick touches on the ball in 5 minutes? Now we begin to work on their technique at speed, still helping fitness, but the focus continues to be on the ball. We begin to work on SPORT SPECIFIC fitness as a by product of our activities and games!
For those that argue we can’t have any impact on what players are doing outside of practice: Are we educating families on ideal nutrition practices? Are we supplying our players with homework that encourages them to work with a soccer ball at home rather than just sit on the couch? Are we giving parents additional ideas on what their kids can do at home? We may not be able to be there every day but we can create an environment where the ball is the focus, ambition, enjoyment, or both is the motivation, and fitness is a successful BY-PRODUCT.
I recently heard of a high school near me where the Varsity Soccer Coach made his players run seven miles every morning to improve their fitness. They will make for incredible Cross-Country athletes, but soccer players? Who knows.
Every day your players come to practice with a smile on their face; remember why they’re there. All are there because they love the game. Some are there because they like playing with their friends, some are there because they have ambitions of playing at high levels, and some are there for a combination of both reasons. None, however, are there because they are training for the next CrossFit games.
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