Co-authored by Heath Williams
If you are involved in soccer coaching or conditioning with children or adolescents, it is important to understand their basic physiological and developmental needs as well as have the ability to create a soccer environment that promotes and develops young players’ skills and abilities in a fun, enjoyable way. It can be very easy to get carried away with the idea of a young soccer-playing child or adolescent becoming the next Lionel Messi. Instead of fostering and developing abilities in a way suited to the specific child or adolescent, coaches and parents become focused too early and too heavily on the professionalism and competitive side of training and conditioning.
Speed, strength and fitness are goals worth waiting for when it comes to building young soccer bodies and minds. The differences in the physical capabilities of a professional player and that of a developing youngster are significant, and overzealous parents and some current coaching practices could unwittingly be setting a child up for a long-term injury and burnout.
FIFA, the international federation of soccer associations, estimates that the number of active players across the globe is about 265,000 million — representing 300,000 clubs in 204 countries (Kuntz, 2007). The number of individuals who participate in social soccer or kick to kick in the park could quite easily double or triple this figure.
A quick review of the most common musculoskeletal injuries suffered in the soccer pre-season for juniors reveal that lower limb injuries account for 79% of injuries (Brito, 2011). The foot, ankle, knee, hip/thigh and groin account for the majority of these injuries. One Canadian study showed that males are more likely to be injured than females, with the most common type of non-fatal soccer related injury being muscle and ligament strains and sprains (38%), followed by fractures/disclocations (31%) and superficial injuries (23%) (Giannotti, 2011). In addition to this, younger athletes are also susceptible to growth related injuries such as Sever's disease and Osgood-Schlatter disease (Andersen et al., 2003).
When it comes to determining what the biggest risk factor is in relation to developing injuries, previous injury and inadequate rehabilitation have been shown to be the most important intrinsic predictors for subsequent injury (Kucera et al., 2005). The use of a structured, generalized warm-up program has been shown to help reduce the occurrence of injuries in soccer by approximately 30% (Kirkendall, 2010).
Across the globe there are many different approaches by coaches, conditioning staff, exercise physiologists, personal trainers and parents in regards to training and playing soccer. While there are many different philosophies and methods that can be adopted, injuries will occur in all of these environments, regardless. When it comes to children/adolescents and soccer, there are many extrinsic factors that can increase risk of injury. We will review some of the more common areas that can impact on a youth’s development and risk of injury.
Accommodating Developmental and Physiological Needs of the Child/Adolescent
The main point to remember is that there are massive differences in the physical capabilities of a developing child/adolescent and that of a professional player. The years from 4 to 17 are when children and teenagers will undergo some of the biggest developmental changes in their life. Not only will they be literally growing into themselves, but in these years they will develop their movement abilities, co-ordination, spatial awareness, balance, reaction abilities and basic sport-specific skills.
On training and match days, the intensity of play and the players' individual and collective movements will not resemble that of a top-level game. Unfortunately, team coaches and parents often have the unrealistic expectation for their junior team’s play to resemble Barcelona and Manchester United. To the detriment of the player, training focus shifts toward tactics and developing physical performance and away from skill-based drills. The golden age for setting the blueprint for technical and motor learning must be maximized between the ages of 7 and 14. Youngsters often don’t grasp complex tactical concepts and have limitations on physical performance. For some frustrated coaches, match results become a priority and soccer training begins to look like a boot camp running session with no ball in sight. An under-qualified coach that places the incorrect training loads on a young body could be setting the child up for a long-term injury and the valuable window of opportunity for cognitive learning and developing foundational technical skills is lost.
Children need and want to learn to play soccer in an enjoyable environment, not run for an entire training session.
Incorporating Gross Motor Skill Development & Non-Specific Soccer Training
An often-ignored component of coaching young soccer players is the introduction of activities to assist in developing and fine-tuning gross motor skills. Time must be invested into games that develop coordination and self and spatial awareness. This means incorporating games into the warm-up that are not always entirely soccer-specific.
Activities performed should include:
- Catching, throwing and bouncing differently sized and weighted objects.
- Multi-directional running, jumping and hopping drills.
- Basic gymnastics. Movements that involve contact with the ground, such as tumbling, rolling and cartwheels.
- Agility ladder drills.
- Activities that have the top/bottom half and left/right side of the body performing different movements.
Children also should be exposed to other types of sports as youngsters. Martial arts and basic gymnastics are highly recommended and have a great crossover effect into soccer. Judo is used by the highly successful Ajax Academy in the development curriculum for their elite youngsters. Investing time is these activities will improve co-ordination, agility, balance, proprioception and spatial awareness. All these attributes are huge factors for the future prevention of injury.
At the age of 15 or 16, a player will be better prepared for a safe introduction into a gym for resistance training. If these other skills have been realized at an earlier age, the transition into more intense exercise will be more successful. Introducing a resistance-based exercise program that looks at training movement patterns and builds the strength of the lower half of the body and core will help to reduce the risk of injury in the future through improved strength, endurance, balance and coordination. It must be remembered that exercising in the gym environment is a new challenge for the teenager and that the focus should be on developing technique of the exercise and be structured accordingly to avoid any risk of injury.
Handling the Pushy Parent
Participation in sport and being part of a team or sporting club is an ideal environment for children to begin to experience all of life’s challenges. Personal growth, development of confidence and self-esteem, and the general benefits of physical activity should be some of the primary reasons for playing sport.
There are no shortcuts when forming a future champion – everything takes time. Unfortunately, in some cases parents along with coaches don’t seem to have an understanding of this concept. There are cases where parents of talented youngsters aged between 8 and 10 are already mapping out daily training sessions that focus on fitness, strength, and speed. The emotional and physical stresses of overtraining placed on any young child can be extremely detrimental to their development as a soccer player. Misguided training programs and unrealistic workloads can be the cause of a potential long-term injury or a reason for a child to lose enthusiasm and drop out of a sport altogether.
There are many ingredients that make a successful soccer player. Coaches need to possess a clear understanding of the developmental stages of a child. Only then can the right concepts and training methods be applied. It takes ten years of a methodical approach to produce a professional player.
Structuring the Training Session
Technical and ball skills training should be the focus when training young soccer players. Coaching time is limited to about 4 to 6 hours a week, which places a huge importance on properly run, club-organized sessions. Coaches must be well-prepared and able to structure activities and drills so players are made to multitask. Sessions should be layered to consist of some or all of the following:
- Skill training. Players must learn to move and run in relation to the ball.
- Training players to develop the right type of fitness. Soccer players require anaerobic endurance – the ability to perform high intensity activities over long periods of time.
- Training the right type of movement for the requirements of soccer. The muscles of the body must be worked in a three-dimensional manner.
- Training the right attributes (i.e. agility, power and speed).
Sessions that are not designed to combine appropriate age-related developmental tasks and soccer specific training will increase the likelihood of injury. It is not uncommon for children and teenagers to be participating in more than one sport or activity per week. Many young children and teenagers might be involved in club soccer training 1 to 2 sessions per week with a weekend game. On top of this, they might also be participating in 1 to 3 sessions of another sport during the week as well as school sports and social playing. The important thing to remember here is that children and adolescents' bodies are very susceptible to overuse and fatigue. It is important that the young person be allowed adequate time to recovery and at least have certain periods of the year where activity levels are reduced significantly to allow for not only physical rest, but also a mental break. With year-round sport schedules and the option of competing both indoors and out, it is not atypical for children and adolescents to be playing soccer all year long. The last thing we want to do is burn out our young aspiring athlete or put them at risk of injury.
Sample 90-Minute Training Session for 12-Year-Olds (Group of 16 players)
Focus the session on keeping possession of the ball in reduced spaces, with a series of task progressions that increase in complexity. Sessions typically end with game-like situations that take shape as a series of small-sided games.
Split the session into 3 x 30 minute blocks. This gives participants an opportunity to get a mental break and rehydrate themselves.
The session will focus on the following skills:
- Running with the ball.
- Developing close ball control and shielding the ball from opponents.
- Short passing, receiving and first touch on the ball.
- Moving into space and creating space for a teammate.
Block 1) Warm-up – Individual focus
- Set a 20m x 20m grid.
- Players dribble ball around using the inner and outer parts of left and right foot and sole in various ball-carrying drills.
- Every 30 seconds, perform a dynamic stretch with focus on legs and hips.
- Start at slow pace and gradually increase the pace and complexity of the skills.
Block 2) Passing and Receiving
- Pair up players to practice short passing using all parts of left and right feet. Technical focus.
- Play a possession-orientated game using their hands (similar to netball, with the addition of a bounce before each pass to improve motor skill) to develop awareness of free space and positioning to receive the ball.
- Give 8 players a ball to dribble and combine with short passing. Free players must move to create space and complete a wall pass with player in possession.
Block 3) Small-Sided Games
Work fitness levels by setting a work:rest ratio of 1:½minute. This will keep the intensity high. Start with the following match rules that change to continually keep the players stimulated:
- Set up 4 grids (10m x 10m) with 4 players in each. Begin with a 3v1 and then progress to a 2v2.
- Start with a 2-touch limit for each player. This exercise will encourage quick decision-making, sharp control and movement into space of the players not in possession of the ball.
- Award points for consecutive number of passes or completed wall passes.
- Gradually increase numbers of players to an 8v8 match with goals at each end.
- Aim is to combine all concepts of session goal in the small-sided games.
Children and adolescents go through many growth changes during their younger years. By developing soccer training and conditioning programming that takes into consideration their particular developmental stages and needs, we can use our skills as health and fitness professionals to not only improve their soccer abilities, but also to create a positive and fun environment that promotes their physical and mental development.
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- Brito, J. et al. (2011 May). Injuries in youth soccer during the preseason. Clinical Journal Sports Medicine: 259-60.
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- Giannotti, M. et al. (2011 February). Epidemiology of acute soccer injuries in Canadian children and youth. Pediatric Emergency Care: 81-85.
- Kirkendall, D.T. & Dvorak, J. (2010 April). Effective injury prevention in soccer. Physical Sports Medicine: 147-157.
- Kucera, K.L et al. (2005). Injury history as a risk factor for incident injury in youth soccer. British Journal of Sports Medicine 39: 462–466.
- Kuntz, M. (2007 July). 265 Million Playing Soccer. FIFA Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.fifa.com/mm/document/fifafacts/bcoffsurv/emaga_9384_10704.pdf.
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