Mike Whiteman | Performance Coach | December 16, 2020
Years from now 2020 will undoubtedly be retold by history books as something stranger than fiction. A year in which the impossible became possible, and the only apparent consistency came in the form of constant chaos. A novel pathogen that paralyzed global economics and stirred civil unrest may sound far-fetched, but it was the crazy reality. This year has been tough for everyone to varying degrees. For some it could have been straight from their worst nightmare with the loss of a loved one, falling into economic ruin, or even fighting the inner, mental demons that sometimes accompany the void created by extreme isolation. For others, perhaps, just a mere inconvenience as the local Starbucks was closed or their favorite band had to cancel touring dates. The ramifications and impact of the coronavirus may have been drastically different, but the one commonality we were all confronted with was a new, altered normal. For young student athletes that naturally gravitate towards structure this could have been particularly difficult. Achievement in the classroom and on the field requires dedication and discipline which strongly lends itself to being very routine-oriented. Abrupt disruption to a young, high-achieving athlete’s routine of studying, training, and competing most certainly could have had potential to create serious psychological angst. As with anything, perspective matters as life is more about how you respond to the various events that occur within it and less about the actual events themselves. Ultimately, 2020 will likely prove to be even more a story of resilience, ingenuity, and the ability to adapt than that of turbulence and turmoil.
My daily work environment at the club level includes an established youth academy and professional team, as well as a performance training component that I directly oversee, and all are built on best practices to optimize long term development technically, tactically, and physically. When athletes train with me in person, we work on developing the general fundamentals of athleticism to supplement the soccer skill specificity they are already getting when they train and play with their team. Thinking generally and then filling in the gaps the athletes otherwise are lacking keeps them healthier, first and foremost, and enhances performance by making them more well-rounded. Sprinting, leaping, and bodyweight strength done well can go an exceptionally long way for youth athletes. I always remind our athletes it is not what you do but rather how you do it. The job, then, of a strength and conditioning coach is to be as efficient as possible by employing the simplest means to prepare the athlete as quickly as possible for their craft. Optimal training should always be the ultimate ambition for those who coach in the performance field.
Utilizing exercises that maximized returns on time invested or ‘bang for your buck’ then served as the foundation to how I structured my ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going’ social distancing training protocols. Specifically, as it relates to the performance training during this pandemic, I viewed this as a great opportunity to reinforce the basics. The training was a unique mixture of ‘low tech’ training methods combined with ‘high tech’ assessment capabilities. Since soccer is so running-intensive, our training was structured around maximal sprinting with strength and conditioning layered in accordingly to support speed development. Maximal sprinting has the biggest return on time invested and requires zero equipment. Not only is speed perhaps the most coveted asset for any ball court athlete but it is also the one, singular thing that checks off the most boxes.
Sprinting is great but it becomes even greater if it is regularly objectified and assessed. Despite the requisite social distancing, the technology in smart phone cameras and the coaching app Dartfish allowed me to time my athletes regularly and provide the necessary feedback. Dartfish can slow sprints and jumps to frame-by-frame movements allowing for extraordinarily accurate times and also allow for feedback in regard to positioning and technique which is also important to ensure continued progress in developing such a delicate skill like speed.
If you view training as a series of stressors as opposed exercises, nothing creates the most stress, systemically, like achieving maximum running speed in sprinting. The forces created through ground contact in sprint training will not only make an athlete faster and more dynamic but will also make them more resilient to injury. Of course, it is still important to supplemental strength work such as squats, lunges, pushups, and chin-ups. These exercises will target the hamstrings, groin, glutes, hips, and core, and are essential for maintaining muscle balance and overall health. The strength training will also enhance the force-producing benefits of sprinting. Increasing an athlete’s top velocity positively influences their fitness since the ability to run at lesser speed becomes easier, increasing energy conservation. Speed is indeed King!
As with most things, the simplest answer was the best. The athletes truly needed nothing more than themselves, a strong mindset, and access to readily available technology to make the most of an otherwise tough situation. Where there is a will there will always be a way as the ability to adapt and overcome is innate within the human spirit.