Summer Conditioning for Fall Sports
It's that time of year again...soccer pre-season camp is only weeks away. At this point making sure that your players fitness is at a high level is of upmost importance. With double sessions and numerous fitness tests looming in the future, this can be a tough task. Throw in the fact that maybe only a handful of kids are actually on campus and training with you daily can make this even more of a struggle. You have to hope that those at home are following the plan and will come back ready to go. Either way you must move forward with your plan and do your best getting the kids that are with you where they need to be.
When it comes to fitness training, one question I always struggle with is should you train the athlete for their sport or should you design training so that they can handle the demands of training camp. What do I mean by this? Well, according to the principle of specificity, to optimally train an athlete to meet the fitness demands of their sport, you need to examine the sport and decide what energy systems need to be developed and to what degree. Keep in mind that the best conditioning for a sport is playing the sport itself. Let’s look at a lineman in American Football for example. We know that in football the average play is somewhere around 5-6 sec long and the play clock is 35 sec. Now that we know this we can construct a conditioning plan that will be progress in intensity and volume until we know the athlete can handle a "worse case scenario" (2 min "hurry up" drill).
We can now comfortably say that we have prepared this lineman as best we can from an energy system standpoint to play the game. What about two-a-days and a conditioning test consisting of 16-110 yard sprints??? Most coaches demand some sort of test like this which may not actually be specific to the sport itself but as strength coaches you must give them what they want. If you have spent all of your time in the off-season training for the sport, is the athlete going to be ready to handle the large volume of running during training camp?
The answer is probably not! Despite your knowledge that you have trained them adequately to play their sport, if they don't pass conditioning tests or look tired during camp, guess who is going be the first to get the blame!
Getting back to soccer, I often face a similar problem. Lucky for me fitness among the soccer community has been thoroughly researched and conditioning tests like the YoYo Intermittent recovery test level 1 have been showed to be highly correlated to distance covered in a soccer match. Meaning this test will have a high chance of telling us if an athlete is fit enough to play. But remember it is still a test and there is not 100% carryover between the two. I have 2 options, if I really wanted someone to pass the test I could just train them for the test to get the best results, but this would be doing them a disservice when it comes time to scrimmage. The other option is to just train them for playing soccer, which in reality is the best option for game fitness but might cause lower scores on the Yo Yo test, giving the perception that they are out of shape.
So what is the best way? I believe it is somewhere in the middle. How much to one side or the other may depend on your situation. If you have the coaches in your corner than you may be able to get away with doing a majority of training in the form of small sided games, in which the players can get a ton of "touches" and lots of playing while at the same time getting very soccer specific fitness. If you are in a situation that you need good results on a fitness test or to make sure no one thinks they are out of shape, you may need to introduce training that will get you the results you need to get "buy-in" from players and coaches.
I once heard a podcast with the head strength coach from UConn, Jerry Martin. He said in recent years he has gotten away from training the football team for a game and instead toward camp. This also lead to a change in their pre-season fitness test. They switched from testing repeat 40 yard sprints which mimics the play in football we talked about earlier to running something like 15-20 100's. If you passed this then it was safe to say you'll be ok during camp.
So when it comes to conditioning in the summer, be smart about your current situation and learn to be flexible as team dynamics can change over time. Keep a pulse on your players by asking them how they are feeling and throw in a practice test once a month or so to gauge where they are at, this will help guide the training.