Developing Field Skills in Soccer Players
How can we ensure our programming is context-driven?
- Needs Analysis
- Reverse Engineering
- Understanding Field Skills
- Agility & Pre-planned Change of Direction Speed
- Acceleration & Speed
- About the Author
Improving the competitive performance of athletes in field-based invasion sports such as soccer calls for a needs analysis of the technical/tactical (Turner & Stewart, 2014), physiological (Stolen et al., 2005) and biomechanical (Reilly et al., 2000) requirements of the sport. Although soccer is an intermittent sport that uses both the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems (Bangsbo, 1994), this Blog Post will focus on the biomechanical and perceptual aspects of field skills in soccer. By field skill, we refer to athletic skills such as deceleration, agility and speed.
Therefore, the aims of this Blog Post are threefold 1) discuss how we can identify and program field skills 2) clearly identify and understand the field skills and 3) describe what they look like in soccer in addition to as a general technical model.
To understand what field skills occur in soccer and how these occur, we as coaches need to develop a needs analysis which is specific to the sport (e.g. soccer) and the particular playing positions on the field (e.g. midfielder or winger).
To do this, of course we should draw on peer-reviewed literature to provide us with evidence-based time-motion data on the demand of the sport. However, to provide more context of how things actually happen, notational analysis of a game or video clips of gameplay on YouTube can help us figure out exactly how athletic tasks are executed and stimulus that causes these tasks to be carried out (Jefferys, 2008).
Once this information is collected and at our disposal, we must begin with the end in mind. S&C coaches, I included, have all been guilty of losing sight of the end outcome during the decision-making processes of exercise selection for example.
If our sessions support the improvement of a field skill with specificity to how it is used in game situations, it is time well spent. This is not to say general physical preparation shouldn’t be carried out, or general speed mechanics shouldn’t be taught, but that context must be applied eventually in aims of achieving true transfer.
Once general models of field skills such as acceleration are taught, we must continue to build athlete ensure that the drills we prescribe are integrated by athletes in sports-specific scenarios (Jefferys, 2008) and that the gym-based exercises we prescribe support the development of these field skills. It’s also important to note that the quality and context of coaching must align with these concepts too (Jefferys, 2008).
Understanding Field Skills
Field skills in soccer can be categorised into three main groups:
- Agility & pre-planned change of direction speed
- Acceleration & top speed
It’s important to note that despite being grouped, agility & pre-planned change of direction are completely independent skills (Young et al., 2015). as are acceleration & speed (Turner & Stewart, 2014).
As proposed by Jefferys (2006; 2006b), skills can be broken down into:
- Initiation movements – Used to start movement or change motion (e.g. Side-step motion to move laterally whilst watching play).
- Transition movements – Used to set-up a position where subsequent movement can be efficiently executed (e.g. crossover step to assume a position facing forwards).
- Actualization movements – The final movement that determines success in an athletic task (e.g. following a transition with a sprint to beat an opponent).
Deceleration is defined as a rapid stop or decrease in the body’s velocity, followed by re-acceleration in a different direction (Hewit et al., 2011). This means that deceleration is a transition movement (Jefferys, 2008).
Kinematically it can be described by a centre of mass (CoM) posterior to the feet with a full foot heel strike, small steps and a wide base with knee flexion. Kinetically it can be described by high braking forces, long ground contact times, high step frequencies and eccentric muscle actions of the quadriceps and gastrocnemius (Dintiman & Ward, 2003; Andrews et al., 1997). Gradual progression in deceleration is key as decelerations high a load that is 37% higher than accelerations per square metre (Harper & Kiely, 2018).
Being a transition movement which precedes change of direction (CoD) and having a higher occurrence in small-sided games (SSG) (Turner & Stewart, 2014), sessions entirely dedicated to deceleration are likely unwarranted, especially when decelerations occur 2.9x more frequently than accelerations (Harper & Kiely, 2018).
- Supporting general strength exercise – Goblet Split Squat
Agility & Pre-planned Change of Direction Speed
Sprints that include a CoD precede 6% of all goal-scoring situations in soccer (Faude et al., 2012). Even though this may appear low, players cover an average of 217 + 165m through multidirectional sprints (Castagna et al., 2003), accounting for 3.5% of their total distance. From a time-motion perspective, players change direction every 3.8 – 4.5 seconds (Bangsbo, 1994).
However, true Change of Direction Speed (CoDS) in invasion sports is rare (Jefferys, 2011), defined as a pre-planned task where “change of direction” occurs (Sheppard & Young, 2006). Albeit, closed CoDS drills can be used be as general tissue preparation to develop eccentric strength, dynamic balance and concentric rate of force development as a physical foundation to agility without a cognitive component.
This isn’t to say that developing CoDs is useless. Pre-planned side steps result in greater lateral foot placement, greater lateral movement speed, greater forward foot displacement, increased hip abduction, lower knee joint angles and reduced forces through the knee than unplanned side stepping (Brown et al., 2014; Houck et al., 2006). This can help us develop the physical aspects of agility.
On the other hand, agility is defined as a “rapid whole-body movement with a change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus”. With a change of velocity being agility, deceleration alone could be performed as an offensive agility transition (Young et al., 2015).
For example, a winger could be performing a linear sprint with the ball down the line, towards the the touch line. As they approach the touch line at a high speed, they stop the ball before it goes out, decelerate past the ball and turn back towards it to cross or pass. The aim of the deceleration was to go from ‘fast to slow’ more suddenly than a defender, to create time and space to execute a pass or cross.
Acceleration & Speed
Linear acceleration and maximum velocity sprinting are soccer-specific actions which can impact the outcome of games (Little & Williams, 2005). Elite soccer players average 17m per sprint, with ~50% being shorter than 10m (Stolen et al., 2005) and only 4% reaching 30m (Bangsbo, 1994b).
45% of goal scoring scenarios are preceded by a linear sprint (Faude et al., 2012). Although forwards, wingers and full-backs perform more sprints compared to centre-backs and central midfielders, there doesn’t appear to be differences in sprint distances (Fitzpatrick et al., 2019). Forwards show superior sprint speed to other positions, with defenders and midfielders showing similar sprint capabilities, followed by goalkeepers (Haugen et al., 2020).
Sprinting bouts are often preceded by players already being in motion (Little & Williams, 2005) and successful acceleration in team sports has been characterised by faster ground contact times and increased stride frequency (Murphy et al., 2003).
Acceleration in soccer can start as an initiation movement in a variety of ways such as shuffling back, moving side on or in stationary facing backwards. This means that acceleration training must go beyond wall drills. Especially when notational analysis shows that defenders may spend much of their time sprinting with their torso and head facing play whilst their legs are forwards, sprinting back towards goal.
It’s also not uncommon for soccer players to sprint in curved lines. Attackers (CF’s) perform larger angled curved sprints (10-15°+), to run around and in behind defenders who perform smaller angled sprints (Fitzpatrick et al., 2019).
The main aims of this Blog Post were threefold 1) discuss how we can identify and program field skills 2) clearly identify and understand the field skills and 3) describe what they look like in soccer, rather than as a general technical model.
To conclude, S&C coaches should ensure they truly understand not only the demands of sports such as soccer and the individual positions, but how movements occur. S&C coaches must reverse engineer their programming process and work backwards from the end outcome to ensure their programming and coaching are context-driven to improve field skills and drive high on-field performance.
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