What Should Your Athlete Be Doing This Summer?
(By guest contributor Ben Edwards from soccerstripes.com)
At a recent United Soccer Coaches seminar in Kansas City, a panel of experts was gathered to discuss tips on what players could do mentally, physically, and technically to prepare for the next season during the summer break. Below are the top takeaways shared by the panel of experts; fitness coach, Scott Moody, sports psychologist, Dr. Linda Sterling, and coach and former professional soccer player, Vahid Assadpour. This should give your child a great guide to their summer soccer program.
The best way for a player to start preparing during the off-season is to ask themselves this question. “What kind of player do you want to be on the first day of next season? What do you want your coach to say to you after your very first practice?”
The answer to that question will provide the motivation that drives how a player prepares mentally, physically, and technically over the summer.
The Summer of “You”
While players spend a lot of their season working on making the team better the off-season is all about “you”, the player. While it can be a bit overwhelming deciding what to focus on since there are so many areas for improvement the exciting part is that the player gets to pick where to focus their energy.
Youth soccer players are pretty busy during the season with homework and other school activities on top of practices and games. It’s hard to squeeze a lot of extra training into that schedule but the summer gives players a great opportunity to explore parts of their game they can’t pay as much attention to during the season.
What about Rest?
At the end of a long season, many players are ready for a break, both mentally and physically. It’s definitely a good idea to step away from the game for a period of time to give the body and brain a chance to recover.
Former professional soccer player, Assadpour, who played at the collegiate and professional level says that the amount of rest a player needs depends on what level they were training and playing at before the summer. For example, if they were playing/training 4 or 5 days a week they need a longer break than if they were having 2 practices a week.
Taking an extended period of time off can definitely impact fitness levels. It takes quite a while to build up those levels but only a few weeks to lose a lot of it. One good cross-training option is swimming because it’s easier on the soccer joints and it’s good for cardio. Swimming helps to build an aerobic base which allows players to train or play for longer periods.
Joining a swim team is good for a few reasons. In addition to the benefit of good aerobic activity and keeping cool in the summer many swim teams have their practices first thing in the morning. This gets kids out of bed and gets them a workout right away.
Attending camps of different sports can also be a fun way to cross-train and learn a new sport or skill while you’re staying in shape. Yoga and some of the martial arts can also be complementary to keeping your muscles strong and flexible.
Becoming a Better Player
Summer break is a good time for players to focus on themselves rather than the team. All year long they’re thinking of themselves as a player in the context of their team. What their role is on the team, how they compare to teammates, what their coach thinks of them, how much playing time they’re getting. It’s nice to get a mental break from team dynamics and be able to focus their energy on what’s most important to them about soccer, what they enjoy most about the game.
It’s helpful to start the summer with some self-reflection on the previous season. If a player had set any goals for the season or the year that’s a perfect place to start. A simple list of times in training/games where a player had success in those areas or struggled to reach the desired level is helpful.
Another source of feedback is any type of player evaluation offered by their coach. If they don’t get a formal evaluation then email the coach and ask them for feedback. It would be good to ask a few things:
What skills, if any, are they really far behind in?
What skills are their strongest attributes?
What would the coach like them to add?
Where to Improve?
Panelist Scott Moody, from AthleteFit, points out that a common approach of focusing on a player’s weaknesses can have some unintended consequences. He’s trained thousands of youth athletes in his athletic performance and research center and has seen parents putting pressure on their kids to get better in areas that aren’t well suited for the player.
For example, if a kid isn’t naturally fast their potential peak performance for speed isn’t going to get exponentially higher the more they train to be faster. Moody agrees that if an athlete lags significantly in some skill it makes sense to work on improving it but in some cases, it can be more productive to focus on the kid’s strengths rather than weaknesses when setting player goals.
In other words, you might not be able to help your player get much faster but if they already have a knack for finishing or cutting up defenses then help them become really good at that skill. Not only will this will help them stand out in that area but they’ll enjoy the training more.
If it’s something they’re good at and enjoys then chances are they’ll be more motivated to work much harder on getting better at it.
One of the things that Sterling does is work with players to help them understand how their thoughts before and during a game can impact their feelings and how those emotions can change their performance on the field.
Most youth soccer coaches aren’t qualified to delve into this level of sports psychology and they definitely don’t have time to spend on it because they have so many technical and tactical topics to focus on.
The best way for a player to understand the emotional/mental part of the game is to work with a professional like Sterling who can help them not only understand their emotions on the field but also channel them towards better performance.
For example, after a player makes a mistake during a game. She teaches them “transition thoughts” that can help them switch from a negative mindset to positive one. At some point, you’ve probably seen a player who made a critical error like missing a penalty kick or making a defensive mistake to let in a goal and couldn’t seem to recover from it.
Their head goes down and their level of play diminishes because they’re hung up on the error and all the emotions that come with it. Sterling gives them cues to help them shift from a “bad place” mentally to a state where their emotions aren’t clouding their judgment.
You can work with a sports psychologist to develop a physical, visual, and audible routine they can go through to shift their mindset. For example:
- Physical – Wipe hands on their shorts
- Visual – Look at the back of the net
- Audible – Say a phrase meaningful to them
Establishing and developing these types of habits takes time. Fitting these sessions in during the season in between practices, school, and other events would be trickier so the summer is a great time to explore something like Sterling offers. We took her up on her free initial consultation with our U-12 player and afterward it was obvious he wasn’t comfortable working with her one on one yet. His summary of the visit was simple – “she asks too many questions”.
For players at that stage one option is to do a mini-workshop with several teammates. That way they’d absorb some strategies without feeling like they’re on the spot. Eventually, once they realize it’s not that scary, maybe even fun, they’ll be up for working on it later.
Another good way to reflect on the previous season is to watch game video. With so much more downtime, let the kids on the screen, review tape! If you’ve captured any games of your player on your iPhone or video camera it’s worth it for them to go back and watch with an eye for improvement.
Instead of looking back for all the highlights, it can help your player to watch for the things they didn’t do well. Sometimes in the heat of the game, it’s hard to realize or process your mistakes. But seeing them on videotape will help them learn and grow.
One of the college coaches in attendance shared something interesting. He said he can sometimes tell how his season will go based on how his first practice after the summer turns out. If the players stayed in shape and on the ball then they’re off to a good start. If they’re out of shape and come out with a terrible first touch he knows it might be a rough season.
That’s something for every player to consider. If some of the kids on the team come back not ready and others start off the season with a bang who do they think will stand out in the coach’s mind? The question we started with that Moody shared from his time working with thousands of players is a good place to finish.
“What kind of player do you want to be on the first day of next season? What do you want your coach to say to you after your very first practice?”
Ben Edwards is a soccer dad, coach, and fan who’s been in love with the game his whole life and now shares tips, stories, and innovative products for youth soccer families over at Soccer Stripes.