By Simo Idrissi, M.S.
2022 Sports and Health Sciences Master’s Degree Graduate
and Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
Preparation for a competitive soccer season requires planning for the tactical, physical, psychological, and mental aspects of the sport in addition to the implementation of communication and leadership. Athletes typically return from off-season hibernation to contemplate personal and team successes vs. failures of the previous season, and previous communication and leadership styles now need to be rejuvenated.
As returning and new competitive soccer players drift into training camp, coaching staff should reveal their season planning. This planning should include updated strategies geared to forming a winning atmosphere and not relying on previous perceptions before each player can show their skill set in practice, a team-building tactic recommended by Harvard Business Review.
Mitigating Ambiguity and Avoidance
Competitive soccer athletes should not feel that pre-training camp expectations are already solidified by the coaching staff and sports media. Otherwise, there will be fears of conflict and confusion as to how to best adhere to team accountability, which can create controversy, ambiguity, and avoidance according to an article by researchers Sanjiv Kumar, Vaishali Deshmukh, and Vivek Adhish.
Optimal coach and player leadership involves focusing on interpersonal risk management, according to Kumar, Deshmukh, and Adhish. They also note that relationships begin with feelings and behavior diversification controlled by hesitation or haste.
Without competency, maturity, and emphasis on team performance, an undesirable atmosphere can be created by various athlete perceptions regarding how they can best deal with earlier traumatic events (both real and perceived), according to researchers Wei-May Su and Louise Stone.
Creating and Optimizing a Positive Team Environment
Ideally, a healthy mix of competitive soccer veterans and rookies will result in the formation of personal and professional connections, creating potential team success in future years. A team environment that is unfamiliar to all soccer players entering camp can lead to player hesitation and a fear-based unwillingness to engage in critical communication and peer decision-making.
As returning and new athletes enter soccer camp, leadership-led introductions and reintroductions should not repeat the same traditions that did not appropriately welcome players in previous years. Coaches and established team leaders need to immediately strive for motivational interactions and mentorship relationships to encourage new players to start the season with the right rhythm without any confused first impressions.
The integration of updated or new programs requires time for players to “buy in,” which is best accomplished by forming key relationships and creating a sense of team responsibility. The team’s technical staff (head coach and assistants) of soccer teams at any level (but particularly elite levels) need to instill their style of influence early.
CEO and podcast host John C. Maxwell observes that “Leadership is influence – Nothing more, nothing less.” According to Maxwell, these seven factors have the greatest influence on leadership:
- Past Success
Defining Players’ Objectives and Responsibilities in Competitive Soccer
Before sharing the pre-season conditioning plan, coaches need to detail short- and long-term goals and each person’s related responsibilities in game tactics management. When players understand their roles and the roles of other people on their competitive soccer team, relational management and often egotistical personalities can begin to accept each other.
Building social chemistry needs to start with coaches and team captains selected by the players early in camp. These coaches and team captains must show their eagerness to:
- Mentor players
- Emphasize what is most important to team success
- efficiently and effectively distribute pertinent information to avoid potential miscommunication
- Enforce rules
- Share accomplishments on the steps to achieving short- and long-term goals
When players start to feel responsible to the team, coaches can then target communications strategies to transition and implementation, using the principles described by Annabelle South in Health Research Policy and Systems. This goal is best accomplished when coaches take extra time to understand the capacities and maturity levels of individual players, which they can then regularly update as players develop mentally, physically, and tactically.
Players can then apply and learn the training program well enough to engage in the in-season plan. Also, analytics involving rival players and the team strategies of opponents can then be presented to the players. Those analytics provide baseline data to drive assessments and performance reports on other teams’ players, coaching decisions, and team strategy.
Pre-Season Plan Duration, Leadership and Mentor Management
Pre-season competitive soccer training generally ranges up to eight weeks, depending on the competitive level. That training includes overall conditioning and also preparation for the specific skills connected to attacking, defending, and transition situations.
Training camps need to include:
- Physician and athletic trainer evaluation schedules
- Muscle soreness recovery procedures
- Availability of therapies such as yoga and massage
- Breathing hygiene
- Injury prevention
- Sleep management
- Nutrition for practice days, home games and away games
Pre-season initiation should focus on coaching staff expectations for the level of intensity and how many minutes each section of practices will take (with soccer ball and without). This way, teammates will be better prepared for drills and game play against each other.
When soccer players are left guessing as to the exact time of various parts of on-field pre-season training, they will feel unclear regarding game-day schedules. Reducing player stress by revealing pre-season training camp routines to be used during the season will leave nothing to chance. Adjustments may need to be made, but any large deviations from expected schedules should be communicated as soon as possible while taking into account player concerns.
All practice sessions should be filmed via the ever-present “eye in the sky” video camera and evaluated to see how different players participate. This video footage will give head and position coaches the information for motivational speeches and will help balance mentorship assignments.
Pre-Season Planning, Physical Conditioning and Session Intensity Management in Competitive Soccer
The management of each daily or twice-daily practice sessions should include conditioning and tactical preparation, position skills, and simulations based on the anticipated play of rival opponents. Practice volume should most often replicate or go beyond what players experienced on lower-tier teams or rival teams at the same competitive level.
For example, if filmed practices involve moving about eight miles in 90 minutes, the eight miles can be comprised of more than jogging and running. For example, they could also include ball control, physical challenges, turning, sudden stops, thinking, problem-solving and other aspects that make each skilled movement unique.
Team reaction time, offensive and defensive rhythms, and who is involved in each trend need to be emphasized. That strategy will ensure players are physically and mentally ready for their roles and related challenges.
One notable example of a current trend would be if a major league soccer team dropped from 950 passes per game down to 920 passes per game. This trend would indicate the coaching staff had instructed players to not emphasize breaking opposing defenses by tactically controlling possession with passing as much and focusing on being more aggressive on offense.
The acute and chronic fatigue of players needs to be anticipated, but that will vary according to the biomotor abilities of individual players and their field position. Physical conditioning of the whole team while coaching staff assess individual player and position area weaknesses creates complex challenges. Building up the “weaker links in the chain” is often the difference between meeting versus not meeting a training goal.
Plyometric training within position-specific movements is an important supplement to small-area game preparation, according to a Frontiers in Physiology article. For instance, plyometric training exercises involving such as three-on-three and seven-on-five players will be useful for game situations that require explosive power.
Soccer at increasingly higher levels of competition becomes less about skill and dribbling and more about speed at which individuals and the team (via on-field direction from coaching staff) make good offensive, defensive, and transitional decisions.
The speed of play in soccer involves both physical and mental attributes of individual players and the team. Physical attributes that can be analyzed include the number of first touches from stealing ball from opponents, transition time from attack to defense, vision of field, and speed and spin of the ball when a player kicks it.
Mental attributed that can be analyzed include a player’s reaction time to increased offensive or defensive pressure from opponents and strategic decisions regarding the player acting on his or her own and less reacting to an opponent game plan. Being fast and strong is about as important as moving to the right place at the right time via anticipatory “speed of thought” – making good decisions in the least amount of time.
“Speed of play” involves release time and the movement of the ball passed to a teammate. Passing a ball within two seconds is considered a quick release time, and one- to two-touch passes is generally considered a change in ball possession for statistical purposes.
“Reading the game” involves thinking on one’s feet and a “sense” of knowing how to prevent situations where the opponent has a chance to get a shot on goal.
For example, an opponent currently using a 3-4-3 formation (3 defenders, 4 midfielders and 3 forwards) will increase pressure on defenders more than a 4-4-2 formation (4 defenders, 4 midfielders and 2 forwards).
Intensity progressions are critical to maximizing individual and team performance when a team is transitioning from pre-season training to in-season training variations based on game schedules. Monitoring training load based on maximum heart rate zones using colors is an excellent way to communicate technical staff planning to players. The various colors in these charts represent the workload of practice camp sessions with the gray color indicating a day off for players.
Team Formations and Player Roles
If a team requires more midfielders to balance team formation in a given situation, coaches need to be able to quickly communicate when three to four midfielders are not sufficient and rapidly transition to five or six midfielders. Role preparation is a critical part of all soccer matches; coaches who are successful at this preparation generally develop better teams and move up the coaching ladder. For example, transitioning right and left defenders into wings is critical, requiring physical and cognitive training for many players to be successful in more than one team role.
Competitive Soccer Requires a Complex and Multifaceted Training Process to Improve Performance
Improving performance of individual players and overall success of a competitive soccer team is complex and multifaceted. Physical and mental skills are intertwined and they develop best via dynamic interactions between teammates and the coaching staff.
About the Authors
Simo Idrissi, M.S., earned his master of science in sports and health sciences from American Military University in 2022. His capstone project, “Mental Preparation and Biofeedback to Enhance Soccer Team Performance Throughout a Competitive Season,” is available online and was written under the guidance of Dr. Daniel Graetzer. Simo is a former professional soccer player as well as a current coach and technical director for elite soccer teams. He also holds B and A coaching licenses from the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Advanced National Diploma from United Soccer Coaches.
Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his B.S. from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, a M.A. from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City. He has been a faculty member in the School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in social media blogs, encyclopedias, and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in practical application of developing scientific theories and societal well-being.