Coaches Blog

Sam's Blog is a bi-weekly addition to the US Youth Soccer Blog. Sam Snow is the Coaching Director for US Youth Soccer.


Speed and Agility

Sam Snow

Recently, I received a good question from a club director that I think may be of interest to a number of coaches across the nation working with youth players.
Does US Youth Soccer have any literature/guidelines regarding at what age it is appropriate for players to start speed and agility training?
I do not have a paper which speaks directly to this topic. However we do know from our colleagues in exercise physiology that there's no point to speed training until the body is mature enough to respond to the training.  This means after the child has reached Peak Height Velocity (PHV). Endurance or speed training becomes effective at 12 to 18 months after PHV, which is about 13 years, 6 months for boys and 11 years, 6 months for girls. Significant results are realized for boys at about 15 years of age and for girls at about 14 years of age and vary with each individual's physical development.
One practical solution is to use the onset of PHV as a reference point for the design of optimal individual programs with relation to 'critical' or 'sensitive' periods of trainability during the maturation process. Prior to the onset of PHV, boys and girls can train together and chronological age can be used to determine training, competition and recovery programs. 
The average age for the onset of PHV is twelve and fourteen years for females and males respectively. The onset of PHV is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, including climate, cultural influences and social environment. 
The onset of PHV is a reference point that provides valuable information for training the players' energy systems and central nervous system, regardless of chronological age. Using simple measurements, PHV can be monitored and training can be related and optimized to exploit the critical periods of trainability. This approach can enhance the development of short and long-term individually optimized training, competition and recovery programs such as the optimal window of accelerated adaptation to stamina (endurance), strength, speed, skill and suppleness training – or the five S's of training and performance. It should be pointed out that all energy systems are always trainable, but during the so-called 'critical' periods accelerated adaptation will take place if the proper volume, intensity and frequency of exercise are implemented.
What are important to train in childhood are balance, agility, and coordination through a movement education approach. You can also begin to work on form (correct body posture and controlled movement) beginning at U-10. Teaching proper running and jumping mechanics is far more important in the U-10 and U-12 age groups than the speed of a sprint or the height of a jump. Those factors will show up once the child reaches adolescence. Biologically adolescence ranges from age 15 to 23, with each player coming into and finishing adolescence at their own rate. Here are some facts on speed training once they have reached late puberty or early adolescence.
·         Pure speed- the ability to cover the distance between two points in the shortest amount of time.
·         Technical speed- the ability to perform skills at speed.
·         Mental speed- ability of the player to be aware of all factors, conditions and options inside and outside of the game.
At any level, speed separates the outstanding players from the average... So, soccer speed training sessions should play a major role in your training. Speed in soccer can be quite complex. It certainly entails more than just running fast. When you talk about speed in the game, here are some of the attributes that will make for better players...
•             Quick speed off the mark
•             Quick acceleration over 10-15 yards
•             Good speed endurance
•             Speed in possession of the ball
•             Quickness of feet or agility
•             The ability to quickly change direction
•             The ability to execute skills quickly
•             Last but not least... speed of thought
You can see from the above that good 100 yard sprinters don't necessarily have the attributes to be quick soccer players. And by the same token some players who are not typically fast runners can excel in soccer if they have sharp feet and quick speed of thought. Remember that old phrase...'The first 10 yards are in your head.'
Absolute speed or the ability to run fast is determined by a number of factors - the obvious one being genetics. But if a player has been blessed with less than favorable sprinting genes don't worry too much. A good soccer speed training program will improve the efficiency of the muscle fibers (if not the type or amount of them) and that will make players faster. So, one goal of your soccer speed training schedule should be to increase their sprinting power - particularly their acceleration and speed off the mark. Soccer players rarely sprint more than 50 yards in a straight line.
A second, and equally important, goal is to increase your speed endurance. Speed endurance training significantly improves physical recovery after a bout of repetitive sprints. The body's ability to remove lactic acid increases which can make such a difference to a player's game.
Thirdly, a soccer speed training program should improve agility, foot speed and reaction time. Exercises to improve agility don't tend to be physically taxing. The emphasis is on short, sharp movements of a high quality.
Finally, incorporating a ball into some of the speed and agility drills is important to make all those gains in speed transferable to the field of play.
As for speed of thought, that's one that we can begin to train at U-6 through game-like activities and using guided discovery in the coaching method. Coaches need to attend the National Youth License coaching course to learn more in these areas.
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