Youth Soccer Month is not just a celebration of the sport of soccer itself, but also what it means to take part and be associated with America’s largest and most popular youth sport.
One of the clearest benefits of soccer is the fitness derived from participating in this fast-paced sport. Physically fit people typically feel better, have more energy, have better eating habits and sleep better. There is no substitute for fitness. One doesn’t have to be the best player on the field, or the smartest. But if someone is in the best shape, they have a huge advantage.
A very skillful player who cannot last the whole match due to lack of stamina, or cannot get to the ball due to lack of speed, is not as useful to the team as the player who has slightly less skill, but more speed and stamina.
“My goal is to always be the fittest player on the field,” says Kristine Lilly, who has played in more than 200 international matches with the US Women’s National Team. “There are so many things that you can’t control, but fitness is the one thing that is totally in your control. Being fit gives me a lot of confidence.”
Soccer players need a combination of aerobic and anaerobic fitness due to the nature of the game and the fact that there is continuous movement with lots of short bursts of more intense activity.
Aerobic fitness determines the level at which one takes in and uses oxygen to perform an activity. Activities like jogging are a good way to build aerobic fitness, making the heart and lungs more efficient for exercise, allowing a person to run further and faster before getting tired.
Anaerobic fitness determines the level at which one can work at a high intensity. This usually means short bursts of activity, where a person will often be out of breath. An example of anaerobic exercise is sprinting. Anaerobic training makes the body more efficient at using glycogen as a stored fuel and also helps it deal with oxygen debt. One effect of oxygen debt is the build up of lactic acid, which is, for example, a burning sensation at the end of an intense long sprint. This lactic acid needs to be removed from muscles as quickly as possible and anaerobic training helps make muscles more efficient at coping with lactic acid.
Hard practices alone will not develop high-level conditioning, however. Fitness requires work away from organized practice sessions and a year-round commitment.
“After a season, players will sit around and lose all their fitness,” says Anson Dorrance, head women’s coach at the University of North Carolina, winners of 16 national championships in the past 20 years. “Then they have to kill themselves trying to get fit again. Why would you want to do that to yourself? What we have developed at UNC is a Fit For Life mentality.”
That “Fit For Life mentality” that Coach Dorrance references is one of the major underlying benefits of participating in soccer.