This article was provided by Training & Conditioning
By Alex Buchman,
Ever since I started working with the University of South Carolina women’s soccer team six years ago, I’ve been studying the game. This has led me to seek the input of experts from some of the top teams in the world, including the Seattle Sounders of Major League Soccer and the German Men’s National Team.
With their assistance and advice, I’ve developed a comprehensive offseason strength and conditioning plan. The offseason comprises the meat of our training, and it runs for about seven months from January through the summer.
During this period, we keep the demands of the sport in mind at all times. There is a reason for every lift and exercise that we implement, and we avoid adding to the existing stressors of the game by carefully monitoring each athlete.
When it all comes together, the results show up on the field. We won back-to-back Southeastern Conference regular season titles in 2016 and 2017. And since 2013, we’ve made the NCAA Division I Tournament every year — with a quarterfinal appearance in 2016 and a semifinal berth in 2017.
Learning from other soccer strength coaches has influenced my own coaching philosophy. There are two pieces to it.
The first part involves enabling athletes to move well. Too often, I see players who are poor movers. They struggle with basic bodyweight movements, yet have participated in full-on weightlifting programs before.
If one of our athletes can’t perform the basics correctly, we work to fix the problem first and progress from there. For example, if a player has never squatted before, the last thing I would have her do is the back squat. This does not mean that she would stick with bodyweight movements forever. Once she gained a clear understanding of the squatting motion, we would add in a goblet squat as her first variation and advance accordingly.
The second component of my philosophy is establishing relationships with coaches and athletes. Head Coach Shelley Smith and Associate Head Coach Jamie Smith have been tremendous in not only allowing me to work with their program, but in helping me grow as a sports performance professional. From the start, they gave me the opportunity to dictate the strength training for their team, which really spoke volumes about the trust they had in me. To further build their trust, I became a sponge and absorbed as much information as I could about the foundation their program was built on.
With players, I try to connect in a way that allows them to trust me to do my job. This is one of the hardest, yet most rewarding, parts of this profession. I want to be someone they can come to when they need something, but also someone who is going to push them to be their best day in and day out.
To build this kind of relationship with athletes, I talk to them on a daily basis, and it’s not always about soccer. Sometimes I ask how their classes are going or talk with them the day after a match to see how they feel. This helps me get to know them on a personal level and understand some of the outside pressures they are facing.
I take both pieces of my philosophy into our offseason programming, which kicks off in January. During this five-week phase, I train the team four or five days a week.
Soccer is an anterior-dominated, high-intensity sport that requires a lot of explosive and powerful movements. In order for players to compete effectively, we need to build a good base of strength in the winter.
Starting out, the team lifts three days a week, and the sessions are broken down into lower-body, upper-body, and full-body days. Our goal is to build better athletes in the weight room so they can be coached at the highest level possible when they get onto the field.
Because the athletes are not playing much soccer in the early offseason, we can load them anteriorly. For this reason, front squatting is a big focus during the winter. I am a huge fan of front squats because they allow us to activate the hamstrings in a full range of motion, strengthen knee stability and develop great core strength.
Single-leg training is also a significant component of our winter lifts. Soccer requires a lot of single-leg demand, and it is important to limit the deficiencies from one leg to the other. We’ll include Bulgarian split squats, single-leg Romanian dead lifts, step ups, single-leg hypers and sit-to-stands, to name a few. Other lifts used in the winter are back squats, overhead squats, glute-ham raises, barbell forward and reverse lunges, hang cleans, hang power cleans, and hang snatches.
We condition two times per week in January. Most of our conditioning at this time emphasizes form, technique, and basic linear speed patterns. We want the players to first become more efficient runners before adding speed. In addition to these basics, we incorporate some acceleration/deceleration drills to prepare players’ bodies for the next phase.
Once the spring playing season gets underway in February, the team practices four or five days a week, so we drop to lifting and conditioning two days a week. We follow this schedule for the next 10 to 12 weeks. Although the team has games in the spring, we still want to take complete advantage of this stage from a performance standpoint. If there is a match or tournament, the intensity stays the same, but we lighten the load with some of our lifting and conditioning.
We also back off from front squatting when we move to more daily soccer activities, as the athletes get more stress anteriorly from playing. This goes back to the importance of knowing the stresses of the sport and not adding to them.
Another piece of our spring programming is fatigue training. “Getting comfortable being uncomfortable” is a motto for us, and the players must be able to maintain correct technique in everything they do while in a fatigued state. There might be some days when they do not feel 100%, and that is when they have to push through. We want them to understand what it feels like to be tired but know they can perform one more run, one more set, or one final sprint.
Once the spring season wraps up, we give the athletes a two- to three-week period that is a lot lighter and designed to keep them off of their feet. During this phase, cross training is the main form of conditioning.
When the athletes finish the spring season, there is naturally some muscle loss. So once the summer rolls around, the programming is very similar to our winter session in that we aim to build the players’ strength levels back up.
May has a bit more of this weight room focus again, with a couple of conditioning days mixed in. Like the setup we used in January, there is a three-day split of upper-, lower- and full-body days. We also add in explosive and power training.
In June, we move to two days of lifting with three days of conditioning per week. Both lifting days are full-body workouts.
Aerobic conditioning is the biggest emphasis for June, as this is the time where we want to “fill the tank up.” The higher aerobic capacity an athlete has, the quicker she is able to recover. We mix this up using a lot of tempo and Fartlek-style runs.
There also is an anaerobic portion to our summer work, and it intensifies through June and July. We include speed and power sprinting segments during each session, which could consist of five to 40-yard runs.
I think the most neglected form of training in many soccer programs is high-speed sprinting, so this is something we focus on in our summer conditioning. Linear sprinting and speed are the bases for all our drills starting out, and there is some form of sprinting during each workout, with an emphasis on speed toward the beginning of the week.
Once we have the linear component down, we add in some change-of-direction elements. This helps prepare the athletes for when we progress to shuttle runs and other drills in which they are required to change direction.
No matter what stage of the offseason we are in, athlete monitoring always plays a big part. Our primary tools are Firstbeat Sports’ heart rate monitoring system and wellness questionnaires.
This is our fourth year partnering with Firstbeat. It has been a great boost for us because it takes the guesswork out of any metric we want to target. We use it to monitor individual and team training loads — including heart rate variability and stress/recovery levels — during training sessions, fitness sessions, and matches. In the offseason, this allows us to track our players and how they are improving.
Whenever the system is in use, I watch the Firstbeat dashboard and note anything that stands out. Then, we develop a unique profile for each player based on her physiology. As a result, training becomes more personal, and proper training dosages are managed with precision.
Both our coaches and athletes appreciate the individualization and customization we are able to achieve with heart rate monitoring. After every session where we use the system, I meet with the sport coaches and go over the numbers. This enables them to make actionable decisions, and my constant communication helps them buy into the process.
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The players want to feel like they can train as well as possible while avoiding activities that are going to seriously fatigue them, and heart rate monitoring addresses both needs. By tracking players’ training loads, we can ensure they recover after each session. We can also use the data as a motivational tool to push for more when possible.
Besides heart rate monitoring, all of our athletes fill out daily wellness surveys. I look at them every day to see how the players are responding to training. If I need to make an adjustment, the surveys help me decide where.
Although I think sports science is great, it’s easy to get carried away with it. To avoid this, it’s important to have a full understanding of the team identity before implementing a monitoring component.
For me, this means understanding the style that the coaches want to play, the demands of each position on the field, and the athletes at those positions. If I hadn’t done the work beforehand to get a good grasp on these areas, it would have been hard to track any sort of physical trends with the monitoring data. Instead, we would have had a bunch of numbers with no specific meaning.
Our athlete monitoring initiatives have been invaluable, as has our offseason training, but the real success of our program goes back to the people in it. It starts at the top with Shelley and Jamie, along with their vision. The synergy among us as a staff helps us work very well together. Plus, we have an unbelievable group of student-athletes who have bought into everything we want to do. The athletes understand the expectations of our program and embrace the process to achieve all of their goals. It is very fun to come to work each day.