Speed is an essential and very important part of football (soccer) player ability. From a players point of view if they are able to get to a 50-50 ball first, outsprint an attacker or go past a defender then they are more likely to go further in the game. However how many youth football managers devote even 10 minutes per session to improving speed? I will explain why I believe speed on the football field to be so important and which drills and training sessions can help improve it.
During my relatively brief spell managing a youth football team and made sure all players did some speed specific sprint training as well as ball work and it certainly paid off. Coming from an athletics background I had a theory that if I could increase the speed of my 10 outfield players by just 10% then it would be like having an extra player on the pitch. Yes, I know the game is called ‘football’ but please bare with me as I accommodate our American friends as I use the word soccer as well.
How do I improve my soccer speed?
Your speed on the football field will depend on your natural ability and age as well as the type of training you have done and level you are at up until now but your speed CAN be improved with a few simple drills and exercises which can be done on their own as a specific session, or incorporated at the beginning or end of a typical session. As with all training follow a few simple principles of training. Sessions should be done regularly at least once a week. Just doing a few sprints in the 4 weeks before the season starts is not enough. It needs to be done regularly. Also, keep it specific. Short sprints at maximum or near maximum intensity are needed. It is no good doing 20 x 50m reps at a stride/jog. This is great for fitness but will not improve speed.
Depending on the age of the player the following elements can be used to improve sprinting speed for football:
1. Short sprints
Just a few short sprints over a distance of 10 to 20 metres is all that is needed for a youth team to work on speed. For example, 8 x sprinting from the touchline to penalty area with a slow walk back between. For improving pure speed then it is important the player is running as fast as they can or at least 95% of maximum effort to get the training benefit AND have a decent recovery between sprints. It is important the player has recovered enough to be able to give another 100% flat out sprint rather than just jogging because they are out of breath. it is all about quality and encouraging the muscles to work faster.
Soccer is a multiple sprint game and there is no point being on the pitch if you can only manage a 20m burst then need 5 minutes rest. So use common sense with the rest periods. A short walk back should be enough for all but the most unfit player.
Bring competition into the session by doing a drill I used to call ‘relegation and promotion’. Players line up in 4’s and race from the touchline to the penalty area. The winner gets promoted into the group ahead (or stays put if already in the fasted group). The 4th placed player swaps with the winner of the group after. This way after a few runs you get groups of 4 who all have a similar ability, many players get to ‘win’, the winners get a shorter rest and the ‘not winners’ get a longer rest, and competing against players of similar ability will keep the effort and quality high (hopefully). This session can be done as a warm-up before ball work (best for speed improvements) or can be done at the end of a session (better for fitness).
2. Harness running
Running with a harness over a distance of about 10 to 20 metres is excellent for developing specific strength in the muscles involved in acceleration. It is essential the players focus on correct technique and not use sideways movements which they may think are helping but won’t in the long run. This is also an excellent fitness drill which closely mimics the multiple short sprints involved in football.
3. Weight training
This is not encouraged with very young players and should only be done by people who know exactly what they are doing or professional gym instructors. The exact age to start weight training is a complicated one and will depend on so many personal factors such as stage of development, time available and the demands of work, school or other sports. HOWEVER, weight training can have a HUGE impact on your sprinting speed very quickly.
The risks to younger players include developing the muscles to fast for the joints and tendons which can lead to injuries, especially apophysitis type injuries where the tendon is pulled away from the bone such as in Osgood Schlatters disease of the knee or Sever’s disease at the back of the heel. Excessive weight training may also use up the growth hormone being produced to develop muscle instead of bone growth and encouraging optimal height. However, weight training can stimulate production of growth hormone so getting the balance right and taking expert advice on how much and the type of strength training is essential.
The type of lifts and exercises are also important and a weight training session need not be an all evening affair. Basic power cleans and squats are the all that is needed in many cases to bring huge gains in sprinting speed. These exercises closely mimic the way the muscles are used in sprinting and so developing them in a specific way they will be used. A simple session I would do with my son would be a 5 to 10 minute warm up on some aerobic equipment, 3 x 10 reps clean, 3 x 8 reps squat, job done. Anything else is optional depending on the needs/desire of the player and time available. If they are playing or training 4 times a week already then spending another full evening may be fine physically but mentally they need a break as well.
Plyometrics are simply hopping and bounding type exercises. Like weight training, they can lead to huge gains in speed but like weight training carry an injury risk especially to the knees so caution is advised. If any soreness or niggling knee pain is felt then avoid overdoing the weight training or plyometrics. Be aware of the early warning signs before they develop into problem injuries.
A simple session might be 3 x 5 hops on each leg. The injury risk can be reduced by isolating eccentric and concentric elements, for example, jumping down off a box only and landing before repeating it again, then jumping up onto a box.
5. Speed & agility drills
It is not just a basic straight line speed that is important. You need to not only be fit enough to reproduce multiple sprints on the pitch but also apply it specifically to game situations. This is where speed & agility drills come in which involve quick changes of direction and reacting.
I have included this as a separate element to emphasise it. You are not training when you are training, you are training when you allow your body to recover and grow back stronger for the next time. This is especially true for weight training and plyometrics. It is better to incorporate a little speed training into one or two football training sessions a week throughout the season rather than over-do it and being tired or injured for the next month. During the summer or offseason when the player is not playing competitive matches is a great time to focus more on speed, strength, and conditioning as they will be able to train more intensively and have the time to recover fully.