SPEED AND SOCCER- THE MYTH


In todays game, speed has become an obsession with many players in their development, mostly as a result of the influence of unknowledgeable coaches and trainers who place a premium on speed without fully understanding what speed is and understanding its relevance to the sport of soccer.  This misinformation has been long been taken advantage of by opportunists who sell the importance of speed to the innocent player, coach or parent in their attempt to exploit a naieve market. It has also been encouraged by coaches who live off youth players success, many of whom would rather see their team physically dominate and win games rather than develop a lesser physically developed player for the sake of their long term development. 'I would sign them but they are too small' or 'they are too slow' or 'they arent ready yet'. Most youth coaches get paid to win...not to develop. 

I was approached by a nationally renowned generic speed training franchise asking me to come up with a soccer specific training program. I declined their offer, stating that we coached soccer specific material on the soccer field, i.e. everything you do in the gym you can do on the field, and more. I also told them that while there is a need for general physical fitness, there is also sports specifc fitness/strength training for each sport. Being  well rounded athlete is without question a positive attribute however, the way in which a soccer player moves is unique to the sport and therefore should be tailored appropriately. 

We did not want to be encouraging players to emphasize the wrong type of training. While we use various methods of speed training most of it can be and should be can and should be done on the field. We saw no reason to segment soccer training and remove it from the soccer field. 

As a 12 year old, I was not particulalry dynamic. By the time I was 19 years of age, I had been playing with professional mens players for 4 years and was above average speed for a professional while possessing excellent anticipation skills. In fact i was recorded as being the best 'athlete' when we did the Queensland Men's State team testing prior to our matches vs Fiji, Man City, Arsenal and Nottingham Forrest.  I proved that by placing cones (and often stones!) in a series of 5 sets with 5 yards intervals, I was able to improve my speed dramatically. With some minor technical adjustments to my running style and form i was able to become quicker and more dynamic. It was mostly self taught. I never had a speed coach or went to a speed gym or ran on the track. I simply did my daily liners and shuttles. I was selected for international level and went on to play at a good professional level for a further 15 years. I am living proof that speed, as a result of the correct technique done on a regular basis, can be learned. 

Having said that, I must highlight the importance of speed with the ball in possession. Players should try to be and be as fast with the ball as they are without the ball. So when I see young players going to speed gyms to do only running specific exercises with no inclusion of the ball, I see them 'barking up the wrong treei', so to speak. Pure speed and absolute, linear speed has limited value on the soccer field.

I was once told by a U.S. women's college coach  that he was looking for fast players- 'all the fancy footwork stuff, I can teach them'- i begged to differ that he, never having been a player himself, could make a difference with players at any age, let alone 18-22 years of age.  There are speed ladders, speed gyms, speed parachutes, speed shoes and other contraptions bordering on the absurd. You can count on one hand the amount of players who have successfully made the transition from track star to soccer star, and this transition was made in their early teenage years and rare at that.  If speed did have its place in soccer, one could take Olympic track athletes and convert them into soccer players. Michael Jordan was an incredible Basketball athlete and competitor but would have been completely lost on the soccer field and would need at least 10+ years of basic technical training in his formative (5-16 years of age) and years of playing to understand game movement and how to read the game, thus laying to rest the myth that he is a fantastic 'athlete'. He would have needed to start playing at no later than 10 years of age to become a decent player and even then he would have needed someone to prioritize technical and tactical development over physical. Being an 'athlete',  in the context of Jordan, implies that he is capable of excelling in all sports. In the right environment, perhaps he would have made a fine soccer player.

A number of years ago, both Ronaldo (Brazilian) and Michael Owen, two of the fastest players in the game made a huge impact on the soccer scene, scoring many memorable goals.They both had a similar qualities in that they were nearly as fast on the ball as they were off the ball. Ronaldo has more variety in his game than Owen, however they are not as effective now as they were when they first arrived on the scene. Both have had to modify their game. The reason for this is that most opponents they play know the way they play and have adjusted to them tactically, almost nullifying their threat as France did to Brazil in 1998.

Rivaldo, Figo and Zidane have clearly been recognized as the best players in the world since 1998, with all 3 of them winning the World Player of the year award 4 years in a row. None of them are considered physically  fast. Zidane and Figo both publicly state that they are physically 'slow' players. Zidane admired Francescoli as a player and commented that he always wanted to have the speed that Francescoli had Iím certain that Francescoli wouldnít mind having some of Zidanes attributes either! 

However, none can argue their pace on the ball and their ability to mesmerize players on the dribble with the drop of a shoulder, or a stepover here and there to shake a defender while they survey their options. All of them read the game exceptionally well, have tremendous first touch, change of pace and direction on the ball, possess the art of deception and display a mastery of the ball bordering perfection. None are spectacular goalscorers but all can change the game with a deft touch or flick. It is no surprise that Juventus and Barcelona are missing both Zidane and Figo tremendously. Rivaldo at Barcelona stated over Christmas 2001 that 'we all miss Figo here'.

Other players are coming into the spotlight that are not particularly fast. Juan Roman Riquelme of Argentina, voted best player in South America, is a player in the mold of Zidane and Figo. He can elude faster opponents with a glance, a drop of a shoulder, a hesitation movement or arm gesture. He can use his teammates as decoy runners to throw his opponents off balance or play a sublime no-look pass that deceives even the most alert and speedy defender. His explosiveness on the ball is speed that can only be practiced moving and sprinting with the ball. Even the slowest of sprinters can wrong foot the fastest defender. The speed of the mind and the ability to read the game as well as art of deception , the ability to change pace and direction are far, far more important. This is all determined by how well a player and team can read the game, i.e. their anticipation skills and preparedness for the upcoming movements and possibilities that may result in a play or action. Reading the game can best be learned through constantly playing games (informal or formal) and not in a gymnasium or a track where the fabricated and unrealistic environment doesn't lend itself to realistic competition, i.e. a player can develop speed by simply playing. This equates to pilots who are great in a simulator but cannot handle the pressures of actual flight or medical school students who have operated on cadavers but fall apart in the operating room.

In reality, all training in pursuit of becoming a better athlete has some benefit. Going to a weight gym or a speed gym won't hurt a player unless they use it as a substitute or replacement for actual soccer specific training instead of a supplement. The gymnasium is a manufactured, fabricated environment that one can find outside in the neighborhood.  For example, simple push ups and sit ups, bounding, plyometrics and basic gymnastics should be mastered before a player even sets foot in the gym. Professional players who
spend a great amount of time in the gym or a speed rehab center are considered to be on the mend from illness or injury. It's a stigma that is hard to shed once attached. Simply put, there is no substitute for playing. Unless the field is unplayable, soccer specific co-ordination should be done on the field with soccer shoes on.

Ultimately, imagination and decision making are the most important quality that any player can possess. Soccer is a sport in which even the biggest, fastest and strongest do not necessarily dominate. One of the greatest of them all, Michel Platini, was physically slow and relatively weak and small, but he had the mind of a genius and the technical ability second to none. Platini said that ìif you can master the ball you can get your head up and create what you see in your mind. When, where, how, if and to whom one should pass, or when, where, how and if to dribble or make a run off the ball are skills that can only be enhanced and perfected through years of constant training and playing soccer in the right environment and culture provided by the teachers, not coaches, of the game. 

By Gary Ireland

2001

You can find my blog The Technician on www.pass2e.com. Search for The Technician in the Group section under "My Network'. Copyright: 2001. This article may not be copied, altered or circulated without written permission from its author.