Before a coach begins planning a pre season training programme, they must consider and take into account a number of key factors, particularly concerning the health and safety of the players:
Age of the players:
Children grow at different rates and in a group of 10 year-olds some players might be significantly taller or heavier than others. Inevitably such differences will have a great influence on a child's ability to develop football techniques and skills. For example, the co - ordination difficulties that puberty causes in boys aged between 10 - 14, with legs and arms growing out of kilter with the rest of their bodies and the difficulties associated with growth spurts can cause some players to appear clumsy, uncoordinated and awkward.
There can be as much as a four year difference in physical maturity in young people of the same age. Football tends to highlight these differences because of the emphasis on the way football is structured by age and age group reliability for team competitions, for example, Under-10s, Under-12s
It is important that as coaches, we organise our groups when coaching, to take into account the ability and size differences amongst players of similar age. For some technical, less physical practices you might consider grouping by ability, for example, dribbling and ball control skills and techniques. For other more physical training activities such as running and physical fitness games, defending and 1 v 1 and 2 v 2 the groups should be determined by the size and physical fitness of the players
Strength in young players:
As young players will have not reached adolescence and have immature bodies, with weaker muscles and bones, it is important that they should not be subjected to intensive strength training. A sensible amount of training using the players own body weight, such as sit ups and press ups can have a beneficial effect on the blood supply and development of muscles. But in these young players, weight training should never be used as it can do a lot more harm than good, as in growing children, the growth areas at the end of long bones (such as those in the upper and lower leg) and around joints can be damaged by excessive stress and strain, and growth can be impaired.
Flexibility in young players:
Believe it or not, after the age of ten, children begin to lose flexibility. Therefore it is important that the players develop good habits with regards to their warm-up and cool-down habits and attitudes as stretching and mobility exercises can help maintain this flexibility.
Before undertaking stretching exercises to develop or maintain flexibility, it is important for the muscles to be warm and general body movements are useful to prepare for stretching. Flexibility in players is defined as the range of movement around a joint (eg the hips); mobility is concerned with a player's general ability to co-ordinate forward, backward and sideways body movements, which are crucial for soccer players.
For example, wind milling arm circle movements are mobility rather than flexibility exercises, whereas upper leg stretches, such as hamstring stretches should promote better flexibility around the hip joint. Increases in flexibility around the hips should improve a player's general mobility in that part of the body, allowing them to twist and turn more effectively.
Young Players and exercise:
As children start to play football their need for energy grows. To meet this need, oxygen supply to the blood and blood supply to the muscles must improve. Children breathe more quickly but less deeply than adults and extract oxygen less effectively. Because of this, young children (6-12 years) must work harder than adolescents or adults to provide the oxygen their muscles require when playing football. Therefore as responsible coaches you must consider this when planning or implementing any training routines and provide plenty of rest and recovery periods.
Aerobic energy is the term used when oxygen is the main energy source for the body. Players rely on oxygen as a major source of energy since it enables them to maintain constant activity. Before adolescence, children get a higher proportion of their energy from their aerobic energy system than adults.
Moderate continuous exercise (e.g. small-sided games) can improve young players' aerobic energy systems and enable them to sustain longer periods of activity before fatigue sets in. However, this improvement is governed by each child's physiological maturity and only after puberty will children become more efficient in their use of aerobic energy.
As a guide, coaching sessions should last between 45 and 60 minutes for children below the age of twelve, and approximately 90 minutes with older children (12-15 years). Within sessions, periods of long physical activity (e.g. small-sided games) should last no longer than 25-35 minutes and should still allow sufficient time for drinks and recovery periods.
Below the age of 12, players should play and practice for no more than three football sessions per week (e.g. two practice sessions and one game), with the emphasis on personal development, not team success.
To improve flexibility through stretching, coaches should ensure players:
- Have a good warm-up routine including mobility exercises before starting a stretching routine
- Pay specific attention to stretch the muscles which are involved in football, hamstrings (back of thighs), calf muscles (below the back of the knee), quadriceps (main thigh kicking muscles) and groin stretch (inside of thigh)
- Use static stretches not bouncy stretching (i.e. eases into each stretch to a point of mild tension and then holds for 15 seconds). Pain is a sign of overstretching
- Stretching should be always be kept within the control of the player.
- Under no circumstances should external force, such as the coach other player or parent be applied.
Static stretching is a vital factor in improved flexibility in young players. This form of stretching involves a slow sustained movement in which a muscle is lengthened and then held in position for 15-20 seconds. Each stretch should be repeated 2-3 times, and stretching should form part of a regular warm-up and cool-down routine.
Players might use the same stretches for their warm-up and cool-down but should hold stretches for longer in the cool-down, as long is there is no damage as a result of the game.