Soccer Strength

January 29, 2015
An overhauled strength and conditioning program put together by two coaches new to campus has helped reinvigorate the Pepperdine University women's soccer team.
By Matt Young & Jamie Faro

Matt Young, MEd, CSCS, is the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Pepperdine University. He can be reached at: matt.young@pepperdine.edu. Jamie Faro, MS, CSCS, is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at Pepperdine. She can be reached at: jamie.faro@pepperdine.edu.


While outsiders may assume life here in Malibu, famous for its cool ocean breeze and surfing sights, is slow and relaxing, that's only because they have not been on campus to see a Pepperdine University women's soccer team training session. The energy-packed strength and conditioning workouts reflect a culture of focus, energy, and intensity from driven athletes whose goal is to not only win conference championships, but be successful on the national level. The players chase these goals in every training session--with impressive results.

The 2011 season was a huge success for the Waves as they went 15-1-4, winning the West Coast Conference title and earning a berth in the NCAA Division I tournament. The team was ranked as high as third in Division I (a school record) and ended the year ranked 10th--the second best end of season ranking for the Waves since the inception of the program in 1993. The team continued its success this past season, ranking in the top 20 for much of the season and returning to the NCAA tournament.

Several key changes occurred at Pepperdine leading up to this recent success. A new Athletic Performance Center opened in the fall in 2009, which coincided with the formation of a strength and conditioning department and hiring of the school's first Director of Strength and Conditioning, Matt Young, MEd, CSCS. Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach Jamie Faro, MS, CSCS, was hired the following fall. Soon after, they started working with the women's soccer team and completely overhauled its training regimen.

TEAM CULTURE
When the players began working with us in the spring of 2011, we felt it was critical to instill a defined team culture around strength and conditioning. Without one, workouts would lose purpose and the outcome would be poor. After discussing team goals with the coaching staff, we defined our philosophy and team culture with three words: Focus, energy, and intensity. If we could get the players to bring these principles into each and every session, they would create an environment that demands relentless pursuit of excellence in the weightroom and on the field. Here's a deeper look at how each of these concepts manifests itself during a workout.

Focus: Part of our coaching style is to have the athletes learn a movement by focusing on the details. Once they can execute the movement flawlessly, they won't need to be reminded every rep to have better posture, finish with the hips, or hit the correct depth.

Players who "get" the movements quickly can also help any struggling teammates. Rather than strength coaches being the only ones correcting technical miscues, in our team environment the athletes are held accountable for their teammates' actions as well as their own. Everyone is focused on the same thing.

The team's focus begins from the start of every session with the warmup. We prefer warmups that are run off commands from the strength and conditioning coach, which gets the athletes focused on the task at hand. Otherwise, the warmup can easily turn into a social gathering where teammates discuss their personal lives instead of concentrating on the assigned movement. An off-command warmup places the focus on completing the movements correctly in a systematic fashion.

Rather than calling out the movement and having athletes complete it for a set number of yards, we break each dynamic warmup movement into several commands. For example, during the warmup we perform an exercise called "handwalk to downward dog." We give the athletes several commands throughout the exercise that allow us to control the amount of time they spend in each position.

The athletes begin the exercise standing and upon the command "down" they reach down to touch the ground. Upon the command "out" they walk their hands out to a plank position while pushing their legs back to stretch their hamstrings. "Back" tells them to raise their hips in the air as they go into a downward dog position. From that position, "peddle" allows them to move and bend their knees back and forth to stretch their calves and Achilles'. And "up" tells them to walk their feet to their hands and stand back up in the starting position so they are ready for the next rep.

After each movement ends and the athlete returns to the start position, they are required to count out loud which rep they just finished. The idea is for the players to move in unison. This type of warmup makes for a great start to a workout because it takes a lot of focus to stay in sync with each other. It's worked so well at getting everyone tuned in that the team has even decided to use an off-command warmup before games.

This initial focus then carries over to our training sessions. Athletes are dialed in after the warmup, ready to watch any demos, listen to the concepts and coaching cues, and understand the sets and reps that will be completed.

For new movements, we complete demos and teaching sets together as a team before the team breaks up into partners for their working sets. We demand that the players focus on details during their workouts, much like their coaches do during practices and games. Therefore, we restart a set if athletes are not following directions or partners fail to provide correct technical feedback to each other.

Energy: Once the culture of focus is established, it is coupled with energy. Focus comes first because energy without focus can spell disaster, especially when quickly and aggressively moving weights. In contrast, energy with focus creates an atmosphere of development. Weights are still moved quickly and aggressively, but with sound technique so improvements come faster and injury potential is lower.

The players also needed to grasp that their energy level could influence a teammate to get in another round on a conditioning test, squeeze out another rep in the rack, finish the squat hold, and more. This was a learning process for the players, since many had not experienced teammates pushing and challenging each other during strength and conditioning sessions before.

When we first started working with the team, we brought sessions to a dead stop whenever the energy level dipped too low, addressing the entire squad at once. We told them we would not allow sessions to be quiet and reserved. We often had them look over to the banner listing the team's WCC conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances and made reference to the blank spots for the past few years. We talked about their energy being a product of their determination and drive to put "2011" up on that banner.

If discussions weren't effective, extra reps or sets were added to workouts. When this happened, the energy level went up dramatically. Seeing a teammate struggle across the weightroom or field triggered an automatic response of encouragement from a player because there was pressure to succeed.

Intensity: There is a level of intensity that is only felt when focus and energy come together. Once the team bought into those ideas, intensity became second nature. Sessions were loud, encouraging, and competitive. The culture was complete and the team was primed for success. When intensity is consistently raised in training sessions, it can change an entire season, and the players figured that out very quickly.

OFF-SEASON PROGRAMMING
The team's off-season is just 13 weeks long, including spring break at week seven. We have to work within the time constraints and account for an intense spring ball slate of six games during weeks six through 10 when designing the team's off-season program.

Overall, we were tasked with packaging a standard periodized program of speed, agility, and strength/power training within the new culture of focus, intensity, and energy. We scheduled 30 lifting sessions and 20 movement/conditioning days in the off-season program, which was broken down into three phases.

Phase I consisted of three weeks of general prep work, which included three days of strength work and two days of speed/agility/conditioning each week. The goals were to familiarize the athletes with the structure of the program, introduce them to a new battery of fitness tests, and increase their mental toughness and focus. Every training session was held on the field until all the players reached an acceptable level of physical and mental toughness.

We kept exercise selection simple and used basic teaching progressions to provide the athletes with the foundation they needed prior to entering the weightroom. The players completed a lot of body weight exercises, including squats, lunges, pushups, and planks, progressing from a hold in a static position to a dynamic movement version. Before any external load (medicine ball, weighted vest, etc.) was added, athletes were required to master the movement at the prescribed set/rep progression.

Much of this early training was done in partner format where one athlete worked while the other provided feedback. This made each athlete accountable for her own actions as well as her partner's and did not allow either to lose focus throughout the session. If a player couldn't master a movement, the whole team would rally around her and give her their focus and energy to get her through the set or rep. The struggling player was motivated to give everything she could.

Our final day of this phase revealed the strength of our players as individuals and concluded with our strength as a team. The team did repeated sets of walking lunge holds, with a few players repeating sets due to failed prior ones. The team finished together with one of the hardest and longest sets, resulting in the loudest and most intense session that spring.

Conditioning sessions included one change of direction/technique day and one strictly fitness day per week. Conditioning sessions were typically completed following team practices and were extensive. Change of direction days involved working in distances of five to 25 yards, and sufficient rest time between sets allowed us to give feedback and for teaching moments to occur.

A major emphasis with change of direction during the first three weeks was teaching the athletes the basics on how to decelerate their bodies in a safe and efficient manner. We broke down the basics and emphasized hip height, knee angles, and weight distribution during each drill until every athlete was able to safely decelerate her body in both the frontal and sagittal planes.

On fitness training days, working distances were high (400 to 1,000 yards), rest-to-work intervals were low (2:1), and the intensity of work was moderate (60 to 85 percent of max). Volume gradually built up each week, never increasing greater than 10 percent from the week prior.

Phase II consisted of six weeks of hypertrophy/strength work, with three days lifting in the weightroom and two days spent doing speed/agility/conditioning. This phase was split into two three-week cycles with one off-week between the cycles while players were on spring break.

Our goals in Phase II were to build on the foundation we set in Phase I and bring the intensity to an even higher level. This would require increased focus due to the added stimulation of the weightroom, along with performing more advanced movements.

Once in the weightroom, the players began working on progressions for the major lifting movements of the off-season, which included the hang clean, push press, front squat, single-leg squat, Romanian deadlift, step-up, bench press, bent-over row, military press, and pull-down. We kept movement selection very basic and limited so we could take the time to break down each one completely, even if that meant only training two movements per session.

For example, progressions for the hang clean included roughly six sessions of a static pull from technique boxes, followed by a squatting progression. The team did not move into receiving the bar until several weeks into the phase. This was part of maintaining the culture of focus and learning the movements in detail.

This phase also included an emphasis on plyometrics. There were two reasons we waited until the fourth week of training to begin teaching plyometrics. The first was safety. The athletes needed Phase I to prepare their bodies to handle the stress of jumping movements, and teaching progressions were made easier by the emphasis on deceleration mechanics in the first three weeks. The second was transferability--teaching the broad jump and vertical jump in the same phase as the hang clean allowed the athletes to relate the movements because of the hip extension necessary in all of them.

When teaching plyometrics, we placed an emphasis on decelerating the body and proper landing mechanics in all double-leg movements before progressing to any type of repeat jumping or single-leg take-offs or landings. Once the players mastered these movements, the bulk of plyometric work was focused on single-leg progressions.

soccerstrength.png
After the athletes were through the first three-week cycle of Phase II, they were put to the test--literally--through the Man-U and 300-yard shuttle run tests. We administer the 300-yard shuttle run test by having athletes run 25 yards out and 25 yards back, six times. For explanation of the Man-U test, see "Test Time" below.

The team performed miserably on both initial conditioning tests. The team average for the shuttle run was 65.8 seconds, much slower than our goal of 62 seconds. And the team averaged only 15.8 points on the Man-U test when we hoped to see 19.5 points.

"Tactical errors" during testing led to this failure. The team went out too hard and too fast on the Man-U, leading to a very early drop-off in reps. The shuttle reps showed the reverse. The team paced itself on its first rep, leading to a huge drop-off in times between rep one and rep two. We needed to instill a discipline in the players that would translate to lasting performance in testing, 90-minute games, and eventually double overtime conference and national tournament games.

After these unacceptable results, both tests were repeated weekly for the remainder of Phase II. Over the second three-week cycle, we were pleased to see huge improvements in the team averages, even though the players still needed to get better. The average shuttle run time decreased by 1.9 seconds, and the average Man-U score increased to 19 points.

Keeping in line with the culture of focus on their own actions and the actions of their teammates, we kept the emphasis on the team averages and not individual times. If one person could not perform to the proper level, the entire team suffered. This heightened encouragement between athletes and made each athlete accountable for her performance that day, knowing that if she did not step up, she was letting down 18 other teammates and making them work extra for her shortcomings.

Change of direction work continued on the field twice a week, and we began teaching proper acceleration mechanics. Since the average sprint in soccer is only 15 to 20 yards, perfect form was emphasized in the "drive phase" of the sprint. This required teaching the athletes proper body positioning for the first 10 yards of their sprint, and allowing them to "feel" the 45- to 55-degree angle between their body and the ground. We used a series of wall drills, partner lean holds, lean fall runs, and other various acceleration drills to help them grasp these concepts.

Once the team mastered linear acceleration, we progressed by having the athletes start from various positions and perform different movement patterns, including crossover steps, drop steps, backpedals, lateral runs, and angled shuffles. And after these were mastered, we progressed the drills again by adding external load via a 30-pound sled.

Phase III consisted of continued strength/power work in the weightroom, a greater emphasis on acceleration/agility work, and continued effort with the goal to be match-ready each weekend. Following spring ball and entering the final week of training, end-of-semester testing was done in order to set team and individual goals for preseason training in August.

Normally, we are not huge proponents of having specific "testing" days for our athletes, preferring to integrate testing and evaluation into the workouts themselves. However, in this case, we felt it was necessary for the team to see the fruits of their labor over the past 13 weeks. The following improvements were observed between week one and week 13 of the off-season program:

- Broad jump: 2.23 inch increase
- Vertical jump: 1.73 inch increase
- Left-leg lateral jump: 3.08 inch increase
- Right-leg lateral jump: 3.23 inch increase.

SUMMER PLANS
At the end of the semester, all athletes were sent home with three four-week workouts that included strength, speed, and agility/conditioning components. Athletes playing in summer leagues with intense practice and/or game schedules received modified workouts based on their team schedules and amount of playing time. Incoming athletes also received three four-week workouts designed to prepare them for preseason fitness testing and the strength work performed during preseason and the competitive season.

The message given at the end of the team's off-season training was the need to keep raising the bar and bringing focus, energy, and intensity to their own individual workouts. We urged them to return to campus prepared to maintain a high level of training and chase their goals of a conference championship and NCAA tournament appearance.

The record-breaking 2011 season and subsequent successful 2012 campaign proved the value of our new team culture and revamped training program. It also helped the strength and conditioning department make a strong first impression on the team's coaching staff and athletes, which are both enjoying the results of their hard work.


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