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4 Key Elements for a Healthy Return to Play in Youth Soccer

Great news! You’ll be back on the field soon! But what are you gonna find when you get there? A bunch of kids who are ecstatic to be back, just like you, few of whom will have kept fit during the long lay-off from in-person training during the coronavirus pandemic. Noted. But don’t start there.

Start with a celebration

It may be tempting to jump back in with conditioning since that is easy to adapt given phased in regulations. But resist that urge. Instead, make it a celebration. You’ve all been through a lot since the last time you met face-to-face; this is a happy reunion. Spend some time catching up, hearing the stories, sharing the tough stuff. You know, be a team.

Welcome back the game

Since we’re not quite sure when we’ll be allowed full contact and regular competition, there’s no pressure to rush back to peak form. If you’re wondering about the level of player-fitness, start warm up with some quick touches and continuous movement activities. What they’ve been doing in their off-time will show pretty quickly. Take note of their responses for your planning purposes. Expect:

  • Touches to be sloppy. (skills rusty)
  • Visible effort to show. (endurance low)
  • Extra sweat and red faces in hot conditions. (poor acclimatization)

Admit this layoff has been hard on everyone and start there. In order for all your athletes to have a healthy return to play, design a gradual progression back to full fitness and peak performance.

Here’s how to help your athletes stay healthy as we return to play.

Provide the “just right” challenge to every player

“Just right” challenges are drills, skills or activities that are just barely within reach, (think dangled carrot, or 750 piece jigsaw puzzle) but with reasonable effort and skill they can get there. Don’t expect to see the good fitness and form from February return right away. Allow 2-4 weeks for experienced players and up to 6 weeks for novice players to reach full physical readiness for play.

II. Use Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to individualize training load

It may sound tricky to individualize workouts for every player on the field, but that’s what this moment calls for. Player’s readiness will run the gamut. That means that what’s easy for one may be quite hard for another. Don’t embarrass or make an example of them. Covid-19 wasn’t their fault. Your objective is: everybody healthy, everybody ready to play. Treat this time like early pre-season. Remember: too much, too quickly can lead to injury.

The simplest way to run a practice for 10+ players who all need individualized sessions is to teach them to monitor their rate of perceived exertion using the RPE scale. How are they feeling? How hard are they working on a scale of 0-10, where 0 is no effort and 10 is exhausting.

Several times during practice, ask players to tell you their number or hold up the # of fingers indicating how they’re feeling. This will give you some real time feedback about how training feels. When the especially fit kids tell you things feel easy, use your creativity to adjust the challenge for them accordingly. See if you can adjust the conditions so those players do more or do it faster without disrupting the training level for the other kids.

In this return-to-play time, your coaching objective shouldn’t be to have everyone doing everything the same way, at the same speed and with the same pace. Your objective is to have them each supply equal effort. If you play your coaching cards right, that will mean that when you ask for 75%, every player tells you he or she is a 7 or 8.

III. Motivate with game activities and fun fitness

If you’re looking to boost the energy and output, nothing can do that better than the game itself. Be tricky and hide the fitness in games like …who can do the quickest-touches? … Or how many passes can you complete in 30 seconds? …Or whose ball can you steal? Need ideas? Here are some Fit2Finish games to try. In their delight to play the game, they’ll give you more than even they knew they had. Win-win.

IV. Extra rest and recovery

Take extra time with your warm-up and cool down, and pepper your practice with longer rest periods and longer water breaks. While your practices probably are not scheduled on back to back days, offer players extra rest time in the early going by spacing out your hard workouts. Additional recovery time will give their joints and muscles time to adapt and respond with healthy growth and improved performance.

Not sure whether players are recovered? Text them on off days to see how they’re doing. That will help you keep progress gradual and step-wise, just like our return to the field. Don’t rush things. Nothing leads to injuries and drop-outs more quickly than starting up too fast, and nobody wants to be back at square one. Let’s take our time and get this right, so every every player is ready when the whistle blows.

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