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Speed & Soccer. The Myth

SPEED & SOCCER-'The ball doesn't sweat' & 'doesnt have legs'.

When people talk about 'speed' unfortunatley most talk about the physical speed of a player which is the most obvious of all types of speed and the one that even the part time fan can recognize, however it is not the most important quality that the higher level players discuss as being a stand out quality that separates them from the pack. 

While all forms of speed are important, physical speed is the least important of all speeds. The most important speed is Speed of recognition, only possible if a player understands what his/her teammates are trying to do with the ball technically and how players are reacting in their physical enviropnment.  Are they going to bend the ball; drive it; chip it; take a soft touch; play off their first touch; take 2 touches; cross or play a dialgonal ball?  Reading the technique is important and you need to be able to identify the technique before a player chooses the technique they will use and what type of movement will enable them to make the connection. While technique is the 'glue' and the main ingredient and foundation on which everything is based it cannot be separated from any aspect of the game

There are certaing types of speeds in soccer. 

  • Technical speed. The abilty to dominate the ball with all part of the body e.g bringing the ball under control cleanly and at speed. Passing, receiving, dribbling
  • Speed of thought and recognition. The ability to read the game based on tactical understanding of opponent and teammate. 
  • Physical Speed. Change of direction speed, llinear speed. Deceleration

In todays game, speed has become an obsession in youth development and overstated. mostly as a result of the influence of unknowing players, coaches, parents and trainers who place a premium on physical speed. It has also been encouraged by coaches who thrive on winning, 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 thier long term development. 'I would sign them but they are too small' or 'they are too slow' or 'they arent ready yet' is what I often hear. Most youth coaches get paid to win games, not to develop players so they simply strengthen strong points and dont develop long term qualities. 

I was approached by a nationally renowned speed training franchise some years back asking me to create a soccer specific training program. I declined, 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 fitness training specific for each sport. Being a well rounded athlete is without question a positive attribute- however, the way in which a soccer player moves is unique to its sport and therefore should be tailored appropriately. 

I told them that we did not want to be encouraging players to emphasize the wrong type of training. While we use various methods of speed training, it can and should all be done on the field. We saw no reason to fragment soccer training and remove it from the soccer field for entrepreneurial pursuits. 

As a 12 year old, I was slow. 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. I was recognized as being the best 'athlete' when I did the Queensland Men's State team testing prior to our matches vs Fiji, Manchester City, Arsenal and Nottingham Forrest.  With some minor technical self-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 with and without the ball. I was selected for international level and went on to play at a good professional and semi-professional and high level amateur for a further 15 years where i was formally taught numerous physical speed & strength material, thereby reinforcing my already finely tuned curriculum. I am proof that speed, as a result of the correct technique performed on a regular basis, can be learned and often self taught as well as refined. 

Having said that, I must define the importance of speed with the ball in possession. A main objective of a player should be to try 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 tree'. Pure speed and absolute, linear speed has limited value on the soccer field. The way a player coordinates themselves on the ball is very different off the ball and many fast people are slow with the ball. 

I was once told by a U.S. women's college coach that he was searching for fast players- he said 'all the fancy footwork stuff, I can teach them'- i argued that he could not make a difference. There are speed ladders, speed gyms, speed parachutes, speed shoes and other contraptions galore.  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 wast fast and big but would be lost on the soccer field and would need at least 10-15 years of basic technical training and years of playing to understand movement and how to read the game. He would have needed to start playing at a young 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 but the education would have needed to start at 6 or 7 years of age.

A number of years ago, both Ronaldo (the real one) and Michael Owen, two of the fastest players in the game made a huge impact on the soccer scene, scoring many memorable goals.They had a similar quality in that they were nearly as fast on the ball as they were off the ball. Ronaldo had more variety in his game than Owen. Both had to modify their game as they became older. The reason for this is that most opponents they played knew the way they played and adjusted to them tactically, reducing their threat as France did to Brazil in 1998.

Rivaldo, Figo and Zidane were recognized as the best players in the world a  all 3 of them winning the World Player of the year award 4 years in a row. None of them were considered physically fast. In fact Zidane and Figo both publicly stated that they were physically 'slow' players. Zidane admired Francescoli as a player and commented that he always wanted to have the speed that Francescoli had I'm certain that Francescoli wouldnt have minded having some of Zidanes attributes either!  However, few could 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 surveyed their options. All of them read the game exceptionally well, have tremendous first touch, change of pace and direction on the ball, possessed the art of deception and displayed a mastery of the ball bordering perfection. None were spectacular goalscorers but all could change the game with a deft touch or flick. 

Other players such as Juan Roman Riquelme of Argentina, voted best player in South America, was a player in the mold of Zidane and Figo. He could elude faster opponents with a glance, a drop of a shoulder, a hesitation movement or arm gesture. He could use his teammates as decoys 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 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 (provided they are being corrected and taught by peers and coaches). This equates to pilots who are competent 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 the gym.  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 recovering from illness or injury. It's a stigma that is hard to shed. Simply put, there is no substitute for playing and the correct training. Unless the field is unplayable, soccer specific co-ordination should be done on the soccer field. 

Ultimately, imagination and decision-making are the most important quality that any player can posses. 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 fairly slow and relatively weak and small when he was young, but he had the mind of a genius and the technical ability second to none. Platini said that if 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

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Copyright: 2001. This article may not be copied, altered or circulated without written permission from its author.