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Speed & Soccer. The Myth

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

When people talk about 'speed' most talk about the absolute physical, straight line 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 single most important quality that the higher level players discuss as being a standout quality that separates them from the pack. 

The most important speed is speed of all is 'speed of recognition', which is not a physical speed at all. To have good speed of recognition a player understands what his/her teammates are trying to do with the ball technically and how players are reacting in their physical environment: 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. 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. In fact without being able to read the game tactically and if you have a poor touch or feel for the ball then you will need to be an incredible good athlete just to stay on the field. If you look at the bottom end of a football table you will see teams which can only thrive physically. The physical build of the players are usually more robust and powerful. Thats not to say that there arent robust and powerful players playing at the top of the game but you wont hear professional players saying to each other 'hey, you look really fit' or "what do you run the cooper test in?" or "whats your vertical". You will hear, 'you have a good touch/strike"  or 'you movement is good' or "what great vision you have!' or "you know how to keep the ball'..."you look sharp". "you are looking strong/physical and mental". 

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 quickly and execute passing, receiving, dribbling with precision. 
  • Speed of thought and recognition. The ability to read the game based on tactical understanding of opponent and teammate. Situational awareness, focus, concentration and simply being aware of surroundings e.g where are threats and opportunities etc. 
  • 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 their long term development.  We hear too often- '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 national 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 which incorporates generic athletic training, 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 their sport and therefore should be tailored appropriately. Speed training  should all be done on the field as much as possible. 

As a 12 year old, I was slow. By the time I was 19 years of age i became very fast, fit and strong. 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' in the entire state when I took the mandatory 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 all 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 proved that speed, as a result of the correct technique performed on a regular basis, can be learned and often self taught without accessories, coaches and trainers. 

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 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 because its extremely hard to teach older players. There are speed ladders, speed gyms, speed parachutes, speed shoes -the list is endless.  When you hear a coach asking for fast athletic players then you know they wont be teaching much technique or tactical understanding to their players. 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 only in extremely rare circumstances. If speed did have its place in soccer, then Olympic track athletes could be converted into soccer players and we all know this is impossible in the same way that 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 professional soccer player but the development would have needed to start between 6-8 years of age and this doesnt include the desire and dream to become one, the first ingredient an athlete needs to become a high level player. 

A number of years ago, both Ronaldo (Brazil) 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. A modern day player who has this quality is Messi. 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 Ronaldo and Brazil in 1998.

Rivaldo, Figo and Zidane were recognized as the best players in the world, all 3 of them winning the World Player of the year award 4 consecutive years. 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). 

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 players of them all, Michel Platini, was not fast or robust and small when he was young, but he had a brilliant football brain and superb technical ability. 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.