Dawn Scott, Fitness Coach for the U.S. Women’s National Team, answers questions for ussoccer.com on soccer specific fitness. An expert in exercise science, Scott received her Sports Science degree from Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom, followed by a Masters in Sports Nutrition from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.
Scott went on to work for the English Football Association for nine years, specifically working with the England Women’s National Team. In January 2010, she assumed the role of fitness coach for the U.S. WNT under then-head coach Pia Sundhage. Scott was part of the coaching staff for the WNT during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, as well as the 2012 Olympics. As a fitness coach, her role encompasses all aspects of sports science, including nutrition, hydration, recovery, training prescription and programming, and monitoring of training.
Scott spoke with ussoccer.com to share some of her knowledge and pass on some fitness training advice to coaches. Below, she also shares a fitness drill programmed for U-16 and U-18 players to provide coaches with new ideas and inspiration.
ussoccer.com: What are the key aspects of soccer specific fitness?
Dawn Scott: “Two key aspects are speed and endurance. There’s also a new term called ‘repeated sprint ability,’ or RSA, which refers to speed endurance, or how you repeatedly sprint in a game. You don’t run at one pace for 90 minutes in a game. Rather, you constantly sprint and recover, or run at different speeds and recover. Players want to be able to sprint with the same qualities in the 90th minute as they do in the first minute. RSA is a measure of this.
Another fitness aspect that is crucial to soccer, but probably to any sport is strength. Strength is the basis to every other aspect of fitness. If you don’t have strength, you can have a weakness when you try to develop any other type of fitness. Agility and power are also important. They are native to soccer, although they are general fitness components for any type of athlete.”
ussoccer.com: What advancements over the past five to 10 years have been made with soccer fitness training?
DS: “In terms of advancements, I think there’s been a mixture of different methods used with soccer fitness training. For example, some people work off heart rate training zones; some people work off distances for fitness; some people do soccer fitness with a ball, and some use work to rest time ratios. Which method is best? I am still finding that out myself.
I think what we’re seeing in terms of fitness training advancements is that there’s an increased analysis of the demands of the game as well as the demands of the training load. That’s been determined through a combination of heart rate monitors, video analysis systems, and GPS systems. Those devices enable you to see what the demands of the games are and then what players are doing in training. We want to try to match what they do in a game with what they do in training.”
ussoccer.com: Are there major differences in fitness training between men and women?
DS: “There has been a lot of research on the physical demands of games on men and women and they actually tend to cover a similar amount of total distance in a game. Men often have more high-intensity running, which is largely because they generally have a bigger heart, a better developed cardiovascular system and greater muscle strength than females. However, I don’t think there are differences in the training methods that you need to use with men and women. Females tend to be not as strong as male players and often start at a lower fitness level. I think as long as you take that in to account, you are still going to use the same methods of fitness training whether you coach a male or female player.
One of the things with females that research has shown is that you tend to have a higher incidence of ACL injury in female players. With that in mind, I would make sure that female players are doing appropriate strength programs, especially strengthening the areas around the knees, to try to offset the chance of injuries like that. That is one difference, but other than that I would train a male player the same way as I would a female player.”
ussoccer.com: At what age group is it appropriate for coaches to start a fitness training program with their team?
DS: “At the younger ages I would be doing specific sessions focused on developing agility, balance, and coordination. It doesn’t have to be intense but it’s programming the body to move in a certain way and building up basic strength using body weight, fun games and so on. You’re doing age appropriate work at those ages and then as they get older you can develop those programs and add in other components of fitness that are appropriate.
As the players start to develop and reach the ages of 10- and 11-year-olds, you can start focusing on running mechanics. You want to make a child’s running efficient so that when they go through puberty and develop muscle tone they already have efficient running mechanics. Then you add the intensity of full out sprints.”
ussoccer.com: How many days a week should a U-16 or U-18 team have a fitness session while in season?
DS: “Looking at a U-16 team, after they play a game, the following day should be a recovery session. Similarly, the day before their next game should be a light session. You’re probably looking at three or four days in the week when you could do some sort of fitness with the players. It also depends on several other factors such as the phase of the season, if they have to travel, if they have two games in a week and how many minutes of accumulated playing time they have.
Coaches should do some type of speed work during the week, and could combine this with some of the RSA I mentioned previously. They should also include strength sessions. If you’re looking at U-16s they might be playing other sports so you could have two or three sessions a week with a fitness focus. U-18s might be totally focused on soccer at that point and you might have individual players who are working on different components of fitness. They may do extra fitness on some days. I think it’s very individual to the team and players you work with.”
ussoccer.com: What tools and equipment do you use to monitor players fitness levels?
DS: “With the WNT, we do what every player loves, we fitness test them. Maybe once a year we do a full batch of fitness tests which involve speed tests from five meters through 30 meters. We also do agility tests and power tests through a vertical jump. We do an aerobic test where we use the Yo-Yo Intermittent Recovery test, or YIRT. For this, a player runs 20 meters out and 20 meters back. They have to make the line when the beep hits and then they get a 10 second recovery. The speed gets quicker so basically the players just keep going until they can’t run any further. We also do the repeated sprint test. The players do six sprints over a 40 meter distance and they have a 20 second recovery in between. From those six sprints we get a best time, an average time, and take the difference between the best time and the worst time, which is called a fatigue rate. We do the full battery of test one to two times per year, but in most camps we do the YIRT or a sub maximal version of the test, combined with measuring the players’ heart rate.
In terms of training, we monitor the players through heart rate so they wear heart rate watches every single session. We’ve also had the luxury this year of using the GPS system. Basically, it’s a tracking system so in every session we can see the speeds a player is running at and specifically the distance they cover in the high-intensity running zones, which in soccer relates to when they are more involved in the game. The other thing we collect the rate of perceived exertion, or RPE, which is a scale from zero to 10 where zero is sedentary bed rest and 10 is a maximal exercise. At the end of a session the players rate how hard that session was and then if you combine that with the duration of the session you get what they call a training load. The other way of monitoring is obviously verbally speaking to the players and coaches and visually just watching what’s going on. Sometimes you can have all the best monitoring tools in the world but your eyes will tell you whether a player’s performing or not and if something’s going on with them physically or mentally and if that needs to be addressed.”
ussoccer.com: What are some recovery strategies you recommend when teams have multiple games in a weekend?
DS: “A good recovery strategy is very important. I feel this is an area that is often overlooked and can be improved in most players. During training, if players are not eating well, not drinking well, not resting, then their body’s not going to recover optimally so they’re going to start the next session in a fatigued state. Then in the session they’re going to get more fatigued and the quality of the session isn’t going to be good, and they’re going to put their body at risk for injury and illness. So recovery is vital.
If a team has multiple games over a weekend, you want to try to accelerate that recovery as much as you can. One of the big things is nutrition. After a game the main energy source a player needs is carbohydrates. Protein is important as well because obviously there’s a demand on the muscles during the game. Initially, you can get this back in your body through some kind of fluids, whether it’s an energy drink that has carbohydrates and protein in it, or even something as simple as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The other thing is hydration. During a game a player can lose up to two to three liters of fluid. You need to make sure the players take enough fluid after the game and also that they get a bit of salt in that fluid because if you just drink plain water after a game it will go straight through you.
Another recovery strategy is using ice baths. Or if you can’t do ice tubs, just sitting in cold water for 10 minutes after a game would help. It helps flush out the waste products produced in the body and helps to reduce any kind of muscle swelling. It also helps speed up getting new energy and oxygen in to the body. You also need to do a good cool down and stretch. We’ve used yoga with the WNT; stretching through all the different body parts and then the players will do an ice tub after that. Another big one, especially if you’re a team on the road, is making sure the players get sleep and rest. I’d say at least eight to 10 hours of sleep after a game. But then equally making sure, if you play Friday-Sunday, not letting the players just lie around for 12-14 hours in bed because then they’ll start to feel a little bit lethargic and sleepy. Make sure they get some light exposure on the days between games.”
ussoccer.com: How can soccer coaches who do not necessarily have backgrounds in exercise science learn more about proper fitness training?
DS: “These days there’s a lot available on the internet, although you have to make sure it is from a reputable source. There are also books and other resources for reading around. Reading is a big one. Another important tool is asking questions. Ask coaches you come in contact with how they do fitness training. Coaches should also speak to the players, get their verbal feedback and visual feedback in terms of how they look and feel. Also don’t be afraid to try new methods, then evaluate if you think they are effective and tweak accordingly.
I’ve talked a lot about the physical elements, which I think you can measure, but a lot of the time the mental state of players is also important. That’s something that you can’t always measure through physical methods. So observing players mentally to make sure everything’s alright, and then also developing mental toughness in players, which I feel is important for successful athletes.
Below Scott shares a fitness drill programmed for U-16 and U-18 players.
Coaches should observe the following GUIDELINES for the frequency of this session in a weekly training period;
(a)PREPARATION PHASE (“Pre-season”): 4-6 sessions per week
(b)COMPETITIVE PHASE (League Season): 1-3 sessions per week
NOTE: These guidelines may vary dependent upon more than 1 match in a week (decrease frequency) or the individual playing time in a match.