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Soccer player about to shoot goal

Soccer is one of the world’s most popular sports — and one of the most physically demanding. This makes conditioning a key to excelling, whether you’re simply enjoying an afternoon pickup game with friends in the park or training for the FIFA World Cup.

“The sport requires a nice mix of speed, aerobic fitness, agility, coordination, and power,” says Scott Moody, founder and owner of SoccerFIT Academy in Overland Park, Kan., and creator of the RISE Elite Soccer app.

“Recreational sports that challenge our balance, agility, power, coordina­tion, and fitness in a fun and com­petitive environment allow us to maintain strong physical confidence and lead to a more active and energetic lifestyle.”

If you’ve tried to jump into a match without baseline training or an extended dynamic warm-up, you’ve likely faced the consequences in the following days. Soreness in the lower body and feet, as well as shin splints, strained muscles, and other injuries, are common among weekend warriors, says Brandon Busbee, Life Time Sport’s national soccer manager.

Players often suffer when they focus on skill development and endurance training at the expense of other fitness components. Skidmore College women’s soccer coach Lacey Largeteau and Wellesley College soccer coach Missy Price, PhD, recommend that seasoned pros and recreational players alike include strength, speed, agility, and power drills in their training.

Building strength, agility, and power not only improves performance but also prevents injury and speeds recovery, explains Price. That can turn this hard-charging competitive sport into a fun, lifelong activity.

Try these tips and drills to improve your soccer game — and to experience the physical, mental, and social benefits that extend beyond the field.

Soccer Technique Tips and Drills

In the Gym

There’s a tendency among players to overlook general strength and power training in favor of enhancing endurance through long runs and developing skills via highly specified drills, says Moody. This is often based on the assumption that a match itself is enough of a workout to build overall fitness.

In reality, the match is the test, and if you rely on it alone to get fitter, your game — and your health and fitness — can suffer.

This is especially true as we age. Strength, speed, agility, coordination, and power “are skills that usually begin to diminish once we reach adulthood,” Moody explains. This makes them doubly important to train off the field.

Workouts that focus on the lower body and include functional, compound movements are essential:

  • Squats, lunges, step-ups, and deadlifts develop the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core.
  • Jump squats, jump lunges, push presses, and other dynamic exercises build explosive power and core stability.
  • Agility ladders, sprinting, and plyometric exercises further support the running, walking, dribbling, kicking, jumping, and speedy directional changes that soccer requires.

For a lifting routine that boosts strength without overtaxing your system ­before a match, see “The Easy-Strength Workout.” Combine it twice a week with the power moves in the plyometric workout at “Jump Around: A Plyometric Workout.”

On the Field

While building fitness in the gym is important, the work you put in on the field is also vital to improving your game. Our experts highlight two underrated areas of skill development: sprint recovery and dribbling.

Drill 1: Interval Training

Developing the ability to sprint and recover quickly will take you far in soccer. “The best training for this is primarily interval training, in which the player is speeding up and slowing down,” says Largeteau.

  • Mentally divide the field into six segments: two end lines and four sidelines (each sideline runs from the end field to the halfway line).
  • Jog around the field, beginning at one end line. Go to the halfway line, then sprint the length of the second sideline.
  • Then jog the length of the other end line and next sideline together, followed by sprinting two segments.
  • Follow this with three segments of jogging and three segments of sprinting, working up to a full sprint of the six segments of the field.

Drill 2: Dribbling

The best way to improve your general ball handling is by practicing dribbling, advises Price. This will carry over to passing and kicking by improving coordination and agility.

  • Set two cones about 10 yards apart and dribble a soccer ball between them in a figure-eight pattern.
  • Start slow and be exacting. This precision will help forge important brain connections and build muscle memory.
  • Use the various surfaces of both feet, including the soles and sides.
  • Build up speed on the long diagonal portions of the figure eight while slowing down again on the curves.
  • Once you get the hang of making a figure eight, repeat this drill using a box shape, alternating feet.

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Game-Day Prep

Millions of Americans play soccer — and no one plays alone. “Whether it’s three on three or 11 on 11, the experience of working as a team and engaging in a friendly competitive spirit is one of the most rewarding aspects of playing soccer,” says Busbee.

So it’s important to remember that you are part of a team. Taking time to meditate before a match or after your warm-up can help regulate your nervous system and bring you into the “zone.” Use this time to visualize specific moments in the match, and picture how your body, mind, and unique skill set coordinate with those of your teammates.

“Beyond the health implications of a sport that will keep you conditioned, the social benefits of being part of a group can positively impact your quality of life,” says Largeteau.|

Soccer Gear Essentials

puma procat soccer ball

PUMA PROCAT SOCCER BALL

The 32-panel con­struction and dimple-texture outer layer add up to better aerodynamics on this ball. Size 5 is ideal for players 12 and older. $20 at www.target.com.

nike premier II soccer cleats

NIKE PREMIER II FG CLEATS

A durable kangaroo-leather upper and a stabilizing plate deliver excellent traction and great ball touch — and you get a smooth striking surface from the fold-over tongue on the laces. $110 at www.nike.com.

adidas ghost lesto soccer shin guards

ADIDAS GHOST LESTO SOCCER SHIN GUARDS

Though soccer is a relatively minimalist sport, key protec­tive gear, like these impact-absorbing shin guards, is essential. $10 at www.adidas.com.

This originally appeared as “Goal Oriented” in the June 2019 print issue of  Experience Life.

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