INSPIRATION | CONFIDENCE | SUCCESS

Power struggles

Although I am approaching my 10th year of training young female athletes, I feel I am just warming up – still learning and still growing.

There is always a new research study to read. Always 10 webinars happening. Always a million podcasts to download. Alas, there is also always me, caught in the middle of coaching, with little time to sit down, sign into a conference, turn on a podcast or dig through the literature.

Of course, there is a healthy balance between evidence-based research and experience-based. Combining the scientific literature with the in-person art has helped me learn a wealth of information on training the young female soccer player.

My mission now is twofold – to keep my own craft sharp as I immerse myself in in-person coaching, and to break down the complexity of training young female players for coaches to execute themselves.

This article is part of that. It breaks down how to build the female player into an athletic, strong and powerful woman.

 

01. FOCUS ON MOVEMENT QUALITY

Movement quality is paramount for girls, taking them back to the basics of balance, coordination, trunk stability and control, ankle and hip mobility, and posture.

I see coaches freezing in their tracks when evaluating movement quality because they don’t know what to look for. Well, here is what you need to know – if it looks awkward, it probably is.

Are they moving their opposite arm and opposite leg in a contralateral, co-ordinated fashion as they skip? Are they keeping their core stable as they move their limbs? – such as the example in this video

 

“Here is what you need to know – if it looks awkward, it probably is…”

 

Are their arms flailing as they sprint, or are they under control, keeping the trunk upright and stable? Are they taking an extra deceleration step when changing direction, or are they getting in a good athletic stance?

The good-old fashioned eye of the coach is critical when watching your athletes move. I highly recommend the book The Young Female Athlete, which breaks down female athlete physiology, growth and maturation, and movement.

 

02. BREAK THINGS DOWN

A lot of movement teaching for female athletes involves slowing them down. Don’t be afraid to stop them over and over again to get them in the correct positions, or have them hold the hardest part of a movement to truly nail it.

Some girls cannot get even the most basic movements right off the bat. But you have to remember that girls’ bodies are going through an incredible amount of body composition and neuromuscular changes as they grow and mature.

Here is a video of a female athlete on her first day in the gym, and me breaking down opposite arm and leg coordination.

It looks so simple, but a drill like this can be intimidating and disorienting for any girl new to this type of training. So, break things down – the critical foundation- stone movements are: marching, skipping, squatting, hinging, pulling and pushing.

 

03. ATHLETIC STANCE IS KING

Athletic stance serves as the foundation for all movements in the game, such as decelerating, cutting, changing direction, shuffling.

It is a hinge in the hips, with soft knee flexion, ankle dorsiflexion and keeps the knee joint stable, allowing players to change direction under control and avoid injury risk.

Here is a video explaining in depth how you can incorporate it into your practices. Beyond the dynamic movements in the game, athletic stance is the foundation for building posterior chain strength in the hamstrings and gluteals.

As a warm-up, I like to have all ages and levels of girls start with a drill called athletic stance grooving, to wake up the nervous system and prepare for loaded movements.

If an athlete masters the athletic stance movement pattern, she is ready to do things like deadlifts and single-leg deadlifts for posterior strength. These will help with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury reduction.

04. CELEBRATE MUSCLES

Speaking of lifting heavy, we need to celebrate girls building muscle.

We need to flip the paradigm from being less to being more. Too often, I see female athletes worried about gaining muscular weight because of what is pushed by pop culture and social media – a perpetuation of less weight, less fat and less muscle.

As coaches, we have the opportunity to educate girls on the amazing benefits of putting on muscle – for speed and power development, mobility, injury reduction, mental health and confidence.

After all, weights lifted in the gym are a valuable life-lesson on getting uncomfortable – and discomfort is where growth happens. Strength training is where young girls can undergo immense amounts of duress – and, indeed, failures – in order to blossom into warriors.

 

05. FOCUS ON QUALITY PLYOMETRICS

I understand the urge to jump to fancy plyometric drills to make it appear your session is cool and your girls are working hard. But let me ask you this: what is the goal of the drill?

Plyometrics are designed to build muscle elasticity, durable tendons and produce power, so it is in your best interests to ensure your female athletes are focusing on explosive, quality reps. There’s no need to get wild with plyometrics for girls – keep the goal the goal.

 

“Training can make girls less susceptible to injury while also fast and agile…”

 

The appropriate progression needs to be in place, too. It would not be wise to have girls kick off their plyometric journey with a lot of speed or load, until they nail down the control of the movement first, and ensure they’re stabilizing their joints. Starting with being able to absorb force allows them to eventually produce force.

This brief video helps demonstrate a few single-leg landing exercises.

 

06. PROBLEM: ACL EPIDEMIC. SOLUTION? GET THEM STRONG

Every coach knows this problem runs rampant in young female athletes. The solution? Get girls strong.

The ACL’s job is to resist rotation of the knee and provide stability. Young girls are more susceptible to problems due to anatomical differences in hip width and a smaller intercondylar notch, which can cause a breakdown in motor patterns such as the ability to decelerate, cut and change direction safely.

Two or three sessions a week of total body strength – with a focus on hamstrings, hips, glutes and anterior core – build the female athlete into a force to be reckoned with, one who is more resilient to ACL injuries, and can cope with fatigue and the dynamic cuts, turns and brakes in the game.

While the posterior chain strength is a staple part of an ACL program, so is unilateral quadriceps strength. In order for the knee to handle the high eccentric forces from a deceleration, the quadriceps muscle surrounding the knee still needs to be strong.

Erica Suter (centre) says getting girls strong is key to preventing ACL injuries

07. FASTER AND MORE AGILE GIRLS = LESS INJURY

The most fascinating and amazing part of performance training for girls is you can kill two birds with one stone – you can make girls less susceptible to injury while also making them fast and agile.

Injury reduction and performance enhancement go hand in hand. They’re one and the same. So long as you are focusing on a faster, stronger, more agile and more efficient moving athlete, fewer injuries are a nice byproduct.

Here is a breakdown of how to start teaching change of direction, beginning with crisp landings as warm-up, a linear deceleration, lateral, then progress to linking the movements.

The final ingredient is agility, when athletes have to combine fast moving with fast thinking. Including competitive, chaotic drills helps female athletes to adjust to unpredictable scenarios that translate to the game.

 

08. LEAD BY EXAMPLE

Your female athletes are watching. They notice your body language, your demeanour, your confidence, and your lifestyle habits.

True leaders understand the X’s and O’s of athlete development, soccer tactics and exercise science, but they also practice what they preach so they are shining examples to their girls.

Consider yourself a second parent. These girls spend the second most amount of time with their coach, so the way you talk, act and inspire has a lasting impression on them on the field and off.

You don’t need to be a perfect, healthy butterfly, but you do need to exude a degree of health and strength because these girls take notice and are impressed upon for life by how you behave.

 

09. MENSTRUAL CYCLE: IT NEEDS TO BE A PART OF THE DISCUSSION

Many coaches shy away from this topic, but it must be a non-negotiable area to understand. Period.

Tracking the menstrual cycle helps ensure female athletes are nourishing, sleeping and recovering properly when they feel bogged down, foggy-brained and bloated.

An app I urge my athletes to use is FitrWoman, where they can track the first day of their cycle, and take notes on their symptoms at each phase.

Once they track over a long period of time and recognize the consistent symptoms of fatigue on certain days of the month, players can tweak their nutrition, before-bed habits, or sprinkle in extra recovery to feel at their best during these tough times.

For coaches who are reluctant to have the discussion, your best bet is honing in on actionable recovery items, and continuing these discussions with your girls on a weekly basis.

You don’t need to come out of the gates saying, “Let’s discuss periods!” – in fact, don’t do that. Simply providing consistent sleep, recovery and nutrition tips to your girls goes a long way.

February’s issue of Women’s Soccer Coaching included a seven-page special feature on the menstrual cycle, which addresses some of these issues.

Erica says she has learned to be vulnerable in front of players, so they can relate

10. BE VUNERABLE

I am far from perfect, and the more I leaned into this and showcased my human condition to my girls, the more they could relate to me, as well as feel comfortable speaking to me about their problems.

 

“I never think of my girls just as soccer players. I think of them as warriors…”

 

This doesn’t mean you need to tell your entire life story. Rather, it means owning up to your shortcomings and mistakes, then sharing how you became stronger from your rock-bottom moments.

It is the dark stories that allow you to have an impactful teaching moment – in fact, a life-changing one. Maybe you suffered a severe injury, then came back strong. Maybe you got cut from a team, then made an even better one.

Whatever it is, your vulnerability turns into relatability with your girls and inspires them more than you can imagine.

 

11. ENCOURAGE THEM TO BE WARRIORS

I never think of my girls as just soccer players. I think of them as warriors. I am preparing them for the battles of life, as much as the games, the practices, and the tournaments.

When soccer ends, I want them to be armed with the tools to be able to handle any high stimulus, whether it is sickness, divorce, job lay-off, injury or rejection.

I also want them to know how to physically prepare for the obstacles that come with aging, and to reduce the chance of arthritis, cranky joints, bone mineral density decrease, muscle atrophy, cognitive decline and so much more. The body needs great care for a lifetime, even when the whistle of their last game blows.

Performance training is more than timing 30-yard dashes, monitoring training load, and chasing deadlift records. It is about looking at the girl through the holistic lens as a human who needs to be strong, nourished, well-rested and confident to go through life empowered and fulfilled.

It is about building young girls into strong and powerful women.

Share this
Follow us