Postseason Power

With 15 of the last 19 NCAA titles to its name, the North Carolina women’s soccer squad is a model of competitive success. A key to this success is an off-season strength program that is broken into four phases.

By Greg Gatz

Greg Gatz, CSCS, USAWF, is Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at the University of North Carolina.

Training & Conditioning, 12.4, May/June 2002,

What do effective off-season soccer programs have in common with the coming of spring? Aside from the fact that they sometimes overlap, both of them revolve around regenerating and rebuilding.

Unfortunately, many off-season soccer programs fail to rebuild athletes after the competitive seasons end. Instead, these programs focus on informal drills that are designed to keep the athletes in a constant, game-ready state. As for conditioning, soccer players are encouraged to literally play themselves into shape for the next season through ongoing, informal scrimmages.

The problem with these programs is that only limited consideration is given to the restoration and regeneration process that should be the foundation of the non-competitive part of the training cycle. Consequently, numerous athletes enter preseason training in less than optimal shape.

At the University of North Carolina, we recognize the key role that off-season training and conditioning programs can have in boosting athletic performance and on reducing the chances of getting injured. Consequently, our philosophy is that when an off-season plan focuses on re-building, it will put the athletes on the proper course for optimal in-season results.

The off-season program that we use for our women’s soccer program at North Carolina actually begins at the very end of the competitive season with an effort to identify any weaknesses in the team and in individual athletes. To accomplish this, we will get feedback from sport coaches who have completed player exit meetings. We will be looking for anything that can impede optimal performance, including insufficient conditioning levels, deficiencies in speed and quickness, deficiencies in power, and any injuries.

Next, the athletes are further assessed through a battery of testing drills. We conduct these drills when the athletes first come to us for off-season training in January.

These testing drills accomplish four things. First, they help to confirm any weaknesses that were brought up in our previous meetings with the coaches. Second, they help to identify additional areas of weakness that were not brought up during interviews. Third, they provide us with a baseline measurement of each individual athlete’s condition that we can then use to track progress over the off-season program. Finally, the testing drills are also incorporated into the actual training sessions throughout the off-season program, which effectively develops the same types of power, skill, and agility that they test for.

We arrange the testing drills in sequences that assess specific athletic attributes, including aerobic endurance, agility, power, speed endurance, and strength. Typical testing drills include “beep” intermittent recovery tests for aerobic endurance, the Illinois test for agility, vertical jumps and broad jumps for lower-extremity power, 7x30-meter speed tests for speed endurance, plus squats and bench presses for general strength.

When the off-season training and conditioning program ends in April, we record every athlete’s performance using the same tests that were conducted in January. We expect to see improvements in those testing scores.

Our college students usually go home for the summer a few weeks after the postseason program ends. During the summer, we have little control over their activities. Some of our athletes will continue to work out, but others won’t. Still, no matter what an athlete’s activity levels are during the summer, at least she is entering those vacation months in a regenerated, well-conditioned state that will make her transition to August preseason training a lot smoother.

When the athletes return in August for their preseason training, we will put them through another battery of tests. To ensure consistency in measurements, we will use the same testing drills in August that were used in April and January. Then, we compare the August test results with the April test results. Optimally, we are looking for no greater than a 10-percent drop in performance scores from April to August. If the scores drop more than 10 percent, we will try to implement as much remedial work as possible during the remaining preseason and the upcoming competitive

Since a good off-season soccer program is designed to rebuild the athlete’s overall strength and conditioning levels, it is important that all physical components of the game are addressed and incorporated throughout the off-season training process. These physical components include power, strength, agility, reaction time, flexibility/mobility, speed, aerobic/anaerobic endurance, and balance.

We incorporate one or more of these components into each phase of workouts. For example, one phase of workouts may have a power emphasis, while another phase may primarily emphasize speed. However, we do not exclude the other components from a phase. In other words, a workout will have an overall emphasis on a particular component of soccer, but not at the exclusion of all other components.

Each phase of the program has a set time frame lasting from a few weeks to more than a month. Within each phase, all workouts will be geared toward the overall emphasis. In addition, one phase builds the foundation for the next phase. Below is a sample overview of a non-competitive-season training cycle for collegiate female soccer athletes:

Phase One

Emphasis: General preparation and conditioning (mid-January to early February).

Purpose: To reactivate the athlete’s body after transition from competitive to non-competitive seasons. This phase will consist of foundation work of medium volume with limited rest intervals. The time frame is between two and four weeks.

Content: Core static control development, dynamic flexibility and mobility, and establishing footwork patterns. Strength work involves circuit and complex training plus technical instruction with multi-joint explosive exercises (Olympic-style lifts). Work loads will be between 50 to 60 percent of one rep maximum.

Phase Two

Emphasis: General strength development (mid-February to early March).

Purpose: At this point, the athlete has significantly recovered from the competitive season and has completed the transition exercises in Phase One. Now, the emphasis shifts toward increasing the athlete’s strength levels. During this phase, begin to incorporate general power and speed drills. Training volume will increase along with rest time between sets. The time frame will be approximately three weeks.

Content: Begin dynamic core development using cables and medicine balls. Continue flexibility and mobility work. Start agility training, incorporating footwork drills from Phase One. Speed work consists of teaching athletes the technical terminology and mechanics (posture, arms, and legs) and then having them perform acceleration drills. Strength work will involve loads from 65 to 77.5 percent of one rep maximum. Core lifts such as presses and squatting exercises will be five reps. Explosive movements will be performed with sets of five reps. Conditioning consists of short shuttle repeats of 10 to 20 yards, and team skill work in small groups.

Phase Three

Emphasis: Increasing strength and power (early March to April).

Purpose: Continue to increase training load and drill intensity. Time frame is two to three weeks.

Content: Dynamic core strength development using weights, cables, and medicine balls. Continue flexibility and mobility work, as well as agility and change-of-direction drills. Speed work will move to higher velocity drills and resistance/assistance work. Establish basic plyometric drills with low volume. Strength work will use work loads of 75 to 87.5 percent of one rep maximum, while using four to five reps for core lifts and three to four reps for explosive movements. Conditioning will continue to involve short distances of sprint repeats, monitoring rest intervals, and small-group game activities (such as three-on-three soccer).

During the final week of Phase Three, we implement a one-week unload period to regenerate the athlete in preparation for the increased efforts needed in Phase Four. Here, we reduce our strength/power loads down to 65 to 72.5 percent of one rep maximum.

Phase Four

Emphasis: Converting strength to power (April).

Purpose: Peak strength and power levels. Get ready for final test battery. Time frame will be two weeks.

Content: Core work becomes highly dynamic (throws and fast movements). Continue flexibility and mobility work. Agility drills will become more sport-specific with incorporation of ball and cooperative partner work, including passing, dribbling, and defensive maneuvers. Speed training will involve speed circuits with stations for acceleration drills, footwork drills, towing sleds, and technique sprints (short runs focusing on different technical areas including arm action, tall posture, stride rate, and stride length). Plyometric drills will increase in intensity and volume and may be included in the speed training circuits.

We will try to peak-out strength and power by reaching between 85 and 100 percent of one rep maximum in intensity for core and explosive lifts. The reps will be progressed from five reps down to two reps, with ample rest of three to five minutes. At this time, elastic equivalent exercises are placed into the workout to help with maximum power development. Conditioning is done through team practices and game scrimmages.

Getting in shape is a concept that most people associate with preseason or early-season training. Yet our program at North Carolina illustrates that rebuilding an athlete’s strength, power, and endurance provides significant benefits when it is applied soon after the end of the competitive season.