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Preseason Fitness Testing in National Collegiate Athletic Association Soccer

Sayers, Adam PhD, CSCS; Sayers, Brandi Eveland PhD, CSCS; Binkley, Helen PhD, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D

Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2008 - Volume 30 - Issue 2 - p 70-75
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31816a8849
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THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE IS TO PROVIDE THE STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROFESSIONAL WITH THE INFORMATION TO EFFECTIVELY IMPLEMENT A BATTERY OF SOCCER-SPECIFIC FITNESS TESTS DURING THE NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION SOCCER PRESEASON PERIOD, YIELDING A DETAILED AND APPROPRIATE PHYSICAL EVALUATION OF THE ATHLETE. RATIONALE FOR THE CHOICE OF TESTS, DETAILED DESCRIPTIONS OF EACH TEST, A TIMELINE FOR IMPLEMENTATION, AND REASONS FOR IMPLEMENTATION WILL BE DISCUSSED.

Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee

Adam Sayersis Assistant Women's Soccer Coach at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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Brandi Eveland Sayersis Assistant Professor in the Exercise Science department at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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Helen Binkleyis Associate Professor and the Athletic Training Education Program Director at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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INTRODUCTION

The physiological demands of soccer require athletes to be trained in several fitness components, including aerobic capacity, aerobic power, speed, speed endurance, strength, power, and agility (4,6,17). Therefore, when evaluating and preparing athletes for competition, the importance of physical assessment via the implementation of appropriate, valid, and reliable fitness testing cannot be overlooked. Fitness tests can be very effective for a number of reasons, including assessing an athlete's current level of fitness (including the identification of an athlete's individual physical strengths and weaknesses), determining the effectiveness of a training program, and allowing the coach to be very specific in developing optimal training sessions and programs to address the athletes' strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, fitness test results can be used to provide objective feedback to the athletes, giving them an understanding of why they are being asked to perform certain activities, and serving as motivation to reach fitness goals (10,17).

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allows a maximum preseason period of 21 days (including exhibition games) for men's and women's soccer, before the first regular season contest (13). Given the limited time available, it is essential that coaches implement fitness tests in the most efficient manner possible, without compromising reliability, validity, time taken to administer each test and, most importantly, ensuring each player has sufficient recovery time between tests.

During an NCAA soccer preseason period, tests for aerobic capacity, speed, speed endurance, strength, power, and agility should be performed. These tests should ideally be administered during the first 2 days of the preseason period. A 21-day preseason period is a relatively short timeframe to bring athletes from an untrained to a trained level, especially given the amount of technical, tactical, and functional training that will also be required. Consequently, the athletes should be responsible for completing a prescribed strength and conditioning program designed so they arrive for preseason in appropriate physical condition. Therefore, the same tests should be conducted at the end of the spring training period. On the basis of these results, each player should receive an individualized strength and conditioning program to follow during the summer. The athletes should then be tested at the beginning of preseason for 3 primary reasons: (a) to assess the current physical state of the athletes, (b) to identify which athletes followed their prescribed program, and (c) to allow the coach to design an appropriate preseason program based on the test results.

Having identified the fitness components relative to the game of soccer that should be tested, it is imperative to select the most appropriate test for each fitness component. The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test level one, shown in Figure 1, is an appropriate measure of aerobic capacity in soccer players (11). The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test is one of several versions of what is commonly known as the “beep test”. However, each of these tests is slightly different and, therefore, evaluates the physical performance of the athlete in a different manner. The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test was developed by Bangsbo (4) as a more soccer-specific adaptation of the multistage fitness test. During a soccer game, a given athlete's activity is constantly changing between intense exercise, light exercise, and occasional rest. The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test evaluates an athlete's ability to repeatedly perform intense intermittent exercise over a prolonged period of time. An intermittent period after two 20-m runs (a 10-second jog at a lower intensity) is a more realistic replication of activity during a soccer game than the multi-stage fitness test (11,17). The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test taxes both the phosphagen energy system and the glycolytic energy system similar to a game situation, therefore validating the similarity of the test to the activity profile required during the game itself (17). The Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test has been tested for validity and reliability by Krustrup et al. (11) and showed a high reproducibility and sensitivity, allowing for detailed analysis of the physical capacity of athletes in intermittent sports, specifically soccer.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Speed and speed endurance can be assessed through single-sprint tests and multiple-sprint tests, respectively. It is important to test both single-sprint ability (speed) and multiple-sprint ability (speed endurance), as each will tax the energy systems differently (7,15). With regards to speed, there are different aspects that should be assessed, notably acceleration and maximal velocity. The distance of the sprint will depend on which aspect of speed is being tested. Reilly and Thomas (14) found that, during a game, athletes sprint over distances of 10 m to 30 m, with the average duration being less than 6 seconds. Recent studies have also shown that 96% of sprints during a soccer match are 30 m or shorter, and 49% are shorter than 10 m (16). Therefore, acceleration can be tested over a distance of 10 m from both a standing and a flying start. However, a flying start, during which a player is walking or jogging before breaking into the sprint, is more applicable to the game as the majority of sprints during a game are started from a moving position as opposed to a stationary position. The athletes should perform 3 sprints, with the average time being recorded. Maximal velocity can be assessed over a distance of 20 m, again with the average of 3 trials being recorded. Electronic timing gates should be used to administer this test. A timing gate should be placed at a designated start line, with further gates being placed at a distance of 10 m from the start line and 30 m from the start line. When the athlete passes through the first timing gate, the clock is started. When the athlete passes through the gate at 10 m, the acceleration time (0–10 m) is recorded, and when the athlete passes through the gate at 30 m, the overall 30-m sprint time is recorded. Maximal velocity is calculated by subtracting acceleration time from overall time. A stopwatch can be used if electronic timing gates are unavailable, although human error could impact the validity and reliability of the test. On the basis of the results of these tests, specific, individual programs can be designed to increase both acceleration and maximal velocity (17).

Speed endurance can be assessed using the multiple sprint test designed by Bangsbo (4,17). The Bangsbo Soccer Sprint Test is composed of 7 successive sprints of 35 m (30 m with a direction change of 5 m to the side between 10 m and 20 m), with a 25-second walk back in between. This test yields results for (a) best sprint time, (b) mean sprint time, and (c) fatigue index (calculated by subtracting the best time of the first two sprints from the slowest time of the last 2 sprints). A lower fatigue index displays a greater level of speed endurance (the ability to recover rapidly between high-intensity bouts of sprinting) (16,17). Wragg et al. (19) established the reliability of this test. The nature of Bangsbo's multiple-sprint test replicates the activity patterns of athletes during soccer games, and several studies have shown that this multiple sprint test can detect changes in physical performance during a game, therefore supporting its use as a valid and reliable soccer-specific fitness test (17). Figure 2 displays sample speed endurance test results.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Both single-sprint ability and multiple-sprint ability should be assessed because of the different physiological demands required by each. When performing multiple sprints, as is often required during soccer, the more efficiently the player can regenerate adenosine triphosphate after each bout of anaerobic activity (sprint), the more effective the next sprint will be. This can have several implications during a game. For example, the inability to recover from a forward sprint while attacking may lead to a delay in assuming a defensive position tactically, leaving the team vulnerable defensively (3).

Agility, which may be defined as the ability to change the direction of the body rapidly using a combination of strength, speed, balance and coordination, is a fundamental component of soccer performance (5). Agility is required many times throughout a soccer game, and in a variety of ways. There are several different agility tests, for example the Illinois agility test and the 505 agility test. However, a more soccer-specific agility test exists, developed by Balsom, shown in Figure 3 (2). Figure 4 shows an athlete completing the Balsom agility test. Performance on this test is measured by the time taken to complete one circuit, with faster times signifying better performance. The best time of 2 trials should be used. Little and Williams (12) stated that agility tests should be used in conjunction with single-sprint tests to obtain a thorough indication of an athlete's speed capacity. Therefore, the results of the single-sprint tests and the agility tests should be evaluated together to provide an overall indication of each athlete's ability to change speed and direction rapidly without the loss of balance.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

Strength can be defined as the maximum amount of force that a muscle or muscle group can generate, whereas power can be described as the ability of a muscle to exert high force while contracting at a high speed (8). With regards to strength, upper-body maximum muscular strength (which can also be referred to as low-speed strength) can be tested through a 1-repetition max of the bench press exercise, and lower-body maximum muscular strength can be tested through a 1-repetition max of the back squat exercise. Both tests should be performed in a strength and conditioning facility with appropriate equipment. A detailed description of the administration of these tests is provided by Harmann et al. (8). The test should be conducted based on the results of the tests at the end of the spring training period, and the individualized program that was prescribed to each player for the summer.

Maximum muscular power (which can also be referred to as anaerobic power or high-speed strength) of the lower body can be tested through a vertical jump and a broad jump. These activities should also be completed in a strength and conditioning facility. The vertical jump can be most accurately measured with the use of a portable force plate. Alternatively, if a force plate is not available, then a Vertec measuring device can be used. Two types of vertical jump should be measured for each player; a squat jump with the hands at the hips, and a free-counter movement jump. A close relationship between vertical jump height and soccer performance has been found (1), supporting the inclusion of these tests as part of the preseason testing protocol. Broad jump performance can be measured with a tape measure extended along a flat surface.

A seated medicine ball throw is an accepted test for upper-body power (18). This test involves the athlete being seated on an adjustable bench with a back support. The thighs should be horizontal with the knees flexed at 90°, and the ankles placed behind pads at the base of the bench. The athlete is then strapped to the back support to minimize trunk movement during the test. The athlete begins by holding the medicine ball in the lap with both hands, and upon instruction brings the ball up quickly to the chest and explosively pushes the ball outward and upward in a movement similar to a chest pass (18). The weight of the medicine ball should be kept constant each time the test is administered. Each athlete has 3 attempts, with the longest throw being recorded. A rest period of at least 2 minutes should be allowed between each throw.

All tests should be conducted during the first 2 days of the preseason period. The test results will determine the extent to which fitness training should be included in preseason, with the training schedule being altered to address any specific weaknesses revealed by the tests. Any athlete who displays a weakness in any fitness component should retake that particular fitness test at the end of the preseason period. A 21-day period is insufficient to greatly improve an individual's performance in any fitness component given the amount of tactical and functional training that would also be required during this time. Therefore, ideally, the physical training conducted during the preseason period would be primarily maintenance training. If, however, an athlete displays a weakness in any of the tested fitness components, individual activities addressing this weakness should be implemented in addition to team training.

With regards to the order of testing, it is vital to allow sufficient rest periods between each test to ensure test reliability. The variety of tests used deliberately tax the different energy systems of the body (phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative). The energy systems replenish the fuels they require in different quantities over different periods of time (9). Therefore, the rest period that follows any test would have to be adequate enough to ensure the complete recovery of the energy system(s) taxed during the test, along with the athletes adhering to appropriate dietary guidelines and fluid intake. On the morning of the first day of preseason training, the athletes should be tested for agility. The test should be conducted on a surface similar to that on which the game will be played. They would then move into the strength and conditioning facility and perform the strength and power tests (allowing 3–5 minutes rest between each activity). A strength and conditioning facility is readily available on the majority of college campuses, so the strength and power tests can be easily administered. During the afternoon of the same day, the athletes should complete the speed test (again allowing at least 3–5 minutes rest between each of the 3 sprints per athlete). This would then be followed by the speed endurance test (ensuring at least a 10-minute rest period after the speed tests for each athlete before the speed endurance test is started). Both should be conducted on a surface similar to that on which the game will be played.

Finally, on the morning of the second day of preseason, the Yo-Yo intermittent recovery test should be performed. The tests will be conducted in this way to minimize the interference effects of testing, and to maximize test reliability. Any tests conducted at the end of the preseason period should be similarly arranged. Figure 5 displays a sample testing schedule.

Figure 5

Figure 5

All tests are field tests. Several laboratory tests exist, such as the VO2max test for maximal oxygen uptake, and the Wingate test for anaerobic power and fatigue index. However, given the expensive equipment required to administer these tests, and the length of time required, they are not the most efficient option during the preseason period. Additionally, field tests give results that are more specific to actual performance, whereas laboratory tests provide a physiological assessment of the body's response to a specific activity in a controlled environment which, although the assessment may be very accurate, the results may not be specific to performance during a game.

In summary, during an NCAA soccer preseason period, fitness tests for aerobic capacity, speed, speed endurance, agility, power, and maximal strength should be administered. The tests should be conducted over the first 2 days of preseason, with the primary reasons being (a) to assess the current physical state of the athletes, (b) assessing which athletes had followed their prescribed summer program, and (c) to determine the extent to which the preseason plan should be altered to accommodate any fitness weaknesses revealed by the test results.

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REFERENCES

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Keywords:

fitness testing; preseason; soccer

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