APU Health & Fitness Original

Athletic Training in the Off-Season and Elite Soccer Players

By Simo Idrissi, M.S.
2022 Sports and Health Sciences Master’s Degree Graduate

and Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences

Athletic training plans for the off-season must be carefully designed to help elite soccer players cope with mental and physical exhaustion. Often, such athletes may also be recovering from the minor or major injuries that occur during competition.

To aid soccer players, coaches and athletic trainers give their athletes a much-needed break from intense workouts. However, it is also critical to design precise athletic training programs to further improve athletes’ performance and build a legacy of winning players for future seasons.

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Developing an Off-Season Athletic Training Program

Off-season athletic training programs for athletes such as elite soccer players are based on past successes versus failures of coaches and their staff, according to Frontiers in Psychology. They also incorporate statistical assessments that evaluate individual and team game performance data at various points throughout the season, says Sports Medicine.

Off-season athletic training plans use strategies that previously worked well for elite soccer players. Take into consideration what needs to be improved. The training plans can vary considerably based on the individual philosophies and uniqueness of the coaches. Probably the off-season planning goal that all coaches agree on is that the off-season training program determines which players later get excused or stay on the team list for the next season.

According to Frontiers in Psychology, elite athletes in all sports undergo rigorous preseason and in-season workouts, which are broken up into stages. Science Direct and The Journal of Sport and Health Sciences also note that drastic fluctuations in hormones such as testosterone and cortisol are often the main culprit for plateauing or even declining player and team performance.

To prepare for the next season, coaches and sports science professionals must create intricate off-season plans that have an appropriate balance between total workout volume versus exercise intensity. According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), adjusting an athlete’s workout volume while avoiding too-strenuous intensity increases often relies on the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), as originally described by Hans Selye.

NASM also notes that using GAS methods to fit individuals and teams who have many years to compete at the elite level and other levels is key to preventing exhaustion. This strategy will also allow soccer players and other athletes to heal and rebuild their power for preseason training camp.

According to NASM, GAS is categorized into stages that induce fatigue and muscle soreness while avoiding inappropriate exhaustion. These stages help the body of an athlete to adapt to temporary mechanical, neuromuscular and metabolic overloads.

All athletic training strategies are based on the overload principle, which says that muscular, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems must be progressively stressed to higher levels to achieve the highest level of strength or fitness possible at the appropriate time. That “appropriate time” is the preseason conditioning plan and the in-season games and conditioning compacted schedule.

If the body’s systems are not continually stressed to higher levels and appropriate recovery is not permitted, they will become accustomed to the standard workload and will not be meaningfully enhanced. For instance, hypertrophy (muscle enlargement) resulting from repetitive overload training occurs with the increased storage of the intramuscular proteins actin and myosin. Atrophy (muscle size reduction) due to the depletion of actin and myosin reserves develops when an athlete’s strength conditioning is reduced or terminated.

Periodization training is the systematic and progressive overloading of sport-specific muscle groups and their surrounding connective tissues. This type of athletic training helps to ensure to get maximum fitness development with minimal overtraining effects such as muscular soreness or injury.

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The Five Phases of Athletic Training for Elite Players

An athletic training regimen for elite players is generally divided into five phases:

  • Active rest
  • Basic strength (foundation)
  • Hypertrophy (power)
  • Peaking (maintenance)
  • Competition (in-season)

Micro-cycles are then prescribed within each macro-cycle after the weak areas of individual athletes and team are determined. It’s important, however, to keep in mind that a team is only as strong as its weakest player.

The active rest phase involves whole-body recovery. An athlete will typically perform low-intensity activities to prevent muscular atrophy and maintain muscle tone.

The basic strength phase involves improving foundational muscle size and strength. This tactic prepares muscle cells and connective tissue for heavier-intensity conditioning.

The hypertrophy or power phase builds on previously developed strength. It prepares an athlete for sport-specific stressors encountered during the competitive season.

The peaking phase assists the athlete in maintaining previous gains in strength while cutting down on the amount of general conditioning time in the weight room and track. This strategy allows more time for game-oriented, strategic practice sessions on the soccer field.

The competition phase of athletic training helps the athlete to maintain fitness throughout the competitive season. It also prevents an end-of-season drop-off in performance due to atrophy and prolongs the athlete’s fatigue thresholds during in-season workouts.

Cortisol Due to Stress Can Also Impede Athletic Performance

Off-season and in-season stress is multidimensional; an elevated stress level increases cortisol in the blood, according to Northern Clinics of Istanbul. Northern Clinics of Istanbul also notes that stress has the potential to create a physiological or mental imbalance in an athlete or team.

Stress can affect an athlete’s performance and training.

According to the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, cortisol is a catabolic hormone secreted from the adrenal cortex located above the kidneys.

When an inappropriately high amount of cortisol is in an athlete’s bloodstream, the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine notes that the functionality of testosterone and other important conditioning-related hormones are jeopardized. As a result, the athlete’s training can be impacted.

The Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism notes that cortisol also plays a role in decreasing the functionality of fight, flight, or freeze catecholamine hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), as well as growth hormones.

Off-Season Athletic Training Plans Must Be Carefully Designed

Overall, all athletes need an off-season break from their athletic training to regain their health, allow natural processes to heal their overstressed bodies and regain enthusiasm for their sport. Off-season athletic training should not physically overtax soccer players or other athletes and enable them to mentally recharge during much-needed personal time with family and friends.

Off-season athletic training needs highly specific planning to help athletes to prepare for preseason camp, which will involve the enhancement of skills and implementing team strategy for the upcoming season. Due to the passage of time, many athletes can only compete for a few short years at the elite level. Properly designed off-season workouts are critical to achieving peak in-season performance and staying there for as long as possible.

About the Authors

simo idrissi

Simo Idrissi, M.S., earned his master of science in sports and health sciences from American Military University in 2022. His capstone project, “Mental Preparation and Biofeedback to Enhance Soccer Team Performance Throughout a Competitive Season,” is available online and was written under the guidance of Dr. Daniel Graetzer. Simo is a former professional soccer player as well as a current coach and technical director for elite soccer teams. He also holds B and A coaching licenses from the U.S. Soccer Federation and the Advanced National Diploma from United Soccer Coaches.

Daniel Graetzer color

Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his B.S. from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, a M.A. from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City. He has been a faculty member in the School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in social media blogs, encyclopedias, and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in practical application of developing scientific theories and societal well-being.

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