Flexibility refers to the degree of movement, or range of motion, around a joint such as the knee or hip. Most movements and actions in soccer require good flexibility to be performed successfully. Take for instance, a winger running full speed to connect with a ball played over the top: a limited range of motion in the hamstrings and hip flexor muscles will greatly limit stride distance and therefore sprinting ability.
Indeed, increased flexibility will allow your players to reach those high and awkward air balls, increase their shooting power, and enable them to stretch a few more inches to make that goal-saving sliding tackle. Having a greater range of motion also facilitates more efficient movement. Therefore, players with good flexibility will expend less energy to do the same action than players who have limited ranges of motion. Importantly, efficient movement also translates to better technique.
In addition to producing quality movement, flexibility training is also essential for injury prevention. Soccer requires a player to perform repeated high-intensity actions throughout a game. Continuously performing these actions with tight muscles can lead to strains and more serious injuries such as tears. As such, coaches should ensure players engage in year-round flexibility training not just for performance enhancement but also as a method of injury prevention.
Flexibility should be a part of any soccer conditioning program and should start from a young age. Developing flexibility is important for growing children as it helps to develop strong joints and reduces injury that may occur during rapid growth spurts. Flexibility for very young soccer players should not be extensive but of a general nature, and should be included as part of a regular training session. Starting flexibility training at a young age is recommended also because it gets a player into the habit of stretching before and after games and training. Time and time again, I have observed coaches neglect flexibility in their training sessions or match routines largely because they don’t make a habit of it.
Flexibility training becomes more important as a child matures. This is because range of motion decreases with age, especially as muscle mass increases. Adolescent and senior athletes need to allocate more time to developing flexibility; and, in weeks with multiple intense games, a session dedicated entirely to stretching may be necessary. Increasing flexibility should be a major goal of off-season training, especially for players with limited range of motion, whereas maintenance should be the goal for pre- and in-season phases. However, flexibility training should be a part of all practice sessions, regardless of the training phase.
Good whole-body flexibility is important for developing a sound fitness base, but flexibility training should not be overdone as there is a point where further increases in flexibility will not improve soccer performance.
WHEN AND WHAT FORM
For optimal benefits on soccer performance, flexibility training should be performed as part of the warm- up routine preceding training sessions and games, and as a part of the cool-down phase at the end of these activities. As previously mentioned, a separate session devoted entirely for flexibility may be necessary; especially after intense tournaments or matches, or for athletes with poor ranges of motion. Such sessions are not always practical for teams with limited training times however. Players with poor flexibility are recommended to devote extra time outside of regular training to improve this component of conditioning.
All forms of stretching can be effective for developing and improving flexibility, provided they are used at the appropriate times. However, dynamic and static stretches are the most commonly used and also the most practical, especially for youth and amateur players. The reasons for this are discussed in subsections below.
DYNAMIC STRECTHING FOR THE WARM-UP
The warm-up is an essential part of any training session and game preparation. The purpose of the warm- up is to prepare the body for more intense activity. This is achieved by increasing muscle and core temperatures as well as blood flow to the working muscles. Warm-ups should also mentally prepare the player and include sport-specific movements. A complete warm-up consists of a general component, which involves low-intensity activity such as jogging, and a specific component that consists of sport- specific movements and flexibility exercises.
The active nature of dynamic and ballistic stretches makes them suitable for use in the warm-up. Both forms facilitate increases in body temperature and blood flow (unlike static stretching that can actually reduce body and core temperature) as well as excitation of the nervous system. However, ballistic stretching can lead to serious injury because of the high amount of stress placed on the muscles. Dynamic stretching is a safer alternative as it avoids bouncing and is performed in a more controlled manner. In addition, dynamic stretching involves functional sport movement and better prepares the player (mentally and physically) for the demands of the sport. Ballistic stretching may also trigger the stretch reflex that does not allow the muscle to relax, thus defeating the purpose of stretching. Finally, dynamic stretching can involve multiple joints and is therefore more time efficient than ballistic and other forms of stretching.
A description of the most appropriate dynamic stretches for soccer players are described below. The stretches can be performed as either a series of repetitions in place, or over a specified distance (15 to 20 yards for example). Regardless of the method chosen, each movement should be performed in a controlled manner.
STATIC STRETCHING FOR THE COOL-DOWN
The last thing many players want to do after a game or practice is cool-down, but this phase is critical to the recovery process. The purpose of the cool-down is to provide the body with a gradual transition from intense exercise to a resting state by i) slowly decreasing the heart and breathing rates; ii) reducing body temperature; and iii) returning the muscles to an optimal length-tension relationship. Flexibility exercises are essential to the cool-down, and Static and PNF stretches are the best forms to use. Both enhance relaxation and facilitate a steady decrease in body temperature. Static exercises are preferable to the amateur and youth coach however, as performing PNF stretching exercises require expertise and most often requires a partner, making it less practical.
Static Stretching routine: As with dynamic flexibility routines, a static stretching routine for soccer players should involve all the major muscle groups engaged during the various movements and actions. Include the following stretches at the end of your training session to help maintain whole-body flexibility, reduce muscle soreness and initiate recovery from intense exercise: