Soccer players must be taught how to stretch properly. Why stretch? Stretching promotes flexibility for both performance and injury prevention, due to greater extension of a joint. Essentially, muscles are connected to bones at one end (the origin) and a tendon at the other. The tendon is then attached to a different bone (the insertion) that is going to be moved by the muscle. Muscle and tendon combinations work in pairs on either side of the joint to create flexion and extension. When the joint is extended by the contraction of one muscle, the opposite muscle and tendon combination must relax and be long enough to allow for the full extension to occur without tearing. Proper stretching of the muscle and tendon combinations provides this extra length.
When a muscle is contracted consciously, the greater the range of motion around the joint, achieved by stretching the opposite muscle and tendon combination, enhances performance. A prime example in soccer is the execution of the instep drive. When the quadriceps muscle of the front thigh is contracted in order to extend the lower leg to kick the ball, the “hamstring” muscles of the back of the thigh, and their associated tendons, must be long enough to accommodate the full motion of the knee and hip joints. In general, the better the “backswing,” and the longer the “follow-through,” the stronger the kick.
Similarly, if a muscle and tendon combination is inadvertently stretched, usually due to a collision, a greater range of motion significantly reduces the chance of injury to that muscle and tendon. A prime example of this in soccer is tripping, or any other kind of scenario where a leg gets “pulled out from under” a player. If the length of the muscle and tendon combination is sufficient, the unintended extension of the leg can be accommodated. If not, the tissue of the muscle and/or tendon will be pulled apart. As a result, players must be taught to understand how significant stretching is for injury prevention.
Stretching for soccer is really no different than stretching for any other strenuous sport. For soccer, however, it is essential that all major muscle groups of the body be stretched. Whereas the legs are critical, especially the hamstrings, the rest of the body must not be neglected. With field players for example, the torso and the neck are involved in heading, and the arms are involved in throw-ins and cushioning falls. The general concepts of stretching can be introduced as early as U-7, but should definitely be started by U-9.
The two most common types of stretching are called “ballistic” stretching and “static” stretching. Ballistic stretching is marked by bouncing. It is not recommended. Static stretching is performed by gently taking the joint to its end-range of motion, feeling the pulling sensation and then holding the position for a period of time. Players are to be instructed to feel the pull and to never create pain. Coaches must clearly inform them that if a stretch hurts, then they have gone too far. Players must also be specifically told not to bounce.
Proper technique is extremely important:
- Perform a non-strenuous warm up first. Increased blood flow has been shown to improve the results of stretching.
- Stretch all the time, every time, before practices and games.
- Work from the head, down to the feet.
- Alternate between the front and back muscle groups and both sides of the body.
- Hold each stretch for at least 10 seconds; increase with age up to 30 seconds.
- Shake out the body part after each stretch.
- Introduce gentle, controlled range-of-motion movement with stretching.
- Go directly to significant warm up or increased activity. Do not allow a cool-down to occur.
It should be noted that significantly lengthening the muscle and tendon groups takes time, often up to six weeks. If there is a break before the start of a season, players must start stretching in advance. Players need to be patient and consistent with their stretching. Caution must also be taken when stretching with an injury. It can make it worse. Players must “listen to their bodies,” understand tightness, ensure proper warm-up, stretching, and flexibility, and make certain that they are not engaging in physical exertion that will exacerbate an injury because of failure to behave properly. Stretching must also be continued to maintain the improved range of motion. Failure to continue to stretch regularly allows the body to revert with the muscle and tendon groups naturally shortening to their pre-stretched length.
Encourage older players to stretch at least every other day, after a proper warm-up. Two practices and one game may only account for stretching three times a week, with gaps. Players must fill those gaps on their own to ensure that the lengthened muscle and tendon groups are maintained. In addition, there is evidence that post-game and post-practice stretching enhances faster recovery from strenuous activity by decreasing the natural tendency of the body to “tighten up,” and by aiding in the removal of waste and other cellular excretions produced by muscular exertion. Coaches are encouraged to add this to their routines.
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