There are a collection of sayings in American soccer that evoke a universal emotion from players. “Bring your runners to practice”. “Get on the line”. And of course the dreaded “beep test tomorrow”. To the layperson, these phrases mean nothing, but for soccer players they can evoke stress, anxiety, and nervousness. Consolidated into the term “fitness”, intense cardio or physical activity without the ball has become a feared and dreaded part of the game. As someone who has played through the American youth system, the collegiate system, and the European professional system, my experience with fitness has been challenging, rewarding and evolutionary. With hindsight on my side, I believe it is crucial to unpack the “fitness” narrative and hopefully shed some light on a path far less… dreaded.
As the club soccer landscape becomes more intense, players, parents and coaches are looking to find a competitive advantage. Many turn towards fitness. I, however, did not take this route. In fact, as a youth player I never thought too much about fitness. Sure, I did not like having to run sprints after losing a drill, but that was more so about losing and less so about fitness. I remember the slight nervousness heading into the annual beep test, but it was never more than blip on my radar. I count myself lucky in this sense. My struggles with fitness did not begin until I reached collegiate soccer.
Going from playing with teammates and opponents your own age to playing with people four years older than you is a big jump. University soccer exposes that mental and physical gap right away. My first season at Brown University began with a 6AM fitness test on a track. This was not like my youth beep test days. Now, the result mattered. I found myself feeling extremely anxious for weeks leading up to the test and could hardly sleep the night before. After completing (and luckily passing) the test, I nearly passed out. This was not because I was out of shape, this exhaustion was emotional exhaustion. I had fallen into the narrative that fitness is something to be scared of. This carried on for my next two seasons. My anxiety persisted and I also developed a dislike for the difficulty of fitness. Let’s be real- fitness can be really hard! I did not enjoy putting my body through that pain. In order to mitigate these feelings, I started doing the bare minimum to get by. If the time to hit a sprint was 16 seconds. I would come in at 16 seconds. If we were given the option to do an extra set of runs, I went and juggled instead. While I was not having to deal with the anxiety and discomfort of fitness, I did not realize how much I was holding myself back.
Going into my Junior year of college, my head coach pulled me into her office. She knew I had aspirations of going pro and she also knew I had been skimping out on my sprints. That conversation changed my outlook on fitness, as well as the trajectory of my career. My coach explained to me that fitness is your base as a player. You can be the best dribbler or the best one v one attacker in the squad, but without a solid foundation of fitness, you will not last long enough to do those things. In that moment I shifted my thinking away from viewing fitness as a punishment and towards viewing it as a necessary tool used to elevate my game. I actively changed my self-talk while performing fitness. Instead of feeding myself thoughts of “this sucks, just get it done”, I started appealing to my ultimate goals by saying things like “this extra sprint will make you a better dribbler” or shaving a second off of your time will help you in the 90th minute of a match”. This mental shift might not exactly work for every player, but we all have different motivating factors in our career. Fastening fitness to our personal motivation, which intrinsically should be positive, allows us to attack fitness rather than dread it. I can confidently say that I became a much better player when I changed my mentality around fitness.
Playing overseas gave me a unique perspective on how our youth and collegiate experiences around fitness differ significantly from the rest of the world. While Americans perform most fitness drills without the ball, Europeans nearly always have a ball involved with their fitness. Most of my European teammates had never experienced fitness-based anxiety simply because they never really did “so called fitness”. Instead of sprints without the ball, they played short, but intense games of four v four. Instead of long 100 yard runs, they were required to ping a long ball to a teammate and then sprint to support them for a wall pass. Both the American style and the European style of fitness yield desired results, but I think it is worth discussing the advantages and disadvantages of both.
My fitness evolution was anything, but smooth. I started off as a naive youth player who paid little attention to fitness. I morphed into someone who did the bare minimum and tried to avoid the difficult bits. And thankfully I was able to shift my mentality to become a player who prides myself on having a fitness level that allows for my soccer potential to be reached. I urge players to reflect on their experience with fitness and find a strategy to make it the foundation of their game.