You’re doing everything you can do to be a great soccer player. You recover well, you sleep the right amount, and you prioritize proper nutrition. But, there’s something else you need to consider.
Doing a different activity!
It’s imperative that specialized athletes learn to cross-train. In fact, if you’re a young player, you should avoid early specialization and dabble in multiple activities.
Why is it important? Do you really have to make time for a cross-training regimen?
Cross-training doesn’t have to be a complicated. It simply means to do a different activity with the purpose of giving your body (and mind) a break.
You never have the obligation to do the same activity every time.
It can be fun, challenging, relaxing, creative… but whatever it is, it needs to be different than your usual training regimen in some way.
There’s a quote that describes cross-training’s purpose very well:
“I believe there are two main functions that cross-training in any sport or activity serves. The first is to enhance and increase the skills required for the activity […], and the second is to counteract the imbalances or areas of the body that are left vulnerable or weak from the activity.” (3)
What Happens if I Don’t Cross-Train?
Sport-specific training is of upmost importance. You don’t get better at soccer by playing baseball. You don’t become a better runner by swimming.
However, there are some consequences of a non-diverse training program.
As a specialized soccer player, not cross-training can pose some physical, mental, and emotional risks.
Physically, soccer players go through a lot of vigorous activity. Running, sprinting, cutting, jumping, landing, diving, heading… many impact activities that can take its toll over time. Although there is nothing wrong with the demands of the sport, too much of anything can be a bad thing. The consequence could be overuse injuries and physical burnout/fatigue.
Mentally, soccer is tough. Being aware of surroundings, reading your teammates, finding creative solutions, judging the other team, critical thinking on-the-spot when your coach challenges your decision on the ball… there’s a lot that happens in the noggin. Soccer makes you sharp, but how much can the brain handle until it stops registering the game? Without a chance to reset the mind, a player will experience mental fatigue and lack of creativity.
Emotionally, and this is a big one, soccer is exhausting. Compare it to work. The pressure of a team environment, the feeling of defeat, the self-doubt and imposter syndrome, the stress of upcoming performances, the excitement, the let-downs… things could be great one second, and one poor performance later, you feel you want to crawl into a hole. Without a break, players will become emotionally burnt out and experience anxiety related to performance.
To take it a step further, managing sport-related anxiety is associated with injury prevention techniques. Ford, J et al. talks more about it in her article published in J Sports Med: Sport-related anxiety: current insights.(2)
How Do I Choose the Best Cross-Training for Me?
The best cross-training method doesn’t exist. It is highly dependent on players’ needs, their strengths, their weaknesses, and what they’re experiencing around sport.
There are many different ways to break down soccer into components and focus on the areas that are most taxing or weak.
There’s one excellent example that comes to mind. It applies to most soccer players.
Many soccer players train with copious amounts of running. It’s common for runners to lack the strength needed to support their volume of running. Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “You don’t run to get fit, you get fit to run.” It’s 100% true. There’s a lot of muscular support needed to run for extended periods of time. Without strengthening these muscles, overuse injuries occur.
In this very common case, the best cross-training method is strength and resistance training, even for young teens. The best strength and resistance training regimens include balance and plyometrics which have proven to reduce general injury risk especially in female athletes, and eccentric training to reduce the risk of tendon injuries.(1)
There are other aspects of soccer to consider, though. Think of the characteristics of the game – you can get creative with your cross-training.
Cross-Train to Counteract Imbalance
There’s something empowering about recognizing when your body, mind, and spirit needs to take a break. Even the most passionate of people need to step away from their endeavors to keep the flame alive.
Soccer is a great sport, but it does leave some vulnerabilities behind. The upper body is often neglected. Controlled movement is difficult because soccer is fast and explosive.
Here are some characteristics of soccer and ways you can take a constructive break from them as you work on rounding-off your weaknesses.
Soccer: team thinking. Surfing: individual thinking.
Soccer: high-impact. Elliptical: low impact.
Soccer: critical thinking, performance stress. Hiking: meditative.
Soccer: lower body dominant. Boxing: upper body dominant.
Soccer: fast, powerful. Yoga: slow, controlled.
Notice that the list includes unstructured activities, like hiking. Cross-training doesn’t necessarily need guidance or coaching – sometimes a break from that type of structure is also needed. There’s something to be said about self-guided activities (safety first, though).
Cross-Train to Enhance Performance
Cross-training can also have a positive effect on performance. Yes, breaks can make you feel refreshed. What about training ideas that can help improve fast feet, agility, or quick-thinking on the field?
Here are some examples of skills needed in soccer that overlap with skills needed in other sports and activities.
Some activities overlap with the examples above or are listed twice. Perhaps they’re good to include if they resonate with you.
Cutting/Agility: tennis, short-board surfing.
Endurance: cycling, uphill walking, stair climber.
Strategy: chess*, baseball, football.
Balance/Core Engagement: yoga, tai-chi, surfing, horseback riding.
Focus/Attention/Composure: archery, yoga, golf.
Similar Team Play: lacrosse, hockey, water polo.
*Chess TOTALLY counts
If you’re looking for research about which activities have the best crossover effect to soccer, there really aren’t any published. Research is lacking here.
The literature out there is mostly anecdotal: people writing about their experience (or a client’s experience) with cross-training and how useful it was to their sport. I referenced one already by a dancer, cited below. Anecdotal evidence is never high-quality, but beggars can’t be choosers.
There is an old study published back in 1994 that evaluated the transfer of training effects on VO2 max (aerobic capacity) between running, swimming, and cycling. They stated that there is transference of improved aerobic capacity between the three modes.(5)
That’s about it.
It also emphasized that sport-specific training is best, like a soccer player running to improve their endurance on the field. Since the article was published in 1995, many research articles have also shed light on physical and emotional issues around sport-specific training only.(4)
Hence why this blog exists!
Ways to Know You Aren’t Cross-Training Enough
There are a few ways to know if you’re starting to feel the effects of too much sport-specific training. It requires some self-awareness, but there are questions you can ask yourself to check in.
- Are you sleeping okay through the night, getting your recommended hours?
- Are you feeling overly anxious about playing soccer, even going to practice?
- Are you performing poorly in school?
- Are you sidelined with injuries too often?
- Are you having a hard time performing at your usual standard (or better)?
- Are you demotivated in your sport?
- Are you having difficulty focusing in games?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you may need to consider making some changes to your training approach.
Soccer is (in our opinion) the best sport out there. Respect the sport, respect its demands, and respect what your body needs to be successful.
- Beato, M., Maroto-Izquierdo, S., Turner, A. N., & Bishop, C. (2021). Implementing Strength Training Strategies for Injury Prevention in Soccer: Scientific Rationale and Methodological Recommendations, International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 16(3), 456-461.
- Ford JL, Ildefonso K, Jones ML, Arvinen-Barrow M. Sport-related anxiety: current insights. Open Access J Sports Med. 2017 Oct 27;8:205-212. doi: 10.2147/OAJSM.S125845.
- Hanlon, L. (2016). Do you need to cross-train if dancing is your real passion? Dance Major Journal, 4. doi:10.5070/d541033891
- Puzzitiello, R. N., Rizzo, C. F., Garvey, K. D., Matzkin, E. G., & Salzler, M. J. (2021, November 26). Early sports specialisation and the incidence of lower extremity injuries in youth athletes: Current concepts. Journal of ISAKOS.
- Tanaka, H. Effects of Cross-Training. Sports Med 18, 330–339 (1994). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-199418050-00005