We use a variety of fun games not only for conditioning our children, but also for team building and testing. Youth soccer is a game that values core strength, the strength a player has from just below their hips to just below their chest. This force is what allows players to control their bodies. Youth football is all about very short bursts of speed and changes of direction. Those who can explode, stop, change direction and accelerate in very small areas are the ones with the natural ability to go very far in the game of soccer.
Unfortunately, the typical 40-yard running or push-up contest doesn’t measure for this skill set, but there are games you can play that will help you reveal those that have and don’t have core strength. One of the kids and my favorite “games” (game for kids, an assessment and conditioning tool for me) is the Dummy Delay race. This is one that once you run it, the kids will beg for the entire season. It is a game that will have all the children cheer on each other and the parents howl with laughter from their seats.
Start by dividing your team into “teams” of 4-5 children. You may want each coach to be the “head coach” of a single team to bring some competitive fire to the game. Place a pylon to mark where each team lines up in a single row behind your team’s captain or coach. Then place a pylon directly in front of the teams cone about 15 yards for 9-10 year olds, it can go longer for older children and shorter for younger children. Just make sure all the teams are lined up next to each other and that they have the same distance to run to their cones. Now have the captain of each team start by grabbing a tall block dummy, this is usually done by holding it lengthwise close to the chest in the form of a bear hug. The objective of the game is to run with the doll around the pylon and return to your teammate, it is a relay. When the player returns to the starting tower, he hands the doll to the next player. Usually the 4 losing teams do 5 push-ups to make it interesting.
How does it work
What you will find is that children with core strength, athletes, will have little trouble holding the dummy and running around the pylon. On the other hand, those who have low core strength will wobble when trying to run with the mannequin and will rarely be able to do it in a straight line, they will look like a leaning ship. The results of this game can really surprise you. We have often had nice big kids who we think were real athletes, they struggle with this, looks can be deceiving. On the other hand, we’ve had wiry little kids who didn’t seem very athletic at all, they just crush this drill and continue to play important roles for our teams in ‘skill’ positions. This game really separates the kids who can play from those who can’t, a huge time saver that we all need in that first week of soccer practice.
If you play this game at a fast enough pace and with a small enough team size, it can even help you with your conditioning. Think about it, the distance traveled is 30 yards, about 7 seconds of a short burst, then the other 4 players do their 7 seconds and the time to do 5 push-ups means a total “rest” of 40 seconds. Sounds like the interval that many soccer plays are executed in real games, a 6-7 second burst followed by a 40-50 second interval to put the ball in and out of the group, imagine that.
The really fun part
Once we’ve had enough time to evaluate the players, we like to put a spin on this game for purely fun reasons. Pair teams with each other by having only 1 pylon for both teams. The goal is to run around the pylon and get back to your next relay player, but contact is now allowed. So when the competing players circle the towers, they can collide with each other using the doll against their chest as a large cushion. Squeals of laughter will be heard in the next county in this case, I promise and your parents will think you are some kind of genius coaching genius.
We usually play this game in our first practice of the season. In the end, you will know who your players are and you will have a group of excited, motivated and satisfied children and parents.