As soccer fans we look at the likes of players like Cristiano Ronaldo and think “wow he makes it look so easy…” We admire the skill, the timing, the footwork, and the uncanny acceleration that the world’s best players exhibit. It takes God-given talent, countless hours of practice, game-experience, and extraordinary determination to play soccer at the professional level. But sometimes skills are not enough for players to shine; often the best-conditioned players are the ones who prevail.
Think of a long twelve-round boxing match for a moment. In round one both combatants punch with good form and conviction, their jabs and footwork are precise and they keep their guard up high to protect their chin. Now imagine a long grueling boxing match that continues on into rounds eleven or twelve. By this point both boxers are throwing punches that are often sloppy and the fighters are struggling to keep their gloves up to defend themselves. We often see boxers throw very few punches in the later rounds and they usually have a tendency to clinch (for brief rest) when they get close to one another. Boxing is very different from soccer, but the point is that fatigue can make technique sloppy, and to the observer a tired athlete appears to lack the desire to win.
Now let us return our train of thought to the soccer pitch. Many players exhibit great tenacity in the early stages of a ninety minute game, but lack the speed burst to finish off a play in the finals minutes of a game. The players in the best cardiovascular shape are more often than not the best difference-makers in the second half of games. In fact, that extra effort (thanks to being in better shape) can even hide a lack of talent.
So how does one go about getting in better shape than other soccer players? The answer on paper is quite simple; a player must be willing to train more and harder than the competition. But the process however, of attaining higher fitness levels is an arduous one. No matter what the level of a competitor, a player has to decide he or she is going to partake in extra training that other players are not doing. Being the most fit player on the field takes an extra level of desire; whether it’s putting on the iPod headphones and running a few miles early in the morning, biking dozens of miles per week, swimming hundreds of laps, or staying after soccer practice and running sprints, the most fit players find extra motivation to do what others aren’t willing to do.
Are these phenomena commonly known by most players? Of course they are, but how many athletes put in the extra work to attain the slight edge that often sets them apart? Any skilled player can look dynamic in the first half of a soccer game, but it’s the athletes who train extra outside of their team’s practice sessions who have the conditioning advantage and maintain their skill level late in games when other players’ impact on the game may be fading away.