By Peter H. Edwards, Jr., M.D.

Having speed is very important to athletes competing in most sports and especially for soccer players. Recovery from a stolen ball, breaking to a header, outrunning a defender to the ball and breaking to an open space all depend on explosive takeoff speed. Speed often defines a player and clearly distinguishes the exceptional player from the average one.

In a medical and physical sense, speed is the muscles ability to generate power. Maximum power and related maximum force are directly related to strength. Thus, strength is a major component of speed. Speed also is dependent on the stretch shortening cycle of the muscle and the ability of muscle to store elastic energy. This depends both on flexibility and neuromusclar interaction. Thus, speed is dependent on strength, flexibility and neuromuscular activation – all of which are trainable.

Speed training has evolved as medical science has isolated the essential elements of speed. This training involves specific strength base development and explosive power or plyometric training. Monitoring strength/speed progression allows for optimal improvement.

Along with speed, having agility is a key asset among elite athletes. Agility is the ability to change direction at high speed and under control. This allows for speed to become more effective in attacking players. Agility is dependent on strength, flexibility and neuromuscular reaction time – all of which are trainable as with explosive speed development. Agility training is not ball dependent and can be trained off the field (i.e. the school gym, etc.).

Speed and agility are integral components in soccer performance. Strength gains and improvement in reaction time and in overall agility also help players avoid injury and decreased injury severity. Having the agility to outrun or avoid a tackler or to better withstand a blow are added benefits to speed/agility training. As soccer physicians, it is this dual benefit of improved performance and injury avoidance that is most exciting.