How Stress Makes Us Better Soccer Players

Success in soccer requires stress, and I'm here to tell you why.  In the 1950s Dr. Hans Selye was called "The Grandfather of Stress" and determined that all human beings interpret the world around them through stress. The battle between the body and stress is to maintain homeostasis, or balance, since the body doesn't like change. However, only through stress will the body create an adaptation so that next time the stressor arrives, it is more prepared. 

One example is when you haven't played soccer in awhile and then you jump back into the first session or a game.  The next day you might feel it in your hamstrings, hip flexors, adductors, or your calves might be screaming at you.   But you keep showing up to practice and despite the more work you are doing, the soreness eventually goes away, or it takes much more work in order to create the same amount of soreness.

Upon encountering a stressor, the body adapts in 3 ways:

1. Alarm Reaction (fight or flight):

I discussed this in a previous post, but this is essentially what happens in the body during the actual workout, training session, or game. Energy substrates are mobilized and hormones shift dramatically. This is essentially a catabolic process, or a breaking down of the body. 

2. Resistance (recovery):

This phase is after the workout and represents the body's attempt to return to homeostasis. Repairing muscle damage via insulin response and essentially building back up better than before given that there is ample time to recover. If another stressor comes before the body has recovered, you will go further into a catabolic or fatigued state. 

3. Exhaustion (severe overtraining):

This represents the phase where there is not enough recovery time and too much stress.  Impaired immune system function, high cortisol (stress hormone) levels, poor sleep patterns, low motivation, low sex drive, depression, lack of appetite, and decreased sports performance are common. 

As you can see, a good coach or player responsible for their own training is basically a stress manager.  Cal Dietz,  the performance coach at University of Minnesota who is revolutionizing physical training of athletes did an analysis on the training programs of a variety of sports in the Olympic games. He found that the teams with the most Olympic medals stressed their athletes more, not less, than their competitors.  The ways they applied stress were as follows:

1. Intensity:

Intensity is basically how close to maximum effort one goes. Ie. Sprint speed percentage, percentage of 1RM in the weight room. Flying changes where soccer players are sprinting to close the ball, recover, and on breakaways is usually more intense than a possession drill.   

2. Volume:

How much overall work is performed. Total training time usually means more volume. Other ways of increasing volume are more reps in skill exercises,  more mileage covered, how many total pounds lifted in the weight room, etc. 10 sets of 10 reps at 100 lbs. is more volume than 5 sets of 5 at 150 pounds, but the intensity of the 5x5 routine is greater. 

3. Frequency: 

How often one trains or the team trains.

4. Expectations:

What we expect from ourselves, what our parents, coaches, and teammates expect of us. Greater expectations are more stressful, but are often paramount to success 

5. Overreaching:

The point the athletes are pushed to, but not past. 


What is important to understand is that in these successful teams and programs, not all of the stressors were applied at the same time. That would be catastrophic. Each method of stress has a unique relationship to the other.  Ie. usually when intensity increases, volume decreases, otherwise there is a greater risk of overtraining.   During times of high volume, expectations will have to be lower since athletes will be more fatigued. 

Understanding these relationships and making them work over time is the science and art of coaching. In the next post, I will offer a bit of content from Soccer Strong and some simple ways of measuring your fatigue and progress to help you eliminate the guesswork.