Stretching before a soccer practice or game is a common practice, and has been since the mid 20th century. Why do we need to stretch? To prepare muscles and ligaments for vigorous activity avoiding muscle pulls/tears and ligament injuries. Imagine not stretching. A player would come to a game, say in cooler weather, with all muscles in their normal state. Then you go into a sprint followed by a tackle and leg muscles are moving quickly and are extended to the maximum. It would be a shock to them and their natural resistance might cause an instant pull or tear. Having properly warmed up and “pre-stretched” the muscles reduces the gap between their rest and activity state. In a way it is like waking up in the morning and going to work. Most of us need to go through a routine before getting out of bed, have breakfast, read the paper, and shower. This allows the brain to warm up, stretch and be ready to drive to work. Not many of us can be woken out of a deep sleep, hop into the car, and drive with full alertness.
How should soccer players stretch?
When I played the standard was to get together in a group and go through a routine of hamstring, quad, calf, and back stretches. Later this was called static stretching. Then in the 1970’s the idea of incorporating motion was added. You would see players run a few laps and then gather to stretch. Why? Because stretching muscles that weren’t warmed up still had injury risk if you didn’t increase the amount of stretch gradually. Most coaches didn’t know about that so players injured themselves during stretching. I will say that I was one of the first coaches in the 1990’s to combine the traditional stretches with my philosophy of maximizing touches of the ball. Each player would have a ball and walk/dribble or do low speed run/pass work with a partner. In between the drills there would be a stretch. It was more fun and warmed up muscles while stretching them. Muscle/ligament injuries were extremely low.
Somehow in the last 20 years the idea of the classic stretches has been abandoned. What we see teams do now is a routine without the ball, moving legs in various ways (big swings to the left, right, larger steps, jumps, etc.). It is choreographed and looks nice. It is also fun. It is called dynamic stretching because at no point does a player stand still and do a traditional stretch.
So what is the right way? The jury is out. What I do know is that there have never been more muscle injuries at the professional level than in the last 10 years. In fact teams have fired and rehired entire medical/fitness staffs because of injury problems and recurring injuries after rehabilitation. Is it because the pre-game routine is not working? Is it because the demands of the game have increased? We don’t know. It’s not as much of an issue with children or youth because their bodies are naturally more flexible.
Somehow I think that the mixed dynamic/static model I introduced in the 1990’s has merit. The techniques can be updated but the principle is sound. I say that because in all of the dynamic stretching I don’t see the muscles being challenged enough to withstand game action.
But you decide for yourself. We offer both models on our web site and in our books. For static stretches, incorporated into a dynamic warm up, click Soccer Stretches.
For a “modern” dynamic stretching routine, click Dynamic Warm Up