How Watching World Cup Soccer Can Make You a Better Athlete

Use a Needs Analysis to think critically about how you can make yourself a better player and make the most of your training.

Few sporting events captivate the entire planet like the FIFA World Cup. The patriotism and enthusiasm shared by fans worldwide are matched only by the spectacular athleticism displayed by the competing soccer players.

With only two teams left, the stakes are higher than ever. And despite a Round of 16 exit for the United States team, our nation's young athletes should watch these games for the valuable lessons they can learn from the world's greatest players.

Gathering around the TV with family and friends to cheer on your national team can turn into a party in no time; but instead of mindlessly watching, athletes and coaches should treat every game as a chance to perform a Needs Analysis to improve their understanding of the game of soccer.

What is a Needs Analysis?

It sounds like something you'd get at the doctor's office when you're sick, but a Needs Analysis is actually one of the most important tools in a coach's and player's toolbox to learn more about their sport. It's an objective look at the game, taking note of the physical attributes that separate good players from the best players.

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While watching the World Cup final, ask yourself:

  • How much time do players spend walking, jogging and sprinting?
  • How often do players move straight ahead, side-to-side and backward?
  • How often and how high do players have to jump?
  • Do the best players tend to be taller, shorter, skinnier or more muscular?
  • Do player attributes change from position to position?

These are just a few questions that players and coaches should ask themselves. By being perfectly honest with the answers, you can choose what aspects of your game need improvement and focus your efforts where they are needed most. This leads to less wasted time during practice and in the weight room.

For example, it's pretty clear that World Cup soccer players have strong legs to sprint past opponents and rip off lightning-fast shots on goal. But even the best players don't have huge upper-body muscles. Therefore, your Needs Analysis should tell you that soccer players probably spend more time in the weight room focusing on Squats and Deadlifts than on the Bench Press.

RELATED: Best Exercise Swaps for the Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift

On that note, I couldn't help but notice three things over and over while watching the World Cup. I consider these the most important lessons young athletes can take away from the planet's most prestigious soccer tournament.

1. Soccer Players Need a Huge Aerobic Base

Have you noticed the graphic that pops up toward the end of each match highlighting the distance covered by certain players? It says something like, "Cristiano Ronaldo has run X kilometers" and compares it to the average distance his teammates have run. These numbers are pretty impressive.

For example, according to FIFA, Thomas Müller from Germany covered 57.4 km in five matches. That's over 35 miles total and over seven miles per match. Müller needs unbreakable endurance to run that far while dodging defenders, making passes and taking shots in the brutal heat of the Amazon.

Coaches can argue until they're blue in the face about what's more important, strength or endurance. I'm the first to agree that getting stronger is never bad, but it only takes a few minutes of watching the World Cup to realize that the best soccer players in the world have outstanding aerobic fitness.

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That said, excessive aerobic training can rob players of much-needed strength for fending off opponents and power for sprinting and shooting. Along with full-field scrimmaging to build sport-specific endurance, soccer players should incorporate high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into their training plans.

Try this:

  • Hop on an exercise bike and warm up for 2 minutes at a low resistance.
  • Sprint as fast as possible for 20 to 30 seconds at medium resistance.
  • Pedal slowly for the same duration at low resistance.
  • Repeat for 10-15 minutes.
  • Cool down for 2 minutes at low resistance

HIIT exposes athletes to huge loads of lactate, which helps their bodies use it for fuel rather than succumbing to the "burning" sensation. Lactate also helps the body create more mitochondria, capillaries and aerobic enzymes, which bring more blood, oxygen and fuel to the working muscles during intense exercise. Plus, using the exercise bike reduces pounding on the joints associated with running on flat ground.

2. Soccer Players Need Explosive Power

Wait a second. Not only does Müller run more than a 10k every time he hits the pitch, he also hits top speeds of over 18 miles per hour! To put that in perspective, Usain Bolt ran about 23 miles per hour when he set the world record in the 100-meter dash in 2009.

Müller approaches Olympic sprinter speeds while playing over 90 minutes of soccer. That alone tells you that training for soccer requires more than going for long jogs. And if USA goalie Tim Howard's World Cup record of 16 saves is any indication, players in all areas of the pitch need to leap and dive explosively in all directions.

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Soccer players should incorporate heavy lower-body strength training to develop bigger, stronger legs. Exercises like Deadlifts and Split Squats not only build massive quads, glutes and hamstrings, they also stabilize the knees, hips and ankles to reduce the chance of injury.

Once they build a solid base of strength, soccer players should work on explosive power with Box Jumps and Lateral Jumps to help with leaping for headers and diving for saves.

3. Soccer Players Need Proper Hydration

The World Cup's first-ever mandatory water break during the USA-Portugal game echoed something endurance athletes have known for years: hydration is essential for maintaining energy levels during long-duration exercise.

Did you know that losing just 2 percent of your body weight in sweat can cause dehydration and reduce performance? For a 150-pound athlete, that's just three pounds! Going back to the Needs Analysis, look at the players' uniforms. Their jerseys are drenched before the first corner kick! It's safe to say they're losing enough water to provoke dehydration.

RELATED: Hydration Facts Athletes Need to Know

Between the heat, humidity and miles of running, World Cup soccer players lose essential electrolytes that can sap their energy if not replenished. Water alone won't cut it. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking a beverage with electrolytes and carbohydrates to stay fueled.

Electrolytes help the body retain fluid, which is key when you're losing water quickly. Intense sports like soccer require carbs for fuel, so replacing carbs keeps energy levels high. A drink like Gatorade has electrolytes and sugar to get the job done.

Watch TV Like an Athlete

If you're reading STACK, you're not an average fan. You're an athlete. Every time you sit down and watch sports on TV, it's an opportunity to learn about the game. Use the Needs Analysis to think critically about how you can make yourself a better player and make the most of your training.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock