There's not much standing around in soccer. Players are constantly cutting, jumping, sprinting, passing, dribbling, backpedaling. Getting the ball into your opponents' net and keeping it out of your own is like a chess match where the pieces never stop moving. Since a single misstep is often the difference between making or missing a play, soccer players must be able to move well to be successful.
As such, pre-game preparation is critical. Going in cold is a recipe for disaster, but overdoing it can leave your energy levels depleted in crunch time. A perfect middle ground gets players ready for the gauntlet of athletic activity they're about to endure while keeping their legs fresh.
One warm-up that fits the bill? Yoga. Performing a simple yoga-based warm-up before a game or practice can help you stay sharp and avoid the injuries that commonly plague soccer players.
Jermaine Jones can attest to that. A midfielder for the New England Revolution and the United States National Team, Jones began including yoga in his training a couple years ago. His teammates and trainers had been suggesting that he try yoga for years before he finally gave it a shot. Like many athletes, he initially believed it was beneath him.
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"When people told me I had to try yoga, I was like, 'nah, man, that's easy,'" Jones says. But when he finally gave it a fair shake, he was amazed at the benefits. He says, "When you start it, you get the feeling like 'this movement or that movement is really hard and I don't like it.' But if you go through with it and keep going, you see how much you can stretch a muscle—and it's unbelievable."
Because they are almost always running, soccer players seem to have trouble with certain areas—the most common being their hips.
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"I think soccer, more than anything else, is about the hips," says Kent Katich, a yoga trainer who has worked with Jones. "With our lifestyles of sitting all day, our hip flexors get contracted and really tight. In soccer, with the running and the acceleration and the ability to thrust your knees and legs forward, the hip flexors are critical."
Tight hips lead to limited fluidity in your movements, which soccer players can ill afford. Since 50-50 balls are routinely won by the player with the quickest first step, the ability to change directions smoothly and quickly is critical to success.
A second area of concern is the hamstrings. The last thing soccer players should worry about as they gallop around the field is whether one of their hamstrings is on the verge of popping. Loose, well-stretched hamstrings not only improve range of motion, they also allow athletes to play at their physical limits with confidence that their bodies can withstands the stress.
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"Hamstrings matter for everybody. But for soccer, it's all about acceleration and endurance and stamina, and if your hamstring is fatigued, you're going to pull it," Katich says.
Performing yoga before a game or practice also offers a mental benefit, since it requires a high degree of concentration. Working to hold a pose requires your full undivided attention. The mental focus gained can help players avoid performance anxiety and step on the field with clear minds.
The 6-Move Yoga Warm-Up for Soccer Players
Jones and Katich recently documented some of their most powerful yoga routines in a series of online videos. The videos are helpful for anyone who is thinking about beginning to practice yoga. They include sequences geared toward a variety of goals, including improving recovery and building shot power.
This routine is a 6-move warm-up designed to help soccer players open their hips and stretch their lower bodies before they hit the pitch.
Dynamic Hip Opener
Focus on keeping your back straight and your belly in
Square your shoulders and place your opposite hand on your hip
Begin with your feet hip-width apart. Bend at the waist to wrap your fingers under your right knee and slowly pull it toward your chest while you straighten your back. Press your left thigh back and keep your belly in. Hold for five breaths.
Next, slowly open your right leg out to the side with your right hand. Remove your left hand from your right knee and place it on your left hip. Keeping your shoulders square, slowly move your right knee in a small clockwise circle three times. Repeat the movements with your opposite leg.
Place your elbows inside your knees to help open your groin
After the Dynamic Hip Opener, set your feet about shoulder-width apart. Squat down and place your fingertips on the ground in front of you, keeping your elbows inside your knees. Sink your heels as far as you can, lower your butt toward the matt and take five deep breaths.
Keep a micro-bend in your knees and lengthen at the waist
Out of Squatting Crow, raise your butt up while keeping your fingertips on the ground. Your hands should be even with your feet and your head should be relaxed and dropped. Don't straighten your knees all the way.
"It's better to have a micro-bend in your knees," Katich says. "People get obsessed with straightening their knees all the way, but that puts too much stress on the knees. Keep a tiny bend in them and lengthen at the waist, hips over the ankles."
Keep your front thigh parallel to the mat
Roll your front foot to the outside
Out of Forward Fold, step your left foot back to move into a Lunge. Your right knee should be over your right ankle. Work to push the back of your left knee toward the ceiling. Align your fingertips with your toes, roll your shoulder blades back and look straight ahead.
"This targets your hip flexors, which are key for running and taking pressure off your lower back," Katich says. Hold for five deep breaths. Next, grab your yoga blocks (or similar-sized objects).
Place both blocks inside your right foot and place your forearms on top of them. Allow your right foot to roll onto its outside half. "This variation is getting into your piriformis and glutes a little more," Katich says. Hold for five deep breaths before repeating the poses on the opposite side.
Drive your front heel into the mat
Out of the Lunge variation, place the yoga blocks on either side of your front foot. Place your hands on top of the blocks and straighten your front leg, moving your weight back onto your heel.
Flex your front foot toward your shin to stretch your hamstring and allow the top half of your body to lengthen. Work to lower the heel of your back foot toward the mat. Hold for five deep breaths before switching to the other side.
Pull your hips towards the ceiling
Out of the Hamstring Stretch, move both feet behind you and get into the top position of a Push-Up. Keeping your hands and feet planted, pull your hips back and up toward the ceiling. As you move, tuck your head in.
"This is a whole-body pose that works your hands, shoulders, calves, lower back, feet—everything, really," Katich says.