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Dean Kriellaars

Dean Kriellaars

Dean Kriellaars, PhD, CEP is an exercise physiologist that works in rehabilitation, and in high performance sport.


Soccer and Physical Literacy

Written by on February 2, 2011 | 7 Comments »
Posted in Coaching and Sports Science

There are many movements that we see in competition, that we don’t see much of in scrimmage, and we rarely see in practice. Some of these movements have high injury rates such as colliding with a player during a “full on” header, or the dreaded contact during a full speed “50-50” ball.  I wonder to myself sometimes … are we doing enough to develop players to deal with these circumstances both safely and effectively?

Physical literacy is a relatively new concept and has been championed by Dr. Margaret Whitehead out of the United Kingdom. Her website contains plenty of background on its history.  Just like the United Nations wants every person in the world to be literate (read and write), the basic premise behind the  physical literacy movement is that all people should have the proficiency in movement skills, and confidence to use them to participate in physically active leisure time pursuits. Great idea! As a bit of a digression I have to say that I have observed that “the more literate a society becomes, the more physically illiterate it becomes”. But what does physical literacy have to do with soccer?

When you take a look at soccer, we certainly have drills that develop many fundamental movement skills in players. I dare say we do this very well in young men, and just ok to poorly in young women (this is another topic altogether!). What we lack in football are drills that develop proficiency in skills like collision avoidance, stumble recovery after collision, safe falling and sliding, fall recovery, landing from a leap after collision (two up for a header), etc. When you look at a sport like Judo, everyone wants to learn how to toss the other person. BUT no judo coach will teach you how to do a throw a person without first teaching you how to fall. I think we in soccer can take a lesson from judo.

Over 70 percent of soccer athletes are injured “in competition” with a vast majority during contact with another player. We need to address this. At the higher levels of soccer, players are assets and people (hopefully people first). Protection of the player and the team asset is critical to team success.

Developing comprehensive physical literacy in the soccer player may be the key.

I propose that we look at our game footage and take an inventory of skills that are NOT being drilled but are executed on the field of play. Then we use basic exercise and coaching science principles to develop training programs  to become proficient at these skills out of the competition setting – in practice.  We all know it takes hundreds of training  hours to become proficient at a skill – it is actually said that it takes 10,000 hours to make an Olympic Champion.  This means that without repetition there is no learning – no skill acquisition. We should not leave skill acquisition to game day!

Many years ago,  I added core exercise to help athletes not be pushed off the ball, run faster, have better throw ins, etc.   Just a few years ago I started to add drills which progressed collisions and full contact movement with other players. I just started teaching athletes “how to take a fall”. NO not how to draw a yellow card, but actually how to fall and not get injured. We just started drills to teach players how to collide for a header and land safely. I would love to hear from you if you use drills to develop this type of physical literacy.

Every player should have a full movement vocabulary – the set of skills necessary to succeed in the sport. We as coaches and exercise professionals have an opportunity to not only reduce injuries with this type of physical literacy approach, but also add to the beauty of the game by developing  confident players with a comprehensive range of proficient skills.

I think the Physical Literacy movement has something to it. I am definitely on the band wagon. It is worth a look.

Other physical literacy resources:

Canadian Sport For Life

Physical and Health Education Canada

7 responses to “Soccer and Physical Literacy”

  1. A generation of players learned how the ride a tackle by watching George Best and Jimmy Johnstone. Watching games now it is a skill that is relatively rare.

  2. Soccerlogical says:

    Takes me back to when my dad was teaching me the game. The night before a Saturday 12-13 yr league soccer match, he demonstrated how to properly “fall and roll” as to avoid unnecessary injury.

  3. Pete says:

    Absolutely spot on! Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here are some good links to prevention in the game:


  4. rdm says:

    All other training being equal, do you feel such thing as a natural “inborn” tendency to being physically literate exists and could go some way in explaining why certain individuals appear to be far more resilient to injury? Are they just naturally able to better prepare their bodies or just luckier in a genetic lottery?

  5. Gus Keri says:


    Good article.

    You bring a good point and I attest to it.

    I remember when I was a teenager, in my debut for the U-17 team at my club.

    I went for a header with an oppopnent. I headed the ball but he headed my mouth. I had a cut in my upper lip and was feeling dizzy for 10-15 minutes during the game.

    The coach had to replace my.

    I remember after few weeks when I returned to my first practice he spend few minutes with me to teach me how to go for the high ball with my shoulder ahead of my body, to protect myself.

    It was a valuable lesson.

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eoin O'Callaghan, bobbysoccerrep. bobbysoccerrep said: Dean Kriellaars with a must read for coaches and players – very interesting stuff about skills not taught. […]

  7. Dean Kriellaars says:

    I absolutely belief that people have genetic predisposition to acquire and execute skills. Clearly – nurture has a major role but when you get a really good genetic mutant with great training – this creature is difficult to stop! and injure.

    Since we cant go about picking our parents – we can however look at our parents and see what we might be good at. Also with gene doping on the horizon I can’t even imagine what we are in for in the next 20 years.

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