There are different types of stretching for youth soccer players. For the purposes of this post; however, I am going to discuss “static” and “dynamic” stretching. It should also be noted that at the younger age groups (U10 and below) stretching is not necessarily as important as in the older age groups. I think it is always important to “warm up” and “cool down,” though.
Many coaches have their players do static stretching before a practice/game. In this scenario, these coaches send their players on a couple of laps’ jog around the pitch, and then upon their return, have them get in a circle/line and go through a series of stationary “touch your toes” type stretches. I know this routine well, as I grew up doing it! This is not necessarily the best way to prepare your players for practice, though. In other words, aside from the social aspect, you are wasting precious minutes of practice.
In order to maximize your practice time and keep the players safe/reduce the risk of injury it is important to view the first few minutes of practice as the time to “activate” the major muscle groups that your players will be using. By “activate,” I simply mean “warm up” and this can take various forms. You should never go straight into sprinting and/or shooting exercises because it increases the risk of injury, as your players’ leg muscles will probably not be adequately warmed up.
Click here for a blog post that includes 7 great ways to do dynamic stretching. For example, instead of having players “reach for their toes,” you can have them do hand walks, which activate the hamstrings, core, and shoulders. These can be done in 5-10 minutes (or less once your players get used to them).
The best warmups for soccer start with dynamic stretching and then move to work with a ball. This is a great time to do technical work, as you build up to going “full speed” with your players. For example, each player can have a ball and be working on dribbling with a designated surface of the foot for a specified amount of time. You can progress this to every 7th touch, they should change pace and go in a different direction. Finally, you can have them explode (go their fastest) after a certain number of touches. Now you have worked up to going full speed instead of starting out that way. You have also gotten your players more touches on the ball and given them an opportunity to improve their technique.
Static stretching is not bad, it should just be done at the end of practice. For example, as part of your team’s cool down, you can have them get into a circle and take them through a series of “static” stretches, which will now (that their muscles are warmed up and “stretchy”) be of benefit to them. Stretching at the end of practice is important because it allows players to increase their flexibility, which in turn reduces their risk of injury and soreness. This is also a good time to talk to your players (as they stretch) and review the practice session you just conducted.
Click here for another informative article on the appropriateness of static stretching at the end of practice – it includes some examples, too. In short, you want to go through all of the major muscle groups that soccer players use (calves, hamstrings, quads, groins, hip flexors).
My advice is to build dynamic stretching into your team’s warmup routine, and then progress to some individual ball work where you can simultaneously work on technique and layer in more physically demanding exercises in order to prepare them for a game-related activity in your practice. Do not start with static stretching…end practice with it!