Alicia Piz founded The Catalyst Training Center to help young soccer players be better prepared for the rigors of the game.
Soccer News: Alicia Piz of The Catalyst Training Center on the Importance of Proper Training for Youth Players
For Alicia Piz, founder of The Catalyst Training Center (TCTC) in San Diego, preparing young players to compete on the pitch is just part of the facility’s mission. Teaching skills and techniques are only one element of the training that goes on, and for her not necessarily the most important element. With a history of six knee surgeries for two serious ACL tears, five of them in just three years, teaching young athletes how best to avoid injuries is the primary objective.
“The mission of The Catalyst Training Center is to make injury deterrence training a standard in youth soccer development,” Piz explained in a recent interview. “When I started TCTC my ultimate mission was to spread the facility and expand nationwide so that we can effectively improve more and more players in their athleticism and their skills, but also to educate more players and parents about the ways that they can avoid unnecessary injuries.”
While there are many strength and conditioning or speed and agility programs available to youth players, what sets TCTC apart is the emphasis on teaching players how to properly perform both in the facility and on the field to avoid what Piz calls, “unnecessary injuries.” Over the year plus since the facility opened, TCTC has seen its share of successes from this focus.
Piz recalls one local girl who came in at the end of the summer in 2011 who had suffered torn hamstrings in each of her two previous seasons of competition. This chronic injury had cost her several months of play and her family several thousand dollars in medical bills. After coming in to TCTC and starting on a program of training and injury deterrence, the girl was able to break that cycle and complete a season completely injury-free.
“That’s a specific case of being able to help a player break a chronic injury that was not only financially draining but also physically challenging to come back from,” said Piz.
Another girl, who had been training at TCTC, suffered a severe ankle sprain during a camping trip just months before she was supposed to attend a soccer camp at Stanford. Her mother told Piz later that the doctor had said that it was the girl’s strong muscle development that had prevented the injury from being a severe tear or even a break. Instead, after two weeks of rest, the girl was able to return to TCTC for balance and strengthening exercises that helped her make it to camp.
Those are just two of the many success stories TCTC has had in its first year of operation, and Piz expects many more as the facility grows and reaches more young players. As she explains, the keys to reducing the incidence of injury include proper physical preparation as well as an understanding of body mechanics. By teaching players not just on-field techniques but proper body motion, many injuries can be avoided or their severity reduced.
“I call it ‘injury deterrence’ instead of prevention because it’s a sport and injury can never be completely prevented,” Piz explained, “but you can deter the risk of it happening. So it may be a case where an injury happens but it’s minor because their body was so much more prepared for the movements, whereas it could have been major if they didn’t have the type of strength training and flexibility and body mechanics that we work on here.”
Speed and agility are just a part of the training in TCTC’s customized programs. In the program the player focuses on strengthening three primary muscle areas of the body: the glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles. Piz points out that these are the muscles that are firing when a player is sprinting. These are also some of the muscles – particularly the hamstrings – that are involved in injuries.
Part of the reason for many leg injuries, Piz says, is an imbalance between the muscles in the front of the leg and the back. That imbalance, along with improper movements, can turn a minor issue into a major problem. This is why the mechanics of running are also important in the speed and agility training.
“Through [the training] we also work on their mechanics – making sure they’re not crossing their arms or running flat-footed,” said Piz. “That all definitely plays into the injury deterrence because the hamstring strength can be a major factor in knee injuries. Players, and most people in general, are quad-dominant. So the imbalance of having a weaker muscle on the back side of the leg doesn’t fully support the knee. When we’re putting a lot of emphasis on strengthening the back of the leg we’re going to be able to maximize their speed more, but also better protect their knees.”
Many of the exercises that players do at TCTC in the speed and agility training are all in an effort to run properly and efficiently, minimizing the chance of injury while improving their quickness. For example, a player who runs flat-footed has a greater risk of injury than one who runs properly. With that player, TCTC trainers might work on ankle strength through a series of exercises including single-leg hops and speed ladder. These not only strengthen the muscles, they also help the player focus on staying up on their toes, ultimately improving speed and reducing the risk of injury.
“[Players] understand all of these things really work together,” Piz said. “That it builds the athleticism but it also lowers the risk of injury and is specific to movements they’re doing on the field. So they really understand that every area of the program supports every other area as well.”
One interesting statistic that Piz shared was from a study in 2011 that showed that 70% of ACL injuries were “non-contact.” This means that the vast majority of incidents of this serious knee injury have nothing to do with players running into each other – they are due to movements such as twisting or cutting. This was true for Piz with her first ACL injury, which came when she attempted to turn to cut off an opposing defender trying to clear a ball up the line.
“A lot of [preventing injuries] is just getting the right technique, preparing the body, pushing off the correct foot, and being able to make those turns and cuts more safely and balanced,” said Piz.
The most important element of the training that players receive at The Catalyst Training Center, and the one that takes the most time, is internalizing the proper movements and mechanics. While the facility has 6- and 12-session programs, it is in the longer programs that players are able to make these movements an unconscious part of their game.
“We develop every program based on the philosophy of body control before ball control” explained Piz. “So we’re always teaching them from the start the foundations – the correct technique of running, cutting and jumping. As they show us that they can consistently do it correctly over the course of several sessions, then we integrate the ball.”
Through this method players are able to develop the instincts for proper movement. No longer do they have to think about what they need to do, it just happens. Once it comes naturally, they can better focus on their next run or hitting their mark or the dozens of other elements of the game.
While Piz knows that even the best training will never eliminate all injuries, she also knows that the methods that The Catalyst Training Center uses can help to reduce the number and severity of most injuries. Too often, as she points out, players don’t learn proper movement and body mechanics until they are in high school or college – if then. With earlier training these players can be more athletically developed at an earlier age, which will benefit the individuals as well as soccer in America as a whole.
“That’s what we’re seeking to do,” said Piz, “to continue to educate players, parents and coaches out there about more thorough ways to train for developing athleticism and skill and lowering the occurrence of injury.”
Related Article: Alicia Piz on Her Road to Injury Deterrence