The surprising truth about soccer’s most feared fitness test

Beep. Beep. Beep.

If you’ve ever been a competitive soccer player, you’ve heard that sound—in real life and in your nightmares. Again and again. Beep … Beep … Beep … It doesn’t seem to end.

It’s the dreaded, but incredibly valuable beep test, which has served as the core fitness evaluation for the U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) since 2011.

In the year the test debuted, Kristine Lilly, the most capped soccer player in the history of the sport, set the beep test record with a level of 49. Six months later, Kelley O’Hara claimed the best level from Lilly with a 52. Today, Arsenal Ladies midfielder Heather O’Reilly holds the USWNT beep test record with a level of 68, which she set last January while training for the Olympic Games in Rio.

The beep test, more formally known as a multi-stage fitness test and less formally as just “the beep,” assesses how many 20-meter shuttle runs an athlete can complete within two beeps. Whatever distance a player runs during those two beeps counts as one level. As the test progresses, the time between beeps gets shorter, making it more difficult.

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Soccer teams all over the world, on the youth, college, professional and national levels, use the beep test to evaluate player fitness. Developed in the 1980’s, the beep test has become a fitness standard in other sports, too, including basketball, soccer, rugby and tennis, among others. In U.S. soccer, though, the test has become more and more of a standard for measuring player fitness, as it’s become widely implemented in team training camps.

“Doing the beep test, you control the conditions,” USWNT head fitness coach Dawn Scott told Excelle Sports. “It’s controlled because you’re working off the beep. It’s a valid and reliable test. What we’re looking for is your 110 percent effort to find a baseline of where you’re at.”

While Scott uses many different tests to evaluate player fitness, the beep is by far the most talked about—and feared—not just at the national level, but also in club and college soccer. Part of this is because the beep is typically administered on the first day of preseason or during training camps at the national level, assessing a player’s fitness in an exacting and not exactly pleasant way after months of the off-season.

Such was the situation in late March this year, when Scott spent a day with Sky Blue FC administering the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) club’s testing.

“It’s pretty nerve-racking,” FC Sky Blue midfield Kelly Coheeney told Excelle Sports of the experience. “It’s a close intimate environment and everyone is watching you run the test—you feel all eyes on you.”

The NWSL season begins in just weeks, and making sure all players are fit for competing is top priority for Sky Blue and other clubs—which means the beep is in regular rotation right now. The test lines up rookies, veterans and foreign-born players side-by-side on the playing field. And when the players’ cleats dig into the turf, there is only one end goal: Make the beep, recover and do it again.

“I get really focused, I try to take some deep breaths and, mentally, I just turn myself on every time I run,” said Coheeney, who has now been taking the test since her college soccer day’s at Virginia Tech. “I just turn myself on and say, ‘OK, I’m going to pace myself through this and not get too worked up and just take it slowly.'”

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Rookies may feel more pressure than the veterans, but regardless of experience, expectations are the same across the starting line. Houston Dash forward and 2016 Olympian Janine Beckie remembers being a rookie last season and doing the beep, thinking to herself, “I just want to show the veterans that I’m ready to go,” she told Excelle Sports.

At the same time, Beckie, who estimates she’s run the beep test probably 20 to 30 times over her soccer career, says the beep becomes part of your life as a professional athlete.

“When you think about fitness testing, you do it every year, so we’re just used to it,” she said. “You just get a little bit of anxiety just because everyone wants to perform well.”

Coheeney adds that the competition to do well on the beep blooms as your soccer career does.

“Everybody is so competitive at the college level, [but at the club level], it is very competitive, too, because everyone’s the best player from their team,” she said. “It’s a little bit more [competitive now], but you’re more mentally prepared because you’ve mentally prepared your whole life for this test.”

But mental preparation isn’t enough to thwart the idea among players today that their beep level is some kind of judgement—a comparative tool that allows coaches to rank players. Yet Scott says this is rarely the case.

“I’m not looking at [players] in comparison in the person sitting next to them,” she said. “We’ve all got our own physical qualities.”

So what accounts for O’Reilly’s record-setting level?

“She’s just got so much commitment and dedication,” Scott said of O’Reilly. “I would say most players put 110 percent, but she puts 120 percent.”

Posted by U.S. Soccer on Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Scott also added that, at some point, O’Reilly can credit her parents for her beep test level.

“Some of it is her genetics and her own physiology and what potential she’s got to go to,” Scott added. “But it’s also just her commitment.”

Yet for Scott, the beep test is never used to show a difference in effort between athletes.

“All the players out here give 110 percent,” she said. “I think some of that anxiousness goes away because you have to put that into the test, then it becomes more competitive and they don’t want to be the first player to drop out.”

At any level of the game there is always an element of fear present on testing day.

*Main image credit courtesy of Brad Smith/ISI Photos

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