Hawaiian Kick

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His home state is known for surfing and his college is known for basketball, so how did Brian Ching, a star forward for the Houston Dynamo, end up as a Major League Soccer star? The answer has to do with one of his parents and his first coach, who, in this case, were the same person: his mom.

“When I was around 7, my mom suggested that I should play an organized sport,” Ching says. “She thought soccer would be a good fit. I didn’t know much about it, but I said I’d do it if she did it with me. So she trained me. She learned the game by reading [American Youth Soccer Organization] manuals on the way home from work, and she became a tough coach.”

Tough enough to help him learn the fundamentals of the game? Yes. Tough enough to make him forget about surfing, which was his real favorite sport? Well, no. “I ran track in high school and also played neighborhood basketball and volleyball, but I surfed a lot because I was in Hawaii,” he says. “I played soccer during the seasons, but surfing was really my first love.”

With MLS only a twinkle in U.S. soccer lovers’ eyes at that time and minimal exposure to European soccer leagues because he was in Hawaii, Ching hadn’t really thought too much about playing soccer professionally as a high-school standout. When his mother told him that he would have to earn a scholarship if he wanted to go away to college, then he got serious about playing at the next level. At the time, he was only a sophomore at the Kamehameha Schools near Honolulu. He was 5 feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds. (“Five foot nothin’, a hundred and nothin’,” as Charles Dutton’s character said to Sean Astin’s Daniel Ruettiger in Rudy.) But then Ching hit the weight room.

“I’ve always been a well-conditioned player,” he says. “I ran cross-country. I ran track. I was a diver when I was younger, so that helped me build up lots of lung capacity. For me, the cardio part wasn’t the problem — I had to put on size. I started lifting and working out, and by the time I graduated high school, I was 5’10” and weighed about 155 pounds.”

Not staggering numbers but enough to kick Ching to the next level, which is where he really excelled … and put on more size and strength. “The summer of my junior year, I went to a soccer tournament in Idaho. The coach of our club team actually played for the coach of Gonzaga [University], and he called up the coach to come look at us,” Ching says. “They offered me a scholarship, but when I got to school, the kids were a lot bigger and stronger. I hit the weight room hard and put on a lot of muscle. When I finally graduated, I was 6 feet tall and weighed 190 pounds.”

That amounts to an almost doubling of his size from the beginning of high school to the end of college. And he did it by sticking to the basics and keeping it simple. He hit the gym twice a day, drank protein shakes, ate more and lifted a ton. “I did the standard bench, squats, curls, lunges, anything to build muscle mass. I didn’t really know what I was doing yet, but I knew I needed to get bigger and stronger,” Ching says.

Eventually, he started to hone his routine into what it is today: a leg pulverizing regimen punctuated with upper-body maintenance and speed work. He says these days, his focus is on building muscle density, strength and quickness in his legs, which is why he took time in January to really dedicate himself to the weight room to get ready for the World Cup in South Africa. (The United States is slated to play its first match June 12 versus England).

Ching was in the gym five days a week, alternating speed days with strength days. One day he’d be pulling tractor tires, the next he’d be working on moving his arms as fast as possible to improve his sprinting. Most days, however, it was just hell. “On the days we were building muscle density in my legs, we’d do 100 lunges, followed by 100 wall squats, then maybe a series of box jumping, broad jumping and step-ups as fast as we can,” he recalls. “We worked on technique, too, making sure that with squat jumps, we landed softly without making a noise, for instance. We’ll also do side-to-side work to increase lateral movement and speed. I’m kind of a physical player up front, so building my strength helps me hold people off and gives me more stability on the ball.”

A normal offseason week would break down into three or four days of legs followed by one day of upper-body work. As part of his offseason training, Ching has a penchant for turning seemingly innocuous pieces of cardio gym equipment into torture devices. Case in point, his stairmill workout. (If you’re not familiar, the stairmill is like a treadmill with steps, like a never-ending escalator.)

“The stairmill is one of my favorite things to do to get ready for the season,” he says. “I’ll do an easy five-minute warm-up at level 6 or 7, then I’ll crank it up. I’ll put the machine as fast as it can go for one minute, then knock it back down to level 6 or 7 the next minute. I’ll do that enough times to fill up a half-hour, alternating between as fast as the machine will go to an easy level one minute at a time. That turns into a great workout.”

He does the same thing with a standard treadmill, turning it up to full speed for one minute and then jogging for a minute at level 6. This interval training simulates the start/stop routine that takes place during a soccer game, in which players are caught in an endless cycle of jogging and running at full tilt that some experts say can add up to eight miles of high-intensity running per game.

To help recover from this exhaustive training, Ching will rotate between hot and cold baths to help flush his body out. He’ll sit in a hot tub for one minute and then a cold tub for two minutes. It’s all part of his renewed focus on keeping his body in peak form and trying to stay healthy. “This year, as we head to the World Cup, I’m concentrating on doing all the right things before and after every practice to prepare my body so I don’t get injured,” he says. “Every day, I’ll go in and get treatment if I tweak my hamstring. I’ll do a little bit of core work, and I like to use the foam roll for my entire legs. I’ll also do a lot of stretching to keep my muscles elongated before and after practice.”

Complementing his training routine is his nutrition and supplement strategy. Ching doesn’t have a nutritionist, but he’s had success by following a few simple rules. He tries to avoid ingesting saturated fats and red meat, preferring to eat lots of fish, fruits and vegetables. When he gets closer to game day, he’ll take in extra carbs for more energy. He also takes glucosamine and chondroitin supplements.

“Soccer is extremely hard on the knees,” he explains. “I take the glucosamine and chondroitin to help maintain the cartilage. It helps smooth it out. Ever since I’ve been taking that, my knees have held up fairly well. I’ve definitely noticed the difference.”

It’s a difference that shows up in the routine plays, as well as in the spectacular ones like the bicycle kick, which Ching has used to score a goal in a professional game. “You practice bicycle kicks when you’re a kid,” he says. “They’re kind of instinctive. I’ve tried them three or four times in my pro career, and I’ve only scored on one. On that one, it wasn’t really even a thought. I turned around and looked at the ball, and it was coming down perfectly. I got set for the kick, and it’s really kind of an ‘I hope this works’ thing.”

For someone who spends his offseason alternating between torturing himself on cardio machines and surfing in Hawaii, Australia and Costa Rica, the idea that in the middle of the chaos of a soccer game, he can find a moment of Zen and rely purely on instinct seems to be in sync with his character. Then again, that’s what happens when you’re the first Hawaiian-born soccer player drafted in the MLS. When surf meets soccer, you get Brian Ching.