The Sport Specialization Solution

Softball Catcher Pic

How many games has she played this year?

I found this article about sports specialization for softball players.  If you know me at all, you know that I’m not a fan of kids specializing in one sport.  Two points from the article did encourage kids not to specialize:

  1. College coaches want multi-sport athletes because they are more well rounded
  2. “…multi-sport athletes do tend to be more well-rounded and often out-perform those who focus only on a single sport. Often the skills from one sport translate into an advantage in another, such as explosiveness in basketball or agility in soccer.”
These two statements probably don’t come as a surprise to most strength and conditioning professionals.  Unfortunately there are numerous other things in the same article that try to discourage multi-sport athletes.  I won’t get into all of the details, but I do have one question.  If playing multiple sports helps a person to develop into a more complete athlete and makes them more desirable to college coaches, why are so many athletes still playing a single sport year-round??? To add to this, many of the athletes who specialize become physical trainwrecks before they ever make it to college. Lets also not forget to mention those that mentally burn out. So if it’s not benefitting the kids, who is this helping? There are only 3 parts to this equation – the athlete, the parent, and the coach. We’ve already decided that specialization isn’t helping the athlete. That only leaves the adults. When did sports stop being about the athletes themselves?
So, what’s the solution?  It’s very simple.  Stop trying to convince parents and kids that playing one sport year round is the only way to go.  Not only is there another way, playing multiple sports is the best way to develop athletes.   Maybe if athletes weren’t being “encouraged” (forced) to focus on one sport, it would solve a lot of issues.

Mark

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Slacktastic

Slacktastic.  Huh?  That isn’t a word.  It should be.  Want a definition?   Here it is: an athlete with fantastic potential who tends to be a slacker during strength & conditioning sessions.  Now that you know what it means, I’m sure that you can think of an example.  We’ve all dealt with this athlete before.  You know the kid, the one with great potential, the one who halfway does his warmup, who you always have to wait on to start a drill because he or she is taking their sweet time, the one who always complains and has an excuse.  Yeah, that kid.  Usually these kids have been gifted with decent athletic skills.  That’s why they tend to be slackers, because they’ve always been able to get by on their natural ability.  When these athletes are training individually or in a small group, it becomes harder for them to be a slacker.  Even though they may still try to get out of things, hopefully this can be cured through good coaching.  What about in a large group setting?  That is when the slacktastic athlete really comes out.  When the weightroom has more bodies in it, these athletes tend to find ways to take their time, skip exercises, etc.  In an ideal situation, there will be multiple coaches in the room to help with supervision.  Unfortunately, especially in high schools nowadays, there is rarely enough supervision to coach effectively and to eliminate problems.  That’s when it becomes very important for coaches to “have eyes in the back of their heads”.  That’s also when a coach has to make sure that what they see from a kid is really what they are getting from the kid.  I’ve heard stories of kids putting on a great show when they know that the coach is watching.  If they aren’t being watched, their slacktastic qualities shine through.  Part of being a great coach is truly getting to know your athletes.  This is part of that.  Discovering that a kid isn’t putting out 100% also gives a coach (or parent) a chance to teach some life lessons.  This is a valuable part of athletics that should never be overlooked.  Of course, possibly the greatest reason to hold these athletes accountable is because it can affect your team.  Other kids are great at picking up on these sorts of problems.  Many times the hard working kids will know who doesn’t go all out.  This then leads to negative feelings, especially if the kids that don’t work hard all of the time still get lots of playing time.  These issues tend to stay small as long as things are going well.  However, as soon as the team faces adversity these problems tend to snowball.  The best way to prevent these sorts of issues?  Hold all of your athletes accountable every day.  Make sure that the “superstars” realize that you know if they aren’t giving 100%.  You can also try to create competitive situations where the “slacktastic” athetes will be held accountable by their teammates.  While it can be a challange to deal with those who don’t go all out every day, dealing with and solving this issue is part of good coaching.

Mark

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Smart Shopping

Nutrition Label Pic

Are you a smart shopper?

Do you take your time when you shop for food?  Do you look at food labels?  You should.  As we all know, proper nutrition is a key part of the sports performance training plan.  Yes, we all know if we go to buy a frozen pizza that it’s probably going to be bad for us.  But what about all of the other things we buy?  Do you pay attention to those?  Some of those might not be as good for you as you think.  I know, when we go to the grocery store we’re usually in a hurry.  We don’t want to spend any longer than we have to in there, especially if the place is packed with other people. That isn’t my favorite time to be there either.  Unfortunately, to be a smart shopper, you need to find a way to spend some time there.

Why is it worth your time?  Because you want to be the best.  You can never be sure what might be holding you back (or pushing your competition further ahead).  Nutrition can very well be the difference maker.

If you are going to improve your nutrition, it starts with some basic steps:

  • Knowing what you are taking into your body right now
  • Knowing what your nutritional needs really are
  • Deciding what adjustments that you need to make
  • Making wise nutritional choices so that you can make the adjustments

Since I’m not a trained nutritionist, I’ll limit the advice that I try to give in that area.  The one thing that I can say is that you should look at food labels carefully.  There are so many items that are available for us to eat.  However, so many of them are flat out bad for us.  As a general rule, you should know why you are eating everything that you put in your mouth (no, “Because I’m hungry” isn’t a good answer).  You should never buy something if you don’t check the nutritional info first.  Take a little time and look at the info on calories, fat, etc.  Compare this info to that on similar products.  You might find some surprises.  As you can imagine, not all products are created equal.

Nutrition plays a huge role in our athletic success.  While looking at the labels closely may not be the most fun thing to do, it can lead to some enlightening discoveries.  You might find out that you weren’t doing as well in the nutrition department as you thought.  Because of this, the extra time that you spend on your trip to the grocery store may pay huge dividends.

Mark

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Predicting A Torn ACL?

I spent this past weekend at a volleyball tournament.  Most of the players were 12 – 14 years old.  With so much volleyball to watch, I tried to use it as a chance to gain a better perspective of the sport.  I was trying to look at it from both an ATC viewpoint and a strength and conditioning one.  I made several observations, some of which I’ll post later this week.

Today I thought that I would discuss the one that stood out the most.  One team had a player that I feel is a recipe for a future ACL injury.  First off, I hope that I’m 100% wrong.  Now for the facts.  The girl was already wearing a knee sleeve on one knee, and probably not by coincidence, she had a bad habit of landing only on that same leg after a jump.  She was also somewhat overweight.  Now, please don’t read too much into the fact that I said that she’s overweight.  I don’t believe that fact itself guarantees a torn ACL.  I do however believe that it could contribute if other factors are present.  My major concerns revolved around her landing mechanics.  While I don’t know the girl or her medical history, I would guess that poor mechanics have led to previous knee problems.  My question is this:  has anyone else realized this?  Have her coaches noticed during the endless hours of practice and games?  What about her doctor, assuming she saw one about her knee?  The next question is when will they work on her landing mechanics?  We all know that poor landing mechanics lead to bad things, especially for female athletes.  Unfortunately, the first time this gets addressed may be in rehab after an ACL repair.  The sad thing is that a good jumping / landing program might be able to lessen the chance of a serious knee injury ever occurring to this girl.

Mark

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Simple Games for Developing Young Athletes

Kid With Basketball Pic

My wife and I were helping at church this weekend and the kids were playing “red light, green light“.  As I watched the kids play, I realized how much value simple games like this have.  The game makes you start, accelerate, then stop when presented with a stimulus.  Kind of reminds me of sports.  Think about how much time we spend trying to teach athletes these very skills.  As I watched the kids, I tried to watch their footwork as they played.  Did they have perfect footwork?  No.  But you know what?  It wasn’t that bad either.  No one was complaining, nobody was forcing anyone to play, and nobody blew out an ACL.  The kids just had fun.

I remember several years ago when a veteran PE teacher told me that it was terrible that they had taken dodgeball out of the PE curriculum.  He explained that dodgeball teaches kids to throw and helps them to develop agility, coordination, and balance.  Now, I understand that dodgeball has gotten a bad rap because somebody ends up getting picked on in the game.  I get that in the kinder, gentler society that we are a part of, games like this have been pushed aside.  Unfortunately, I believe that the development of athletic skills is a positive that we shouldn’t overlook.

For some reason in the U.S., we are in such a hurry to find the next phenom that we aren’t letting kids play these simple games and develop their basic skills.  We are too much of a hurry to get a kid to specialize on the field or the court so that they can get offered a college scholarship.  There needs to be a major shift in our thinking in this country.  A lot of folks are probably doing more to mess their kids up than they are to help them.  Young kids should spend more time playing “red light, green light”, “tag”, “dodgeball”, and numerous other simple games.  In the end, it would create better athletes who weren’t physical and mental wrecks by the time they are 18 years old.

Mark

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The Whole Truth

Dumbbell Pic
The weights never lie!!!

 

“The Iron never lies to you…The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver…two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”  – Henry Rollins

I found this quote recently and it really made me think. How many times have we been around someone who says that they can lift this much, run this fast, etc.  They’re always fast and strong, at least according to what they say.  Once you get them in the weightroom (or on a stopwatch), the reality just isn’t quite what you’ve been told.  I think that a lot of the athletes that I have trained were “mistaken” about their strength and speed on that first day.  It’s almost become a running joke for me during the initial evaluation – how far off from the athletes perception is the reality?  I don’t think that I’ve done an eval yet where they ended up stronger than the thought they were.  I guess that’s part of the neat thing about our business – you can tell all of the stories to others (or yourself) that you want to, but in the end, the weights and the stopwatch will tell the truth.

Mark

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3 Keys During The Football Off-season

Football Pic

For the football fans in the U.S., our glut of football excitement is about to run out. The NCAA football season ended when Alabama beat LSU.  The NFL playoffs are in full swing and soon the Super Bowl will be played and over.  So as to not forget our neighbors to the north, the CFL offseason is well underway.  Of course, just because the season is over doesn’t mean that things are any less hectic for the coaches, players, and support personnel.  No matter what level you are at, this is the period to get better.  Coaches are looking for better players through scouting and recruiting.  Even high school coaches scour the hallways looking to encourage a “diamond in the rough” to play next year.  As for players, they are all (or should be) working to get better.  This is the time of year to improve strength, power, and athletic skills so that they can be a better player.  This can be just in preparation for next season, or it can be to get ready for various combines and tryouts.  It is a very busy time of year for all involved.

If you are a player, right now you should be on a solid program to develop you strength, power, speed, agility, flexibility, balance, and coordination.  If you aren’t, you are going to miss out.  You will miss out on the chance to excel on the field and possibly miss out on a scholarship or pro contract.  Years ago most players didn’t train during the off-season.  Nowadays, if you don’t train during the off-season, you probably won’t see the field during the season.  If you ask the guys from Alabama, LSU, or any other major college football program, this is when they start to get ready for next year.  It doesn’t start in August, it starts now.  They lift weights, run agility drills, and do anything else that is necessary to get better.  So what should you (or your players) be doing during January?

3 Keys During The Off-season

  1. Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate – Every player should be evaluated at this time of year.  It is true that it helps to re-test them in their 40, vertical jump, clean, etc.  In addition, it is a good time to eval individual players for lingering injury issues, strength and flexibility imbalances, etc.  Whether you use a formal system like the Functional Movement Screen or do something different, you need to try to pinpoint any problems that each individual may need to work on.  If you don’t do it while you have time to, you won’t do it at all.  If these problems don’t get fixed, they will limit the development of the player.
  2. A solid program – Every player should be placed on a solid strength and conditioning program.  It should be well thought out and should include phases that will develop hypertrophy, strength, and power in the weightroom.  It should also include plenty of flexibility, speed, and agility work.  Just lining up to run sprints isn’t really speed work.  I mean form and technique work.  It takes a lot of reps to make a change permanent.  Get started now.
  3. Team bonding / competition work – This is also the time to begin to include some team bonding activities.  They don’t have to be every day, but there is a long time from now until August.  Start to include them now to help your team develop the chemistry that the need to succeed.  As for competition, that can be worked into drills and other off-season activities.  Some kids don’t have the competitive fire that they should.  This can be developed but again, it should start now.
Keep these keys in mind while you plan your program.
Mark
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Youth Training & Development Part II

As everyone was putting out their “best of 2011” lists recently, I came across a post that goes right along with my thoughts on sports specialization. It brings up some good points.  Rather than rehash the post, I encourage you to read it and see how well it echos my thoughts.  It also gives us a few new points to think about in the sports specialization argument.  Check it out here  How young is too young to specialize in a sport?

Happy New Year!!

Have a great 2012!!

Mark

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Youth Training & Athletic Development

baby with ball pic

Is this too young to specialize?

There was a good article published recently about developing young athletes.  It focuses on sports specialization in young athletes.  Besides the normal reasons I have used to put down the practice of early specialization, it cites another major one.  It points out that according to much of the work on Long Term Athletic Development, if a child specializes at too early of an age, they will fail to develop basic athletic skills.  The lack of these skills will then limit their overall athletic potential.  I believe that this is 100 % correct.  I recently watched a high school sporting event.  While I was at the event, I spent time analyzing the basic athletic skills of some of the athletes (running form, agility, etc).  While some of the players were certainly gifted, it was obvious that many of them had never been coached on basic running form and footwork.  Many of the athletes on the field were getting by purely on natural ability.  I saw some of the fastest players on the field display poor form.  If they had been trained to run well previously, they would have been much faster.  Not only would they have made their team better, they would have been better individually.  Obviously that should appeal to those who are chasing college scholarships.

So, while early sport specialization can increase the chance of injury for your child, it can also actually limit their overall athletic development.  Ironically, isn’t that the opposite of what certain people keep saying?  It seems that many coaches continue to convince parents and kids that playing one sport year round is the way to go.  My advice when you hear statements like this – don’t believe it!!!  Give your child a chance to try other sports, train to develop their overall athletic skills, and last but not least, to be a kid.

Mark

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USTA Tennis Conference 2011

Tennis Player Pic

I spent this past weekend at the USTA Tennis Performance & Injury Prevention Conference.  I always enjoy going to events like this and learning new things.  I also think that listening to the perspectives of others helps to make your mind work.  It forces you to rethink the way that you have always done things.  Hopefully this makes me a better coach.

The presenters did an excellent job of giving info that was useful for all that were in attendance.  This says a lot because the audience was made up of individuals with all types of backgrounds – MD’s, Athletic Trainers, Physical Therapists, Tennis Coaches, and Strength & Conditioning Coaches from a multitude of settings.  Presentations covered the biomechanics of the tennis strokes, strength and conditioning, warm ups, and there were many sessions on injuries specific to tennis.  While each speaker had their own experiences and point of view to share, many of the presenters ended up “on the same page” with some of their advice.  There also didn’t seem to be any big egos present among the presenters or attendees.  To top it all off, the USTA did a great job of making everything was run smoothly.

I learned a lot about that not only will help me when I train tennis players, but some of the info will help me to train other athletes also.  Look for some of tidbits that I learned in my future blog posts and newsletters.

Mark

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