Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Key To Developing Elite Athletes...

I just finished up a weeklong youth speed and quickness camp last week.  I had a group of 16 boys and girls ranging in age from 11-16.  The format was pretty simple I would introduce a technique such as acceleration (getting out of the “blocks” faster) then I incorporated the skill we just practiced into a game setting.
Rather than “drilling” kids with boring exercises involving cones and repeated attempts of the same movement the live and reactive environment of a game increases the fun factor and most kids love to compete so they are all engaged.
Children also tend to relate better to the more concrete tasks involved with game play where the outcome is more important than the means in which that outcome is achieved.  Teaching kids the concept of force application or hip turns is to abstract and would likely be missed and not retained after the camp is over.
A weeklong camp (totaling about 7 hours of total practice time) is not near enough time for the kids to develop a solid grasp or understanding of technical concepts but the exposure is important.  The next time we get together we can build on that foundation and continue to explore in more depth the technical concepts of speed and quickness.   The key is to bring the kids back in order to advance their “athletic” education and that will only happen if they had a good experience.
The techniques and skills we worked on are planted in their movement blue print but they will be buried in less than a week if not sooner.  The kids will however, remember how much fun they had the next time one of these camps is offered. They will remember how much fun they had and will be excited to come back.  I have to earn the opportunity to continue their development by creating an environment that motivates them to come back.
If someone observed our camp they would likely be disappointed that there was too much fun and games and less “work” and drills.  And while I understand it may appear that way, if I buried (made them work until they "threw-up" or couldn’t move the next day…) these kids just to enhance the image that I am a skilled and knowledgeable coach I would likely bore the kids and have lost the opportunity to bring them back.
Athletic development in general and speed and agility skill specifically, is best-learned and retained when exposure and refinement take place over a number of years.   First graders learn basic math first than advance to more advanced techniques like algebra and geometry once they have mastered the basics.  Athletic development should follow the same course of development.
The best coaches understand this and don’t give into the pressure to look “impressive” at the expense of their developing young athletes.
As I mentioned this camp included boys and girls ranging in age 11-16.  We started at 9AM on a hot turf field and there were no complaints but plenty of laughing and running with all out effort.  Free play was the catalyst for this and the kids worked on all manners of speed skill; they retreated, accelerated, changed directions, avoided, jumped, leaped, faked and cut.  Not to mention there is not better way to condition kids than game play.  Their heart rates are up, they are burning a ton of calories and are sweating but don’t even notice because they are having fun.  Tell a kid to run on a treadmill or force them to do boring drills and none of that happens!  Put the kids first and set ego aside and you just may earn the opportunity to coach them again and allow their “brilliance” to shine increasingly sharper over the long-term.
Just Hanging Out…
My niece recently stayed with us for a weekend and she told me that her knees and back hurt.  She is 13 years old and she participates in dance/cheer.  I watched how she moved through a few exercises and asked her to demonstrate some of the more common movements she utilizes in her competitions.  Basically, these still developing girls are taking their joints to extreme end range to gain stability.  The movements are repetitive and after years of hanging on joints and ligaments for stability she has become unstable and developed chronic pain.
Unfortunately the demands of her sport have taken a toll.  Sports can place a heavy burden on a still developing child’s body.  This is why it is so important to play different sports seasonally.  The multi-sport approach allows the body to recover while also developing different muscles and movements.   In addition, the time spent away from their “best/favorite” sport will be beneficial to avoid early burnout while keeping their enthusiasm level high.  This is the real key for long-term success on the field of play and in the game of life.  Playing one sport for more than 6 months in a year at the expense of other activities slowly pounds on kids until they get hurt or give it up.  It might not happen right away but that constant pounding eventually catches up with them.
The solution in my niece’s case and any one-sport athlete is they must have some type of training program that counteracts the demands of their sport.  As an example, I would not have my niece do any kind of “stretching” in her conditioning program.  The focus of her program would be on strengthening her muscles in order to restore her stability while taking pressure of the joints and ligaments.  Body awareness would also be key in this case.  Feeling the difference between hyper-extending her knees and keep them slightly flexed would also spare her joints.
Sports are tough on a kid’s body.  I am in no way saying that kids should avoid sport.  The benefits far outweigh any negatives in fact the negatives are often avoided with seasonal and multi-sport participation.  The take away point here is that if your child participates in a sport for more than 6 months ideally they would have some type of conditioning program that acts to counter the unique demands of their sport.  Repetitive use sports like swimming, baseball pitching, dance/cheer, tennis and figure skating can be more problematic but any sport to excess can lead to overuse injury and emotional burnout.
Speaking of unique sporting demands…
I have been throwing baseballs off of a mound for a couple of weeks to prepare for throwing out the first pitch at a West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers class A team) minor league baseball game on the 4TH of July.  It has reminded me of the unique demands placed upon the body when slinging a ball over head while throwing down a hill and landing with one-foot on a down slope.  For those who believe baseball pitchers aren’t athletic they should try throwing off a mound sometime.   The stress placed on the shoulder and elbow upon release of the ball is obvious but also the torque placed upon the knee when the foot plants on that down slope is tremendous.   I will spare you the details as it requires more depth, but throwing a baseball is a very violent action.  Baseball (pitching particularly) leads the pack as one of the sports that require a training program that will serve to counteract its unique demands.  That said if a child plays baseball in the spring and early summer, free play/down time mid to late summer, football/soccer in the fall and basketball/hockey in the winter than the need for a dedicated training program can be significantly reduced.  The alternating demands placed on the young athlete are balanced out and the varying exposures build a body that is more resilient.

Phil Loomis

Youth Fitness/Nutrition Specialist

I couldn't resist including this video that clearly shows that baseball is populated by many elite athletes and is far from boring:

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