Sunday, December 22, 2013

Top Youth Sports Trends for 2014

It’s that time of year again when we can look back on the previous year and analyze the goals we set out to achieve over the past 12 months. Hopefully, you hit on some real game changers that improved the lives of your family and community.

Last year at this time I wrote about the top health and fitness trends heading into 2013. [1] So how did that turn out? For the most part the trends held up particularly those dealing with nutrition, specifically the trend of gluten free diets and consumers avoiding grains and starches due to the Paleo craze.

Also consumers have continued to push for transparency when it comes to what they are feeding their families. There was a big national push for rules that would force the food industry to disclose whether or not their products contained genetically modified organisms (GMO).

That said right here in my community I noticed a lot of convenience stores and quick serve chains popping up all over the place. So at the end of the day there is still strong demand for quick stuff (I hesitate to call it food) no matter what it is.  We are all still trying to be to many places at one time and when we rush we back ourselves in a corner and the answer is inevitably dinner at the drive-thru. So if one of your goals was to slow down and appreciate life a bit more odds are we struggled to accomplish that one.

More sit down restaurants are supporting farmers featuring seasonal and local items on their menus. I know there is a small minority that this is important to but lack of interest by the masses makes this very much a small niche in the market. It’s a positive trend but it’s moving at a snails pace.

From a fitness point of view I thought big box gyms (Planet Fitness, L.A. Fitness and the like) would continue to pop-up in every community. That has certainly been the case but I still find it odd that despite all of these options we are still as unfit as we have ever been. More options are not the answer but better options are definitely the answer.

On that note there has been an explosion in high intensity forms of training for adults and kids alike. Great concept, but this shouldn’t be an entry point for most folks and you can’t train at high intensity for 12 months out of the year. In a related trend physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons are flourishing.

That was last year what about the year ahead?

Kids call the shots!

 Kids influence nearly 80 percent of purchase decisions by families. [2] We know kids are strongly influenced by popular media and that it drives their desire to fit in and be cool. We all want the best for our kids and want them to have positive self-esteem. This feeds off of the idea that we are always in a rush running children from one event to the other and we end up settling for lesser nutrition options and other purchases that may be used to appease children when we are tired and stressed from a long day at the office and car pool.

Girl Power!

The emergence of the “IndieWoman” will continue to drive the demand for convenience options. Media analysts have so dubbed women whom are 27 and older, live alone without children and spend $50 billion on food and beverages each year.

Convenience doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We all a would like to do more with our valuable time and quite frankly not everyone likes to cook, go grocery shopping or plow the driveway. Delegation is an option so long as we have resources that are reliable and trustworthy. Ideally we continue to hold the food industry to a high standard and our demand for quick and healthy options becomes mutual.

Sports Safety

Diagnosis and media coverage has definitely played a significant role in making us more aware of sport related injuries such as concussions but I do feel they are occurring at an increased rate than in decades past. Even in sports like baseball teams have become extremely conservative (smartly so I might add) before allowing athletes to return to action. Though not unexpected it has become commonplace over the last year or two in the NFL and NHL for a rash of players to miss significant time due to head trauma concerns. This increased concern and awareness is a positive trend that will benefit all competitors in the long run and young athletes in particular. Most scholastic and recreation programs have adopted concussion policies in some form as a condition for participation. This is crucial because youth sport injuries may lead to adult brain disease. [3]

Wanted: All Around Athletes

More teams will go out of their way to scout/recruit/develop versatile athletes. Related to the concerns of sport injuries roster depth is being seriously challenged in all sports. Coaches will be on the look out for athletes that can play multiple positions to insure their teams against injuries to key personnel. In the pro ranks the crack down on steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) have also lead to athletes requiring longer recovery times. Unfortunately, this recovery time isn’t compatible with long and brutal professional seasons (don’t forget the crazy “workloads” for some youth sports either!). Without the added boost of PEDs athletes are breaking down more than ever because they simply don’t have the opportunity to regenerate their bodies adequately.  Early specialization for young athletes is also a problem because their one-dimensional development has left their still developing bodies vulnerable to over-use and fatigue related injuries. The single sport athlete isn’t very versatile and they aren’t very durable either, because their athletic foundation is to narrow.

Speed and Athleticism over Strength

Teams are starting to realize that speed and overall athleticism are qualities that can get you over the hump. For example look no further than the Detroit Tigers. Last season they were a one-dimensional baseball team. They were over-reliant on the big guys in their batting order slugging the ball out of the ballpark. When it works it’s an awesome sight but it’s also a dangerous way to live because brute strength manifests itself in spurts, it’s very unreliable especially against advanced competition. The Tigers may have seemingly taken a step back in “Star” power but they have brought in faster and more versatile athletes. Their management realized that to get over the top they needed to become more consistent. Speed and athleticism is like an insect that’s buzzing around your head. It’s not going to knock you over but it will drive you nuts because you’re always aware of it and you just can’t shake it. Speed and all-around athleticism places pressure on the opponent and often forces them into making mistakes. On the flip side speed and adaptability also allow those that posses them to overcome their mistakes. As it relates to baseball no more PEDs has also deflated the era of over-powered sluggers. Out of necessity teams have been forced to reexamine the art of scoring runs. [4] [5]

Teens Obsession with Body Image

Six in ten 13-year-old girls, compared to four in 10 boys the same age, are afraid of gaining weight or getting fat. [6] Pro athletes cover models and Hollywood action stars with the means (artificial and otherwise) have grossly distorted what kids and adults perceive as healthy and strong. It should come as no surprise that young male athletes aren’t the only ones experimenting with PEDs. More than 1 in 20 high school girls has already used anabolic steroids and the number of female users is increasing. In fact, the fastest growing user group is young high school girls. [7]

My Hope for 2014

If I could see one fitness trend take shape in 2014 it would be the reemergence of basic physical education. We have done a very good job in this country of teaching/exposing our kids to sports. At the same time we have neglected the real value of a basic physical education. Sports are great and I love them, most kids have found one that they enjoy but just as many haven’t. It’s my strong belief that we need to teach kids how to take care of themselves. Every child should have a basic idea of how to put together an exercise program that fits his or her needs. This would include the kids that play sports as well. A broad physical education will support and enhance all athletic endeavors while also providing kids that just aren’t into sports the physical outlet they need to become healthy adults. I have a few ideas on how to make this happen and I plan to share them in the New Year.

Happy Holidays!


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Eating Healthy: Does it really cost more?

With a new year fast approaching you are likely thinking about lifestyle changes that will help propel you toward your personal goals for 2014 and beyond. You may want to exercise more often or more efficiently with a better game plan.  Losing weight or eating healthier may also be prime targets on your radar for living your best life.

Another goal heading into the New Year may be to get your finances in order. But eating healthier foods such as organics are generally more expensive than the less “healthy” varieties.

On the surface it may seem that in order to eat healthier you need to make other cuts to your budget. However, according to recent research these cuts do not have to be draconian in nature.

The healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy diets, according to new research from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

The researchers found that healthier diet patterns—for example, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts—cost significantly more than unhealthy diets (for example, those rich in processed foods, meats, and refined grains). On average, a day’s worth of the most healthy diet patterns cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy ones.

The researchers suggested that unhealthy diets may cost less because food policies have focused on the production of “inexpensive, high volume” commodities, which has led to “a complex network of farming, storage, transportation, processing, manufacturing, and marketing capabilities that favor sales of highly processed food products for maximal industry profit.” Given this reality, they said that creating a similar infrastructure to support production of healthier foods might help increase availability—and reduce the prices—of more healthful diets.

“This research provides the most complete picture to-date on true cost differences of healthy diets,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, the study’s senior author and associate professor at HSPH and Harvard Medical School. “While healthier diets did cost more, the difference was smaller than many people might have expected. Over the course of a year, $1.50/day more for eating a healthy diet would increase food costs for one person by about $550 per year. This would represent a real burden for some families, and we need policies to help offset these costs. On the other hand, this price difference is very small in comparison to the economic costs of diet-related chronic diseases, which would be dramatically reduced by healthy diets.” [1]

It’s not always easy to figure out when to pay more for higher quality foods, but there are certain foods that you should consider paying a little more for. For example recent research revealed that organic grass fed milk is more nutritious than conventional.

Washington State University researchers have found grass-fed cows may provide milk with healthier fats than conventionally raised cattle. The team studied about 400 samples of whole milk, both conventional and organic, and found organic milk seems to have a much higher proportion of omega-3s compared with omega-6s.

Americans consume 10 to 15 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s.

The researchers attribute the difference to organically raised cattle eating more grass and greens instead of processed grain feed. [2]

I view paying a little more now for higher quality food as an investment. In the future you will likely be rewarded with robust health without the need for any expensive medical procedures due to lifestyle choices that can lead to losses in productivity and quality of life. And don’t take that to mean that eating higher quality food now will only bare fruit in your “Golden Years.” There is simply no intervention that can have a bigger impact on health and performance than high quality nutrition.

No one understands the benefits of exercise and fitness better than I but we only exercise 4-6 days a week in an ideal scenario. At minimum you will have over 20 feeding opportunities during the week. Each one of these feeding opportunities positively or negatively impacts your immediate performance. Drink an energy drink of cola before bed and you will likely pay for it the next day with poor focus and concentration because you weren’t able to sleep the night before. Eat a high fiber meal before a workout or game and you will be making a lightning fast run for the bathroom. However, if you eat a well-balanced meal with protein, good fats and fruit or vegetable and all of these foods are a familiar part to your diet you will respond with sustained focus and energy. With sustainable focus and energy you are better equipped to make good choices throughout the day. These small choices add up over weeks, month’s even years and result in health and vitality that continues to build and endures for a lifetime.

I also agree with the researchers that the current food policy in our country promotes poor dietary choices. However, while changing said policies may be a good idea it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for the ways things are. We have the power to impact our families today by choosing to eat locally raised (when feasible) food from farmers/artisans that are committed to raising and growing high quality, unprocessed whole foods. At the very least we need to abandon the highly processed and packaged stuff that passes for food. Our spending behaviors ultimately speak louder than any political strategies ever will. The health of our families is far too important to wait for the infrastructure to take shape and support what we truly want and need. Start by shopping for whole unprocessed foods and you are off to a great start because you are modeling the change you want to see in your family and community.

Speaking of the processed food infrastructure one of the hot topics nationwide lately has been the issue of whether or not genetically modified foods should be labeled…
It’s a heated debate and for simplicities sake if you want to avoid them seek out organic foods. It used to be if you just avoided package food you were safe but even salmon and apples are being experimented with and are very close to becoming a reality.

According to the Farm-To-Consumer Legal Defense Fund:

The biotech industry keeps promising to solve major problems, from world hunger to malnutrition. Instead, they’ve given us herbicide-resistant and pesticide-producing crops, increasing Americans’ exposure to toxic chemicals. What’s the latest genetically engineered crop that’s heading for your plate? Apples that never turn brown.

Like all genetically engineered crops, these new apples have not been proven safe for human consumption. Even worse, they use a troubling new genetic engineering technique, which has even greater potential side effects for the environment and human health. The genetically modified (GMO) apple has been produced using a new technique known as RNA interference (RNAi). This method uses genes from the same species in order to trigger a “silencing” mechanism that stops a certain protein from being produced.

But the technology doesn’t just silence the genes that are intended. There is mounting evidence that the RNAi technology can have effects on other genes as well, preventing the production of proteins of many types. A 2012 Cell Research study indicated that ingesting RNA material from certain plant-based foods can have unexpected effects in mammals.

Humans should not have to serve as the guinea pigs for this technology!

Although these GMO apples are primarily targeted to the fresh-sliced apple market, they could also find their way into juice, baby foods or applesauce at the processing level–all products frequently eaten by children and babies who are at increased risk for any adverse health effects.

Even the apple industry has opposed this genetically engineered product. The U.S. Apple Association, Northwest Horticultural Council (which represents Washington apple growers, who grow over 60% of the apples in the U.S.), British Columbia Fruit Growers Association and other grower groups have already voiced their disapproval of these GMO apples due to the negative impact they could have on farmers growing organic and non-GMO apples through contamination, and to the image of the apple industry as a whole.

If the apple industry doesn’t want GMO apples, and consumers don’t want GMO apples, then who wants these apples on the market? As usual, this product would only benefit the biotech industry and big food processing companies. [3]

Given the above information choosing certain fruits and vegetables that are grown organically may provide more piece of mind. For more information check out the link below:

In conclusion, if you have to choose between grass-fed meat and wild-caught seafood (as opposed to farm-raised) or organic produce due to budget reasons, personally I would recommend grass-fed meat and wild-caught seafood every time.  You can wash pesticides off of a lot of produce (though not all), but you can’t change fatty acid composition and vitamin content of meat and fish.

On a similar note, if you have to choose between grass-fed beef and pasture- raised poultry, I would go with grass-fed beef every time as well.  Poultry is naturally leaner, so the improvement in fatty acid composition and the associated fat-soluble nutrients from being raised on pasture is less pronounced than in beef.  

Having said that, I would still encourage the purchasing of “naturally” raised poultry from your grocer, as it is still an improvement over completely conventional, though not quite as good as pasture-raised.  At least the animals wouldn’t have been subjected to antibiotic use, and therefore will have significantly lower levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  You can also look into purchasing entire chickens rather than just breasts; it is more cost-effective.

 Phil Loomis
Youth Athletic Development/Nutrition Specialist

Related Topics

Is organic food more nutritious?

Can you eat healthy with $1?


Saturday, November 23, 2013

What's up with the Spuds? Super Food or Fat Magnet...

Thanksgiving is a holiday best known for food. The options are abundant and there is always something at the buffet that can satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.  One of the staples of the Thanksgiving meal is potato.  Mashed potato with gravy, roasted/candied sweet potato and even sweet potato pie, at least one of these options will likely be on your dinner table. And while I would encourage you to eat these options on Thursday if you enjoy them should you shun the humble spud the rest of the year?

Due to fad diets and the media craze with low-carb and Paleo eating the potato has taking a mashing over the years.  The sweet potato is assumed by many to be a super food while the plain old white potato is viewed less favorably. But has it been unfairly targeted?

We have been lead to believe that a potato is akin to a large sugar cube causing a spike in blood sugar and a rush of insulin that often results in fat gain. So the question that is often asked, will eating potatoes make me “fat?” I sincerely doubt that your diet is so clean that eating potatoes would lead to fat gain.

Take a close look at all of the food that you eat. Once you have cut out all the sugary drinks, chips, candy and all the other highly processed treats and meals then we can have a conversation about potatoes but until that time don’t waste your valuable time worrying about it.

That said we rarely eat potatoes in their natural state. Baked potatoes are layered with processed bacon, sour cream and cheese. French fries are cooked in rancid vegetable oils, as are potato chips. So it’s more likely it’s the stuff you eat with the potatoes that are contributing to poor heath outcomes.

I am also not advocating eating plain potatoes because that’s a sure fire way to discourage anyone from eating a food that actually possesses powerful health benefits. If you have a baked potato cover it with guacamole and salsa. Slice up some potato wedges and toss them in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, sea salt and thyme and roast in the oven for homemade delicious fries. My personal favorite is to dice up sweet potato and toss them in coconut oil and pumpkin pie spice and roast them. These are just a few examples of how you can use potatoes to compliment a nutritious meal.

Another point to consider is that potatoes may actually help in your weight loss efforts! Have you ever eaten a whole baked potato? If so could you have eaten two? Probably not because a potato does a nice job of satisfying your hunger and filling you up. As a result you’re less prone to over-indulge. So long as you avoid loading that baked spud with processed man-made junk it’s a great option for dieters.

Still not convinced because you just can get over the idea that potatoes have a high glycemic index?
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly glucose appears in the bloodstream after eating a specific amount of a carbohydrate dense food.
It’s thought that higher GI foods are more likely to lead to blood sugar and insulin management problems.  While lower GI foods are better for sugar and insulin management. White potatoes (and sweet potatoes) score fairly high on the GI scale.  In fact, both foods score higher than table sugar. Because of the relatively high GI of potatoes, some people avoid them for fear of blood sugar swings and insulin problems.  However, the GI is only valid when a food is eaten by itself.  And most foods eaten with potatoes (meat, vegetables, etc) lower the GI of the entire meal significantly, making the meal a low glycemic index one and negating these concerns.

Get beyond “good foods” and “bad foods”. Instead, ask: Does this food add value to my body? Does it nourish me and benefit me? Both potatoes and sweet potatoes can be a valuable part of your healthy diet especially if you’re including lean proteins, healthy fats, other vegetables and fruits, and naturally occurring fiber in your diet. You’re probably also active, which helps your body process carbohydrates better. This means that GI is not the only thing you should consider when judging the “healthiness” of a food. And it also means that most healthy and active people can eat potatoes and sweet potatoes just fine.

When eaten as whole, minimally processed foods, both potatoes and sweet potatoes are nutrient-dense.

Check your sweet potatoes. Is there a piecrust underneath them or marshmallows on top of them?

Can you even see that baked potato underneath the mound of sour cream and cheese?

Hmm… then maybe not such an ideal choice.
But if you see broccoli and perhaps a nice grass-fed steak, or wild-caught salmon, or some beans with those tubers… go for it!
A little bit of healthy fat with sweet potatoes in particular will help you absorb their vitamin A.

Both regular potatoes and sweet potatoes are healthy, awesome, and delicious heritage foods that contain vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients.
You can eat and enjoy both, regardless of your goals.

 Potato Facts and Notes:

While some proclaim that potato consumption in North America is excessive, it isn’t.  Americans consume more desserts than potatoes.
On average, adults consume 36 – 93 calories from fresh potatoes per day (depending on gender).  Meanwhile, we eat 138 calories daily, on average, from cookies, cakes and other grain-based desserts.
Fresh potato consumption has decreased over the past 40 years.
1970: 61 lbs.
1996: 50 lbs.
2008: 36 lbs.
Processed potato consumption (e.g., French Fries, potato chips, etc) has increased during this same time period. [1]

To digest both potatoes and sweet potatoes, we have to break down and release the starch stored inside their cells. Because some of that starch is resistant starch, this breakdown takes time and effort, so although both potatoes and sweet potatoes are high in carbs, they don’t act the same way in our body as high-carb processed foods.

GI changes with food preparation. Boiling usually results in a lower GI, since starch can bind with water. The dry heat of baking, on the other hand, lowers moisture and concentrates sugars. Cutting up potatoes and sweet potatoes helps preserve their starchiness, while cooking them whole results in more sugariness.

I recommend both potatoes and sweet potatoes, because including both:
Provides “carb variety”; helps people feel psychologically satisfied and physically satiated; helps give people steady, slow-burn energy; and helps people feel “normal” when changing their dietary habits (because potatoes and sweet potatoes are familiar foods).

I recommend starting with a baseline of 1 (moderately active individuals) to 2 (highly active individuals) cupped handfuls of starchy carbs per meal.

Observe how YOU feel after eating a given food. Do you feel invigorated or immobilized after a potato or sweet potato? Satisfied or starving? Full of long-lasting energy or napping in the corner? Lean and light or heavy and sluggish? Gather data and act accordingly. Potatoes might not be a fit if you answer any of the above questions negatively but don’t jump to conclusions because you have to account for what you are eating with the potatoes.

According to the Environmental Working Group, it’s probably wise to choose organic potatoes. *  Check out this short video and this young lady just may convince you to go with the organic varieties:


In the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday I have added a few fun recipes that are sure to please adults and kids alike.

Related info.

Regular versus Sweet what potatoes are the healthier options?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Most Effective Way to Test the Progress of Young Athletes...

The mere mention of the word TEST is enough to make even the most prepared student a little anxious and nervous. In the world of sports there are plenty of ways to quantify an athletes standing using tests that measure performance qualities like speed (40-yard dash), power (vertical jump), strength (Maximum dead-lift) and endurance (1-mile run). The results can be useful as far as comparing one athlete’s results against those of other competitors within their sport. That said it is extremely important that the test be relevant to the sport in question and even more specifically a certain position within that sport. For example the 1-mile run for a football player really won’t tell you much about their ability to perform well in that sport but measures of speed and strength are definitely relevant.

Testing can also be useful to measure progress for an individual athlete not only to monitor their progress but also to provide coaches with quantifiable data that lets them evaluate the effectiveness of their program. If a coach thinks his team needs to improve their speed and he focuses his training on that quality he should measure periodically to find out if indeed the team is getting faster. If they are getting faster but it hasn’t helped improve on field-performance it’s time to reevaluate team needs. The data has demonstrated that speed was likely not the limiting factor in team performance and rather than beating his head against the wall wondering why the team isn’t improving the coach now has data that tells him he may need to look at other performance qualities.

Testing results can also let athletes know where they stand in relation to the top competitors within their sport. If all of the best running backs in the NFL run a 4.4 40-yard dash, vertical jump 36 inches and bench press 225 pounds 25 times then you have decent idea of where you need to be from a physical standpoint to become on of the top running backs. Here is where things can get interesting though there is no correlation between top testing performances and elite athletes in sports. At the annual NFL scouting combine they test everything and evaluate the athletes with an extremely critical eye while collecting a ton of data on the athletes. And inevitably it doesn’t mean a thing!

The most important ingredient required for becoming a great athlete can’t be quantified with data or even the most seasoned scouting eye.  The most important element of success in sports is intrinsic motivation! The individual’s ability to consistently grind and compete in an all out effort to master the limits imposed by their craft/sport and their physical and mental self.  The will to compete and improve is vital and you have to want what it is that you are working for more than anyone else. Parents, coaches, teammates can push you all they want but without the desire and will to be your best their efforts will only lead to frustration for all involved.

So should we ever test, even academically? Of course, because it can be useful but we can’t put all of our eggs in that basket because what does it really measure? Who designs the test and what are they looking for? I am not going tackle a societal issue here but we always hear that America is falling behind the rest of the globe in-terms of ingenuity and academics. Maybe it’s time for some folks to turn a critical eye toward their tests and find out if what they measure actually means anything.  For a more thorough vetting of this issue I highly recommend this read:

So why not use tests to show off certain qualities rather than using the test to dictate what qualities we should be looking to improve. We should use tests to celebrate kids, an opportunity for them to show their stuff!

In my athletic development programs I have put together a testing and promotion system similar to that of the belts system in Martial Arts. It is based upon chronological age and developmental age.  At 17 years-old kids are able to express skills that remain very elusive for a 12 year-old who is able to demonstrate skills that would be elusive to the still relatively raw 7 year-old.  At each stage of development what would you like to see from the child?

For a 7 year-old I want to see if they posses the basics such as coordination and rhythm, a skip would be a worthwhile exercise. For the 12 year-old I want to see if they use their coordination in a more refined way. I may ask them to stand on their right foot reach for a ball on the ground with their left hand and toss the ball toward a target in front of them. The 17year-old I would like to see them express their coordination with strength and explosiveness. I may have them run backwards toss a ball to them that they must jump high to catch and upon landing sprint with the ball to a cone.

I know when a child is doing well and is ready for the next step in their development and using tests as a “carrot” or as motivational tool to improve is something with merit. When an athlete has consistently demonstrated in their training that they have “owned” certain skills I will come up with 5-6 exercises that will allow them to show-off their recently refined skills. I will then hold a testing and promotion event that includes parents, relatives, friends and other athletes from the program some of whom may be quite a bit younger or quite a bit older. This is excellent for positive role modeling, it provides the older kids with a platform to be a leader and the younger kids look up to them and see what they can become through hard work and dedication.

Now here is the important part, the athlete has already passed test before they even step foot on the gym floor for the demonstration! Why? Because they have already proven over months of training that they can consistently perform the skills. I know they can do it so the test shouldn’t matter. It may add an element of stress and anxiety, all the more reason to test in this way. They eventually discover that being tested is not a big deal.  They tell themselves “I have done this before, I’ve got this” and they are in a supportive environment that is full of enthusiasm and energy. The young athletes grow to love and can’t wait for the next testing day. In a sense you are developing them to be “clutch” performers.

If I test and they don’t do well it doesn’t matter, so they had a bad day. We should focus on the process and celebrate them for being attentive to that. The test is just a moment in time. The real goal of the program is to make them better over the long haul and that comes from consistent practice and progressively challenging their boundaries when developmentally appropriate. Commitment and dedication are the keys to success in any endeavor let’s celebrate and test that!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Top Priority for Young Athletes

I never limit myself when it to comes to developing young athletes but certain restraints exist that I must not ignore to provide the training they need while also preparing them for long-term success.
On average I work with a young athlete once a week for 50 minutes so I must be judicious with the type of training I provide to them. Usually they are playing a sport at the time with a lot of running (endurance work) and sport specific skill practice so I don’t even go there, and in the sport specific skill department I never will because their coaches are better qualified to do so.
So with limited time and keeping the long-term view in mind what do I devote my attention to?
The answer is movement quality and efficiency a.k.a. speed, skill and agility. I want my athletes to posses’ tremendous raw athleticism that can be applied and utilized in any sport/athletic setting. I have interviewed several top college coaches and asked them “what are you looking for in high school athletes?” and inevitably they tell me they want kids that are fast and skilled, “we can always get them bigger and stronger!” [1] They understand that once that window of opportunity for skill acquisition is missed it’s pretty much closed off permanently. Size, strength and endurance are qualities that can be improved upon throughout most of adulthood. But reactive ability, speed, agility and raw athleticism must be developed from a young age in order to be fully optimized.
Need more convincing?
A recently released study by Stodden and Galitski * examined the longitudinal effect of a college strength/conditioning program incorporating speed, strength, and agility drills over a 4-year period. In a longitudinal study subjects are followed over time with continuous or repeated monitoring of certain factors in this case speed, strength, agility, endurance and body mass variables.
The aim of this study was to determine the changes in body type measures and athletic performance over a 4-year eligibility career of American football players. The positions were Offensive Linemen (OL) and Defensive Linemen (DL) and skill players—wide receivers and defensive backs (WR/DB).
Assessment included body type measures of body mass, height, and percent body fat. Strength assessment included bench press, squat, and power clean; muscle endurance involved the number of 225-lb bench press repetitions; power included the vertical jump (JV); and speed assessment used a 40-yd sprint.
In general, strength increased significantly over time for both linemen and skill positions, however, measures of maximum power and speed did not. Percent body fat decreased significantly in linemen but not in skill positions, primarily because first-year linemen tended to report over fat, whereas skill players reported in a very lean condition.
It’s also interesting to note that the most significant changes occurred between years one and two.  These positive changes were largely in the areas of strength, endurance, and body composition. The OL/DL gained mass but also lost fat while the WR/DB also gained mass while remaining lean. This early boost is likely due to the fact that athletes are now exposed to high-level programs with the means to provide sophisticated physical training protocols within multimillion-dollar training facilities under the watch of expert strength and conditioning personnel. In addition to an emphasis on the physical aspects, many universities employ nutritionists and psychologists to develop individuals to their potential.
Below is the conclusion from the authors of the study based upon their findings:
Research suggests that with the exception of reducing fat weight, significant increases in speed are difficult to achieve. These data suggest that speed cannot be significantly improved in elite athletes over 4 years of training. In the present study, speed improvement in linemen was only 2.7% and in WR/DBs was 1.7%. The larger change in linemen was positively correlated with a reduction in fat.
While, maximal voluntary strength output and upper-body muscle endurance can be significantly increased over years of appropriate training, the variables constituting maximum power output and speed do not exhibit similar changes in 4 years of high-level training. It is noteworthy to mention that recruited players should already possess superior power and speed because these variables are particularly difficult to positively alter in 4 years of training at the college level. *
So despite having access to elite strength and conditioning programs in an environment with outstanding training facilities and far superior nutrition than consumed in high school, even with all of these variables in the athletes’ favor speed and explosiveness did not improve much if at all. And while the linemen did improve their speed slightly it was largely due to the loss of body fat. 
Not only do we have anecdotal evidence (the coaches told me what they are looking for), which in my mind is just as important because coaches know better than anyone what it takes to be an elite athlete, we also have hard evidence from the scientists. Taken together the emphasis for developing young athletes should be on speed, agility and movement/sport skill.
There will always be exceptions to the rule such as an extremely fast wide receiver that is easily bumped off his routes because he lacks strength or a pitcher who loses 10 MPH off of his fastball after throwing 50 pitches because he lacks sufficient endurance. But for the most part movement efficiency and skill are commodities that are in high demand and will never go out of style. Do you recall the last time a broadcaster remarked that wow that guy/girl was way to fast and missed the play… Never happens, but athletes that missed making a play by a step because they just weren’t fast or quick enough? You hear and see that all the time!
And I am not talking about having kids do rigid speed and agility drills with a heavy emphasis on technique. In my mind that type of training will actually make them rigid and stifle their instinctive athleticism.  We need to put them in positions and expose them to environments where they are forced to react and do what comes natural. Children have an innate sense of what is right and if forced to react quickly will position their bodies and apply forces that allow them to be fast and agile.
It is very important to understand that when coaching children there are certain stages in their development that must adhere to the “laws of nature” to optimally develop them as young athletes specifically and competent life long movers generally. As a crude example before you can run or leap you must first learn to crawl as it contains all of the fundamental movement patterns that serve as the foundation for these more advanced movements.
As a general rule very young children (in most cases under age 9) should engage in free play to develop fundamental movements skills (running, jumping, throwing, climbing…). Once those skills have been added to their toolbox they can begin to refine those fundamental movement skills. Around the age of 9-14 are the so-called “skill hungry” years. At this stage of development children begin to refine the raw athletic skills of running, throwing and jumping by doing them faster, farther and higher while also demonstrating control (change of direction, accuracy, and touch) over these skills when required.  In the late teen years, around 15+ years of age, the athletic skills refined in the previous stage are now best-applied and used in sport specific settings. For example instead of running as fast as you can and putting the brakes on to change direction you add in the element of reacting to an opponent while attempting to catch a thrown ball. Or as a thrower rather than throwing at predetermined target you know practice fielding a ball while moving to your right, planting and making an accurate throw across your body.
If any of these stages are skipped athletes will lack the foundation to apply the more advanced sport specific skills. It’s like trying to shoot a canon from a canoe! You may be strong and posses plenty of raw power but without the platform to support it that strength and power will land flat.
Phil Loomis
Youth Athletic Development/Nutrition Specialist

Monday, November 4, 2013

What All the Top College Programs are Looking for...

Whenever we decide to take a long journey it is very important to make sure you have an accurate map to get you where you want to go on time and safely.  Many young athletes dream about playing sports in college and even the pro’s.  This dream can be a reality with the right combination of dedication, discipline, hard work, natural talent and some good fortune here and there.  However even if you are able to maximize these elements it may not be enough.  If it were easy to become a college athlete it wouldn’t be much of a dream would it?

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only between 3.3% and 6.4% (depending upon sport) of all high school varsity baseball, basketball, football, and soccer athletes will go on to play collegiately.

It doesn’t require a great leap of faith to realize that our youth sports fields should not be viewed as proving grounds for future athletic conquests for most participants.  That said, I think it’s great that kids have lofty goals and strive to become the best at their given sport of choice.  Even though they may come up short the experience and skill they acquire along their journey will benefit them the rest of their lives (leadership, self-efficacy, discipline, goal-setting, teamwork, dealing with adversity, etc.).

Never one to discourage a child, over the next few weeks I will lay out a game plan or a map that will show you the most efficient way in my experience to develop the complete athlete.  The complete athlete is developed gradually from the point of a basic movement education (like elementary school) on to a highly skilled sport specialist (college masters program).  If you decide to skip the elementary education (jumping, running, climbing, kicking, crawling, etc.) and jump right into more advanced classes (sport specialization) your limitations will eventually be exposed in the latter stages of development when the competition is more intense.

Many young athletes will try workout programs that their friends, teammates, or favorite pros endorse.  This is no way to start your journey!  Even if you happen to stumble upon something you think “works,” how can you be sure something isn’t being left out?  Basing exercise selection on whether or not you can feel the burn is not a good strategy.

Most training programs are nothing more than a few “cool” exercises that are thrown together just to see what sticks.  Everybody else is doing it right?  Again, this type of strategy is not a recipe for success.  I will be your guide on this journey and show you how to base exercise selection on what the individual athlete requires most.  Function (how the body moves) rather than form (how the body looks), will be our trusted compass on the journey.

A compass is objective because it shows us the direction we are heading in; it’s a simple tool that is not subject to emotion or opinion.  We may not like where the compass is leading us but it is necessary to address weaknesses before building upon strengths.
Many times young athletes want to get right to the fun stuff during practice like shooting the ball, swinging the bat, or throwing the ball.  But the good coaches almost always emphasize the fundamentals during practice.  This is the coaches’ time to refine the weaknesses in an attempt to make the team more complete.  A team that is complete is less likely to be exposed and will have more opportunities to display their strength.

Before we start our journey I thought it might be fun to find out what college strength and conditioning coaches (SCC) are looking for in young prospects.  Dr. Toby Brooks is an Assistant Professor, Athletic Training at Texas Tech University.  He asked 10 top NCAA Division 1 SCC three simple questions:

1. What are you looking for in an athlete?
2. What is the most common area of deficiency?
3. What are high school and private coaches doing right?  And wrong?

1. These coaches are looking for…
Vertical leap/broad jump
Not strength (they think they can fix this)
Capacity for improvement

2. What is the most common area of deficiency?
Posterior chain (upper back, glutes, muscles you can’t see in the mirror)
Hip flexibility

3. What are high school/private coaches doing right/wrong?
The Good…
More in tune with the college strength and conditioning type methods
Good foundation established within athletes for the SCC to build upon
The not so good…
Importance of combine/showcase numbers and performances
Sport Specificity vs. Athleticism

What does all this mean?

Top college programs want complete athletes not combine or weight room heroes.
Speed and agility is best attained in the developmental years.
Work on the non-mirror muscles, more dead lifts and pull-ups, less squatting and bench pressing.
Stretching is not for just for the ladies.
College recruiters are more interested in how an athlete moves not how they look or how much they can squat or bench!

How can you get all of this done efficiently and effectively?  The quest begins next week.

Dr. Toby Brooks is also Director of Education and Research for the International Youth Conditioning Association.  I am a member of the organization and Dr. Brooks was willing to share his research with me.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Nature V Nurture: Is it Mom or Dad's fault that I'm not fast enough?

Are Justin Verlander and Calvin Johnson elite athletes because they were lucky enough to have the right parents? Or are they superstar athletes because they were exposed to an ideal environment that afforded them the opportunity to develop their talents?

I recently heard an interview with Joe Baker, PhD Applied Exercise Science at Queens University (Canada), an expert in the field of talent identification and research.

I came away from the interview with several points that all young athletes, coaches, parents and youth sport organizations should pay close attention to.

As coaches we need to focus our efforts on the factors that we can control or influence within the training environment. While genes are important Dr. Baker says “forget about them because you have no control over that part of the equation.”

Research clearly demonstrates that genes are not deterministic. Further, because of the complex interaction between the genes you are born with and the training environment that you are exposed to we won’t even know whether a person has the right genetic make-up to become an elite athlete until they’ve already been through the optimal training environment.

This is good news for coaches because we can dramatically improve our young athletes’ chances for future success IF we concentrate on creating an optimal training environment for kids to develop athletically while also providing them with high-quality training. This also means the kids can stop blaming their parents for their apparent lack of athletic talent at least from a genetic perspective (environment and training opportunities are well within a parents control).
What exactly is the ideal/optimal training environment? By now I am certain you have heard of the “10,000 hour” rule.  It has become popularized in the media and is the subject of many books, most prominently in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. [1] The theory is that in order to become an expert in any field (athletics) you have to devote 10,000 hours of specific practice/training to one domain (sport). Too much focus has been placed upon an arbitrary number and the real message has been lost. The culture you practice in and the quality of the training are much more important than the sheer quantity of time spent devoted to deliberate practice.

If I shoot 10,000 basketball jump shots a week for 5 years with lousy technique I would likely be a very flawed and inconsistent shooter. On the other hand if I were to shoot just 1000 shots a week for 5 years with very strong fundamental technique along with great effort and concentration I would become better and a more consistent shooter than the athlete who “lives” in the gym but never seems to improve or perform when the pressure is on. Plus, I could spend all my extra time improving my speed and endurance while the other guys is clanging away on the court.

It’s not the amount of time you devote to a task but the quality of that time that determines how well the skill will be developed and honed.

That said, to serve all athletes and ensure we are providing the coaching they need all sport development should be based upon long-term goals. Coaches need to implement developmental systems within their sport that will allow them to break down each season with developmentally appropriate goals for the team as a whole and for each individual athlete. Then you schedule and build out your practices to lead the team/athletes where you want them to be at the end of the season.

Other environmental factors that must be considered are the culture that you are developed in as well as your birthplace. From a cultural perspective if you want o be a football player America is the place to be, soccer in Europe and hockey in Canada are also examples of how the culture influences sports development. Certain sports depending on the country or region/state (baseball in the South and Southwest, Lacrosse in the Northeast) you are developed in are better supported through the availability of facilities, better coaching, and even tradition (football Alabama, lacrosse Duke, basketball Kentucky).

Where you are born also affects future success. Smaller suburban centers are more likely to produce elite athletes. Just 1% of the U.S. population resides in cities between 50,000 and 100,000 residents, yet cities of this size produce 16.8% of Major League Baseball players, 11% of PGA golfers and 17.2% of American born National Hockey League players. [2] The best way to explain these demographics may come down to accessibility. If you are a young athlete in Toronto, Canada finding ice time may be difficult because of the demands on facilities. Ice time is likely booked months ahead of time and with higher demand for their space a facility will charge more squeezing out certain athletes because they can’t afford it. This also excludes many kids that may just want to try the sport or just play for fun.

So in this scenario athletes are eliminated from the talent pool strictly due to financial constraints or lack of opportunity. It is then reasonable to suggest given this information that athletes with the most long-term potential may never even get an opportunity to compete.

If where you are born can make a difference what about when you are born? Currently, most athletic training and competition programs are based upon chronological age much like our academic system. However, athletes of the same age between 10 and 16 can be 4 to 5 years apart developmentally. Though the use of chronological age may be easier to manage it shouldn’t be a reason to perpetuate a system that is clearly flawed.

Consider the following evidence:

Of the 28 members on the U.S. Boys U15 National Soccer Team (all with birth year of 1998), 17 were born in the first 4 months of the year and only one of the athletes was born after September. [3]

Of the 66 members on the U.S. Girls U15 National Select Soccer Team (birth year 1998), 30 were born in the first 4 months of the year and only 11 after September. [4]

Of the 18 members on the U.S. Boys U12 National Select Baseball Team (all born in 2001 except for one born in ’02), 11 were born in the first 4 months of the year and only 3 after August. [5]

Of the 54 members on the Men’s Junior National Hockey Team (born in 1994 or ’95), 20 were born in the first 4 months of ’94 and only 6 after July of ’95. [6]

It is highly unlikely that there are fewer athletes with long-term potential born in the last quarter of the year than in the first quarter but upon inspection of national select team rosters the early births are disproportionately represented. Have you ever heard of a “late bloomer”? With this set-up you’ll be hearing that term a lot less than ever before because if you are unlucky enough to be born at the tail end of a league or programs “cut-off” date you are at a huge disadvantage. The current system for developing and selecting athletes in this country rewards early-maturing athletes who may not have the ability to be elite performers. Late developing athletes are excluded, cut, and consequently leave the sport or are segregated to recreation program that limit training opportunities and instruction from advanced coaches. These late developers may have substantial long-term potential but they are eliminated from the talent pool prematurely.

Another key component of creating the optimal training environment is the concept of deliberate practice versus deliberate play. The current youth sporting culture in the U.S. has this backwards to a large degree. In the early stages of athletic development (6-13 years of age) deliberate play must dominate their sport/athletic exposures. Rigorous play over practice early in life is more effective because this is a period of discovery. Kids are forming their attitudes (likes/dislikes) toward sports and fitness and with unstructured play they aren’t constantly hammered with negative consequences (losing, getting cut, yelled at by coach) that could deter them from long-term participation.

At this stage kids are and should be more intrinsically motivated (fun, being with friends) and we want to fill their emotional buckets so they keep coming back to the “physical fitness” well. They don’t require nor do they need much in the way of “feedback” from coaches, who just need to create an environment where kids feel that it’s safe to take chances and experiment with movement. This is the proving ground from which elite athletes are molded.

Deliberate practice on the other hand offers highly specific and rigorous training. Kids start to train like adults and that brings along with it plenty of social consequences and pressures. Kids at this point are motivated more by extrinsic factors such as winning, scholarships, awards, trophies and recognition. A little bit of the joy begins to leak from those emotional buckets as they begin to sacrifice time with friends and family because they feel pressured to take sports more seriously now that the aforementioned extrinsic factors are at stake. If too much emphasis is placed upon those extrinsic factors we run the possibility of depleting them emotionally. With no joy or passion the drive to excel will also be vanquished.

So beyond this complex mish-mash of environmental influences what are the essential cogs, the “holy grail” for developing elite athletes?

It must start with kids that are intrinsically motivated and the process must be encouraged rather than dominated by coaches, i.e. the coach can’t want “it” more than the athlete does. The essential cogs to the athletic development machine are commitment and motivation from the athletes. They must be driven by their desire to master the task and the willpower to persevere through the inevitable ups and downs inherent in sport.

From a coaching perspective it is essential that we match the environment to the needs of the performer, in other words we have to meet them where they are. As an example you may have skilled athlete that fatigues easily and his/her skills deteriorate at the end of games or even a competitive season. The answer is not additional skill practice but rather we must improve their stamina and endurance in order for that athlete to express their skill consistently throughout an entire game/season.

Coaches also need to maintain the delicate balance between being comfortable and uncomfortable. We want the athletes to succeed and build confidence by exposing them to things they can handle but we also have to (when the time is right) encourage them to test themselves on that uncomfortable edge so they can continue to improve, being mindful not to overwhelm them.

Finally, all coaches must firmly comprehend that talent development is not a linear process. Kids bodies are always changing; they can literally be a different person from day to day due to the maturation and growth process. Emotional and social development is also a factor that must be considered. Kids are experiencing many things for the first time when everything in their life is in a constant state of discovery, experimentation and formation. Often your “outstanding” 12 year-old may hit a wall and lose all sense of coordination, often times without explanation. But this “regression” may be just what that athlete needs to make the next leap forward in their development. These factors are largely outside of our control but we do have to understand them so that we are prepared to handle it in order to adapt the training environment to meet the current needs of that athlete.

From an athletic standpoint it is critical that our athletes be highly adaptable. This means they must have robust and broad athletic exposures during the developmental years. Athletes who posses a large foundation of non-specific athleticism can cope with predictable and unpredictable situations and are able to succeed in any environment.

As an example the International Track and Field Association recently introduced a change that involved when the athlete had to release the pole when they go over the crossbar. That may not seem like a drastic change but those athletes had spent their entire careers training one way. If a change is introduced in your sport how well will your athletes adapt to it? Will they be able to handle the change? Without highly adaptive athletic ability it would be very difficult and could result in a significant drop in performance. Sports rules are always subject to change especially given the increased attention paid to player safety. Prepare for the unexpected in sport change is inevitable!

In summary, athletes have yet to reach their ultimate ceiling of potential where the perfect genetic profile is a prerequisite for future success. The ability to indentify a single gene (or sequence of genes) that is responsible for sports performance (say a baseball pitching gene) is just not possible. And if and when it does become a reality we still won’t know for sure until they have proven themselves to be an elite athlete. And this would only be possible after the developmental process has been “lived through.”

Genetics should not be a consideration when developing young athletes because it is a factor that lies well outside of our influence and would be rather pointless to pursue.  Kids have enough trouble getting adequate sleep, eating enough fruit and vegetable, and gaining a diverse athletic foundation outside of a sport-specific environment. Once these areas have been addressed then we can start to tackle more advanced concepts like post/pre competition nutrition, examining genetic profiles and addressing an individuals’ fast-twitch muscle fiber composition. But in reality, most kids will never get to that point during their school years (K-12). Leave the advanced stuff alone until college where the universities have the personnel, resources and facilities to adequately address them.

Our time is better spent meeting the kids where they are by improving the environment and overhauling a developmental infrastructure that has become strikingly flawed! When these areas are adequately addressed then we have a better chance of providing those that do have the essential cogs (mental durability and the will to master their craft-intrinsic motivation) for athletic success to reach their ultimate potential.


[2] Joe, Baker and Steve Cobley. Talent Identification and Development in Sport: International Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.