Saturday, June 22, 2013

What's The Plan?

When we watch professional sports we expect the athletes to perform their best each and every time they step onto the field/court/ice. In reality that is impossible! For example there are 162 games played in a Major League Baseball season covering 6 months that’s 27 games a month, it’s a massive workload. There is very little room for travel let alone an off day. And if a team like the Tigers play well and make the playoffs they could add another month’s worth of games at the back end of the season when theoretically they’d like to be playing their best.

Now before I make you feel to sorry for these guys it should be noted they stay in the finest of hotels, have private flights, and a team of therapists, strength and conditioning coaches and various other professionals who tend to their every need. That said the season is grueling and they simply must pace themselves to survive until September when they need to be at their best.

Justin Verlander the Tigers best pitcher is off to a relatively mediocre start by his standards, though he is still pitching very well by any other measure. But Verlander is a seasoned veteran now and he went into last off-season feeling he needed to back off on his throwing and training program. The Tigers played in the World Series last fall so their season didn’t end until close to November. With only a few short weeks to recover before heading back to Spring Training to prepare for this season in early February, Verlander felt he needed to ease into his normal routine.

The results indicate Verlander may have sacrificed some of his early season success to ensure he is giving himself the best opportunity to succeed when the games matter most in the fall. Now if you spend $150.00 to take your family to watch him pitch a game in early June you want to see him at his best. But realize if he pushes himself to his limits too much to early he won’t have the reserves left to kick his performance up when needed in September.

A few years ago at a seminar I heard the Strength and Conditioning coach of the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs state that they likely sacrificed games early in the year because their focus was on playing their best in the playoffs. If you push your athletes to aggressively early in the season or in the pre-season they will peak to soon and won’t be able to sustain that high level of play, it’s impossible!

I worked with a young athlete this past winter as he prepared for his baseball season in the spring. This young man’s goal was to get stronger and add muscle (at 5’9 and 118 pounds he was extremely thin). During his assessment I found he had a rather significant movement imbalance.  In the two months I had with him bulking him up by lifting heavy weights would have made his movement imbalance much worse and likely would have exposed him to unnecessary injury. So we had to take a more conservative approach. Especially considering that this young man’s team had very high expectations for the upcoming season.

His program was geared toward making him more durable so he could play his best when it mattered the most. His team had a terrific season that finally ended with a 1-0 defeat in the state championship game and he played his best at the end of the season. If he was pushed to hard in the pre-season he very well could have missed out on a terrific experience with his team. As an aside this young man weighed exactly the same after 2 months of training and yet he was much stronger. Am I telling you that it’s possible to get stronger without adding body weight? Yes, very possible but that’s a story for another day.

The point of all of this is simple, when it comes to sport participation you have to have a plan.  The training plan needs to be dictated by the athlete and teams ultimate goal. If the goal is a state championship in high school baseball you want to be at your best in late May and early June and your training plan should be geared with that in mind.

This is yet another reason why early specialization in youth sports can be such a problem. Often young athletes play year round on multiple teams and they are pushed to be at their best every time they step out to compete. If it’s unrealistic for professionals it’s downright reckless to expect this from still developing children.  Remember the pros have all the advantages that come with being a highly compensated adult living in a tightly controlled environment. It should also be noted that the most successful pro athletes have spent their entire lives building up the work capacity and resiliency to handle a long competitive season. Children are much more vulnerable to physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion when subjected to the non-stop circus atmosphere of club and travel sports not to mention that harrowing stage of life known as puberty. What’s the goal of these club teams? To win a pee-wee hockey tournament with 8 year olds…

Until the high school years youth sport should be centered on fun and developing FUNdamental skills while participating in multiple sports seasonally. Once they enter high school if they have the desire to pursue one sport at least they have the safeguard of the breaks between seasons, you can’t play for you high school soccer team for 9 months. It’s much easier to plan for a season that lasts only 2-3 months and provides a tangible goal that can bring the team together such as a state championship.

Professionals who understand youth development designed the interscholastic athletic season with logic in mind. It may not be perfect but it works pretty well. Year round youth sports and club teams are designed without any logic or structure by people with little understanding of the art and science of guiding children.

I am sure you have heard that old saying; “failing to plan is a plan to fail.” Check back with me in September when ideally the Tigers and Justin Verlander will be playing their best baseball of the season. That’s their plan!

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