Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Gift That Keeps on Giving...

My wife and I recently became parents to a new puppy. I was a bit cool to the idea at first and largely agreed to it because my wife really wanted one. It was going to be “her” dog to snuggle with after a long day at work. Well a funny thing happened the dog has become “daddy’s” girl much to my wife’s chagrin.

How did this happen? In one word; play! I play with the puppy all the time. I am a strong advocate for free play with kids and beyond the physical benefits the emotional effects are tremendously beneficial. Free-spirited play has the power to create deep connections between parents and their children (apparently with your dog as well).

When I was a kid I used to get so excited when my dad got home from work so that we could play. I am sure you have experienced something similar from your childhood or with your own kids. When I get home the puppy runs to the door to greet me and is ready for some playtime.  I thought this was a very good example of the far reaching “side effects” of free play.

I think play is so powerful because it’s fun! In our hectic time crunched wired in society free spirited play is a tremendous release. As a coach it’s my goal to keep kids in the game of sport and fitness for life and play is a great ally to have in this effort. If kids have fun they are going to want to come back for more. They will enjoy coming to your practices and associate your coaching and the sport (or activity) that you represent with something that is enjoyable and desirable.

And as coaches (on the field of play or in the game of life) our job is more than getting kids better at sports because most of the will not grow up to be professional athletes but they will grow up to be professional people; husbands and wives.

We want kids to understand how to take care of their bodies and to have a positive association with that. It’s our job to shape those behaviors now so we don’t have to fix them later.

By making sport and fitness fun it’s not just another thing that they have to do. Most kids from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed are scheduled to the maximum. They are told you are going to do this or you have to do that, and this is how you are going to do it. Play gives you the opportunity to include kids in the process and gives them the opportunity to co-create.

This allows you to create an atmosphere around your program or team that kids feel proud to be a part of. The environment that they helped create becomes an excellent tool to teach kids how they want to live.

Kids need that third place outside of the home and school where they can be themselves and practice being a good kid and being a leader so when they go outside (school, home, community) they are a positive example of what it means to be a good kid.

One of the other big bonuses of game play is fitness and conditioning. It is an excellent tool coaches and parents can use to get kids in terrific shape. Games like tag are what I refer to skill dense while an exercise like a bicep curl is skill light. Just as a vegetable like kale is nutrient dense because of all the beneficial nutrients (antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber) tag is infused with acceleration, deceleration, change of direction, reflexes, body awareness. While a bicep curl (makes you look good?) is much like a cookie (makes you feel good?) the benefits are very limited.

Play is a gift! It is a tool that has the potential to create relationships and connections that provides us with the opportunity to shape great young people and help them think for themselves. This culture that they help to create has the power to make their lives better and the lives of those they interact with. I have invested quite a bit of play and energy into our puppy and she has definitely made out home a better place.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Slow and Steady Won't Win This Race...

While we are not even to the fall season yet (though unbelievably close, where did summer go!) some athletes and their parents are already looking ahead to the winter sports season. They are looking for a an activity that will help them get in shape for basketball or hockey and they think running cross country sounds like a great idea. The popular belief is that by running for long distances you will build a base or reserve of conditioning that will serve the athlete well heading into the winter.

Before I go any further it is important to note that if long distance running is your main form of competition this does not apply to you at least not completely. There must be some type of specificity when training for any sport and for cross-country you have to be prepared mentally and physically to run for long distances. Though developing young endurance athletes would be well served to read on.

Let’s first consider the type of running that is involved in cross country it demands a steady pace throughout the race with the exception of the final kick where a runner may exceed that steady state to separate from a competitor or to run a personal best time. The pace of running in cross country is not at or beyond your limit if it were your body would shut down from depletion of energy supply due to a lack of oxygen. The strategy is to build tolerance to run as fast as you can over a given distance at just under your limit. In other words you are training your body to run not to fast but not to slow.

In team sports such as basketball and hockey that type of training will get you beat! These sports demand quick and short bursts of explosive speed that last mere seconds followed by a slow jog, walk, or complete stop to recover for another short burst of speed. The running in most team sports covers very shorts distances with multiple starts and stop with change of directions. These short runs are at or beyond your maximal limit and they occur frequently. Running at steady rate of speed below your limit in straight line will not provide the conditioning you need.

Watch any football, soccer or basketball game and rarely will an athlete run for more than 20 yards in a straight line and the duration will be somewhere around 4 seconds or less. You will never hear a broadcaster or a coach say that the athlete was so fast that they missed a play. On the other hand you will often see and hear about an athlete that came up just short because they couldn’t get their fast enough.

Soccer players typically run five to eight miles in the course of a match and alter their direction or speed every 6 seconds. A study of an English Premiership striker broke down that distance by type of activity. In the course of running more than 10 miles, the player walked 4 1/2 miles, jogged 3 1/2 miles, strode one mile, moved backward or sideways one mile and sprinted about a 1/2 mile. In all these athletes spend around 60% of their time walking or standing and though they may have jogged (steady state like cross country) 3 ½ miles it was not consecutively. [1]

In the NFL the average plays lasts only 4 seconds and the ratio of action to inaction is approximately 10 to 1. The average game has 11 minutes of action with players’ standing/milling around for 67 minutes. [2] Running in a straight line for 3-4 miles isn’t going to prepare you for the demands of this sport either.

There are three types of skeletal muscle fibers (slow, intermediate, and fast) and although some muscles have predominance of one fiber type, most contain a mixture of fiber types, which are most suitable to a particular activity.

The slow muscle fibers are fatigue resistant and are best utilized during endurance activities such as running a marathon or maintaining our posture all day long. Fast muscle fibers fatigue quickly but are capable of producing great force and speed such as jumping to dunk a basketball ball or throwing a fastball. And the intermediate muscles fibers serve that middle ground for activities that require a blend of speed and endurance such as running a 200-meter dash.

Everyone’s muscles contain a mixture of the three fiber types, though some people have relatively more of one variety. These differences are genetically initiated but can also be modified through an athletes’ training. For example marathon runners have a high percentage of slow muscle fibers (about 80%), while those of sprinters contain a high percentage of  (about 60%) of fast fibers. *

I am sure you have heard this phrase before; what came first the chicken or the egg? Maybe the athletes with a greater reliance on slow muscle fibers preferentially choose endurance events because they excelled at it and quite possibly the athletes with a predominance of fast fibers choose short burst activities like team sports and sprints because their fibers are most suited for them.

But that middle ground those intermediate fibers can be influenced through training particularly in pre-pubescence.  It should also be noted that these “swayable” fibers will revert to the prior status once the exercise stimulus has been removed, so quite literally use them for speed or lose them to mediocrity.

Speed is a commodity that allows for success in all sports and it must be prioritized before any other form of conditioning. Once you have the speed than you can work to build the endurance but the reverse is unlikely to happen this is particularly so in regard to developing young athletes.

It should also be noted that children’s response to exercise is mainly non-specific. Children will improve their endurance for example, just by virtue of doing any type of exercise whether that is short burst activity or steady state exercise like running a mile. So if you want a child to improve their endurance you don’t necessarily have to have them run at a steady state for a prolonged period of time. They will get just as much benefit and even more through short burst activities like tag. Steady state is boring for many kids and it doesn’t require the multi-directional speed and agility development that must be developed in the skill hungry years. Endurance, like strength is a fitness marker and can be developed and improved upon throughout most of the life span. Speed must be developed early; you can’t catch up to it later.

Endurance is an important quality for any athlete but it’s how you develop that endurance and when that is key. Young children should play games like tag and capture the flag, lots of all out bursts of speed. For the more mature kids that want more of a structured-conditioning program they should focus on running sprints that cover short to moderate distances (10-60 yards). They should do so repeatedly with short rest periods and they should go as long as they can maintain the quality of the work. For example one of my favorite conditioning drills for athletes is to have them sprint for as long and hard as they can for a defined period of time, say 7 seconds. After that time elapses we mark the point they reached. They will walk back to the starting line usually a 1:30-2:00 minute rest and then repeat (maximum of 10). The workout ends when they can no longer make it to their marker within that same defined time. Some kids may have a short conditioning workouts but there are ways to make up for that (that’s another article in itself).

All that said, we should never discourage a child from taking part in any type of physical activity in the rare case that a child does enjoy running for long distances. However, just like we monitor their dietary intake (just because they like apples with peanut butter they shouldn’t have that for every meal) we have to ensure they experience a broad variety of activities to develop a balanced movement foundation.


[3] Marieb, Elaine Nicpon. Essentials of Human Anatomy & Physiology. San Francisco: Pearson/Benjamin Cummings, 2006. Print.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Is it Time to Take a Head(er) Count...

When it comes to youth sports, concussions aren't confined to the football field.

Soccer players – especially girls – also experience the dizziness, nausea, blurry vision and headaches that can accompany head trauma.

The American Journal of Sports Medicine studied the rate of concussions in high school athletics from 2008 through 2010.

Of the 1,936 reported concussions during the study, 47 percent were suffered playing or practicing football. No. 2 on the list: girls’ soccer, at 8.2 percent.

A 2013 report from the American Academy of Neurology found that football has the highest rate of concussions in high school sports (1.55 per 1,000 games), with girls soccer placing second (0.97 per 1,000 games). [1]

Doctors and coaches cite multiple factors for the high number of brain injuries in girls’ soccer. Among them:

Girls’ necks and heads are smaller than their male counterparts, giving their brains less protection. Men tend to have stronger necks, and a stronger neck can help reduce the risk of a concussion by slowing down the moving of your head.

Inspired by iconic heroes like Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Abby Wambach — plus lured by potential college scholarships — girls are playing more aggressively, sometimes recklessly so.

When in midair, boys appear to have better spatial awareness, recognizing potential collisions and avoiding them.

Girls may be more inclined to report concussions than boys.

“None of (these factors) are conclusive,” said Dr. William Perry, the associate director of neuropsychiatry and behavioral medicine at UC San Diego Health System. “While it’s a hypothesis, we just don’t know for sure.”

Interestingly, the physical act of heading a soccer ball is not believed to be one of the major reasons for head trauma.

Said Perry: “Essentially, there is no data supporting heading the ball causing concussions.”

But new research has shown that players who hit the ball with their heads often have brain abnormalities similar to people who are known to have had concussions.

Dr. Michael Lipton, a neuroradiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and lead author of the study suggests that while a definitive cause and effect relationship between heading the ball and brain injury cannot be inferred, soccer should start keeping a “head count” to monitor the number of headers players use in a given game. The head count would be analogous to the “pitch count” in baseball that ensures pitchers don’t throw too many pitches in a single outing. [2]

The study authors pointed out that soccer players head the ball six to 12 times each game, and the ball can travel more than 50 mph each time. During practice, players can expect to hit the ball with their head 30 or more times. While one header probably won't result in any traumatic brain damage, researchers worried that repeatedly hitting the ball would have lasting effects.

"Repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that leads to degeneration of brain cells over time," Lipton explained.

 I will refer to one of my all time favorite quotes from Winston Churchill, “scientists should always be on tap but never on top.” While this research is definitely valuable in that it raises awareness to a potential safety hazard in youth sports the advice falls short practically. Most headers will occur in practice drills and though at much slower speeds than what is experienced in games there is no reasonable way for all of those headers to be accounted for.

More practically the best strategy to avoid any potential cumulative effect of heading the ball would be to make sure soccer athletes do not play on more than one team in any given season and limiting the exposure to the sport to a maximum of 6-9 non-consecutive months a year.  Ideally young athletes would play sports seasonally and that practice alone would significantly reduce the number of cumulative stress related injuries in any sport. However, in reality kids play some sports (soccer being on of the primary ones) nearly year round without a break in the action. In that case a header count may be valid but would require a designated official (headcounter if you will) to track the numbers but again would likely only be possible in a game setting. Executing headers with proper technique would also be wise in addition to a good strength and conditioning program in this case with an emphasis on muscles of the core and neck.

Another notion that was referenced previously is also worth expanding on; “When in midair, boys appear to have better spatial awareness, recognizing potential collisions and avoiding them.”

“Honestly, I don’t know a good way to word this. But if you watch, girls will focus on the ball and don’t see anything else around them when they go up for the ball. If it happens that a girl’s in the way, they end up colliding.  Guys maybe have a little bit more peripheral vision. And I think guys manipulate their bodies better and are better at avoiding contact than girls.”

Peter Stogsdill, Head Girls Soccer Coach Westview High in San Diego, California.

I posed this hypothesis to a local high school soccer coach whom coaches both the boys and girls at the varsity level.

I am not sure I agree or disagree.  My theory is that boys play other sports growing up, like baseball, football and basketball.  Those sports require hand eye coordination. I think girls are not as used to balls in the air as boys are.  I don't know if that makes a difference in awareness or not but just an opinion.

I loved this coach’s answer because it comes from someone with years of experience in the trenches and it also conveniently jibes with my strong belief on just how crucial the developmental years can be for the long-term performance and health of young athletes.

Girls often are not exposed to a diversity of sports during childhood and adolescence so they never develop certain fundamental abilities like how to sense, prepare and absorb impact, or the ability to track objects in flight. As an example a term I am sure you have heard many times before attached to a boy or even man that doesn’t throw a ball well is that he “throws like a girl.” This is of course a very misinformed concept. Boys and girls that don’t throw well is largely the result of a lack of exposure during a sensitive period when the skill of throwing is most optimally “learned.”  If a skill isn’t experienced and experimented with during the developmental years the skill(s) will never fully mature.

So the idea that girls may lack the spatial awareness or hand-eye-coordination necessary to jump up in a crowd and efficiently head a soccer ball is very legitimate in my view.  And while boys' gross motor skills (running, jumping, throwing) develop slightly faster, these underdeveloped abilities in females are more attributable to lack of experience. Girls can develop these abilities if they gain the appropriate experience and receive proper coaching. Again think about the throwing concept from above. I know plenty of female athletes that throw well with a mature throwing pattern and many boys that display an immature pattern.  However, boys do tend to be more physically aggressive and impulsive, as revealed by studies of their brains. The pleasure center of the brain actually lights up more for boys when they take risks. That's not to say that girls aren't active and risk-taking, only that on average boys are more so.  Heading a soccer ball is a fairly aggressive action especially in a game setting when going up in a crowd of competitors.

The Elephant in The Room

Children don't understand the word "concussion" very well. So what you'll find (is that) athletes will report symptoms but they don't attach the word concussion to it. If you ask if they've suffered a concussion, they'll say "no." But if you ask if they were hit in the head and saw stars or got dizzy, they may say "yes."

So coaches and parents should talk to their children in terms of symptoms and not necessarily using the word "concussion."

And it’s very important that the coach creates an environment where the young athlete is not fearful off being chastised for being a “baby” or “not tough.” If a child is fearful of losing playing time or being the subject of ridicule from coaches or teammates they are likely to withhold/hide vital information that could prevent a serious injury.

There are likely a host of factors and not a sole culprit for the prevalence of concussions in youth sports in general and girls soccer specifically.  The things that are within our control to prevent head traumas are well thought out long-term athletic development programs, safe and properly fitted equipment, coaching of fundamental sport techniques such as heading the ball, and keenly aware coaches who create an environment that encourages athletes to speak up if they experience any symptoms.


Related Information and Resources

This is an excellent resource to post in the locker room or on the refrigerator.
Youth Concussions Signs and Symptoms Poster

Sample return to play protocol:

Athletes must be symptom free after each stage and pass no more than one stage per day.

1.Ride a stationary for 15 minutes.

2.Run for 10 to 15 minutes.

3.Introduce lower-body exercise. For example, run for five minutes, and then add pushups and sit-ups. Repeat the circuit once more. Adding pushups and sit-ups forces head movement.

4.Practice without contact. For example, participate in sport-specific drills.

5.Return to full practice.

6.Play games.


*Girls playing high school soccer suffer concussions 68 percent more often than boys playing the same sport (Winter 2007-2008 edition of Journal of Athletic Training)

*Girls appear more susceptible to concussions in sports like soccer and basketball than boys (Winter 2007-2008 edition of Journal of Athletic Training)

*One study of collegiate soccer players found that females had 26 percent less total mass in their head and neck than males

*Roughly 40 percent of soccer concussions are the result of collisions between players. (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission)

*Approximately 13 percent are due to headers. (U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission)

*Female soccer players are twice as likely to get concussed as males. (British Journal of Sports Medicine)

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Do Athletes Pick The Sport or Will The Sport Pick The Athlete...

While watching certain national or professional sporting events have you ever noticed that the athletes seem to share similar body types? In basketball for instance most of the athletes are taller than the average person. And in sports like soccer, hockey and track and field for the most part the athletes have similar builds.  Which leads to the question how relevant is body type to athletic success?

At the elite level of sports, such as the Olympic games, body type can account for 25-60% of an athlete’s success. *

With this bit of information in mind should body type be a factor in the development of young athletes?  Before I answer that question let’s first examine the process of indentifying and describing an athlete’s body type.

Body typing or more scientifically speaking somatotyping is a physique rating system used to identify and organize athletes into categories associated with various levels of genetic potential or limitation for specific activities. An individual is genetically programmed to demonstrate components of each of the three body types but may demonstrate predominance toward one of them.

The first body type is the endomorph. This body type tends to be large in size and carry more fat mass and muscle mass. They excel in areas of pure or brute strength. Think offensive lineman in football or a discus thrower in track and field. They tend to be less and agile and lack endurance qualities.

The ectomorph would best be described as thin and tall or long limbed. Think professional basketball players, wide receivers in football and long and high jumpers in track and field.  Their long limbs provide advantages in generating speed and power in short burst activities like jumping, top end-running speed and throwing velocity. These athletes often have slouched posture and may lack stability at certain joints (knees, elbows, lumbar).

The third and final body type is termed the mesomorph. The mesomorph tends to be well muscled and looks mature for their age while possessing an ideal blend of all athletic qualities such as speed, power, strength and endurance. Think running backs or linebackers in football and short sprinters in track and field.  According to the Medford Boys Growth Study, outstanding junior high school athletes tended toward mesomorphy. * Athletes in this category may also prove to be more durable. A study of national soccer players based on their body type showed that injury rates increased as body types moved from the stronger, sturdier mesomorphs toward the more fragile ectomorphs. *

In my experience as a coach working with large groups of children it becomes clear that rarely does a single body type predominate. Rather most children present with a combination of the three main body types. Though these athletes are fully matured let’s look at the Detroit Tigers to provide examples of “hybrid” body types. Doug Fister (ectomorph) and Prince Fielder (endomorph) are clear examples of a dominant body type but most of the other players have multiple qualities. Justin Verlander is a tall and long limbed athlete but also has the all around qualities of the mesomorph. Miguel Cabrera is predominately an endomorph but has trained himself toward more mesomorphy.

Verlander and Cabrera serve as prime examples of the influence strength and conditioning can have on an athlete’s body type. Verlander has gained significant muscle mass since his early days with the Tigers when he was very thin and it has enhanced his performance and durability. Cabrera entered the sport as a 19 year-old with more of a mesomorphic build but as he matured he grew into more of an endomorph. Last season he was forced to switch to a position on the field that required more agility and quickness and he transformed his body toward more of an balanced build.

In prepubescent athletes training can most definitely improve their strength and endurance but likely will not push an ectomorph toward a more well muscled build, the hormonal environment is just not present at this stage of development for that to happen. The most common change is associated with a decrease in body fat that would influence a change toward decreasing endomorphy.

As children mature and now possess the hormonal environment to build muscle mass more significant changes can be made for the taller, thinner athlete (as well as in the other body types as well). However, especially for the thinner and thicker athletes, training and other influences such as nutrition and rest/recovery must be continued to maintain these changes to their body type.

Now on to the question of whether or not a child’s body type should influence their sport of choice…

In countries that adhere to a long term athletic developmental model (LTAD) body type certainly plays a distinct role in guiding a child to participate in activities that they are more suited for from a body build perspective. However, this only occurs in the later stages of development after the young athlete has experienced a warehouse of athletic and movement skills.  This also allows the coach time to see what body type and skills the athlete will eventually show, and prevents a late start in an event in which an athlete may eventually become a champion.

Why should we continue to encourage children to participate in a variety of sports early on if body type is so influential in long-term success?

We want to expose all kids to as many movement patterns and sporting activities as possible because we want to develop the complete athlete without regard to their body type. However as coaches and parents we must have an underlying understanding that their body type significantly influences the chances of them becoming an elite athlete.

That said we still want to expose them to a variety of activities to develop their nervous system so when it is the right time to specialize in an activity that they are ideally suited for his/her problem solving capabilities are going to be superior. This is in contrast to the course of “pigeon-holing” a child into activities only because it “fits” their body type. A single-minded focus early on will shrink their overall athletic base and will leave them with little margin for error.

In the United States we need to re-embrace the idea that children should be exposed to a variety of sports not only to improve their overall athleticism but as importantly once the world of athletic discovery has been “seen” through their eyes they would naturally gravitate toward the activities they are most suited for.

The more things they are exposed to and the more things they learn to like will increase the odds that they will find activities that they are good at. This leads to adherence and a life long love of sport and physical fitness and that is and should be the ultimate goal in youth athletic development.

An early and diverse athletic/movement experience is absolutely critical for young athletes to reach their potential whether that is on the field of play or in the game of life. This early diverse exposure ultimately creates a buffer zone that allows children to discover alternatives that may not seem like a great fit at first but they will grow to appreciate as they mature. But if they put all of their athletic eggs in one basket early in life and discover in the teen years that they no longer like that sport they may be left without a physical outlet.

So while a child’s body type should be a consideration, particularly if you are ascribing to a long-term plan it should never be used from discouraging a child from playing a port they enjoy. Because you never know, there are always exceptions. A child may experience a massive growth spurt that changes everything or they may be inspired by an Olympic performance from a non-traditional sport while some sports like baseball have athletes of all shapes and sizes. The broader their athletic base is the better their chances are for becoming one of those exceptions to the rule.


* Hartman. Bill. (2007). Developmental Essentials.  2nd Edition.