Saturday, March 22, 2014

What Young Athletes Should Know About the NFL Combine...

Every February the NFL holds it’s annual dog and pony show otherwise known as the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

More than 300 NFL hopefuls will be poked, prodded and tested perhaps more than any other job applicant.

One result can make all the difference.

But should it?

A slower-than-expected time in the 40-yard dash can see a prospect tumble in the draft (happened to Tom Brady, that turned out pretty well to say the least for the New England Patriots). An impressive all-around performance can help a player (Mike Mamula) rocket up the board, by the way ask any die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan about Mamula and be prepared to absorb a prophanity-laced tirade!

How much emphasis do NFL organizations put on a player’s combine results? It varies, depending on a team’s draft philosophy and needs.

“We use it is as a deal-breaker,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “If you have a running back that runs a 4.9 in the 40 and our research says no fullback in history that ran a 4.9 has ever started, now you’re playing against the odds. Maybe that’s the one guy that can do it but you are really fighting the odds. We’re not building a team of exceptions.” (1)

Veteran players consider the combine a measuring stick, not a defining end-all.
“The combine should just be used as a tool for teams to evaluate players,” Eagles All-Pro guard Evan Mathis said. “There have been plenty of players that have performed terribly at the combine yet had great NFL careers and vice versa. Football ability and potential is best seen on game film.” (1)

I looked back at the top combine performers from the years 2006-2009 to figure out how many of them were truly elite NFL players. I used 2006-2009 because I felt it would allow sufficient time for an athlete to establish himself in the league. For the most part the top performers in most categories were either complimentary players or not in the league at all. There were very few standout players, with the exception of Calvin Johnson (Detroit Lions All-Pro) in 2007 and Chris Johnson in 2008 (Among the top NFL running backs for 6 seasons). (2)

It should be noted that once a player makes it in the NFL you never hear about their combine numbers. No one knows nor do they care what Peyton Manning ran the 40-yard dash in. All we need to know is that he is an elite quarterback who just gets the job done irrespective of his gross athletic qualities.

The reason behind this seemingly low success rate? The combine only measures gross athleticism in largely predictable situations.  The athletes know what the test is ahead of time so they can train specifically for the test. The problem is that these predictable tests don’t reflect the true nature of sport. Sport, especially football is very chaotic and unpredictable. Very rarely do you run straight ahead or run between two designated points with known start and stop points. In the game you are usually carrying a ball while getting harassed, to put it lightly by very mean and angry dudes that want to smack you into the ground. Track runners have elite speed but they hardly ever make it in the NFL because they generally like to avoid contact. One quality that is very difficult to measure is mental toughness (dealing with adversity) and I would say a slight bend toward recklessness to be a successful football player.

Displaying your athleticism in track shorts and shoes is one thing but when you throw on some pads in front of 75,000 screaming fans it changes everything. At this stage of development you want football players first over athletes. Developing gross athleticism should be the goal during the 10-15 years of age stage but after that if you have aspirations to play at higher levels of sport you need to start to learn how to apply that gross athleticism to sport specific situations. However in this country we neglect the very early stages of athletic development (due to early specialization and lack of free play) and it throws the whole process out of whack. Gross athleticism and sport specific skills built on top of a poor fundamental foundation will never allow athletes to reach their full long-term potential.

Another nugget I gleaned from the NFL Combine is risk aversion and this is an issue I definitely see in the adolescent stages of athletic development. At the combine some prospects refuse to take part in some of the activities out of fear or on advice from an agent. The idea is that if you don’t run a test well it could negatively affect your “stock” and hurt your chances of being chosen in the NFL Draft. This risk may be warranted from a financial perspective because falling even a few slots could cost the athlete millions of dollars. But the message it sends is not a good one. “I am afraid of looking bad or failing so I’ll just pass (or punt for football fans).”

If I were evaluating players and a prospect pulled out of testing that would be a red flag for me. Athletes should look forward to and embrace challenges! Even if you fail or the result isn’t what you expected you can use that outcome to fuel better preparation. The best professionals in their field always push the boundaries and yes they make some mistakes but they don’t allow it to deter them in fact they use the bad results to improve and refine their approach so they do better the next time.

I see this mentality starting to trickle down into youth sport. A good example is in high school tennis. Generally speaking you can challenge athletes ahead of you to win their position on the team. For instance, if you are #3 singles you can challenge the #2 singles player for his spot. If #3 wins he takes the #2 position. What will often happen is #2 will come down with a mysterious illness or the court will jump up and bite his ankle leaving him unable to accept the challenge. Delay and stall is a tactic best left out of youth sports.

Part of youth athletic development is coaching kids how to accept and embrace challenges. That is the only way to fulfill your ultimate potential! The road to long-term success on the field of play and in the game of life is filled with potholes, barricades and massive U-turns. As coaches and parents we need to do a better job of teaching kids the importance of the process and developing good work habits. Kids can become so paralyzed by the fear of not getting certain results they would rather sit on the sidelines and hope for the best while avoiding the pain of failure. They need to realize that within that pain lays their true potential!


Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Detroit Tigers, Spring Training and Young Athletes...

Spring Training is always a welcome time of year for me because it’s a sign that spring is right around the corner and that the worst of this brutal winter is behind us.

The Detroit Tigers are in Lakeland, Florida preparing for the upcoming Major League Baseball season and several themes have emerged that provide valuable lessons for young athletes.

I am going to contrast the approach between two athletes that are taking two very different approaches as they prepare for the upcoming season.

First up is Josh Hamilton of the Los Angeles Angels. For a 5-season stretch (2008-2012) Hamilton was amongst the best players in the sport but last season he slumped terribly and was beset by injuries. Hamilton entered Spring Training last year at about 225 pounds, roughly 20 pounds lighter than usual after starting an offseason natural-juice diet, and finished the year at 217. His goal this offseason was to add a few pounds, in a healthy manner, in order to play at a weight he's more comfortable with in the summer.

Hamilton has added an additional 18-pounds. He now weighs 235.

"I've never lifted heavy, heavy weight before, so that's what I'm doing this offseason," Hamilton said on MLB Network. "Just trying to put muscle on, trying to have a couple of cheat days here and there, pizzas, burgers every once in a while. But for the most part trying to stay gluten-free, because that makes my joints feel better. So overall I'm feeling better."(1)

Of note in Hamilton’s situation is the importance of nutrition to peak physical/mental performance (avoiding gluten can lead to better digestion/nutrient absorption and more mental clarity). Using a juice diet to shed weight for a brutally long professional season is not a good idea. Most professional athletes struggle to maintain weight over the competitive season and most of the weight loss comes in the form of lean muscle. Less muscle over the course of a season logically equates to less power and strength while also serving to make the athlete more susceptible to injury.

On that note Hamilton, strained his left calf during a base running drill the fist week of spring training, and will be out of action for a minimum of two weeks. Weight training can be a very effective tool in boosting strength and size but it must be kept in perspective that Hamilton is an athlete first and foremost, not a bodybuilder. Bulking up excessively over an off-season can lead to an athlete that is a little stiffer and not as mobile.

It seems Hamilton suffers from a case of extremes and demonstrates that a little knowledge (juicing will help you lose weight and lifting heavy to bulk up) can lead to big problems. Juicing and weight training can be pieces of a larger preparation puzzle but in Hamilton’s case they likely took up a disproportionate amount of his game plan.

Meanwhile, new Tiger second baseman Ian Kinsler tailored his offseason work to his new home the spacious Comerica Park. He showed up for Spring Training weighing about 10 or 15 pounds less than he ever has when reporting to Spring Training. He doesn't have to worry about losing weight in the Texas heat this summer, and he wanted to regain his speed in order to take advantage of Comerica Park's spacious outfield. Kinsler spent extra time working on his leads on the base paths and stealing bases. (2)

Speed changes everything and size doesn’t matter

Also new to Detroit is manager Brad Ausmus, who came into spring training with an aggressive base running plan, and the players are buying into it.

“I’m trying to change the frame of mind,” he said. “So far, I’ve been very happy with how it’s gone.”

When asked, for instance, if a change of mentality is more important than results, Ausmus said “oh, yeah. We told them from day one that we want them to force the defense to make plays.

“Not only do we need to find out, but they need to find out what they can do. We knew going in we’d be using an aggressive style in spring training, but not faulting someone for getting thrown out.

“We want them to take chances now in the hope it creates an overall mentality of base running for the team. But it’ll get refined as players realize what they can and can’t do.”

Aggressive base running is more of what Ausmus believes in as a manager than a flaw he saw in the team he inherited.

“It would be the same even if we hadn’t traded for Ian Kinsler and signed Rajai Davis,” he said of the new speedsters.

It would be the same because all the players, fast or not, are being allowed the same freedom.

“Right now, they all have the green light,” said Ausmus. “That will change.

“But some of these guys might end up surprising themselves how often they can take extra base.” (3)

“It’s exciting,” Davis said.

“It dominates,” Torii Hunter said.

“It’s what this game is about,” Kinsler said.

Sure, runners won’t always make it. But last year they didn’t always try.

For a little historical perspective in 1915 Fritz Maisel lead the American league in stolen base percentage (51/63, 81%) while Ty Cobb lead the league in total stolen bases (96) but his percentage was much lower at 72%. The lesson, Cobb is a baseball legend while this will be the first and last time you ever read anything about Fritz Maisel. Playing it safe will never allow young athletes to reach their true potential. Mistakes are good because it means you are one step closer to figuring out how to become more successful.

This is an important concept for young athletes and coaches to focus on during the developmental years. I think kids are coached to be so risk averse and to avoid mistakes rather than to use their speed and athleticism to make things happen. Sports should be fun for kids and we should emphasize to them the importance of testing their limits without fear of repercussion, such as being yelled at or even benched. That is what the developmental years are for, to find out just what kind of athlete you can become. Winning should never take center stage in the development of young athletes!

Speed and athleticism provide young athletes with opportunities they may otherwise not get. Consider the case of Billy Burns a minor league outfielder with the Oakland Athletics. Burns was 967th pick in the 2011 draft but has a legitimate shot at earning a job in the Major League despite his size (5’9) because of his speed that has been described by Oakland manager Bob Melvin as; "It's a jailbreak with him all the time. Very few guys I've seen are at top speed within two steps like that. We knew he was fast, but not like this." Also of note Burns was a two-sport star (football, baseball) at his Georgia high school. (4)

Detroit Tiger 2013 Minor League Player of the Year Devon Travis also measures in at 5’9 but has impressed the organization with his work ethic and athleticism. In spite of his non-prototypical build Travis has established himself as a player to watch in the organization. Speed, athleticism, and work will trump size more often than not.

Injury Prevention

Back to the aforementioned Josh Hamilton who underwent surgery for a sports hernia in November 2011 and, as he said, "When you have surgeries, things turn off."

"You start compensating, you start doing [different] things," Hamilton added. "The great thing about professional athletes is they're great compensators. They're the best in the world. So they get out there and try to perform. So this offseason, one of the things I've done is work with a functional movement coach, and getting things turned back on." (1)

Similarly, Detroit Tiger ace pitcher Justin Verlander also developed an injury that may have been the result of compensation. Verlander suggested his inconsistent performance in 2013, might have been related to the core muscle injury that required surgery to repair two months ago.

"What we're thinking is, the adjustments I'm making, the way I was throwing last year, might have had something to do with an injury being there without me knowing," Verlander said, "and that might have been why I had to change my mechanics a little bit. …

"We think it was a very slow kind of injury, and that's why there was never a pop or anything. I was losing strength through my core, and that was what I think -- what we think -- was my body trying to adjust to that and being able to pitch through it."

One difference Verlander said he noted was a tilt in his shoulders. Instead of having everything parallel, he was firing from a lower angle. He's now trying to bring that back to a level. (5)

Young athletes are also great compensators because of their youth and less wear and tear from decades of overuse and abuse. For this reason injury prevention is key to nip these compensations before they blow up into something potentially serious. A good off-field conditioning program can provide the defense young athletes need to stay pain free while also running efficiently on all cylinders.


Another valuable lesson for young athletes is to devote some time not only to skill development but also growing as a leader.

Tiger manager Brad Ausmus raved about Tiger star Miguel Cabrera’s character and personality: “When the best player on the team is playing the game the right way, it’s hard for the 10th-best player on the team not to play the game the right way. So it makes it easier on the coaching staff.”

Cabrera technically didn’t have to be in camp early like every other position player, but he checked in before the mandatory start date. But Cabrera was really early — he made his first appearance in camp more than a week ahead of schedule.

“MVP, Triple Crown, and he shows up a week early,” Ausmus said. “That’s what I was talking about. When you have guys like that. ... You can tell Miggy enjoys being around the clubhouse. He enjoys playing the game. He’s always smiling and laughing.”

Players had to be dressed by 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. Ausmus said he saw Cabrera at the park before 8 and “he already had a sweat on him.”(6)

Commitment and dedication are the essential elements of athletic development and the best athletes in their sport inordinately possess this trait more so than any other factor such as size, strength, or sport specific skills.

MLB introduces technology that will track speed and athleticism

There is a fine line that separates the best athletes in sport from their relatively “ordinary” counterparts. Check out this video and the cool technology Major League Baseball has introduced that do an outstanding job of tracking athletic speed. Just for reference Reed Johnson is a veteran journeyman, an “average” professional player while Jason Heyward is a young athletic future star. Check out how why athletic speed is a real game changer:


Saturday, March 8, 2014

Missing: The Great American Athlete...

Youth sports have become big business and if we aren’t careful it can take over our lives. The cost of participation in Elite, Select or Travel sports goes beyond the significant financial and time commitments… The price of early and excessive participation can also take quite a toll on children physically.

Children who participate in one sport from a young age are more prone to over-use injuries that can linger long into adulthood. Their still developing bodies simply are not strong enough to tolerate the loads that a one-dimensional sporting experience is exposing them to. A child may look like the picture of health and they may certainly look strong but they are kids and by design are still experiencing the peaks and valleys associated with growth and development.

According to Dr. Brian L. Bixler, who specializes in sports medicine and pediatric orthopedics:

Young athletes at younger and younger ages are opting to specialize in one sport. Many times, this leaves little to no offseason or recovery time for young athletes. For instance, a swimmer who also plays soccer can benefit from multiple sports because while the shoulder and upper body are taxed in swimming, the legs and lower body can be taxed in soccer season -- allowing for soft tissue and muscle recovery.

For this reason, Bixler used to urge all his patients to remain in multiple sports. But he has stopped, because he encounters few multiple-sport athletes.

"It's not a reality (anymore)," Bixler said. "What I tell them is, 'That's fine, but prepare to play baseball year round,'" Bixler said.

Bixler's own family has experienced the trend to concentrate on one sport -- all his children opted to specialize in one sport.

That's where developmentally appropriate strength and conditioning (S&C) comes in. If an athlete decides to specialize in one sport, they also need to add a S&C program to prepare their body for the rigors of playing a sport year round.

"It's like everything else in life, you need to adhere to principles," Bixler said. "Athletes have to prepare for the sport, and know how to take a break. ... Your body needs rest time, and you need to listen to pain. Playing year-round can be -- can be -- as safe as multiple sports or changing sports if you do it the right way."

If a player specializes in a sport, the parents should be keenly aware and involved with their child's development. If a child; for example, is pitching in a recreation league during the week and might be needed to pitch for a tournament team on the weekend, who can best communicate with both coaches the workload a player is carrying?

"It's got to be the parent," Bixler said. [1]

While I do agree with Bixler that it can be safe to specialize in one sport if you follow an appropriate off field conditioning program it still is not optimal for developing the best athlete over the long-term.  And there is no doubt that the elite American athlete is in steep decline. Survey the landscape in sports not dominated by American born athletes (football and to a lesser extent NBA basketball) and you will find few elite American athletes. In tennis there is not a top American born player to be found (especially on the men’s side). With USA Soccer just being competitive is considered a success for the American men. There is no doubt that in this country the best athletes no longer play baseball in fact many professional scouts note how they don’t even bother looking for shortstops (position that requires tremendous raw athleticism) in America anymore. The talent pool in Latin American countries is more fertile. USA hockey is so concerned about their long-term and immediate competiveness that they are revamping their developmental program.

In USA Hockey’s own words:

“We have an overabundance of above average players with very few truly elite players at the very highest levels (NHL).”

“Our influx of elite players in the 80’s and 90’s was an influx of athletes, not hockey players.”

Source- USA Hockey Long-Term Athlete Development, From Pond to Podium- High Performance-Program.

Top coaches and talent evaluators at the professional and collegiate level understand and value the all-around athlete. They have recognized the explosion of early specialization and one-dimensional sport participation has devastated the American talent landscape. The 80’s and 90’s was a golden era for American sportsmen and women what has changed in the last twenty years?

The sport entrepreneur has sold us on the fact that to best the best you have to choose early to start accumulating your 10,000 hours to be considered an expert. They have feasted on our fears of inadequacy and our innate sense of logic (more is always better right?). Youth sports and athletic development has been taken away from the scholastic system and from professionals that understand the importance of long-term athletic development.

Youth sports are bigger than they ever have been and the opportunities to play are limitless. But it’s important to understand that this state of saturation and indulgence has not developed better athletes! In fact, all the evidence points out that the current youth sport culture in America has left our fields quite barren of talent.

The sports entrepreneur in many ways is like a good car salesman. He talks us into buying the luxury SUV with all of the bells and whistles when all we needed was the simple compact model. You see it doesn’t matter what you pile on top of the foundation if it can’t support it.  Children’s athletic foundations can’t support a heavy, specialized load. They are better off starting with the basics that will allow them to expand that foundation appropriately. Once they have developed that broad and diverse foundation they will have the tools to support whatever model (sport) you throw on top of it.


Related Info.

Must watch! This short speech covers it all; Don Lucia, University of Minnesota hockey coach:

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Early Sport Specialization: Wise Investment or Risky Business...

Youth sports have become a big business and have even generated what is becoming known as the youth sports entrepreneur. People are sold on the fact that there kids have to pick one sport at a young age and they must play in Elite or Travel leagues in order to make it to the next level because if they play for the local rec. league or public school they won’t make it (NOT TRUE!).

For the sake of argument let’s assume these sport entrepreneurs are on to something. Do the means justify the ends or more simply are the early sport specialization investments likely to pay off with a significant scholarship offer?

Excluding the glamour sports of football and basketball, the average N.C.A.A. athletic scholarship is nowhere near a full ride, amounting to $8,707. In sports like baseball or track and field, the number is routinely as low as $2,000. Even when football and basketball are included, the average is $10,409. Tuition, room and board for N.C.A.A. institutions often costs between $20,000 and $50,000 a year.

Despite common references in the media, there is no such thing as a four-year scholarship. All N.C.A.A. athletic scholarships must be renewed and are not guaranteed year to year, something stated in bold letters on the organization’s web site for student-athletes. Nearly every scholarship can be canceled for almost any reason in any year, although it is unclear how often that happens.

In 2003-2004, N.C.A.A. institutions gave athletic scholarships amounting to about 2 percent of the 6.4 million athletes playing those sports in high school four years earlier. In other words by the time athletes that played a particular sport as a senior in high school reached their fourth season in college athletics only 2% were still getting any scholarship money.

Scholarships are typically split and distributed to a handful, or even, 20, athletes because most institutions do not fully finance the so-called non-revenue sports like soccer, baseball, golf, lacrosse, volleyball, softball, swimming, and track and field. Colleges offering these sports often pay for only five or six full scholarships, which are often sliced up to cover an entire team. Some sports have one or two full scholarships, or none at all.

A fully financed men’s Division I soccer team is restricted to 9.9 full scholarships, for freshmen to seniors. These are typically divvied up among as many as 25 or 30 players. A majority of N.C.A.A. members do not reach those limits and are not fully financed in most of their sports.

Joanie Milhous, whose Villanova field hockey team plays in the competitive Big East Conference, must make tough choices in recruiting. The N.C.A.A. permits Division I field hockey teams to have 12 full scholarships, but her team has fewer.

“I tell parents of recruits I have eight scholarships, and they say: ‘Wow, eight a year? That’s great,’ ” she said. “And I say: ‘No, eight over four or five years of recruits. And I’ve got 22 girls on our team.’ ” [1]

That can mean a $2,000 scholarship, which surprises parents.

Let’s take a look at another sport that is heavily influenced by the sport entrepreneur. Division 1 baseball programs are allotted 11.7 full scholarships to be distributed amongst up to 27 players, full rides are extremely rare in the sport. At many institutions those 11.7 scholarships aren’t fully funded which means the program lacks the funding to reward its full allowance of scholarship money.

For top players scholarships of 40-60% are more realistic. Assuming an $18,000 yearly tuition bill for an in state student a 40% scholarship would still leave you responsible for $10,8000. [2]

On the surface betting on youth sports appears to be a high-risk investment especially when you consider all of the costs associated with participation in Travel and Select teams. So I don’t believe that chasing scholarship dollars is the driving force behind the explosion in the youth sports industry. Many students and their parents think of playing a sport not because of scholarship money, but because it is stimulating and might even give them a leg up in the increasingly competitive process of applying to college.

Chris Taylor the father of two young soccer players said he once calculated what he spent on the boys’ soccer careers.

“Ten thousand per kid per year is not an unreasonable estimate,” he said. “But we never looked at it as a financial transaction. You are misguided if you do it for that reason. You cannot recoup what you put in if you think of it that way. It was their passion — still is — and we wanted to indulge that.

“So what if we didn’t take vacations for a few years.”

Which leads us to the costs that lie outside the financial considerations.

The chase for a scholarship or athletic glory has another side that is rarely discussed. Although those athletes who receive athletic aid are viewed as the ultimate winners, they typically find the demands on their time, minds and bodies in college even more taxing than the long journey to get there.

There are 6 a.m. weight-lifting sessions, exhausting practices, team meetings, study halls and long trips to games. Their varsity commitments often limit the courses they can take. Athletes also share a frustrating feeling of estrangement from the rest of the student body, which views them as the privileged ones. In this setting, it is not uncommon for first- and second-year athletes to relinquish their scholarships.

“Kids who have worked their whole life trying to get a scholarship think the hard part is over when they get the college money,” said Tim Poydenis, a senior at Villanova receiving $3,000 a year to play baseball. “They don’t know that it’s a whole new monster when you get here. Yes, all the hard work paid off. And now you have to work harder.” [1]

Pat Taylor, who started playing soccer at 4, said it took him about a month to accept that his dream of playing varsity soccer on scholarship in college would not happen. He looks back fondly on his youth career but also wishes he knew at the start what he knows now about the process.

“The whole thing really is a crapshoot, but no one ever says that out loud,” he said. “On every team I played on, every single person there thought for sure that they would play in college. I thought so, too. Just by the numbers, it’s completely unrealistic.

“And if I had it to do over, I would have skipped a practice every now and then to go to a concert or a movie with my friends. I missed out on a lot of things for soccer. I wish I could have some of that time back.” [1]

Margaret Barry remembers how her daughter Cortney rose at 4 a.m. for years so she could attend a private swim practice before school. A second practice followed in the afternoon. Weekends were for competitions. Cortney is now a standout freshman at Delaware after receiving a $10,000 annual athletic scholarship.

“I’m very proud of her and it was worth it on many levels, but not necessarily the ones everybody talks about,” Mrs. Barry said. “It can take over your life. Getting up at 4 a.m. was like having another baby again. And the expenses are significant; I know I didn’t buy new clothes for a while.

“But the hardest part is that nobody educates the parents on what’s really going on or what’s going to happen.”

When they received the letter from Delaware informing them of Cortney’s scholarship, she and her husband, Bob, were thrilled. Later, they shared a quiet laugh, noting that the scholarship might just defray the cost of the last couple of years of Cortney’s youth sports swim career.

The paradox has caught the attention of Myles Brand, the former president of the N.C.A.A.

“The youth sports culture is overly aggressive, and while the opportunity for an athletic scholarship is not trivial, it’s easy for the opportunity to be over exaggerated by parents and advisers. That can skew behavior and, based on the numbers, lead to unrealistic expectations.”

Instead, Mr. Brand said, families should focus on academics.

“The real opportunity is taking advantage of how eager institutions are to reward good students,” he said. “In America’s colleges, there is a system of discounting for academic achievement. Most people with good academic records aren’t paying full sticker price. We don’t want people to stop playing sports; it’s good for them. But the best opportunity available is to try to improve one’s academic qualifications.”

Keep in mind that academic scholarships can be added to athletic scholarships.  So doing well in the classroom can greatly increase your chances of funding your college education and in many cases increase your chances of playing sports at a higher level.

So we have analyzed the financial and time commitment costs associated with youth sports next week I will tackle a few on-field costs that are directly attributable to the explosion of the youth sports industry.

Additional Resources:

2014 MSU football recruits discover that when they accept scholarships the real work begins: