Saturday, July 18, 2015

Random Thoughts on Youth Athletic Development (July Edition)

Random Thoughts on Youth Athletic Development (July Edition)

Why playing multiple sports early on is so important…

The key benefits of playing multiple sports for young athletes are as follows: diverse general athleticism creates the foundation necessary for elite skill development, protective against repetitive stress/overuse injury, vital for socialization and resilience (athletes that are exposed to diverse and ever-changing personalities and environments tend to control their emotions better and equips them to weather the inevitable ups and downs of team sport). That said there is another benefit that is often overlooked… Discovery!

By participating in multiple sports not only will young athletes develop a broad range of skills that can be applied to any sports endeavor it also provides kids the opportunity to discover through experience what they are actually good at.

A young man that I have been coaching for just over a year played everything growing up (basketball, baseball, football, tennis, golf, soccer). Only recently as a 9th grader did he decide to specialize in soccer.

This young man whom just finished his freshman year of high school, has big goals to play soccer at the highest level possible. And he is taking steps to get the best coaching and training possible to help him get there. But the key is he is making the commitment on his own and is actually taking action to do so. Intrinsic motivation may be the most important factor in athletic development.

As a soccer “field” player he discovered that he likely didn’t have the requisite skill set to play at a high level. However, he was asked to play goalie and while originally hesitant to embrace the concept of not playing in the field he has attacked the process of developing as a goaltender.

He discovered that in the game of soccer his skill set is best suited to play in goal. How did he “discover” this? By playing multiple sports he always had knack for those that required keen hand-eye-coordination. So his developmental years produced a skill that is now his strength and because of that discovery process he has been able to apply that skill to his sport/position of choice. And even better he has the general athletic foundation in place to help him take his special skill to the highest level possible.

Now when he receives instruction from elite coaches (which he is currently doing) he has the ability to process that information (coaching) and apply it to fully maximize his ability. This is why elite coaches actively recruit multiple sports athletes, they have the foundation and the ability to take advanced concepts and make them stick. Without general athleticism most athletes don’t’ have the “body awareness” and just can’t “get it,” the lessons don’t stick!

This situation also points out the importance of not just multi-sport experience but also intra-sport experience. Giving young athletes the opportunity to try different positions within one sport is a great way to help kids find a specific skill/position that they may have a unique talent to thrive in.

Another great example of how multi-sport athletes thrive with advanced coaching concepts lies in a minor league baseball import from Germany!

Max Kepler grew up the son of ballet dancers in Germany where soccer is the national sport. And while Max did play soccer he also found a way to play baseball, which is likely akin to playing rugby or cricket in the U.S. so he didn’t have a lot of experience and likely never received high-level baseball coaching.

However Max showed enough talent that he caught the attention of the Minnesota Twins in MLB whom offered him a contract to play in the U.S. He chooses baseball over his native soccer and while he was very inexperienced and raw when he first came over to the States he has rapidly blossomed from a project into a complete hitter at the age of 22. Both his current hitting coach and manager were very good big league players and their coaching has made all the difference in taking this young man to the pinnacle of his potential. Because of the general athleticism that Kepler possesses he has been able to understand and apply the lessons he has received from expert coaching.

While we are on the topic of multi-sport athleticism…

The U.S. women’s national team just won the World Cup the preeminent event in women’s soccer! How did they do it? I am sensing a theme amongst elite athletic performers…

Miggy seeks longevity

The Detroit Tigers Miguel Cabrera is 32 years old and he wants to continue to play the game at an elite level well into his late 30’s, a time when most players begin to decline physically. Cabrera sought the counsel of several former players who excelled in their mid to late 30’s. "I ask them how they have success after age 35, 36. How do they prepare for the game? There has to be a key, you know? And they always tell me that it's now. It's right now. You've got to prepare your body, your mind, everything now if you're going to have success when you're at that age."

"I think the last two seasons helped me to understand how to treat my legs, how to do my exercises right, how to take care of the little muscles you don't think about," Cabrera said. “If you can work out like this, you're going to be able to play the game a long time."*

Cabrera like many young players just rely on their youth early in their careers and don’t begin to take conditioning seriously until they start to slow down a bit physically.

Getting ahead of the aging process by taking care of your body when your young would be a huge advantage and will promote longevity in any athlete. And it’s scary to think that at age 22 Bryce Harper, arguably the top talent in the sport has figured out that training and fueling his body is the key to becoming the best.

Harper has long been hailed as one of the rising young talents in the game but he has not lived up to early expectations largely because he hasn’t been able to stay on the field consistently since making his debut in 2012 at age 19. But this past off-season on advice from a veteran teammate Harper shed close to 35 pounds of mass.

"You don't need to be that big. Be as limber as you can. Be as flexible as you can. I don't lift that many weights. It's more body-weight stuff. “

“Having a good swing is all about your legs and core. You really have to have a good foundation. If you look at your legs and your core -- those are the things you really need. I spend about an hour a day on core.”

The above point is crucial for baseball players to understand. Getting strong will enhance performance but if you don’t do it the right way it will make you more prone to injury as well as making you thick and slow!

Another key to longevity and maximizing your athletic ability is recovery. And this is something else that Harper learned from his veteran teammates and is actually applying it! The two big pillars of recovery are sleep and nutrition.

“Sleep is huge. That's your biggest way of recovering. In baseball, it's such a hard sleep schedule during the season, but you try to do the best you can. Because you can take all the protein drinks, you can do all these things, but your recovery is your sleep.”

“Either you put crap into your body and you feel lazy all day, or you put good stuff into your system and you feel great every single day.”**

To tie this all together multi-sport participation helps young athletes develop a huge foundation upon which advanced sport specific skills can be built and fully realized. Additionally it’s extremely protective in terms of injury prevention and keeping the body fresh. Most young athletes participate in leagues with schedules that closely resemble those of professionals. And while they are young to keep kids on the field and free of injury sleep and proper nutrition should not be neglected! If young athletes are consistently tired and sore their reaction time, coordination and speed of movement will suffer a gradual decline leading to poor performance at best and debilitating injuries at worst.

And strength and conditioning is great but understand the demands of your sport and the specific type of training that will best prepare you for sport. Heavy weight lifting and extreme flexibility and endurance training are in most cases not a good fir for athletic populations!


Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Country Music capital and the Mother of Presidents dominate this sport...

When you hear about Nashville you likely think Country Music and the state of Virginia is better known as the “Mother of Presidents,” it was the birthplace of 8 U.S. presidents including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. *  And yet, two universities, Vanderbilt located in Nashville and The University of Virginia (both better known for their academic reputations) have built baseball powerhouses in a sport that has traditionally been dominated by schools located in the deep South or the West Coast.

Consider their recent run of successes:

Virginia under head coach Brian O’Connor has made 12 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament and have made it to the College World Series (CWS) 4 times, have had 39 players drafted into MLB over the past 6 seasons. ** And the Cavaliers won their first ever CWS title last week against…***

The Vanderbilt Commodores whom under the leadership of head coach Tim Corbin have made 10 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and have played in the CWS finals the last two years, winning the championship last season. Corbin’s 13 seasons has seen the Commodores produce 12 First Round MLB draft choices and since 2003 Vanderbilt has seen 48 of it’s pitchers drafted into the Major Leagues. ****

So what are these two programs doing that has allowed them to stand above more established programs?

It all comes down to their recruiting philosophy!

I touched on why Vanderbilt has a strong argument for being the best college baseball program in America a few weeks back. This week I will turn the spotlight on Virginia whom as of last week has the official title of the best program in the Nation.

What type of players have the Cavaliers targeted to build such a strong program?

"The physicality of a player is important, to be able to endure an entire season," O'Connor said. "That's why all you see the guys playing on TV in the big leagues, they're physical specimens. And the pro people like these guys too, because when you're playing 160 ball games in professional baseball, it's a grind, and the more physical you are, the better you hold up.

"You look at our lineup, 3 through 7, and you're talking about big, physical but most importantly athletic guys that can run. They can last longer; they're better late in the season. When you're not as physically gifted, your body wears down quicker throughout an entire season."

As proof of their theory about durability, the Cavaliers were indeed better late. This team was in danger of missing the NCAA tournament all together but a late run got them in and the rest as they say is history. They finished with the fewest wins (44) by an NCAA champion in nearly 50 years but they finished strong to say the least!

As impressive as the size of many of his players, O'Connor said, is their athleticism, and that's a priority in recruiting. The Cavaliers target prospects whom in the field "maybe can play a few different positions," O'Connor said.

"Every one of those guys that plays for us in the outfield, every one of them could play center field.”

"That means they all can run. They also happen to be physical guys. They all happen to be able to hit the ball out of the ballpark; they're all middle-of-the-lineup kind of guys. They could all play center field, so they all cover good territory in the outfield. And so it's been a conscious effort of recruiting guys that don't just hit. They can run, they can get down the baseline, they can be valuable players every day, even if they're not getting two hits and driving in runs."

To this point freshman centerfielder Adam Haseley started game 2 of the CWS on the mound for Virginia even though he had only started 4 games all season and the Cavaliers were down 1 game to none in the best of three series when he got the call (huge pressure spot for anyone let along a freshman!) and he tossed 5 shutout innings.

The elite Division I athlete who played multiple sports in high school may be a vanishing breed, but it's not extinct. O'Connor's program includes such examples as Joe McCarthy, Brandon Downes, Papi, Young, Jared King, Whit Mayberry and Rob Bennie, and the Cav’s are always looking for more.*****

McCarthy was the ACC freshman of the year in 2013, and also starred in football and basketball at Scranton High in Pennsylvania. Downes played quarterback and defensive back at South Plainfield High in New Jersey. Papi was an all-conference basketball player at Tunkhannock High in Pennsylvania, and Young was a three-year letter-winner in hoops at Atlee High in Mechanicsville.

The coaches, O'Connor starred in baseball, basketball and football in high school and McMullan played football and baseball at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Noting that former UVA baseball greats Steven Proscia and John Hicks were also football standouts in high school, McMullan said, "We do like those guys. A lot of times parents ask us if we're going to ask their sons not to play football. It's funny, because we respond, `If he doesn't play football, this opportunity at Virginia is not going to be there for him.' We like those guys that like to compete."

O'Connor agreed.

"I've always said that if I have a choice between the same player, and one played high school football and one didn't, I will always choose the guy that played football," he said. (Joe McCarthy is a great example of that. There's toughness and a competitiveness that comes from that that I love, and I think that's part of what makes him the player that he is.

Multi-sport athletes tend to be more resilient because they have to role in different crowds and adjust to an ever-changing environment. That was evident in a Virginia team that experienced several key injuries early in the season and endured poor weather and field conditions that forced them to cancel or move 13 games. And as mentioned earlier they nearly missed the NCAA tournament outright!

"That being said, in today's day and age, there's not many guys out there that are doing it, because baseball's become a year-round sport. They play in the fall, the spring and the summer, and they're training in the winter."

To enhance the players' natural size and athleticism, the coaching staff emphasizes strength and conditioning. That's contributed to the program's extraordinary success under O'Connor.

"It starts at the top, and both Kevin and Brian since I've gotten here have been all about the off-field conditioning," said Ed Nordenschild, UVA's director of strength and conditioning. "That gets translated to the athletes, and they take it and run. I don't think it takes much to get guys to believe in the benefits of strength and conditioning."

McMullan said: "I love our plan in the weight room. I love the way Ed handles our guys. He's a teacher. He's going to teach them techniques. He doesn't just throw-weight on the bar. It's fundamental. It's technical. It's a reflection of a lot of the things we do with our players. It's a seamless transition [from the weight room to the field]."

The benefits of weight training are many, Nordenschild said.

Bigger, stronger players are "a little more injury-resistant, for sure," he said. "They have better armor, so to speak. And to be honest, that's the biggest reason why any athlete should hit the weight room: injury prevention. After that it's performance enhancement. But their performance becomes secondary if they're injured. If they're sitting on the bench, they can't help us."

Programs like Virginia and Vanderbilt are maximizing their on-field potential because of the well-rounded athletes they recruit.  They seek out young men with all around athleticism because they understand that this diverse background affords them as coaches the best opportunity to get the most out of the athletes. And they emphasize off-field training to keep their players healthy so they can stay on the field of play, which is essential to long-term talent development. And more specifically both staffs understand that baseball players have unique strength and conditioning needs. Applying football or Cross-Fit style training to this population would be a big mistake!

This philosophy shouldn’t be so rare, the fact that it is speaks volumes about why these two non-traditional baseball schools have established themselves as the trendsetters in College Baseball.


***Virginia caps comeback season as College World Series Champs!