Saturday, August 29, 2015

Why Your Speed and Agility Program Doesn't Work...

The past year my career has taken a bit of a detour and while I fought it like crazy early on it was essential for my long-term growth as a coach and person.

Two recent notes that I received from folks whom I have coached with/for in the past few years really drove home the importance of sticking with your principles and not wavering to outside perception.

How this relates back to my current career path…

Sometimes you have to step away to see what kind of foundation you have left behind. I have received several notes in recent months that really affirmed that the work I was doing in the community was effective, and more importantly it was durable.

While I have always attempted to be a humble person in my professional career I did want to use the message that resonated consistently from these notes to reinforce a coaching philosophy that is in short supply these days.

While I am not currently coaching young athletes in large groups (at least for the moment) I have maintained and continue to develop relationships with young people. I want to know what’s going on in their lives; socially, academically and of course athletically.

For the purpose of this discussion focus on the speed and agility training many young athletes are currently being exposed to.

Many schools and clubs bring in hired “guns” to take their athletes through what amounts to a torture fest!

Most athletes have not been taught the fundamentals of speed, agility and quickness (SAQ) training. Sports such as baseball, soccer, and tennis all require fundamental sport skills that are essential for the long-term mastery of the sport. There are also fundamental athletic skills that must be developed prior to implementing advanced SAQ techniques/drills.

Often kids are exposed to drills that are to advanced for their current athletic “comprehension” and conditioning level. Any “coach” or “trainer” can make a kid tired but the key question that must be asked is can they actually make them better over the long haul?

Throwing down speed ladders, elaborate cone drills, or strapping kids to bungee cords or parachutes looks cool and it will impress parents but these “toys” are nothing more than a Trojan Horse that hides poor coaching and the utter lack of a developmental plan.

If you were to watch one of my SAQ camps/clinics you would notice 4 things:
1.     Kids are having and expressing athletic creativity and freedom
2.     Kids aren’t throwing up and I am not screaming at them
3.     Kids aren’t running more than 40 yards in a straight line
4.     Kids are training fast in short bursts that last only a few seconds at a time

Things that you should not see at Team Sports SAQ training:

1.     Yelling at kids because the coach implemented drills that the athletes aren’t “getting” is not on the kids it’s on the coach for either not coaching the drill well or the drill is to advanced for a majority of the athletes. This type of SAQ training is a great way to teach an athlete how to ride the breaks, it will make them think too much and their movements will be deliberate and robotic! The opposite of speed is actually occurring, but kids are resilient and their innate skills can oftentimes counteract bad training. But imagine the difference that could be had in their performance with better training? That would be awesome to see!
2.     Putting athletes through extreme survival of the fittest workouts.  These programs don’t make kids “tough,” it will only make them tired while they will get better at “cheating” on techniques just to “survive the drill!
3.     Track SAQ, training young athletes to run in straight line for 40 plus yards rarely happens in team sports.  Sports SAQ mainly consists of repeated short burst efforts of maximal acceleration, deceleration and reacceleration from multiple directions and angles. Drills should last only a few seconds, anything longer than that and it becomes a conditioning drill. While conditioning is an important factor and has a time and place in a well-designed performance program it’s not the goal of SAQ training, making athletes faster is THE goal!

Are my methods effective?

Consider this note that I received from a parent of a former athlete whom I last coached over 3 summers ago:

“M still credits your agility training for helping him (at over 6 foot tall as a high school sophomore) best much smaller kinds on the lacrosse field with speed and quick footwork.”

A local varsity basketball coach shared this after winning their second consecutive league title:

“It has been a lot of hard work and dedication and you definitely helped our players achieve this.”

I had not worked with this coaches’ program for a full calendar year when I received that note.

The point of sharing this is not to boost my credibility but rather to show that by mastering the fundamentals and committing to doing things the right way you can have a powerful and long-lasting impact on the performance and lives of young people.

At times I raise my voice to get the attention of the athletes and at times “tough love” is necessary at times but first he coach must earn that right by proving to the kids through is or her actions that they deeply care about them as human beings first and foremost. This “care” often shines through when you take the time to TEACH them the how and why behind skill acquisition. Teaching is a process and it takes time to develop the relationships and trust that are essential to bringing out the best in any young athlete.

Recruiting a hired gun to “beat the kids up” is not only ineffective; it’s a waste of organizational funds.  Save yourself some time and money by first getting to know your team and showing them how much you care and then they will work hard for you! And remember to keep the SAQ training short, fast and fun!

If you want kids to be fast then let them play fast! We are the ones that need to slow down and pay attention...

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Are Baseball Players Great Athletes?

Are Baseball Players Great Athletes?

If I asked you to physically describe a basketball player an image of a Lebron James type athlete (tall, lean, explosive, graceful) would likely spring to the forefront of your imagination. A football player (strong, agile, powerful, mean) in the image of Ndamukong Suh may be a natural thought. But if I were to ask you to describe the typical baseball player you may have to pause and chew on that one for a bit. Baseball players are often assessed for technical skills such as hitting, throwing, pitching, fielding while not as much is made of their raw physical abilities such as strength, speed and agility.

If you look back on many of the all time greats they are well… by appearance anyway quite average.

I recall 3 recent inductees into the Baseball Hall-Of-Fame, all pitchers in addition to the best hitter of the 1990’s as examples of the diverse nature of baseball body types.

Tom Glavine won 305 games in a 22-season career. Glavine stood 6 feet tall and weighed in at 170 pounds. The NHL also drafted Glavine but he chooses to play baseball instead.

Greg Maddux won 355 games (8TH all time) and was generously listed at 6 feet and 170 pounds. Maddux more closely resembled a high school teacher than a pro athlete. Some teams were unimpressed by Maddux's skinny build, but Chicago Cubs scout Doug Mapson saw past the physique. Mapson wrote a glowing review that read in part, "I really believe this boy would be the number one player in the country if only he looked a bit more physical."*Maddux won a baseball record 18 gold gloves and was praised for his pitching mechanics and his ability to consistently repeat his delivery; both are hallmarks of an outstanding athlete.

John Smoltz in 2002, set a NL record with 55 saves, and became only the second pitcher in history (joining Dennis Eckersley) to record both a 20-win season and a 50-save season. He is the only pitcher in major league history to record both 200 wins and 150 saves. * Smoltz was built more along the lines of what you would expect from an athlete at 6 foot 3 and 210 pounds. **

John Smoltz was an All-State baseball and basketball player at Waverly High School in Lansing, Michigan and Tiger Woods has stated that Smoltz is the best golfer outside of the PGA Tour that he has observed.

And finally my all-time favorite hitter Tony Gwynn (15 time All-Star and 8-time National League batting champion), gained so much weight at the end of his career you would never have guessed that he was a pro athlete.  He did not play baseball his first year at San Diego State in order to concentrate on basketball. He joined the Aztecs baseball team only after a former high school teammate convinced the baseball coach to give Gwynn a chance to compete. Gwynn became a two-sport star, playing three seasons of baseball and four of basketball.  

Gwynn is the only player in Western Athletic Conference (WAC) history to earn all-conference honors in two sports. Gwynn said playing point guard helped to develop his baseball skills, as the dribbling strengthened his wrists—avoiding what he called "slow bat syndrome"—and his quickness improved his base running. He could dunk a basketball, and he was able to run 60 yards (55 m) in 6.7 seconds; he had a quick first step in either sport. ***

The message should be clear, it doesn’t matter if you posses the prototypical “baseball” body.  A young athlete should never feel discouraged nor should talent evaluators overlook them if they don’t fit some generic model of what an athlete is supposed to look like. It’s more important to scout an athlete’s background… What were they exposed to at a young age, did they play other sports… And within the sport of baseball did they play multiple positions? These 4 Hall of Famers are proof that athleticism clearly comes first and it’s because of that they were able to become elite baseball players.

Smoltz address early specialization and overuse injury in youth baseball:

Imagine how important John Smoltz thinks this is if he included it in the limited amount of time available to him at Hall of Fame induction:

“Before I hand it over to the next inductee, I’d be remiss if I did not talk about Tommy John. I’ve been given an opportunity as one of the only players, the only one right now, to be inducted into the Hall of Fame with Tommy John surgery. It’s an epidemic. It’s something that is affecting our game. It’s something that I thought would cost me my career, but thanks to Dr. James Andrews and all those before him, performing the surgery with such precision has caused it to be almost a false read, like a Band-Aid you put on your arm.

I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old, that you have time, that baseball’s not a year-round sport, that you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.

Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses (tell you) that this is the way. We have such great, dynamic arms in our game that it’s a shame that we’re having one and two and three Tommy John recipients. So I want to encourage you if nothing else, know that your children’s passion and desire to play baseball is something that they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t go outside; they don’t have fun; they don’t throw enough. But they’re competing and maxing out too hard, too early, and that’s why we’re having these problems. So please, take care of those great future arms.”****

Well said from a man who cares deeply about the future of baseball and more importantly he cares about the health and well being of the next generation of athletes at all levels of ability.


Related info:

For more on John Smoltz’s prowess on the golf course check this out:

Saturday, August 1, 2015

If your team isn't doing this they're in big trouble...

In professional sports the off-season can provide just as much intrigue and excitement as the games on the field.

This can be an important time for teams to improve their rosters through free agency, the drafting of young prospects and trades. The NFL off-season is just about to wrap up as teams begin to report to training camp in the days ahead and fans are excited to see if the new additions to the team can make a difference in the win column.

In Major League Baseball the off-season is referred to as the “hot-stove” because something is always “cooking” as general mangers burn up the phone lines with potential deals. This past Friday was the MLB trade deadline and it’s always an action packed times as teams either go all in or look to reboot for the next season.

When your team does not meet expectations there is a knee-jerk reaction by fans to bring in talent upgrades from outside the organization. And it seems that the management for many organizations are just as tempted as their fans by the high-priced, shiny new talent on the market. They envision the impact that a power-hitting outfielder or proven bullpen closer can make for their play-off aspirations.

There is another aspect of the off-season that promises a big return on investment but is seemingly marginalized by management and downright dismissed by zealous fans. This method of improvement is often overshadowed by the immediate “sizzle” of outside talent acquisition, but more often than not it makes or breaks a team’s fortunes in the season ahead.

Whatever happened to the tried and true philosophy of improvement from within?

One of the many reasons I love baseball is the scouting and development aspect of the game. The minor leagues have historically been the best way to build a sustained winner on the field.

Granted, there are plenty of high-priced prospects that are drafted each summer but just as many athletes that populate current MLB rosters were middle to late round draft choices or were undrafted altogether. Consider that 2% of players ever drafted into professional baseball play in the Major Leagues. The attrition rate is also extremely high and organizations are flooded with new prospects each season.

The more talented a prospect is the more development time they are afforded. But somehow the “lesser” prospects always seem to emerge and maximize their abilities through good old-fashioned grit and determination. And that is the most important factor in achieving a high level of success on the field of play and in the game of life (dedication/perseverance). Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard!

As coaches/talent evaluators we need to do a better job of promoting this aspect of youth sports. And quite frankly it is the area that America suffers from the most in terms of developing young athletes.

We place too much emphasis on finding “elite” 10 year-olds, while other countries do a much better job of creating systems that support young athletes through the athletic development process. Systems that bring the athletes to a point of talent maximization in the late teen years or even later, when the stakes are the highest.

Becoming a great athlete is non-linear. To maximize your abilities there should be plenty of mistakes and “failures” early on, this makes the athlete more resilient and durable over the long haul. The concept of improvement from within should especially be emphasized at the amateur level (high school and club teams/organizations).

All to often on the travel/club circuit athletes jump from team to team if they don’t experience immediate success. Going through the “grind” is absolutely necessary to develop elite/sustainable skill. The current athletic development process in the U.S. does not allow for this.

AAU and many travel organizations are created by adults to serve their needs first and foremost, it does not serve the best interests of the developing young athlete. We force kids to choose a path before they even hit puberty and if they have the misfortune of being born after April they are at a huge developmental disadvantage, and that's not hyperbole it's the truth!

Even at the NBA level Michael Jordan was never satisfied, every off-season he worked to improve one aspect of his game.  Jordan was best known for his high-flying drives to the basket but as he aged and defenses began to limit that element of his game he was forced to adapt. One season he came back with a pull-up mid-range jumper that took his game to another level. And when he started to lose a little (emphasis on a little) lift on his jumper he went to work that off-season and developed a low post back to the basket game that took his skill set to a level few can even imagine.

Additionally Jordan was one of the early adopters of strength and conditioning and was renowned for outworking friends and teammates in the weight room.  Jordan separated himself from the competition a little bit here and there and when you add it all up at he was arguably the best of all time.

Jordan likely had elite athletic ability from a young age but I doubt it was that much greater than his professional peers. The quality that allowed him to continue to excel and move past the competition was his intrinsic drive, competitive enthusiasm.

We place such high expectations on kids at such a young age that we absolutely take their competitive enthusiasm and spirit and squeeze it dry. The attrition/burnout rate in youth sports is extremely high ( a 70-80% rate by the time a child is 15 years of age).

 There are plenty of young athletes in every community that would have excelled if we had a system that encouraged them to have fun, explore and discover their unique talents. This system should also encourage them to work hard at improving to gradually develop their skills while also building their self-efficacy and intrinsic drive.

A successful youth athletic development system encourages (rather than discourages by way of early cuts before middle/high school and grouping teams by chronological age) participation is absolutely the key to long-term athletic development. When kids stay involved of their own accord they develop the essential element for maximizing their athletic potential and that is the intrinsic motivation to improve from within. They have to want it for themselves!

As youth sport in America currently stands it appears that the coaches and parents want it more than our kids do and that is a recipe for long-term athletic degeneration.