Long-Term Athletic Development: Optimizing A Young Athlete’s First Day at the Gym
Written on February 19, 2015 at 8:40 am, by Eric Cressey
Today's guest post comes from former Cressey Sports Performance intern, John O'Neil. I'd like to devote more attention to long-term athletic development here at EricCressey.com, and John will be helping me do so.
This article is geared towards working with a youth athlete who is in a gym for the first time. I have identified steps that I believe to be important with getting the ball rolling toward the athlete’s long-term athletic development, both from a physical and a mental standpoint.
1. Establish Point A.
While athletic goals can be diverse, they all fall under the simple structure of getting from point A to point B in an efficient and appropriate manner. We need to be able to address the biggest differences between what an athlete’s current Point A is and what their potential Point B is, and provide them the skills to achieve them. It doesn’t matter what assessment system you use--just that you have the ability to identify where an athlete is the first time they are standing in front of you. For youth athletes, who may not know where their Point B is yet, it’s important that we give them a variety of motor skills that allows them succeed in a number of potential athletic goals years down the road.
It’s our job to determine what lies within the arrow, and understand that if an athlete’s goals change, we have still put him closer to his new Point B than he was at the original Point A.
2. Give the athlete success.
Success is not something you can learn about on paper and enact. It is something you have to experience. While I understand it is not always practical depending on the schedule of your facility, in my opinion, it is important to give the athlete some type of training effect on Day 1. As a beginner athlete in the gym, success is given via the instant gratification of knowing that you got better today--in essence, you are one (small) step past Point A where you started. The sooner we can give an athlete confidence in their ability to execute the necessary motor skills in a gym to build strength, move more efficiently, and perform on the field, the sooner they will take ownership of their program and be able to convert what you are teaching them from their short to long-term memory.
3. Know which motor skills you want a youth athlete new to the gym to have in place.
Dan John’s basic human movement skills are a great place to start. Every advanced athlete, regardless of their sport, should be able to hip hinge, squat, push, pull, carry, and perform single-leg movements. While not all of these are always realistic to truly pattern in on Day 1, give the athlete the knowledge of and the physical basics of what you are trying to get them to do. In a baseball population, some of the most important movements will also include teaching the athlete true external rotation, scapular control, and the ability to safely get overhead. As an example, here’s a basic drill (usually included in the warm-ups) to educate athletes about where they should and should not be feeling exercises in their shoulder as their arm goes into external rotation.
4. Know which practical weight-room skills you want the athlete to have in place.
Identify the basic implements, grips, and stances used in your programming, and select exercises to teach these while also teaching the basic movement skills. A perfect example is an Anterior-Loaded Barbell Reverse Lunge, which teaches the athlete to get strong on one leg with an efficient lunge pattern, and also teaches them a front-squat grip with a barbell. We have to ask: How much of the overlap in the Venn Diagram can we get athletes proficient in, or at least give them a comfort level with, on Day 1?
Another great example is a kettlebell goblet squat, as the athlete learns both the goblet grip and the squat pattern. As Eric has written in the past, barring any contraindication, a majority of Day 1 Cressey Sports Performers learn the trap bar deadlift, but many athletes new to lifting may need more direct work to effectively pattern the hip hinge component of a deadlift. One of my favorite exercises is a tall-kneeling banded hip hinge with a dowel. This teaching tool puts the athlete in a position where they cannot fail without knowing it, thanks to having a physical external cue in both places that are important to the hip hinge--hinging at the hips (the band) and maintaining a neutral spine (the dowel).
1. Put the athlete in an environment where they are comfortable and want to be.
For someone who has never been in a gym, it is important to schedule their assessment and first training session at a time when the gym is not busy. In order to really promote athletes taking ownership of their programming and truly wanting to pursue long-term athletic development, the gym needs to feel like a safe haven rather than an overwhelming place of chaos. The athlete could be coming from a difficult situation at home or in their personal life and it is our job to make the gym a place of comfort and enjoyment. If the gym is very slow/quiet, you might even have the athlete choose which music they want to listen to. The places we learn the best are the places we are the most comfortable and the happiest being in.
2. Assess the athlete in a way that tells them that you’ve seen, dealt with, and given success to many, many people just like them.
A majority of your athletes won’t have a clue what you’re looking at, but they’ll know if you come across as confident and sure of what you are seeing. In the baseball population at CSP, this is easy to portray to an athlete because they know the success that professional baseball players have had while training there. During the assessment, you might even be able to figure out whether the athlete is a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, which will be invaluable when you are cueing the bigger movements.
3. Create context with the athlete that allows you and your staff to optimize your relationship with them, both as a person and an athlete.
Athletes are comfortable with coaches they know truly care about them, and, they respond best to cues that are already within their existing schemas. As coaches, we are always working to expand the amount of schemas we can tap into because we need to know what clicks best with the athlete. If talking about video games makes the athlete want to be there and listen to you, relate to them that way. If talking to a 14 year-old about why they don’t use Facebook anymore and how they only use Snapchat and Instagram is the best way to make them think you’re someone who’s cool to be around and worth listening to, then that’s the route you should take. The best time to create said context is when you are showing the athlete how to foam roll. The correctives/warm-ups and the lifts will be more task-oriented, and hopefully by that point you know what to talk about and how to talk to the athlete.
The challenge as a coach is choosing how much information you can give the athlete that they can actually retain. One of my favorite ideas to think about as a coach is Miller’s Law--the idea that a person can only hold approximately seven items in their working memory. At the end of the day, you can’t expect an athlete of any level to retain everything from their first training session, but you can give the athlete a concept of a few basic motor patterns and a few different grips, implements, and stances in the weight room. Most importantly, you can send that athlete home with the knowledge that they are one step closer to their goals.
John O’Neil is a strength and conditioning coach at Drive495 in New York, NY. He previously interned at Cressey Sports Performance and Ranfone Training Systems. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter.
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