Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training – Installment 13
Written on August 31, 2015 at 10:26 am, by Eric Cressey
Things have been a bit quieter on the blog of late, as I'm working with the Team USA 18U baseball squad for the World Cup. I'm actually in Osaka, Japan now, and while the days have been very full, but it's been a fantastic experience on a number of fronts. And, it's gotten me to thinking a lot about athletic development in many contexts - some of which I'll touch on with this August edition of Random Thoughts on Sports Performance.
1. Nutrition is still king.
While my official title is "strength and conditioning coach," you can't possibly expect to do a good job in this role unless you're also willing to be an advocate for proper nutrition with your athletes. Especially with teenage athletes, though, it's important to meet them where they are - and address the most pressing issues first. If a kid is only getting in 1,500 calories/day and has been losing weight all summer, it'd be silly for me to hone in on his fatty acid balance and nitpick that he chose pasta over rice. Rather, the first step is to figure out how to conveniently get in some healthy calories in his day.
Nutrition can get incredibly complex over time, but it doesn't need to be early on. If you overwhelm young athletes by throwing too many changes at them early on, they'll tune you out and nothing will be accomplished. I'll often have an athlete focus on three habits for 21 days before we move on to the next three. It doesn't overwhelm them, and you can quickly build on previous successes.
2. Learn to "bias" exercises toward individual needs.
The bench t-spine mobilization is one of my favorite exercises. We typically use it for folks who have a shoulder flexion deficit or lack thoracic extension.
What a lot of people don't understand is that you can quickly take good exercises like the bench t-spine mobilization and make them great by adding in subtle changes. In this example, if someone has stiff/short adductors, we can have them move the knees out wider for a groin stretch. If someone is really lordotic (heavily arched lower back posture), we can have them exhale before they descend to get a bit more anterior core activation to pull the ribs down and pelvis into posterior tilt.
Obviously, this is just good coaching - but it illustrates the need for assessment. If you're not assessing, you're just guessing on which "quick fixes" can make a good exercise into a great exercise.
3. With overhead athletes, stick with the overhand grip on the dominant side during alternate grip movements.
The typical pitcher's long head of the biceps tendon gets a lot of abuse during the throwing motion. At the lay-back position, it's helping out the rotator cuff and anterior capsule by working as an anterior and superior stabilizer of the glenohumeral (ball and socket) joint.
Then, at ball release, it's continuing these stabilizing functions, but also in more of a compressive role to keep the humeral head from distracting from the joint - and this is happening while it's trying to help slow elbow extension.
With this in mind, my rule of thumb is to always try to take stress off the biceps tendon in our training. One way we can do so is to avoid using the "underhand" grip on the dominant side with deadlifts. If you're going to use the alternate grip, keep that dominant hand as the "over" hand (or just pull with a double overhand grip, or use the trap bar). It's also important to take the slack out of the bar so that the biceps isn't aggressively stretching from a flexed-to-extended elbow position at the initiation of a deadlift.
4. Work capacity is incredibly important for teenage athletes - possibly even more than with college and professional athletes.
In the high school years, athletic development should be linear improvements with the occasional "flat line" of progression, but there should never be noteworthy falloffs in fitness qualities. This is the case because young athletes have a larger window of adaptation and can be very responsive to even minimal doses of training. They're also more resilient and can bounce back quickly from session to session, making it possible to do more work during the in-season period - particularly in a setting that may be more developmental (junior varsity) than competitive (playoffs).
Once athletes have a solid training foundation, it becomes impossible to maintain every fitness quality throughout the competitive year, which obviously gets more and more grueling in college and professional sports. We have to learn how to prioritize fitness qualities throughout the year, and just as importantly, we need to appreciate how to optimize recovery so that athletes can best display these qualities from day to day.
Revisiting the high school athlete, though, the linear progression "ideal" that we seek is heavily dependent on an athlete building an appreciable level of work capacity in the "true" off-season that exists. In a baseball model, if the athlete has the initial work capacity to "fall back on," we can get in more quality work in July and August to at least preserve the "flat line" or even gain a small amount of fitness. If that work capacity was never there, pushing an athlete - even if it's just a little bit - can set back performance substantially. In short, it's much easier to impose fatigue on someone who's never experienced enough fatigue to get desensitized to it.
This point illustrates why working with the 18U National Team has been a good challenge. All the players are 16-17 years old, so we have a wide variety of training experience - and certainly different starting levels of work capacity. Some pitchers have thrown twice as many innings as other ones. We have some two-way players (pitch and play the field). Different athletes come from different climates (this is very significant, given how hot and humid it is in Asia right now). Needless to say, determining who needs to be pushed and who needs to be held back from day to day is a solid challenge. I'm really enjoying it - and it's definitely gotten me back to my roots of pushing rest, recovery modalities, and quality nutrition and hydration.
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