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What Research Can Tell Us About “Super Champion” Athletes

Today's guest post comes from Matt Kuzdub.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had the magic formula when it came to building the ultimate sporting champion? Or how bout a step-by-step recipe? Just add 10 years of skill training, a half-decade of physical development and a sprinkle of mental skills...and voila, a world-class competitor is served!

Jokes aside, this topic of ‘what it takes to get to the top’, is eternally interesting. Whether you’re a coach, parent or athlete, achieving high levels of success in your chosen sport, is often a lifelong dream. But very few actually get to realize these dreams.

Why is that? Why do some achieve greatness while others are left wondering where it all went wrong? Coaches and athletes aren’t the only ones asking themselves these questions. Researchers also want to gain more insight into this puzzle - now more than ever.

This article will explore some of the newest research on this topic - particularly by a group of applied researchers, Dave Collins and Aine MacNamara. Their work will help us attempt to solve the perpetual question - what separates the greats from the almost greats?

In particular, we’ll look to their research to aid us in distinguishing between, what they classify as ‘Super Champions’ (SC), ‘Champions’ (C) and ‘Almost Champions’ (AC). A secondary aim of this post is to explore their claim - that adversity (whether related to sport or life), plays a pivotal role in the success (or failure) of an athlete. In revealing their findings, we’ll look at how each class of athlete responds to setbacks, how a support team ‘should’ act and the characteristics necessary for athletic excellence.

Super Champions Have a ‘Learn From It’ Attitude Towards Setbacks

Note, before we continue, it’s important to know that SC were defined as athletes who not only competed at the highest level, they won multiple international championships at that level. Conversely, C competed at the highest level, but did not have the same pedigree of success (1 or none when it came to championship victories). AC consisted of athletes who achieved well at the youth level but only competed at the second tier professionally.

According to Collins et al (2017), the biggest factor that separates SC from C and AC is a ‘learn from it’ attitude. There’s no argument that all athletes, at some point in their careers, experience adversity, challenges and what Collins calls “the rocky road” - these setbacks aren’t reserved for the chosen few. Ultimately, it’s the response to this that enables some to flourish while others to wither away.

Take for example, what one Almost Champ recalled of a serious injury:

“I sort of lost enthusiasm for it because I did not feel like it was – I almost felt let down, especially before the second operation. . . why was my injury different from anyone else’s, how come mine had to be 14 months for the same surgery that someone else had done for 3 months.”

Even Champs - those who competed at the highest level of their sport - echoed similar sentiments, blaming injury for their lack of progress:

“Well the sort of 10 to sort of 17, 18 years should be a natural yearly progression. But because I broke my arm, I wouldn’t say I didn’t improve but I just stood still. Well I’d say I didn’t improve, I just sort of stood still for 18 months. And it was an issue because when my arm got fixed I hadn’t grown, and everyone else seemed to have grown.”

Super Champs had a completely different outlook when it came to a traumatic setback, like an injury. By no means was it an easy situation - they also felt the disappointment, the frustration, but rather then blaming and projecting to external factors, they framed the incident as an opportunity for growth:

“That injury was pretty crucial I think. . .I was going well before it but the disappointment. . .the pain. . .it just kicked me where it hurt and I was determined to get back.”

And another SC had this to say about the prospects of throwing in the towel after an injury:

“No never, never ever thought about giving up. There was days when I was like ‘Why is this happening to me? I’m so frustrated, what am I going to do? How long is it going to take me to get back?’ But then the other days were like, ‘right what do I need to do? I’m going to do this, do this and get back’. But I never ever thought I wanted to quit. I think I still would have worked hard and still trained and done everything I could have done. But I think it gave me a different mental capacity. Because I’d never had to deal with anything like that before, so I definitely did think it changed me and made me achieve what I then went on to achieve.”

Given these reactions, you get the sense that Super Champs use setbacks as motivation, a driving force that catapults them to not only get back to where they were pre-injury, but to learn from the experience and to be better than ever. It’s difficult to explain exactly why that is - researchers (Collins et al 2016) suggest that high achievers may have better inherent coping habits. But further to that, they argue that these SC either don’t acknowledge the setback the same way as low achievers OR they don’t perceive the ‘trauma as traumatic as others do.’

On the flip side, this self-defeating attitude, most commonly typified by the behaviors of Champs and Almost Champs, inhibits growth. For instance, instead of putting things into perspective and finding solutions after a setback, low achievers would do the opposite:

“rather than staying at training and thinking ‘right I’m going to work hard, I’m going to really focus on my crossing, or really focus on that,’ I did no extra work. I didn’t go in the gym, I didn’t eat the best foods.”.

High achievers, on the other hand, saw the same challenge in a completely different light:

“Not making that selection, especially after all that work. Several others just said f*#! it, but I was never ever going to let them beat me. I just did double everything!”.

And beyond the setbacks, even when things were going well, Super Champs were striving for more:

“I was never kind of satisfied, I was never like ‘Oh I’ve done it now’ I was always like ‘This is the first step of my journey’”.

Many factors contribute to the above responses to setbacks and challenges. One area where researchers seem to point the blame are Talent Development (TD) pathways. The argument being that these centers for excellence are actually ‘smoothing’ the road for young up-and-coming athletes. The adversity necessary for growth, from their point of view, isn’t seen until later in a TD athletes’ career, when it’s perhaps too late. To resolve this, they propose that ‘structured traumas’ be strategically implemented into the programs of emerging sports stars.

These ‘manufactured traumas,’ according to Collins, could include training with a new group, being de-selected from a camp or a temporary increase in training load. Is this the answer? Whether it is or not is still up for debate - but one thing’s for sure, the path to the top is anything but linear.

Sure, many young athletes excel and progress rapidly early on. As they get older, however, and begin competing with others of similar class, that progress comes to a sudden halt - at times, it can even mean a step or two back (not something youth super-athletes are accustomed to).

How many Michael Jordans, Roger Federers and Tiger Woods’ are there? Not many. Some of the greatest athletes of all-time had to overcome adversity, naysayers and their own internal demons just for a shot at competing at the highest levels of their sport. Tom Brady is just one example - drafted at no. 199 in 2000.

It’s not that the AC can’t make it, it’s that they lack certain mental traits and skills to stay the course, especially in the face of adversity. The best of the best, on the other hand, according to Savage et al (2017) perceive their personal potential as significantly higher, following a setback. Those ‘rocky road’ moments leave a lasting impression on Super Champs - propelling them to learn and grow.

While this attitude by no means guarantees their spot in the history books….it at least gives them a fighting chance.

Quiet Leaders - The Role of Coaches and Parents

But perhaps it’s not the athlete’s fault. Research seems to indicate that there’s both a nature and nurture element to coping with adversity. Some athletes are born with personality traits that favor key mental aspects like optimism, hardiness and resilience. That doesn’t mean that these attributes can’t be developed. So instead of throwing in the towel, support staff should frame these ‘tough’ moments as opportunities for skill building and character growth.

But according to Collins, a big difference exists between the involvement of coaches and parents of SC versus those of C and AC. Interestingly, SC recalled their parents being supportive but not very closely involved in the process. In other words, they would encourage their children to pursue their goals, drive them to and from practices, attend games and cheer from a distance but they would leave the nitty gritty details to coaches. Here’s one account from a SC:

“[my parents were] not really pushy, it was kind of just gentle encouragement. They were never really involved, they’d just come and watch me, support me. But they never wanted to know what I was doing training wise and they never really got involved in that way, and that helped.”

ACs, on the other hand, were constantly being pushed by parents and coaches. To the point where one athlete actually felt as if the joys of sport were taken from them:

“My parents, dad especially was always there. . .shouting instructions from the touchline, pushing me to practice at home. Really, I just wanted to be out with my mates, even though we would still be kicking a ball around. I felt like [sport] stole my childhood.”

A few years ago, coaching Britain’s next female tennis hope, I encountered a similar experience - a father who attended every session, not as a casual observer, but as a vocal distraction. He would shout when he thought his daughter’s effort was lacking, grimace when she missed a forehand by mere inches and not once did he have a kind word to say. The result of this constant bombardment...at 15 years old, this rising star left the game and never returned.

This isn’t just a one off example, this happens all too often in youth sport today - parents obsessing over their children’s every sporting move.

What About Coaches?

When it comes to coaches, there was a clear dichotomy between the experiences of Super Champs, and Champs/Almost Champs. These mid to low achievers seemed to work with coaches who were either always in their face or looking for a way to ‘ride the athlete to the top.’ One athlete stating - coach was ‘always wanting to dissect my performance...He was very intense and, as I got older, it really started to antagonize me.” An Almost Champ had a similar recollection:

“X was the driving force. When I was younger, he would collect me from home, drive me to the club, train me then drive me back. . .talking about [sport] all the way. Let me tell you it was f∗∗∗∗∗ intense.”

Contrast these experiences to that of Super Champs:

“I think [coach's name] was great in the fact that he never wanted to rush anything whereas I always did. I wanted to be better, and I wanted to start winning things straight away. He always had in his mind that it was a long journey. And that’s the sort of thing that worked so well, he developed me as an athlete really slowly so I would always achieve the things I wanted to achieve later on in my career.”

Many successful coaches across a variety of sports realize the commitment involved at the top. They understand that athletes are devoting their lives to sport and this constant analysis and over-analysis of practices & games can be too much. It’s another form of stress. One pro hockey coach says that most of the time, he’s talking about anything but hockey with his players. That’s not to say there isn’t a time and place to ‘dissect’ a performance, but when it’s constant, that’s when it can be detrimental.

Perhaps a better option, one that ALL elite coaches use, is to simply engage in regular debriefs. After a practice, a game or a season, it’s absolutely vital that athletes sit down with a member of their support team for a review. These debriefs, according to elite coaches and researchers, can be more important than practices - the key is to know your athlete and when the right time to talk is (it can happen directly after a practice/game or several days afterwards...each athlete is different).

But it is a time where full transparency and honesty are at the forefront. Didn’t have the right mindset at practice, the athlete has to know. Focus and concentration on relevant tasks were absent, that’s a talking point. The truth has to come out. The important thing to remember here is:

[bctt tweet="Critique the behavior, NOT the individual."]

Overall, it’s a facilitative approach, rather than a directive one, that seems to contribute to that ‘learn from it’ attitude seen in high-achievers while low-achievers, having too much info thrown their way, have a poor time coping with adversity. Thus, coaches and parents can adapt their involvement to fit the needs of each individual athlete. While researchers agree that an expert (like a mental skills coach) is likely needed to help shift the mentality of many athletes, they still advocate that coaches be a big part of the process - echoing the words of experts because of their day to day involvement with the athlete.

The ‘Unique’ Traits of Super-Champs

These findings are taken from only a handful of studies - and less than 100 athlete responses. So there’s still a lot we can learn - but some of the early signs are promising. For one, we now know that high-achievers internalize setbacks, go through a reflective process, which ultimately drives their behaviors in a positive manner. Low-achievers, on the other hand, seem entirely ‘reactive’. As we noted above, this is likely a combination of Super Champs ‘learn from it’ approach to challenge and their encouraging (but not overbearing) support structures.

Furthermore, at this level, all athletes have at one point (whether at the youth or senior level) been internationally successful. We can’t tell for sure whether a gap in skill or physical stature existed - if it did, it was likely small. The main differences between the best and the rest, according to Collins, were the psycho-behavioral characteristics of Super Champs - including commitment, coping with pressure, self-awareness, goal setting, effective imagery and more (for the full list, here is a link to the study itself).

Researchers once thought these characteristics were solely developed after a traumatic event - the literature terming this ‘post-traumatic growth theory’. The premise being that athletes need regular opportunities to deal with traumatic events and that these events in themselves, build the necessary mental skills & behaviors, over time. In other words, ‘talent is caused by trauma.’

Recently, however, autobiographies from several Olympic swimming champions (Howells and Fletcher 2015) found that they didn’t have to learn anything new when coping with a trauma, rather, they used skills that were already established. Other Olympian medalists (Sarkar et al 2015) supported this and concluded that “performers should be given regular opportunities to handle appropriate and progressively demanding stressors, be encouraged to engage with these challenges and use debriefs to aid reflection and learning.”

The take-home, athletes need to possess some of these skills and traits before being encountered with a trauma or setback. As Savage et al 2017 exclaim, talent isn’t caused by trauma per se, ‘talent needs trauma.’

Inevitably, what this tells us is that even when things are going well, coaches should be constantly seeking to improve all facets of an athlete’s game - including aspects that aren’t necessarily as noticeable as a player’s batting skills or squat strength. But how often do we take part of a training session to improve imagery skills? Or to improve one’s self-awareness? Overall, mental toughness isn’t a result of suicide drills and grinding training sessions. As coaches, we must plan the development of these skills just as meticulously as we would a block of strength & power training.

Lastly, from a research perspective, we’re only scraping the surface of what we know about ‘super champion’ performers. A lot of the same can be true in practical settings - even elite coaches aren’t always sure why a certain athlete had great success, while another didn’t. This, however, is a starting point - if we have an idea as to which behaviors are championing vs those which are defeating, we can devise a proactive plan to facilitate the growth of the latter. For the moment, it’s up to coaches to facilitate rather than direct, the athlete’s growth - mental, physical or otherwise - and treat the training process as a playground for learning.

References

Collins, D. and Macnamara, A. (2017). Making Champs and Super-Champs—Current Views, Contradictions, and Future Directions. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.

Collins, D., Macnamara, A. and McCarthy, N. (2016). Putting the Bumps in the Rocky Road: Optimizing the Pathway to Excellence. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.

Collins, D., MacNamara, Á. and McCarthy, N. (2016). Super Champions, Champions, and Almosts: Important Differences and Commonalities on the Rocky Road. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Howells, K., and Fletcher, D. (2015). Sink or Swim: Adversity and Growth-related Experiences in Olympic Swimming Champions. Psychol. Sport Exerc. 16, 37–48.

Sarkar, M., and Fletcher, D. (2014). Ordinary Magic, Extraordinary Performance: Psychological Resilience and Thriving in High Achievers. Sport Exerc. Perform. Psychol. 3, 46–60.

Savage, J., Collins, D. and Cruickshank, A. (2016). Exploring Traumas in the Development of Talent: What Are They, What Do They Do, and What Do They Require?. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29(1), pp.101-117.

About the Author

Matt Kuzdub, MSc, (@CoachKuzdub) is the content creator at Mattspoint, an online tennis and strength and conditioning resource for coaches, players, and tennis enthusiasts. Matt has helped tennis players at all levels—from juniors to the professional ranks—achieve high levels of performance on both the national and international stages. Mattspoint is steadily establishing itself as a go-to source for cutting-edge tennis and fitness research, articles, and training videos.

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The Best of 2017: Strength and Conditioning Features

I really enjoying creating features with multiple installments because it really allows me to dig deep into a topic that interests both me and my readers. It’s like writing a short book, with each post being a different chapter. That said, here were a few of my favorite features from 2017 at EricCressey.com:

1. Random Thoughts on Sports Performance Training

Installment 26
Installment 27
Installment 28
Installment 29

2. Random Thoughts on Long-Term Fitness Industry Success

Installment 5
Installment 6
Installment 7
Installment 8

3. Periodization for Teenage Athletes - I thought this three-part article from Cressey Sports Performance coach John O'Neil was outstanding. If you work with athletes, it's a must-read.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

The Best of 2017 series is almost complete, but stayed tuned for a few more highlights!

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Periodization for Teenage Athletes: Part 2

This is part 2 of Cressey Sports Performance coach John O'Neil's look at periodization for teenage athletes. In case you missed part 1, you can check it out HERE. -EC

When assessing a youth athlete, the most important information we can gather isn’t the only the specific or general movement-based assessments we run. The importance lies in the questions we ask and our ability to judge what kind of training program for which the athlete is ready. If we assume too simple, it’s easy to still see progress and transition to a more advanced program. Conversely, if we assume too complex, we’ve not only stalled progress, but we’ve potentially caused a host of issues – both physically and psychologically – that we will have to address. The industry is full of people using overly complex methods with people who haven’t earned them yet. Don’t be that guy.

Here are the main points I focus on in making this distinction:

  • Age
    • Actual age: If they’re under 16, it’s definitely going to be a concurrent program, and 16-18 year olds maybe approached the same, based on the answers to the following questions:
    • Biological age: How physically mature are they? Do they present like their actual age?
    • Training age: Have they trained for any period of 6 months – or multiple 3-month periods?
  • Athletic Skill Level
    • How far off from being an elite athlete are they? In our setting, throwing velocity for pitchers is often the determinant of this question.
    • At what level do they compete athletically? Chances are that your middle school, freshman, and JV level players don’t need anything fancy.
  • Personal Maturity
    • This one is much harder to quantify, but a typical fail in this category would include the kid who has his/her mom do the talking for them, or, someone who has no quantifiable goals and has no idea why they’re training.
    • Will they follow a program to a “T?” Or, is this an individual who’ll cut corners and omit the items he/she doesn’t enjoy?

Concurrent Programming Overview

If we look at a force/velocity curve, it’s our job as strength coaches to shift the curve up and to the right as much as we can. When we have a beginner athlete, every quality needs to move in that direction, independent of their sport or time in their competitive calendar. If we look at each quality as a bucket, all of these are empty and we need to fill each of them up. With advanced athletes, we need to assess which buckets are already filled and which buckets are the most empty. The empty buckets need to be filled up for the person to become a better athlete, and we need to consider their competitive calendar. The later in the offseason it is, the more closely the exercises we choose and speeds we prescribe will we need to reflect the movements they’ll actually encounter in sports. With beginner athletes, this doesn’t matter as much.

Strength-speed and speed-strength are also not qualities that we’ll focus on in beginner concurrent model programming. These are more advanced concerns. In beginners, we’ll stick with strength, power, and speed as our big three. Each of these three qualities are going to be trained somewhat equally during an athlete’s first 3-6 months. Chances are these athletes aren’t coming in six days per week, so we will hit each of these qualities every time they walk in the door. A typical session will include a dynamic warm-up, speed work, power work, 1-2 technical lifts, and 4-6 GPP style movements done in a more circuit-based fashion.

In block periodization, there is a phase of accumulation, a phase of transmutation, and a phase of realization. In concurrent periodization, our goal is to accumulate, accumulate, and continue to accumulate strength, power, and speed until we have deemed the athlete ready for more advanced programming.

Exercise Selection

When selecting exercises, there needs to be some form of linear exercise progression that begins with the exercise that is easiest for the athlete to not only learn quickly, but to load in the safest and most efficient manner possible. Lowest barrier to entry is a great term to summarize the exercise selection for this period. Pick movements that are hard for the athlete to screw up. We are looking to pick the exercise that combines the two following principles:

1) Can the person master the technique in an efficient and timely manner? How quickly can we make this exercise safe?

2) Can the person load the exercise in a way that progresses their main performance qualities - strength, power, speed – without technical difficulty of the exercise itself stalling progress?

External load should be the limiting factor for an appropriate exercise progression, as opposed to an athlete being held back by an inability to handle the implement being used (dumbbell, kettlebell, bar).

[bctt tweet="Limiting the learning curve may be the safest and most effective way to maximize the loading curve."]

There’s nothing wrong with keeping a main exercise the same for 12-16 weeks in a beginner. Provide variety in your dynamic warm-ups and unloaded exercises, not your staple loaded exercises. If your reason for programming variety is fun, maybe you should look at your training environment and your personal relationships with the athletes instead of choosing loaded variety to make the athlete enjoy training more. Especially in beginners, everything involving external loading should have a reason; picking a loaded exercise for fun is an asinine reason to program it.

I have these progressions mapped out for each main movement, with a theoretical end point before you change an exercise. For a squat, my progression is as follows:

• Goblet Squat to Box – until the person has awareness of and has owned the bottom position
• Goblet Squat – until the grip becomes the limiting factor towards loading the lower body
• 2KB Squat – until the person can complete sets of 8-10 with 16/20kg bells
• Safety Squat Bar (SSB) Squat – until someone can load 1.5xBW for sets of 3-5

*An athlete might do a front squat in the same spot as an SSB, but I usually find that the SSB is easier for athletes to learn first. We don’t back squat our baseball guys, but other athletes may progress up the chain to that exercise, especially if they’ll have to do it at school.

While these guidelines of progression don’t need to be adhered to strictly, sometimes I will veer off the Goblet or 2KB squat if I think the athlete is either ready for something else for or has stalled on an exercise. My point is simply that it’s important to have general guidelines for progressing exercises in beginners. The key is to make sure you’re not putting someone under a bar when they’re not comfortable with the technique of both the setup and the action.

This is not only true on loaded exercises, but for sprints, jumps, and throws as well. Many sport coaches these kids will have will crush them with lactic work: repeated sprints with inappropriately assigned rep schemes, distances, and rest times – but very few athletes we evaluate have ever been taught a thing about how to sprint more efficiently. As an industry, I think that we have a good understanding of lifting progressions, but power and sprint work isn’t as highly prioritized. If we look at the qualities of the best athletes – the fastest and most powerful with the best rate of force development, but not necessarily the highest strength – this doesn’t make any sense. We need to prioritize these qualities from a young age, at least from a technical proficiency standpoint.

The same principles of technical mastery, erring on the side of too simple and then progress, and lowest barrier of entry apply to sprint, jump, and throw training. While these concepts open up another broad topic, my initial block progressions in a beginner concurrent model are as following:

• Sprints: Work on mastering arm action, marching, and skipping
• Jumps: Learn how to decelerate bilaterally in the sagittal plane before getting into unilateral work, frontal/transverse plane, accelerative and reactive jumps
• Throws: Stationary sagittal plane work, focus on intent and outcome-oriented throwing before going transverse plane and increasing complexity

In part three of this series, I’ll take a deeper dive into how we program using a conjugate method of periodization for our athletes with a higher training age.

About the Author

John O'Neil (@ONeilStrength) is a coach at Cressey Sports Performance-MA. You can contact him by email at joh.oneil@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram.

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Periodization for Teenage Athletes: Part 1

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance (CSP) coach, John O'Neil. This post was inspired by my Instagram post from 9/1; check it out HERE. Enjoy! -EC

There’s a big flaw in the way we as an industry (myself included) try to learn things. We assume that we have control of all of the variables and often times assume that an athlete is far more advanced than they really are. I get it: it’s fun and exciting as strength coaches to learn a new advanced technique and try to decipher how to best fit it into your model. In this series, I will attempt to define how we differentiate periodization schemes for our beginner and advanced athletes at Cressey Sports Performance CSP). Part one will focus on separating the different types of periodization used at CSP.

At CSP, we use a concurrent/conjugate style of programming that doesn’t strictly adhere to principles of block periodization. The more advanced an athlete is, the more their program might look like it’s block periodization, but there are still elements of it that are far more similar to a concurrent model. The reasons are simple: we train primarily athletes who need to train a multitude of qualities in off-seasons ranging 3-6 months – and they don’t need to be peaked for any individual event. Rather, they need to be ready to perform for periods of greater than half the calendar year. For our high school athletes, this could mean 40-50 games, and for our pro guys, this could be as many as ~190 (spring training, regular season, and post-season). We refer to this hybrid concurrent/block periodization scheme as a conjugate model.

First, let’s define these terms. Taken from Supertraining (Siff, Verkoshansky), a concurrent model “involves the parallel training of several motor abilities, such as strength, speed, and endurance, over the same period, with the intention of producing a multi-faceted development of fitness.” A conjugated sequence, as defined by Periodization (Bompa), is a “method of sequencing training to take advantage of training residuals developed within periods of concentrated loading.” We will distinguish between these terms by using concurrent to refer to our athletes with a lower training age, and conjugate to refer to the periodization used with our higher training age athletes. The same book defines block training as “a sequential approach to structuring training in which individual blocks of training which have a distinct focus are linked together.”

(Author’s Note: In researching for this article, I found conflicting definitions of these terms. For the sake of consistency in this series, I will be using the terms as defined in this paragraph.)

Put simply, concurrent is where there is no one main focus; conjugate periodization will have one main focus but will also be training other qualities as supplementary work; and block periodization is a period where we are training one quality at a time. Concurrent periodization will be for athletes who need more general physical preparation (GPP), and conjugate periodization will be for athletes who have earned the right for more specific physical preparation (SPP).

For our beginner athletes, usually ages 13-15, it’s our job to develop and train a multitude of qualities, so the programming will be in a concurrent model. In addition, this could include slightly older athletes (16-18) who don’t have much training experience. While a youth baseball player’s program might look slightly different than someone playing another sport, this is where the greatest overlap between programs for athletes of different sports occurs. If they have something in their program that looks baseball-specific (e.g., a rotator cuff exercise), it’s mainly so they can learn good technique on it for when they’re ready for a more specialized program. It’s also generally used during rest periods from a more important exercise for this age group.

These athletes need everything: strength, speed, hypertrophy, power development, and a host of other things. Everything is in a GPP phase. They need to learn technique on basics such as sprinting, jumping, and changing directions. They need to learn technique on basic lifts: squats, deadlifts, lunges, pushes, and pulls. Most of these athletes only train with us anywhere from 3-6 hours a week, meaning we have a lot of possible information to fit into a concentrated time period.

Using the speed-strength continuum, these athletes will train in every facet of it. They will sprint, throw med balls, move weights relatively fast, and move heavier weights slower. We don’t yet consider time of the competitive season as there doesn’t need to be anything resembling peaking.

Programming for these athletes won’t have anything resembling a block; instead, it will focus on mastering the fundamentals of training so that by the time they’re able to have higher levels of output, they won’t need to spend immense amounts of time learning technique. Loaded exercise selection will be kept within a narrow scope, and they might stay relatively the same for 12-16 week periods. Instead of changing exercises, the variables we’ll change are intensity and volume: basic progressive overload techniques will win. We need to pick the exercises that allow the person to progress towards a position where we need to consider having a more specialized.

When someone is more specialized, the programming will become more of a conjugate model. Exercise selection will be more geared towards training qualities needed for the specific sport. We might change loaded supplementary exercises more frequently to give athletes more exposure to joint positions they need to be strong in, and, each phase will have a specific focus.

Using the strength-speed continuum, the phases will reflect the competitive season. In early offseason, weights might be heavier and the speed of movement will generally be slower. The focus will be closer to the absolute strength end of the spectrum. Late in the off-season, weights may decrease as speed of movement increases, and the focus becomes mimicking speed of sport. Actually playing the sport will start to coincide with training and we have a new host of variables to consider.

Programming for these athletes will be more built around their actual sport training; for example, a baseball pitcher’s throwing program begins to become primary to his training program as the offseason progresses. Exercise selection, while more variable and through a much wider selection than the beginner athletes, will all have a specific purpose that relates back to performing at their sport. Instead of changing intensity/volume primarily and exercise selection secondarily, the intensity/volume will be scaled directly with the offseason of the sport. The exercise selection might vary more because we don’t want our athletes to become specialists at exercises they can load exceptionally well like deadlifts and squats.

In part two of this series, I’ll take a deeper dive into how we program using a concurrent model for our athletes with a lower training age – and when we might consider switching their programming to a conjugate based scheme.

About the Author

John O'Neil (@ONeilStrength) is a coach at Cressey Sports Performance-MA. You can contact him by email at joh.oneil@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram.

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5 Reasons You Can’t Train High School Athletes Like Pros

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance coach, Tony Bonvechio.

Like many strength and conditioning coaches, I entered the fitness industry thinking I wanted to train professional athletes. I’m lucky that I get to do exactly that on a daily basis, but I quickly discovered that some of the most rewarding coaching experiences have come from training high school athletes.

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Sure, watching your clients play on TV is awesome, but your potential to help a younger, less established athlete can reach far beyond the field of play. Bumping a big leaguer’s fastball from 92mph to 95mph might help him land a bigger contract, but helping a 9th grader make the junior varsity team can build confidence and self esteem that is literally life changing.

That said, high schoolers and professionals have drastically different training needs. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many coaches promise the world to high school athletes by helping them “train like the pros,” only to see minimal results. Here are five reasons you can’t train little Johnny or Jane like their favorite pro athletes, even if it seems like good marketing:

1. They’re Not Strong Enough for Fancy Stuff Yet

Athletes ages 13-18 comes in all shapes, sizes and strength levels. Some look like babies while others look like they’re ready for the NFL combine, but most fall into the former category. These athletes usually struggle to perform elementary movements like squats, push-ups and lunges. They’ve got no business working on fancy change of direction drills or contrast training protocols until they’ve mastered the basics.

“Just get strong” is a common strength coach copout, but in this case it has merit. As my fellow CSP coach Greg Robins often says, think of athletic potential as a pool of water. The stronger the athlete, the more water they have in the pool. The more powerful the athlete, the faster they can draw water out of that pool. While power is of utmost importance for team sports, if your pool of water is shallow, it doesn’t matter how fast you draw it out. Strength is still the foundation of most athletic qualities, making it the most trainable quality for young athletes.

It’s certainly possible for a pro athlete to be “strong enough” to the point where they won’t improve much athletically by adding 50 pounds to their deadlift, but for a younger athlete, that might be exactly what he or she needs before they can cash in on more advanced training methods.

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2. They Need Less Loading for the Same Strength Gains

Novice trainees can get stronger with as little as 40-50% of their 1-rep max. On the other hand, more experienced lifters need a ton of submaximal volume and frequent exposures to heavy training loads (above 90 percent of 1RM) to keep gaining strength. And while not every pro athlete is an experienced lifter, they’ll likely have more training experience than a high school athlete.

What’s the point?

[bctt tweet="Teenagers get strong without much work. Don’t test 1RMs when you can gain with lighter weights."]

3. They (Hopefully) Play Multiple Sports

Young athletes have the opportunity to play multiple sports during the year, while virtually no pro athletes do that anymore. The days of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders are long gone, so while the pros get to focus on the specific physical demands of their sport year round, high schoolers are likely playing several sports with drastically different requirements in terms of strength, power and endurance.

What happens if we have a high school athlete who plays football in the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring? There’s no defined off-season, making periodization much trickier. A pro baseball pitcher may not pick up a baseball from October to January, but for someone who constantly has games and practices, you can’t block training into specific physical qualities. A concurrent training approach (i.e. training endurance, strength and power all at once) or “concurrent with emphasis” (where you prioritize endurance, strength or power but touch upon the others to preserve them) becomes a necessity.

What about exercise selection? We know the bench press is great for football, but not ideal for baseball. We know distance running doesn’t do much for baseball, but may have merit for basketball. And what if he or she plays two sports at once (i.e. AAU basketball overlapping the other two high school seasons)? We can no longer speak in absolutes or make generalized exercise contraindications when it comes to developing a well-rounded athlete.

Yes, more young athletes are specializing at a younger age. We can do our part by influencing them to play multiple sports as long as possible, but we can also design well-rounded programs that expose them to dormant movement patterns and untapped strength qualities rather than always being laser focused on training for their primary sport.

4. There are Too Many Cooks in the Kitchen

When too many cooks contribute to one dish, it won’t taste good. With high school athletes, you’ve got a lot of cooks (i.e. influences) in their kitchen (i.e. athletic career), making it difficult to create a cohesive dish worth tasting. It’s our job as the strength and conditioning coach to be the objective taste tester and adjust overall training stress to optimize performance.

Parents, teachers, coaches and friends influence every move an athlete makes on and off the field. It’s tough to get everyone on the same page. It’s common to hear an athlete say their coach wants them to get faster, their parents wants them to get more flexible and their teachers want them to study more and work out less. Who’s a teenager supposed to listen to?

In this case, it comes down to asking the right questions. I’ve learned that just by asking how an athlete is doing outside the gym can unveil the bigger picture. I’ve had a baseball player confess to performing upwards of four extra workouts a week because they’re participating in off-season training with the football team, all while getting less than five hours of sleep while studying for exams. This athlete is far from ready to hit in hard in the gym and it’s my job to adjust his training.

[bctt tweet="Ignorance is NOT bliss as the strength coach; keep tabs on ALL stressors in an athlete’s life."] Ask questions and get to know how an athlete’s lifestyle can affect their performance.

5. They Have Lackluster Recovery

Piggybacking on the last point, most high school athletes don’t recover from training as if their sport was their job. And that’s because it’s not. While most pro athletes are unrecovered too (they’re essentially third-shift workers with insane travel schedules), high school athletes don’t have a paycheck riding on their performance. So they stay up too late, eat Doritos and Skittles for lunch and don’t think twice about it.

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Great athletes live and die by their routines. Pro athletes especially settle into a daily routine that makes them feel ready to compete, from showing up to the field or court at the same time every day, to eating specific meals, to wearing the same sweaty socks for every game. A high school athlete may fly by the seat of his or her pants unless told otherwise, so we can guide them toward a routine that includes quality training, nutrition and sleep.

Take the time to educate your young athletes on the importance of simple recovery methods like foam rolling, eating enough protein and getting to bed before 10 p.m. They may not appreciate it immediately, but once they feel the difference in physical and mental performance, they’ll be more likely to recover like it's their job.

Conclusion

It’s tempting to use aggressive loading and exotic exercise selection with young athletes, but they rarely need either of them. The basics work for a reason and you’ll see success with surprisingly simple protocols if coached and performed diligently.

For more insight on how we train high school athletes at CSP, join me and Greg Robins on April 1-2 at The Annex Sports Performance Center in Chatham, NJ, for our 2-day seminar, “Complete Preparation for High School Athletes”. This seminar will equip coaches and trainers with the physical and mental tools needed to provide a comprehensive training experience for high school athletes of all sports and abilities. To register, CLICK HERE.

About the Author

Tony Bonvechio (@BonvecStrength) is a strength and conditioning coach at the Hudson, MA location of Cressey Sports Performance. More of his writing can be found on www.BonvecStrength.com.

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Long-Term Athletic Development: Optimizing A Young Athlete’s First Day at the Gym

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance - MA Director of Performance, 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.

The Physical

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.

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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?

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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).

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The Mental

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.

Conclusion

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.

If you're looking for more insights on training youth athletes, be sure to check out the International Youth Conditioning Association High School Strength and Conditioning Certification.

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About the Author

John O’Neil (@OneilStrength) is Director of Performance at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA. You can contact him by email at joh.oneil@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram.

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Why We’re Losing Athleticism

Last year, as the day was wrapping up a training session at Cressey Sports Performance, one of the last remaining clients in the gym took a detour on his way to the exit to leave for the night.  This client, a 39-year-old engineer who'd been training with us for about eight months, strolled over to the power rack.

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Once there, he proceeded to do a quick and effortless muscle up into a pseudo gymnastics routine, all atop the power rack. My jaw pretty much hit the floor. 

Stunned, I asked him, "Where did that come from?"

His response: "It was in our school curriculum. I've been able to do it since I was little."

You see, this client was born in Soviet Union (the region now known as Ukraine), and learning to move like this was an integral lesson in each day of schooling. In spite of the fact that he hadn't done much organized training in recent years - and the fact that he probably sits at a desk too much during the day, this client had maintained some significant movement capabilities.  As I thought back on his training history with us, too, I recalled that he not only crushed his evaluation, but also picked up new movements we introduced incredibly easily.  If you build a foundation, it's there for good.

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Now, compare that to the current model for "athletic development" (if you can even call it that) in the United States.  Fewer and fewer kids have physical education classes in school, and we have earlier and earlier sports specialization taking place. 

Very few American kids are exposed to the rich proprioceptive environments that not only makes them good athletes, but also sets them up for a lifetime of good movement.

In this New York Times article - which is actually several years old - some disturbing statistics were presented:

In its biennial survey of high school students across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in June that nearly half said they had no physical education classes in an average week. In New York City, that number was 20.5 percent, compared with 14.4 percent a decade earlier, according to the C.D.C.

That echoed findings by New York City’s comptroller, in October, of inadequate physical education at each of the elementary schools that auditors visited. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found just 20 percent of elementary schools in San Francisco’s system were meeting the state’s requirements: 20 minutes per day.

Most of the focus in this regard has been on implications with respect to childhood obesity, but the truth is that it has likely has just as profound an impact on long-term athletic development, as well as performance in school, as exercise and quality movement have tremendous benefits for brain function.

In the U.S., we are reaping exactly what we sow. We're fatter than ever, have far more injuries (both in competitive athletes and the general population), and aren't the international sports powerhouse we once were.  Our academic performance has also slipped considerably as compared to other countries around the world, and while there are loads of socioeconomic factors that influence this, I think it's safe to say that healthier, active kids are smarter kids. Anecdotally, the typical athletes I've seen on initial evaluations are now considerably less athletic than what I saw in 2006, when I first moved to Boston.  These kids also have more extensive injury histories, and they're on more medications.

Clearly, what we're doing isn't working. It's time to get kids moving, encourage fun and free play, and discourage early specialization. Please spread the word, and do your part.

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Strength and Conditioning Stuff You Should Read: 2/20/14

Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:

Long-Term Athletic Development and the ABCs of Training - This was an awesome article from US Lacrosse, but it applies to all sports. It closely reflects our approach to developing baseball players at Cressey Performance.

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Carb Controversy: Why Low-Carb Diets Have It All Wrong - Brian St. Pierre wrote up an extremely well-researched post for Precision Nutrition - and some of the points he make will surprise you.

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11 Ways to Make an Exercise Harder - Call this a little "Throwback Thursday" inclusion, as I wrote it back in 2010. If you're looking to learn how to write strength and conditioning programs, this is a good resource for understanding progression and regression.

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20 Ways to Prepare Young Athletes for Success in Sports and in Life

It’s a challenging time to be a parent. My twin daughters just turned two, and I can already appreciate this fact.

You see, at the end of my own personal youth athletics career, I went directly to a career in coaching young athletes – and I’ve been there for well over a decade now. To give you a little idea of how times have changed since I was a high school athlete:

a. I’d never heard of AAU soccer (or elite travel teams) when I was playing as a teenager (or 8-year-old, for that matter). I think about three kids in my state were selected to the Olympic Development Program when I was a senior because they were pretty good, but the rest of us didn’t get a trophy for trying – and I don’t recall anyone complaining about this lack of hardware on the mantle.

b. I didn’t send an email or use Instant Messenger until I was a freshman in college (1999). Somehow, I miraculously still managed to have normal social interactions with other human beings. I didn’t get a cell phone until I was 23 and in graduate school. And, I’m pretty sure that the gerbil that ran around inside it to keep the power going wasn’t up for working overtime so that I could Snapchat (and the thing couldn’t take pictures, anyway).

c. The guy (Kevin Colleran) who lived next door to me my freshman year in college turned out to be one of Facebook’s first ten employees. So, you could say I had a Facebook friend before Facebook even existed.

By reading this long, meandering introduction, I hope you’ll realize (not that you didn’t already) that kids “these days” are different. They respond to a different style of coaching, and that surely means that parenting styles must be different, too.

One thing I’ve found quite interesting over the past decade or so is that the number of overzealous, pushy, high-pressure parents has increased exponentially. As we all know (and not surprisingly), burnout rates in teen athletes has gone sky-high in this same time period. However, on a more anecdotal level, I know I can speak for myself and many other qualified coaches when I say that the "typical" kid who walks through my door on Day 1 just isn’t as athletic as he used to be. Asymmetries are more profound, injury histories are more extensive, basic movement skill acquisition has been skipped over, and – perhaps more significantly – the athletes are a bit “desensitized” to the overall training process.

They view everything as just another game/practice, so the value of each training exposure is a bit less. This was something that just didn’t happen when I was younger and free play was so heavily emphasized; we got tremendously excited for each opportunity to get better, whether it was a summer soccer camp or a new drill or training approach that our coaches introduced.

Now, make no mistake about it: we aren’t going to end the Technology Era, and I don’t expect travel teams and showcases to go away, either. However, we can change our attitudes toward them and behavior surrounding them – and, most importantly, how we interact with our kids with respect to their athletic careers. To that end, I thought I’d throw out some examples of suggestions on strategies I’ve seen employed by parents who have young athletes who are well-mannered and successful while enjoying sports – from little league to the Big Leagues.

Note: while the overwhelming majority of these lessons apply to both males and females, I’ll be using the “he” pronoun for the sake of brevity. No gender bias here!

1. Never overreact - or underreact.

Sports are games, and games are supposed to be fun. If a kid works his butt off, but the outcome isn’t what he’d hoped for, you should talk about the value in the process rather than dwelling on the target destination he didn’t reach. Crack jokes to lighten the mood, and then try to find a learning experience in losing, as opposed to just reaming a kid out and then sitting in silence for the rest of the ride home. In my experience, parents and coaches who overreact and take the fun out of the game are the single most common reason kids give up a sport.

Underreacting can be equally problematic. The process is definitely more important than the destination, but if a kid doesn’t take the process seriously, he should hear about it – just like if he ignores his homework or refuses to take out the trash. If he is rude to a coach or umpire, doesn’t hustle, shows up late to practice, or poorly handles something that is 100% within his control, he should be disciplined for it. Blindly siding with your kid when he misbehaves or is lazy sets a very dangerous precedent, but it also puts a coach in a very uncomfortable situation of having to discipline your kid because you haven’t.

2. Watch competition, but not practice.

When kids play while parents are watching, they are much less outgoing. However, take the parents away, and they’ll let their guards down, make new friends, and try things they otherwise wouldn’t attempt. This is a big part of both physical and social development. When parents stick around to watch practice/training – even if it’s with wildly supportive intentions – kids won’t come out of their shell. Sports are a great way to teach kids to “roll” with different social circles, and it’s important for them to get this experience without helicopter parents interfering.

By all means, go to game and cheer kids on, but don’t stick around to watch practice. As an added bonus, you avoid the possibility of a coach looking over his shoulder the whole time as he wonders whether you’re second-guessing him.  Every coach dreads the parent who wants to live vicariously through his kid, so the more space you give your child, the less likely you are to be perceived like that.

3. Have your kid play multiple sports.

We’ve been telling folks for years now that early sports specialization doesn’t work as well as people think. Kids are more likely to get injured, and they miss out on a well-rounded sports experience that fosters better athleticism and social interactions over the long haul. However, to supplement this assertion, I’d encourage you to check out this fantastic post from Elsbeth Vaino: Does Early Specialization Help? Elsbeth found that 82% of the top athletes from the four major sports in the U.S. actually played multiple sports. Yes, you read that right – and it is verified by my experience with hundreds of professional athletes each year. Here's a great interview with Blake Griffin that Elsbeth posted:

4. Encourage play, not always practice/competition.

Even when the sport in question remains constant, play is different than practice, as it is far less regimented, and there is far more quality movement because there are fewer stoppages for teaching. It also presents a far richer proprioceptive environment and greater opportunity for social development. Kids need to play more – and in a variety of disciplines. Adolescent athletes need practice. Kids don’t need more competition, though; our modern athletic society already plenty of that.

5. Don’t allow kids to get desensitized to losing.

With more and more tournaments being round robin and double elimination formats, I think we have a generation of kids who has been desensitized to losing. It’s even worse when you have kids who play on multiple teams, as losing for Team A doesn’t matter because Team B has a game less than 24 hours later.

Losing is part of life, but that doesn’t mean that we should be satisfied with it. It should motivate us to work harder so that it doesn’t happen again. This doesn’t just apply to sports, either; it applies to life. As a business owner, I don’t ever plan to hire someone who is comfortable with sucking.

As a little example, my sophomore year of high school, I lost a tennis match in the state singles qualifier to a kid I should have beaten 100% of the time. It was an all-day event with several rounds on a hot day in May, and I cramped up badly in the third set of the match because I hadn’t hydrated well. That loss stung for months – but you can bet that I never forget to bring enough fluids to matches ever again. I beat the guy easily in straight sets the following year, too. Losing sucks, but it teaches you lessons.

6. Make kids do manual labor.

One of my best childhood friends grew up on a farm. He bailed hay, fed the pigs, shaved the sheep, dug holes, you name it. He was also a physical specimen who won a state championship in wrestling and would run through a wall in practices if you had asked him to do so.

Beyond the obvious physical benefits of manual labor, I think that it teaches you that a job isn’t over until the project is completed. You don’t just go out and shovel snow for 15 minutes; you shovel snow until you’ve shoveled all the snow that needs to be shoveled. This is true of almost all manual labor one would do around the house; it doesn’t have to be an official job.

I love seeing kids who are task oriented and not time oriented.

7. Get kids involved in charity work.

If you’re reading this, your kid is spoiled. What do I mean?

You can actually afford to have the internet. A lot of parents and kids don’t have that luxury – or any of a number of other ones that we take for granted.

This past fall, one of our pro guys was telling me about a mission trip he took to the Dominican Republic. While there, he was volunteering to do baseball clinics for local kids – and he said that they came out in droves for the opportunity to be coached by anybody, and certainly a recognizable professional player.

His exact words: “It completely changed my life. I had no idea what my Latin teammates in pro ball had gone through.” And, this came from a guy who was already one of the most humble players I’ve ever coached.

Whether your kid winds up successful in baseball or not, I feel strongly that it’s important to embrace the concept of giving back – both in one’s own community and beyond. Perspective like this is also important because it makes you realize that making an error in the ninth inning isn’t the end of the world – when you have a roof over your head and food on the table.

8. Make kids get up 10-15 minutes earlier to make and eat breakfast.

It drives me bonkers when I hear a kid say that he can’t find time for breakfast. Don’t find time; make time!

My most productive time of day is 5:30AM-9AM. I didn’t realize this until I was in my mid-20s. I only wish that I’d learned much sooner that good things happen when you get up a little earlier:

a. When you get up earlier, you learn to go to bed earlier. Look at research on shift workers’ long term health, and you’ll quickly realize that sleeping more hours before midnight is great for your health.

b. The morning world is a more enlightened world. As an example, look at TV shows at night versus in the morning. In the evening, you get sitcoms, comedy, violence, and infomercials. In the morning, you get the news.

c. Intermittent fasting discussions aside, the research pretty much supports that people – and particularly kids – who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight. Whether it’s because it leads to eating less later in the day, or because people are more likely to eat quality food at home remains to be determined.

d. The world is a lot quieter in the morning, and silence almost always equates to increased focus and productivity.

9. Set an example.

Overweight parents are more likely to have overweight kids. This is just one way in which kids model parents’ behaviors. Work ethic, attention to detail, punctuality, and a host of other factors follow suit. I love it when parents come in to train at the same time as their kids at our facility - and the kids do, too (contrary to what parents usually assume).

10. Don’t contest grades in school.

Teachers don’t give grades; kids earn grades. If you start contesting grades, where do you stop? Do you call college admissions counselors when kids aren’t accepted to the school of their choice? Do you call potential employers because they won’t hire little Johnny – who is now 23 years old and still has Mommy doing his laundry and cooking him mac ‘n cheese?

If you don’t respect a teacher or coach’s authority and appreciate their good intentions, then your kid won’t, either.

11. Don’t brag about your kid.

A while back, my buddy Bill Hartman said something along the following lines: “No matter how strong you think you are, there is still a 120-pound woman warming up with your max somewhere.” He was spot on.

If you are proud of your kid, tell him so. And, feel free to tell your family members. However, it should stop there. There is absolutely, positively nothing that is a bigger turn-off to a coach or scout – or even another parent – than a parent that brags about his kid. Why?

They have always seen someone better. And, to take it a step further, I’d say that most folks “in the know” actually realize that there is an inverse relationship between how much a parent brags and how talented a kid really is. Anecdotally, the best players with whom I’ve worked all have tremendously humble parents who have worked hard to keep them grounded even if others always told them how good they were.

Bragging is entirely different than giving valuable feedback, though. If a parent has thoughts or suggestions that can benefit me in training a young athlete, I am absolutely all ears. Don’t by shy; just use discretion.

12. Never send college recruiting emails on behalf of your kid.

I have a ton of friends who are college coaches who deal with recruits every single day of the week. I have zero friends who are college coaches who prefer to deal with parents over kids during this recruiting process.

Candidly, when you send an email on behalf of your kid, you’re saying, “I want you to give my son a scholarship to play XYZ sport even though I don’t think he’s qualified to put together a 4-5 sentence email for himself. Also, I wipe his butt for him, and he still wets the bed.”

Coaches love kids that show initiative and aren’t shy about asking questions. And, I can guarantee kids who are more heavily involved in their own college selection process are far less likely to transfer in the years that follow. They get the information they need, not what you need.

At the end of the day, this is about educating kids on how to be proactive and decisive. These two traits go a long way in sports and beyond.

13. Don’t tell coaches to “kick his ass.”

If your kid isn’t tough by his teenage years, it’s not because a coach hasn’t pushed him; it’s likely because parents have let him get away with murder early on and not held him accountable. Me simply kicking a kid's ass increases his risk of injury and the likelihood that he’ll hate exercise and develop a sedentary lifestyle when his athletic career ends. I will, however, challenge him, educate him, and hold him accountable for his actions in my presence.

14. Don’t allow limp handshakes or conversations without eye contact.

This point shouldn’t warrant any explanation, but I would just add that coaches and scouts really do pay attention to things like this. Sprinting out to your position on the field, picking up equipment after a game, and cheering on teammates are all little things you can do to show that you really care. If you approach one part of your life apathetically, who is to say that it won’t carry over to everything else that you do?

15. Surround kids with unconditionally positive people.

Check out this awesome article about the positive response Colorado Rockies players had to the hiring of Dante Bichette as hitting coach a few years ago. I’ve gotten to know Dante pretty well, and he’s one of the most down-to-Earth and optimistic guys you’ll ever meet. In this article, they quoted Carlos Gonzalez – one of the top players in Major League Baseball – as saying, "Just being honest, I don't want a guy who's always being negative. He's been really good for me already." Guys in the big leagues are conditioned more than anyone else to learn to deal with failure; after all, the best hitters on the planet still fail 60-70% of the time! Yet, they STILL generally respond more favorably to people who are positive. Don’t you think that kids who are less prepared would need that unconditionally positive influence even more?

The secret is to find unconditionally positive people who know their stuff and then put your trust in them. You wouldn’t tell your accountant how to do your taxes, and you wouldn’t tell your lawyer how to write up your contracts. So, don’t tell coaches how to do their jobs after you’ve already recognized that they are experts and mentors in their area.

16. Make kids write thank you notes.

A note of appreciation goes a long way, particularly if it is written or typed with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

17. Educate kids on how to read a situation as casual or formal.

Remember back in high school when you had to dress up on game days? Usually, 90% of the team did it the right way – and there were 1-2 schmucks who stubbornly resisted. They didn’t tie their ties tight enough, wore sneakers with dress pants, or continued to let their khakis hang way too far down on their butts. They’re also the people who have to be forced to write the aforementioned thank you notes, and it usually begins with “thx 4 ur gift.” We’ve even had kids submit internship application essays that consisted of one long paragraph with no capitalization at the beginning of sentences. I’m not making this up.

They live in the texting and tweeting world and have no idea when it’s appropriate to be casual versus formal. I’d wager that most of those guys are still living in their parents’ basement, too. Even more now than in previous decades, it’s important to hammer home that kids need to be more formal in writing, conversation, and dress.

18. Educate kids on the dangers of technology.

This was not something that most of us encountered during our younger years, as Twitter and Facebook weren't around until just recently.  Kids have said stupid things since the beginning of time, but not until now was it easy for something dumb on the internet to "go viral" so quickly.  Every week, we hear stories of professional and collegiate athletes getting into trouble for what they post as status updates on social networks.  Athletes have been fined, released, and not signed in the first place because of stupid things they've said online.  While college and professional teams are doing their best to include social networking training in their education of players, it should start well in advance with some common sense talks with parents.  Otherwise, it's possible to undo a lot of good with one bad post.

19. Don’t give participation trophies.

My good friend Alwyn Cosgrove has written in the past about how there are always "overcorrections" in the fitness industry, as the pendulum goes too far in one direction after a long period at the other end of the spectrum.  He cites the public's perception on aerobic exercise, carbohydrate intake, and static stretching as good examples.  We want them all to be bad or good; there is no middle ground.

Participation trophies are the "yin" to the "yang" of the overbearing parent or crazy little league coach.  Rather than bring the pendulum back to center by educating kids that the true reward is the satisfaction that comes from knowing they did the best they could do, we've given every kid a trophy to make him feel special - even though all the kids get the same trophy.  Yes, the kid who shows up late to practice and swears at the coach gets the same trophy as everyone else.

A trophy is something a kid should look back on years later as a reminder of fond memories of hard work, teamwork, and a job well done.  It shouldn't be something that gets thrown in a box with a few dozen other participation trophies that have absolutely no sentimental or educational value.

My biggest concern with participation trophies, however, is that they a) diminish the value of exceptional performance/service and b) condition kids to think that things will always work out okay in the end. Sorry, but the sooner we make kids realize they don't deserve a party every time they accomplish anything, the better off we'll be.

20. Give kids opportunities to demonstrate responsibility – and monitor performance.

I can only imagine how tough it is as a parent to walk the fine line between doing something for your child and just telling him to figure it out for himself.  From my vantage point, though, there needs to be a lot more of the latter.  Maybe I just see it through this lens because I am often going out of my way to encourage parents to force kids to be proactive during the college recruiting process.  And, I like it when kids schedule their sessions with us, rather than the parents sending the email or making the phone call for them.

That said, I love it when I hear about parents giving kids challenges for them to demonstrate responsibility. Whether there are chores with checklists, or they have to take care of pets, I think it's awesome for kids to be faced with new challenges with monitored performance.  Are all the boxes checked?  Is there dog poop on the floor or a dead guppy in the fish bowl?  Candidly, I can't remember the last time that I hear of a kid earning an allowance; does that even happen anymore?  Fostering accountability at a young age is a powerful thing.

Closing Thoughts

It's taken me over 3,800 words to spit out all my random thoughts on this front, but I wanted to finish with one last thought that isn't so random: I think there is a lot that is right about youth sports these days.  More girls are playing sports than ever before. There are loads of wildly passionate coaches out there who are trying to do the right thing. Information on training and coaching is more readily available than ever before. Sports medicine has improved dramatically to help kids with injuries more quickly and effectively. I could go on and on.

We have to remember that at the end of the day, less than 1% of the kids who participate in youth sports will become professional athletes. However, sports are still an outstanding medium through which to instill a variety of favorable qualities beyond just athleticism. To that end, I hope that some of the suggestions here will help to make kids not only better athletes, but better people, too.

For more information, you may be interested in the International Youth Conditioning Association High School Strength and Conditioning Certification; I was a co-author of this resource.

 

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Youth Sports: A Lesson on Coaching Styles from My Dog

It might sound like a silly way to start a fitness blog, but my dog, Tank, is lazy.

Tank can fall asleep anywhere, anytime.  This in itself wouldn't be a problem, but he also happens to be a blend of two of the most stubborn breeds you can imagine: pug and beagle.  We've managed to train him out of his stubbornness pretty well, but he still absolutely hates walking up.  As such, he'll generally stay in bed as long as he possibly can before he has to go to the gym with me.

In order to motivate him to get out of bed and come downstairs, I've exhausted a lot of options.  Originally, I could just call him; then, he got tired of that.

After that, I'd shake the bag of treats - but then Tank got tired of that after a few days.  Sleep was cooler than food.

Then, I'd knock on the front door as if a visitor had arrived - but he eventually smartened up to that.

Next, I would actually open the front door and ring the doorbell.  Tank's now sick of that. Sleep is cooler than visitors, too.

So, nowadays, the only way I can get my dog out of bed is to physically go upstairs, pick him up, and set him on the floor in the direction of the staircase.  Some might say that his laziness is unparalleled.

I'd actually argue that this situation parallels what happens in youth sports nowadays. They often say that getting a dog is a stepping stone to having a child of your own, but I'd argue dealing with a lazy dog can also teach us a valuable lesson as coaches of young athletes.

You see, kids are just like Tank in that they can become desensitized to you.  Everyone has the story of the crazy little league or high school football coach in their hometown who always threw temper tantrums, broke clipboards, punched walls, cursed at players, berated umpires/referees, and treated everyone like crap.  All the players were certainly scared to death of these coaches for the first few months, and then the novelty of playing for a complete jerk wore off.  Maybe the screaming and yelling was used as a cover-up for a complete lack of knowledge, and people wised up to this reality. Or, maybe this individual just took all the fun out of what was supposed to be a game.

Regardless of how the initial excitement/fear wore off, rarely does one of these lunatic coaches have a favorable lasting impact on a kid.  It's either because the coaches have very little to teach, or the athletes tune them out very quickly.  The coaches that impacted me the most were the ones who were the most compassionate and understood my unique strengths and weaknesses, but knew how the crack the whip at the right times.  Not surprisingly, they're the ones who I stayed in contact with for years after I was done playing for them.  And, they're the kind of coaches I see coming from the great teachings of the International Youth Conditioning Association, of which I'm a proud Advisory Board member.

If you scream, swear, and throw things all the time, athletes will get desensitized to you.  Nobody ever gets desensitized to a close friend, though.  Look at every bit of marketing research, too, and you'll find that people genuinely like talking about themselves above all else.  That tells me that if you want to have a favorable impact on someone's life as coach, you better be a very good listener before you even think about talking, let alone yelling. I'm a firm believer that you need to be their friend before you can be their coach. In watching my mother succeed as a high school principal, I'm convinced that this is something that carries over to any "authority" position; people need to like you before they respect you.

It's not just enough to be popular, though; you have to be prepared. Tank is definitely "man's best friend," but that doesn't change the fact that he wants to ignore me sometimes.  Along these same lines, if you're going to be successful working with young athletes, you need to have different tools in your toolbox to motivate, inspire, make a point, or even just get their attention. There always needs to be a Plan B, and you need to be able to adapt your coaching style to an athlete's unique needs over the course of his/her training career.

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