Like no other time in our history, the decisions on where to play, what to spend time on, what to cut out, is critical in the long-term development of every young athlete with dreams of playing at higher levels.
And make no mistake, these decisions matter greatly. Better opportunities lead to better results.
As the book Game On explains in detail, the trend in college scholarships right now is that a higher percentage of them are being awarded to richer families each year. They connect this trend back to the fact that those spending top dollar are gaining a significant advantage with their child’s athletic development.
And what is the most critical first step that people who will spend tens of thousands of dollars annually need for this investment to pay off?
A comprehensive athletic development plan.
In the midst of everyone trying to get the best opportunities for their child, what sometimes gets lost is the big picture of what kids should do and when they should do it.
The first step of pre-planning development is to look at how the 12 months of the year are set up, so that everything is geared towards the long-term goal.
Using the widely recognized periodization model for athletic development, let’s break down both the physical and sports skill key development areas that best suit athletes over the course of a year.
In-Season (3-6 months)
If you are mainly a one-sport athlete, this is closer to 3 months, and for a two-sport athete it would be 6.
Anyone considering themselves truly ‘in-season’ for more than 6 months out of the year is severly disadvantaged compared to their better organized peers. The days of the true three-sport athlete are mostly over if you wish to thrive at the highest levels.
(Note: This model is focused on ages 13 and up. At younger ages playing multiple sports is recognized as being a much more effective way of achieving long-term success.)
Sports-Skill Development - Winning is nice, but lots of great players come from teams that don’t necessarily win championships all the time.
Find a program that teaches skill, team concepts (if its a team sport), and challenges their players to get beyond where they are today.
Those who focus first on these areas and make winning a byproduct of them, instead of vice versa, have long-proven to be the best talent developers. Coaches like John Wooden, Vince Lombardi and Dean Smith did this, and their teams turned out just fine.
Physical Development - This is a time, as we’ve stated in previous articles, where explsoive power and injury prevention work are your top priorities. This is not the time to make significant gains, you’ll be too tired to do that, but you can keep your off-season development consistent over the long season with a little extra time devoted to key areas.
Early Off-Season (1 month)
Sports-Skill Development - This period depends on your motivation and physical state. If you are burned out from your season, a month off completely from your sport may do wonders for you. If not, this is a great time to simply get out and practice skills on your own or in pickup games with friends.
Nothing substantially challenging should come in this time if you are tired from a long season.
Physical Development - This can be structured or unstructured, but as an athlete you always want to stay active. It could be as simple as playing pickup games as stated above, or it can be more formal training that is less intense than what you’ll need to do later in the off-season.
This first month is again based on how hard your season was. Remember that there is only so much development time that you’ll get in your life, so if you can get at it sooner you’ll be better off. But rushing it without full recovery will limit your progress in the next phase.
Off-Season (4-7 months)
Sports-Skill Development - This is the critical period where some players rise up, and others fall to the wayside.
Playing on off-season teams is great, and can open doors, but it better not be the #1 goal once again, or you will have squandered a huge opportunity.
The best thing an aspiring athlete can do is find their real weak points, and hammer away at them.
This could mean just working with your team coaches, it could be getting out on your own for countless hours, or it could mean hiring a private coach.
Right here is where the value of being in a strong program matters most. SInce there’s nothing to be won in the off-season, a coaching staff focused on winning over development will not help you here. But in the right program, taught by the right coaches, this is where you can make huge strides from year to year.
Physical Development - Literally everything above also applies to the physical side.
If your coaches truly understand athletic development in all its facets (speed, strength, power, agility, coordination, flexibility, stability) the you once again are in good hands.
However, if they do not have that deep expertise in place, and very few truly do, you once again may need to go outside your organization to maximize this critical time period.
Pre-Season (1 month)
Sports-Skill Development - In most sports, this is when conditioning for your sport becomes of utmost importance.
A smart way to get skills in with conditioning is to run team drills at fast paces. This will allow you to begin working together, it gets your heart rates up a bit, and gets you all a lot of repetitions.
Usually this gets done in captains practices, so if you are a captain I recommend strongly you organize this ahead, possibly with some planning from coaches or other trusted, knowledgeable sources.
Physical Development - Training intensity on everything but conditioning should drop about 10-40%. This is the time to ramp up sport-specific conditioning.
Rest periods and recovery times should gradually come together so you are well-suited to play well for a full game. This takes some data collection, but is doable for any athlete.
Other training should be more fine-tuned to hit the key needs of that individual, since you will devote less time to it priorities must be made.
As each year goes by, the well-prepared athlete would simply fine tune their needs, and ramp up their training to match their physical maturity.
Now obviously there are lots of variations to this based on age, sport, and injury considerations.
But if you are truly serious about reaching your peak performance, you need to have a comprehensive outline of what you should be doing at all times.
The 21st Century world of athletic development is giving those who have the most resources this recipe for success, but the reality is smart planning and a well thought out plan don’t need to cost outrageous amounts.
It does, however, require pre-planning and disciplined decision making.