What An Annual Athletic Development Plan Looks Like

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.

 

Sled Training: Who It Really Helps

If you have followed the fitness world for any length of time, you’ve seen an incredible amount of fad training concepts come and go.  One of the more popular ones right now, for athletes and even general fitness populations, is sled training.

For anyone who hasn’t seen or used them, it essentially involves pushing or pulling a sled loaded up with a good amount of weight.  Depending on how the workout variables involved are designed (distance, reps, sets rest time)  it can be absolutely brutal.

But does brutal equal good training?  

As top strength coach Martin Rooney likes to say, 

“Anyone can make you tired, but a good coach knows how to make you better.

Let’s take a look at how sled (commonly referred to by the brand name Prowler) training can make certain athletes better.

It Helps Fully Grown Ice Hockey Forwards and Defensemen Skate Hard For Full Shifts

Because of the incredible lactic acid build up you get in your legs, sled work helps skaters adapt to the same exact challenge they face in their sport.  

This type of adaptation requires longer distances to simulate a 60 second shift, must be done for multiple sets, and needs rest periods that match the time they typically get in between shifts.

The same concept actually applies to middle distance runners in track, too, also making it an effective training tool for them.

When You Can Incorporate Arm Movement Too, Sleds Help Teach Sprint Acceleration Mechanics

Combining excellent posture with a good forward lean is the key mixture of developing starting speed.  The extra resistance and ability to lean forward that a sled provides can be a great tool under the right conditions.

A harness attachment must be used to allow the arms to move freely.

Technical drills like marches, skips and bounds are also great sled drills on top of just sprinting.  

The weight needs to be relatively light, depending on what your focus is the resistance could be as little as 5-10% of the athlete’s body weight.

Sled Pushes Help Football Linemen Drive Opponents Off The Line

Due to the angle of the drive out and the heavy resistance they encounter, sleds are great for football linemen when done correctly.

Distances should be extremely short (5 yds up to 20 max), weight should be about the size of a typical lineman at their age, rest should be about 30 seconds, and there should be a lot of sets.

Sleds May Be A Good Substitute For General Fitness People Who Struggle With The Pounding Of Running

The angle of a sled push takes the eccentric load off since the weight is not being carried and you don’t have to support your full bodyweight when pushing off.   

With the understanding that this may not be a cure for everyone who is fighting a chronic injury, in some cases sled work allows for high intensity training without having to sprint.  The angle does put a different stress on the knee and ankle, so in specific cases it could make things worse.

 

Unfortunately, just as with all other fitness trends a Prowler sled workout is not a magic bullet that cures everything.  

Some common ways sleds are being used today that are not effective are:

  • Training with sleds to the point of exhaustion and/or vomiting if you do not need to tolerate lactic acid buildup.  This is the classic example of making you tired but not better.  Any good coach knows the difference.
  • Using heavy weight sled work for speed.   You train fast to be fast, heavy weights slow you down.  It’s not rocket science.
  • Letting younger athletes do intense sled training.  This is the one that really irritates me, because not only is it usually not a fit but younger athletes can’t  properly adapt physiologically to the intense lactic acid training anyways. To me this is borderline criminal ignorance.
  • Wasting your time and energy on something you don’t need for your sport.  There is actually a name for training with sleds to the point of throwing up (Prowler Flu), and although some athletes do need to go through this, most do not.   Check the categories above, and if your sport and position aren’t there then this likely isn’t helping you at all.

New ideas in fitness continue to make training more effective each year, provided that they are being used in the right way and are not overdone or misused because they are popular at the moment.    

Right now that’s sled work, which can be a breakthrough tool for the right situation, or a painful waste of time and energy.

 

Absolutely Critical For Your Health

Do you wish you could lose a few pounds?

Do you wish you had more energy?

Do you have some kind of physical ailment you wish went away?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I strongly recommend you look at the some of the work done by F. Batmanghelidj, M.D, author of the book ‘You’re Not Sick, Yo’re Thirsty!  Water for Health, for Healing, for Life’.

Those of you who read our emails know how big we are on drinking water.  But in this groundbreaking book, Batmanghelidj digs much deeper in to how chronic dehydration causes many of the health-related problems we suffer from in our society.

There are many, many more examples of the powerful effect chronic dehydration has on our long-term health. What follows is simply a brief summary of some of them.

Water Helps You Stay Leaner

The signal your body sends to tell you you’re hungry and the one that tells you you’re thirsty are indistinguishable (he argues dry mouth is a terrible way to determine thirst).

Since food is usually far tastier than water, and these days is plentiful, we gravitate toward food when often times we really needed to hydrate.

Drinking a glass or two of water 30 minutes before each meal would go a long way towards controlling your eating.  This is a key component for those taking part in our 8 Week Fall Transformation Challenge.

Water Helps Minimize Effects Of Asthma And Allergies

The author goes into great detail about histamines and how they are regulated by the body’s hydration level.  But long story short, staying fully hydrated on a regular basis could play a major role in lowering or even eliminating the discomfort of allergies, and the potential dangers of asthma attacks.

Further, asthma attacks in childhood have been shown to lead to other health problems later in life.  

The author states that he now focuses most on curing asthma through proper hydration as the main focus of his current work.  He has found that sodium intake is also closely linked to helping cure asthma.

Water Improves Energy Levels and Mood

Those who don’t drink enough water typically gravitate to other energy drinks to stay alert.  This gives a short term rush but leaves you less energetic in the long run.

 Plus, water plays a key role in regulating neutotransmitters like tryptophan, serotonin, and melatonin.  Not being fully hydrated slows down the transport of these to the brain, making you more irritable than you would be otherwise.

Dehydration Leads To A Wide Range Of Short-Term Illnesses

All of the following conditions are linked to being dehydrated:

  • Heartburn
  • Regular Illnesses (flu, colds, etc)
  • Migraine Headaches
  • Nose Bleeds
  • Arthritis
  • Colitis
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Dry and Burning Eyes

 

Chronic Dehydration Can Lead To A Number Of Long-Term Health Issues
As if this wasn’t enough reason to drink  more water yet, here are all the long-term issues the author’s 30 years of research has led him to conclude are linked to chronic dehydration:
  • Diabetes
  • Strokes
  • Kidney Stones
  • Chronic Lower Back Pain
  • Osteoporosis
  • Coronoary Heart Disease
  • Cancer
Yeah, that’s a bit of a depresssing summary.

But the positive is that the best preventative ‘medicine’ to it all is free, and readily available to all of us almost anywhere we go.

For all the fuss about Mediterrenean Diets, and organic foods, and all the other touted remedies for living healthier, could the best solution really be as simple as keeping your water and sodium intakes to levels that provide optimum cell functioning?

Sometimes the best solution to a problem is the simplest.

Dr. Batmanghelidj has a website that provides far more information on this topic, I suggest you check it out to reach your own conclusion.

Hopefully there is something there that can improve your life, or the life of someone you know.

You can find it at www.watercure.com

 

The Law of 168: How It Affects Everything You Do

The Law of 168 is a very simple concept, that we all have the exact same number of hours each week to spend on what matters most to us.

And it is how well we match up our actions in those 168 hours each week with our goals that ultimately determines our long-term success or failure.

Although this applies to all of us, adults and kids alike, the start of a new school year is a critical time for kids to re-focus on the things that will have the greatest impact on their lives.

 For any kid who goes to school and is playing a sport, you have some obvious commitments to your time.

You spend about 35 hours per week in school.

You spend 15 to 20 hours per week with practices, games, and team travel time.

You should be sleeping 8 hours per night, 56 hours per week

You likely spend about 10 hours per week on homework (hopefully…)

 

That leaves you with about 47 remaining hours each week if you are a student-athlete and adhere to everything above

So how do you spend those precious remaining hours?

Being able to relax, spend time with friends and family, these are things you can and should do.  Both your mind and your body need to re-charge.

But 47 hours each week should leave time for some things that, for a small time investment, would have a big impact on your long-term success.

Here are two huge ones for student-athletes:

Eating Breakfast

Far more times than I’d care to count, kids have told me that they “don’t have timefor breakfast”
Really?
It takes less than 10 minutes out of your day, or about 1 hour total per week, to eat a quick and healthy breakfast.
One simple recipe was in Sports Illustrated recently, the 1 Minute Ham & Egg Bowl:

HOW TO PREPARE:

- Line the bottom of a microwave-safe bowl with a few slices of ham.

- Pre-scramble 1 egg and pour on top of the ham.

- Microwave for 30 seconds, stir the egg, then cook another 15-30 seconds until egg is set.

- Top with shredded cheese.

 

Done!  Even better, finish the meal with some water-based fresh fruit (orange, apple, pineapple slices, etc)

Not a ham and egg person?  Here are 6 more protein based breakfast ideas:

http://www.menshealth.com/nutrition/6-muscle-building-snacks-you-can-make-protein-powder

Eating breakfast, especially one with protein and fresh fruit choices, has been proven to improve your performance in both school and athletics.

All for 1 hour per week.

 

In-Season Training

What if, for 1 hour per week plus travel time, you could do something that:

- Would lower your risk of injury, or minimize the effects of one should it come up

- Help you maintain your current speed and power levels while your teammates and competition gradually wear down as the season goes on

- Keep you posturally aligned a bit better, helping you to feel more energized and less sore.

Would that not be worth just one more of those 47 hours each week?

Many athletes feel they don’t have the energy to train at all during the season, but what they don’t realize is that it is not something a smart in-season workout takes away.  Done properly, training will actually give you more energy over time.

Everyone these days feels rushed, overbooked, and sometimes even overwhelmed.

But the Law of 168 is the same for each and every one of us.  

We all get the exact same amount of time to move forward towards the things we wish to accomplish.

The key is in whether you spend more time on the things that will truly make an impact, or you allow time and future opportunity to slowly slip through your fingers.

Its those who master this concept that have the brightest futures.

 

 

 

Do Sports Kids Have A Protein Problem?

The average young athlete these days is working very hard to achieve their goals, but they’re doing it on a less than optimal nutrition plan.

And more often than not, at the heart of their problem is a total misunderstanding of how to take in adequate amounts of protein.

I’m sure you already know that protein is incredibly important for active people because it helps repair and rebuild broken down muscle tissue that is damaged from exercise, both during sports participation and in programs like ours.  

Protein acts as the building blocks, the materials your body uses to rebuild a new and better you.

But it can only be digested in relatively small doses, roughly 20-35 grams per meal.

Considering that active people need between 0.7 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily, that’s a lot of meals that need a good protein source.  Even a 125 lb person needs 3-4 protein-rich meals per day.

So how can any kid, athletes in particular, reach this number if they do not eat a quality breakfast?

Let’s take what appears to be a very common scenario with at least the kids we work with, but probably active kids everywhere.

We’ll start at the point you fall asleep, and assume you are getting 8 hours of sleep and do not get up to eat a meal during this time.

With your remaining 16 hours to get in your protein-rich meals, you choose to not eat breakfast, or have :

  • a bagel
  • toast
  • muffin
  • pop tart
  • scone
  • pancake
  • French toast
  • juice

all of which have no proetin at all.  

Protein cannot be stored and used for a later time, so when you wake up you are desperately in need of an infusion of fresh building supplies, but you let the fast continue even longer.

That gets you to probably mid-morning, leaving at best 12 hours to reach your rebuilding needs.  You’d have to perfectly thread the needle and have a high-protein meal every 3 hours until you go to bed, a nearly impossible task.

So most kids wander through their day underrecovered, developing at a rate that is behind where they could be if they did a better job of spreading their protein meals out throughout their day.

To me, this is where the facination with shakes and supplements comes in for many high school and college athletes.  They are trying to make up for a massive nutritonal error to start the day by overloading their diet with protein later on.

There is nothing wrong with a protein bar or shake sometimes if its not more than about 30 grams worth.

But in huge amounts your body just can’t process it all at once, so most of what you pay big money for literally gets flushed away.

Breakfast is so important for so many reasons, but for active athletes and kids everywhere it is the chance to replenish their protein stores at the start of the day that makes it most valuable.

It is such an athletic advantage that, if you aren’t eating a protein-rich breakfast right now, starting to do so might be the single greatest way you have to improve the performance you see from your workouts and sports practices this summer.

Here are some better breakfast choices for ending your overnight protein fast:

GOOD CHOICES:

  • Eggs
  • Yogurt (Greek Yogurt has more protein)
  • Ham or another lean meat
  • Lowfat milk

BETTER THAN NOTHING CHOICES:

  • Peanut butter
  • Sausage
  • Bacon
  • Protein bar or shake
  • Cheese

 

 

4 Key Findings From Our Performance Combine

This June we ran our 2nd round of performance testing for all of our athletes.  Now that we have gone through all the resuts, we’ve learned much more about how each athlete has progressed over the last 3 months, and what they need next.

But just as interesting is that with 2 sets of data we can now see some trends in the way our athletes change over time.  

With over 100 kids testing in each season, our findings still represent a small sample but had enough participants to present us with some very useful conclusions.

Here are the most critical ones you should know.

1. You Lose Speed and Power More Than Strength When You Train Less (Or Not At All)

This came as a big surprise, at least to me, that the kids who cut down most drastically  on their workouts since February to play a spring sport did not lose a significant amount of strength during that time.  It appears that the gains made in the off-season pretty much held up for at least 12 weeks with minimal workout time.

What did drop quite a bit, though, was their speed and power.  We measured these with vertical jump, Pro-I Agility, and Hang Clean scores, all of which took about a 10% hit during the spring for this group of athletes.

This is the true value of kids who train in-season.  Even if you’re not the fastest or most powerful kid on the first day of practice, taking the time to get less tiring workouts in during your season that focuses on speed and power will make you about 10% better at the end of it.

And that is the time when good teams play their most important games.

2. Being A Complete Athlete Really Helps   

We compiled a list of every athlete who scored at least at proficient on all 8 tests in our combine.  Tests covered strength, power, speed, flexibility and balance.

About 25-30% of our kids met this basic proficiency level, which we refer to as our Complete Athletes.  

And what do these kids have in common?

They aren’t just very good athletes, they also happen to be a group that’s stayed injury-free over this period of time.   Probably not a coincidence.

3. You Can See Growth Spurts From Test Results 

It is rare that any athlete would significantly lose flexibility over a 3 month period, unless they have experienced a major injury in that time.

But we noticed a group of about 6-8 kids who did not get hurt yet still saw their flexibility scores take a noticeable downward turn.

They were all between the ages of 13 and 15.  This leads us to believe it was due to a current growth spurt, or one that is about to occur.

Getting ahead of growth spurt challenges are important not just for long-term development, but to lessen the physical discomfort and awkward challenges that growing presents to our kids.

4. Our Middle School Athletes and High School Boys Are Progressing Faster Than Our High School Girls 

We post our Top 3 Most Improved athletes from the previous season in our facility for Middle School Boys and GIrls, plus High School Boys and Girls.

Every group had a long list of kids who made significant improvements this past spring.

Well, except for one.

Our high school girls scored far below all the other groups as far as improvement this spring.

Part of the problem is that our high school girls do not train for very long – only a small number of them even stayed for 2 consecutive seasons to train.  Usually they come and go in just a couple months, not building enough of a foundation to see real gains.

Another part is they are also a group that misses a lot of workouts.  Many did not complete all 8 tests in either season, even with a makeup week added, because they aren’t here enough for us to score them.

Simply put, almost all of our high school girls do not train enough to significantly improve their athletic skills the way our other groups are.   The numbers are very clear on this point.

 

Whether positive or negative, having all this information at our disposal is only going to make it easier for us to help our kids here get better in the future. 

Hopefully learning about at least one of these trends will help you, as well.

Are You An ’80′?

Once every season, we take all our athletes through a 2 week performance assessment during their workouts.
It consists of 8 tests with a point system attached, the highest score per test being 10 points.
The goal of this is three-fold:
1.  To identify each individual’s greatest development needs right now, so we can create better programming for every athlete training with us.
2.  To track the progress of each individual over longer periods of time, giving them a simple system to see if they are moving towards that magic overall 80 point score (Its not easy to do! Our highest score last March was 52).
3. To detect categories that many of our athletes score low in, forcing us to confront the reality of whether our development system is truly working for our kids.  As an example, in the winter we noticed low flexibility scores overall and have adapted our workout design to add more stretching for those who needed it.
So what are the 8 categories we test?
MOVEMENT SKILLS
Tests #1 and 2 work off of the Functional Movement Screen designed by Gray Cook, we use the FMS Squat and Lunge test to indentify basic flexibility and balance concerns.
These are best thought of as the injury prevention tests, but great balance and flexibility are also important in projecting speed, agility and power for sport.
(The FMS is a great tool for coaches and is a big part of our initial assessments with new athletes. Those interested in learning more can go to http://www.functionalmovement.com/ )

POWER, SPEED & AGILITY 
Obviously a critical performance category for athletes in any sport.  We use 3 tests that are commonly used in college and pro prospect combines:
Test #3 – Pro I Agility (5-10-5 Shuttle Run) for cutting and speed
Test #4 – Vertical Jump for leg power
Test #5 – Hang Clean for explosive strength and power output
Later this year we will add a sprint speed test to this category.
STRENGTH
This category has some different tests based on ages, but again we stick to basics because in most cases these are the performance tests that scouts and elite team coaches will score them on as well.
Test #6 – Bench Press or Pushups for pressing strength
Test #7 – Monkey Bar Climbs for grip strength
Test #8 – Deadlift or KB Goblet Squat for leg strength
Since we just began doing this last March, this is the first season where we’ll be able to see changes in both our individual athletes and our group overall.  This will bring even more clarity to how we can best serve all the hard-working, dedicated kids in our program who dream of reaching higher levels in their sport.

3 Key Injury Prevention Tips For Throwing Athletes

Spring is the season for throwing athletes, particularly in baseball and softball.  And with throwing season in full bloom, elbow and shoulder pain are guaranteed to come along with it just as predictably as the days starting to get longer.

Rotator cuff tears, torn labrums, Little League elbows and other joint problems are about to be in full bloom across America as a whole new set of unprepared arms break down under the strain of the throwing motion.

Coaches and leagues everywhere have wisely focused on improved mechanics, better warm up techniques, and tighter restrictions on how much throwing can be done as excellent preventative measures for our kids.

But even with all of that, an understabilized and restricted arm is still a major candidate for plysical issues.

Here are 3 simple but powerfully effective ways any throwing athlete can further reduce their risk of shoulder and elbow injury problems through lower-intensity training activities.

Tip #1 – Use A Foam Roller Regularly

Your shoulder is designed to move free and easy throughout a full range of motion.  A high volume of throwing will create tightness in the muscles involved which limits your shoulder’s ability to move as freely as it previously did.

Foam rolling is a simple way to loosen up those tight throwing muscles.  It is essentially a self-massage mechanism and can dramatically relieve tension in any soft tissue if used regularly.  (Our full foam roll article can be found here.)

Working through a routine where the forearms and every muscle around the shoulder are rolled out is recommended, along with any other muscles you have that get tight.

Tip #2 – Stabilize Your Shoulder With Band Resistance Training

If you’ve ever gone to physical therapy you know band reistance is a key piece of the rehabilitation puzzle.  And for all the same reasons, its a great tool to use for preventing injuries, as well.

Bands develop end range of motion strength because that is where a stretched band provides the most resistance.  This is where many people are weakest and susceptible to breakdowns.

Bands, unlike weights which can only use gravity for vertical loading, can provide horizontal and diagonal loading forces that are much more similar to the strains incurred from a typical throwing motion.  Matching the plane of motion in which injuries occur is a typically overlooked aspect of injury prevention training.

And finally, bands can improve flexibility at the same time they add end-range strengthening.  This critical two-for-one aspect makes an even more unique and beneficial resistance tool.

Tip #3 – Use A Modest Amount Of Closed-Chain Strength Drills

With a controlled amount of volume, some strength training can still be beneficial to a thrower while in-season.

For exercise selection, make sure you are focused on closed-chain exercises.  Closed chain exercises for your upper body are the ones where your hands are in a fixed position.

A pushup is a closed chain drill because your hands stay on the ground, but a bench press is not.  There are many more examples of each.

The reason these drills are better for throwers is because they strengthen the critical rotator cuff muscles that connect the shoulder joint to the scapulas.  And of course the reason why you have probably heard of the rotator cuff is because you know or heard of someone who tore theirs….likely when throwing or doing some other overhead movement.

 

A strong and healthy shoulder has the added benefit of reducing strain on the elbow joint, as well.  It is the critical link in the chain for pitchers and all other throwers.  By taking action to keep them functioning at peak capacity, you’ll drastically reduce your injury risk this spring and summer.

Filters To Athletic Success

Back in my college days I remember one of our engineering labs using this giant machine to filter sediment.

Essentially what it did was, after we’d pour a mixture of dirt and rocks into the top of the machine, separate the pieces by size.  It did this by falling through a series of grated trays, each one with progressively smaller holes than the one above it.

The bigger rocks would catch and stay on the top filter, the next biggest pieces would catch on the next one, and so on.  So the only sediment that made it through all the filters were the finest grains of sand.

In many ways, this is similar to how athletic development sorts itself out over time.  Each level of success seems to have its own key filters as kids go from youth leagues to high school, college and beyond.

Not every sport is exactly the same, but there are some clear filters to athletic success that span over a large number of them.   There are certain ‘big rocks’ that need to come first for early success, with a series of more refined skill sets that are necessary as you climb the ladder over time.

Parents and coaches who are drowning in the sea of athletic opportunity for their young athletes these days should keep in mind that what your kids need at different age levels will vary, but those needs are often more predictable than you think.

 

The Biggest Rock – General Coordination and Movement Skills

Go to any youth sports league and watch the kids who rise above the rest.  Almost certainly it will the the ones who have the best coordination.  They can shoot balls or pucks with more accuracy, square up on fastballs better in baseball or softball, and do many other skills that require basic coordination better than their age-level peers.

Coordination in running technique will also allow them to move better too, making the need to develop more fluid and athletic movements the first filter to reaching success in sports.

The early years where this dominates will last somewhere until around 10-12 years old.

 

The 2nd Biggest Rock – Bodyweight Strength & Its Impact On Speed

At the next level you’ll find that most every top player has passed through the coordination filter, so now the ability to cover more ground will take on greater importance.

Passing through this filter is a bit trickier, because it could be a need for strengthening, weight management, or both.

Poor nutrition habits or a lack of activity outside of their sport may lead to problems with excess weight gain.

Alternately, some kids grow taller at a rapid rate but their strength levels do not keep pace.  This creates a scenario where they will appear to play slower in relation to peers who used to be equal or behind them speed-wise.

These concerns typically first maifest themselves during the middle school years, and based on sports dropout and obesity rates for this age level, it is the hardest filter for young athletes to pass through.

 

The 2nd Smallest Rock – Technical Movement, Strategic, and Sport-Specific Skills

With initial speed, strength and coordination needs met at this point, most kids will find that the technical side of athletics begins to take on more and more importance.

Team strategies and playing beyond oneself become more essential as athletes seek to thrive in the systems of established high school or AAU programs.

More refined sport-specific skills (puck handling, dribbling, passing, etc), forged through countless hours of practice are necessary to separate a player from all the other coordinated, fast kids at this stage.

And as the game once again speeds up, more advanced speed & agility technique provides another critical advantage for those who wish to slip through to the next filter.

 

The Smallest Rock – Body Composition & Power Maximization

Regardless of sport or gender, the clear trend in athletics over the last 20 years is for bigger and stronger athletes to reach the pinnacle of success.

What makes this such an elite challenge is that getting bigger and more powerful cannot interfere with the coordination, flexibility, or speed skills previously built.    This is an incredibly fine line to walk.

And when you add in that you’ll have to have your nutrition and recovery streamlined as well, succeeding at this stage requires an almost round-the-clock commitment to success.

 

Keep in mind that none of the previous filters ever go away completely, in fact often times they require advanced strategies too as you reach higher on the ladder of athletic success.

But the biggest takeaway for coaches and parents is that every piece of the athletic puzzle has its time and place, and there are different areas that are most likely to cause challenges for your kids to be addressed at each level.

Those who take a smarter long-term approach are far more likely to see the ultimate success they dream of.

Is It Really Speed That You Need?

In talking to prospective new participants in our youth training programs, I’d say about 90% of the time they immediately mention speed as a skill they want to improve on.

Without a doubt speed is a critical piece of the puzzle in most sports.  Typically it is one of the bigger factors in players moving up the ladder of athletic success as they get to high school and beyond.

But is speed development as it is typically understood (“Go run sprints!”) what you should focus your time and energy on?

In many cases there are other ways for younger athletes to get faster.

Unfortunately being fast is a more complex skill to develop.

If you want to be more flexible, you stretch.

If you want to get stronger, you lift weights or something else that provides resistance.

But for speed, there is a set of ‘puzzle pieces’ that have to be put together.  And without all the pieces in place, you’ll never see the complete picture.

The Speed Puzzle Pieces:

  • Fast Twitch Muscle Fiber Ratio.  There are different types of muscle fibers (Type I and Type II plus some subcategories), Type I designed for endurance and Tyle II for faster, short duration movements.  People have different percentages of each, and much of this is genetically determined.However, there is much evidence now to support the fact that explosive training exercises (Olympic Lifting, plyometrics, quickfoot drills, etc) can expand your Type II fiber capability, improving your ability to accelerate.
  • Strength To Body Mass Ratio.  By either getting stronger without gaining more size, or by getting leaner without losing strength, you can make yourself faster.   In pro sports you typically see the ‘get leaner’ side of this equation when players come back faster, but in younger athletes it is usually the ‘get stronger’ side that has the greatest impact.
  • Foot skill Technique.  There is a definite technical element to sprinting and cutting most effectively.  Often times there are a handful of mistakes a slower athlete is constantly making that limits their ability to cover more ground.  By identifying and eliminating these footwork errors, speed improves.
  • Being Active.   Sometimes it is as simple as getting out and running, either in a team setting or practicing on your own.  History has shown that the most active people, especially when younger, grow up to be faster than those who are less active.
  • Flexibility.  This helps in two main ways.  First, it will allow you to maximize the distance you cover with each stride so you get from Point A to Point B in fewer steps.  Second, it allows you to better position your hip level to create a ‘load & explode’ aspect to your change-of-direction ability.
  • Stability.  Probably the most overlooked part of speed development, and likely why youth sports injury rates continue to climb, as well.  Being stable in your ankle and hip joints, plus being able to control your upper body movements with a stable core, will let you maximize the speed and power you currently possess.
  • Coordination.  An athlete who can skip well is almost certain to have great arm drive in their sprint technique, while those who struggle with skips and other basic coordination skills are most likely going to play unathletically, too.This is compounded by the fact that when kids are growing their limb lengths constantly change, making coordination come and go.  But consistent work on many basic movement skills can accelerate the coordination development learning curve.

Can you see where your current gaps are?

Every athlete who knows they need to improve their speed is deficient in at least one of these areas, possibly even a majority of them.

For some people it will be as simple as going out and running sprints, but in many cases there are other pieces to connect that will provide much greater impact.

Many of these components require a lower amount of energy to develop, like coordination, flexiblity, footskill technique and stability.  They are things you can work on year-round even if you are already active and playing sports most of the time.

Just remember that with the complexity of speed development it is important to understand that patience and persistence are critical to long-term success.  There just isn’t an overnight solution to it.

However, when you find your real needs and begin hammering away at them, you’ll see progress that can’t ever be taken away from you.  And all the kids who only went out to run some sprints (or did nothing at all) will be left scratching their heads at how you can now blow by them on the field!