In my short career as a sports performance coach I have seen some good, some bad, and some downright ugly things in the weight room. Most of the mistakes I see tend to be from physical education teachers turned after-school weight room supervisors, but some even come from professionals in the Strength and Conditioning field with many years of experience. A large part of this is due to ignorance - simply doing things because that is the way it has always been done or because they see other coaches doing it a certain way. This ignorance leads coaches to simply copy and paste workouts they find on the internet without ever stopping to consider their own athletes' training age and ability levels. This lack of critical thinking at a minimum will slow athletic development, but in some cases can lead to serious injuries that will halt an athlete's career before it even begins.
The following is a short list of mistakes seen from coaches and parents when working with youth athletes.
1. Early Specialization
Maybe the biggest hurdle facing young athletes today is early specialization. No longer as coaches and parents are we teaching our youth to become better athletes, instead we are trying to make them into better linebackers and shortstops. This process of specialization, once reserved for collegiate and professional athletes, is now creeping its way into high schools, and even down into youth athletics.
Not too long ago when I was in high school, playing 2-3 sports was the norm. When my father played it was 3-5 sports, but I’m not sure that is saying much because that was before televisions and radios were invented. What else was there to do?
By playing multiple sports and positions, young athletes are exposed to a rich physiological learning experience – each sport demanding a slightly different responds from their musculature, nervous, and energy systems. This, in a sense, is teaching an athlete to be an athlete. Another way to look at this is building the base of their athletic performance pyramid:
Without building a solid wide base, the sport-specific skills on top can never be fully developed.
Training for general preparedness is hard tedious work that requires years of dedication. The good news is that it requires nothing more than effort, and for the younger athletes, nothing more than a ball and an open field. As athletes' development progresses, more specialized means of training can be added to the mix as they work their way up the pyramid.
The problem with so many coaches and parents today is they want to fast track this process.
“Why waste years playing multiple sports when we know Timmy is going to be a professional hockey player? Besides, hockey is his favorite sport – he just doesn’t know it yet.”
This mindset has resulted in year-round training for specific sports, and a fear that missing even one summer tournament will cause their prodigy to “fall behind.” This may seem like innocent fanaticism, but can actually hamper performance and greatly increase the risk of overuse injuries.
Coaches and parents, do yourself and your athletes a favor, and take a break!
2. Teaching Olympic Exercises
For years, the staple of a good sports performance training program was Olympic lifting. Recently, there has been a shift in thinking with some of the top strength coaches eliminating almost all Olympic lifting from their programs – a few notable coaches are Cal Dietz, Joe DeFranco, and Tony Gentilcore.
That is not to say Olympic lifts are ineffective, because they are, and when done correctly can be great exercises for developing power and neurological coordination. Unfortunately, their greatest attribute is also their greatest drawback – a heavy intricate movement done explosively. This has led many to consider whether or not their benefits outweigh their risks. Some have come to the conclusion that the risk is too high and have turned to safer alternatives such as the hex bar deadlift:
These alternatives offer the same benefits of the Olympic exercises without as much risk to the athlete’s back, shoulders, and wrists.
A second reason to stop using Olympic lifts is that they are time consuming to teach. The time needed for athletes to become adequate with these exercises takes months and sometimes years, and that is with a competent coach teaching them. The time necessary to become a competent coach takes even longer – time that most coaches do not have under their belt.
The combination of these things should make coaches reconsider using Olympic exercises in their programs.
3. Using Aerobic Training for Anaerobic Sports
Like clockwork, every August when I was in high school as the football team was preparing for practice, down the street the volleyball team went on their morning conditioning run. Twenty minutes later, back down the street they would come finishing up their loop.
At the time I thought, “Better them than me,” but now I can’t help but laugh at what a terrible waste of time and energy their volleyball coach put them through. While I’m sure their ability to run down the street improved, I’m not so sure about their volleyball performance.
Volleyball, like most other team sports, requires short bursts of movement followed by an opportunity to rest and recover. This process is repeated multiple times throughout a game/match. To prepare for the demands of each sport, coaches should select a conditioning program that mirrors competition as best as possible. The easiest and perhaps most effective means of doing this is simply simulating game situations in practice.
Unfortunately, many coaches consider long steady-paced aerobic activities as the best way to improve the endurance of their athletes. While this may effectively train an athlete’s oxidative energy systems, it neglects the athlete’s other two energy systems (creatine phosphate and anaerobic glycolysis). These two anaerobic energy systems play a large role in a majority of team sports.
The previous graph shows the percentage of energy being supplied by each system at maximal exertion. As you can see, short bursts of energy are primarily utilizing the body’s creatine phosphate system. Because most sports are only played a few seconds at a time, this becomes a very important component in athletic performance. During periods of rest, the body’s oxidative systems kick in to help restore levels of creatine phosphate, allowing for multiple bouts of explosiveness throughout the contest.
With that being said, no single energy system is ever supplying all of the energy needed by the body. By training using game situations, athletes will best condition their bodies for the energy demands of their sport.
These are just a few of the most common, but far from the worst mistakes I see from coaches in the area of athletic development. On the surface these may appear to be minor differences in philosophies, but in the world of strength and conditioning, small things make a big difference. Small things are what turn average players into good players, and good players into great ones. At the same time, small things can stunt athletes' development and keep them from reaching their full potential. This is why it is important that youth athletes use training programs that match up with their training age and ability level.