Training Young Athletes: The Philosophy of a Part-Time Trainer and Full-Time Dad

I used to be an athlete. Not a great one but an athlete all the same. I played multiple sports—some better than others. My dad lifted and was more interested in staying physically fit than most of my friends’ fathers. I noticed this from an early age, and having an exercise room in the house allowed me to be aware of the need and benefits of exercise for the sake of exercise. I started lifting around age twelve, and by the time I was in high school, I was stronger and faster than most of my classmates.

My hand–eye coordination wasn’t any better, so my gross athletic skills didn’t translate as well in baseball, basketball, and soccer as they might have in track, wrestling, or football. I went to a very small school where baseball, soccer, and basketball were the only sports available. In college, I played in both intramural and adult leagues. A few years after college, I met my beautiful wife and her daughter and we were married. We soon had another little girl. My transition from athlete to something else was progressing.

I was 29 when I happened to stumble across a Powerlifting USA magazine and started reading the articles. I was particularly impressed with the methods of some of the more famous powerlifters and the conjugate method. I continued lifting and had even gathered some reading material along the way like the Secrets of Soviet Sports Training, The Bodybuilding Encyclopedia by Ahhhnold, and Power by Fred Hatfield. The Powerlifting USA articles in particular and the information available on the internet made me look at strength training in another way.

At 30 years old, I felt the itch to compete in something, so I started competing in powerlifting. My transition from athlete to something else slowed. I did this for a few years until my youngest daughter started playing sports. It was obvious that she loved playing, but it was almost painful to watch her run sometimes because she was so “knock-kneed.” This led me to study athletic training from a different standpoint. I learned that my daughter wasn’t “knock-kneed” but that her knees were in valgus and her ankles in eversion. It was obvious from watching her that she seemed to be at risk for a knee injury, and my research revealed that female athletes in general were much more likely to have ACL tears. This prompted me to research what could be done to make her less likely to have a knee injury.

I had helped my little brother train years before, but when I started researching for my daughter, I developed a healthy(?) obsession with performance enhancement. My oldest daughter played some sports but wasn’t as interested in athletics as my youngest. My youngest really enjoyed playing sports and going to my powerlifting meets. I still remember when she was about five years old and we were watching the World’s Strongest Man on ESPN. One of the competitors had fallen doing a car flip race. She looked at me and said, “You could do that better than him, couldn’t you, Daddy?” I replied, “I don’t know. Those cars are real heavy.” She got an extremely surprised look on her face, looked back at the television, looked at me, and asked, “Are those real men or are they robots?”

As she grew older and started transitioning from recreational sports to travel sports, I found that not only did I not have enough time to compete, but it was difficult to find time to lift at all. When I went to the gym, it was to train her. As all dads know, sometimes you end up coaching your child’s team, and I was no exception. My transition from dad/athlete to dad/coach and trainer was complete. I used the knowledge I had gained from training her to train the team. I constantly read and researched, so the training programs were always tinkered with. I found that not only did I enjoy helping my daughter, but I enjoyed helping other people meet their athletic goals as well. My career was in emergency mental health assessment, but I found myself doing some athletic training on a part-time basis. I’m currently working with a travel softball team and a high school volleyball team. I’m also finding time to train myself, which I believe is a necessity when training others.

What follows is an overview of my current philosophy of training young athletes. I wrote this initially to give to the families of the kids I’ll be working with so that they would have some idea of what to expect from me. I’m sure there are many dads who have had similar journeys, and I would encourage them to put their philosophy to paper as it may help to give guidance to their program design.

Athletic performance enhancement is an exciting and dynamic field. More athletes are realizing at increasingly younger ages that simply playing their sport without training outside of their sport decreases their chances of successfully competing at the level they desire. I believe that this has also led to the unfortunate practice of early specialization. Young children who play one sport year round retard their overall athletic development and open themselves up to overuse injuries.

Research has demonstrated that athletes who specialize in one sport at an early age do tend to reach a higher level of achievement quicker than their multisport counterparts, but they also tend to peak at an earlier age while the multisport athletes tend to continue to progress longer. Some forward thinking colleges are considering this in their recruiting as they view the multisport athletes as having a bigger “upside” than their early specializing rivals. Just as in any other field, if you don’t spend at least some time looking ahead, you’re in danger of falling behind. I try to learn from as many sources as possible and have found that the more I learn the more I realize I don’t know. I love seeing kids improve and appreciate the opportunity to work with kids who want to improve.

Although I’m not medically trained, my number one priority in training young athletes is the physician’s creed: “First, do no harm.” In keeping with this philosophy, I try to make sure not to give advice or recommendations beyond my scope of practice. I also constantly attempt to search for and seek advice in regards to the safest and most effective training strategies and methods available. It’s been said that “the carpenter who follows everyone’s advice builds a crooked house,” so I’m careful to only make changes that I believe are sound, not follow the “newest fad.”

With the priority of doing no harm, my goals in training a young athlete are to:

· Reduce the likelihood of injury

· Improve the general health of the athlete

· Improve the performance of the athlete

Fortunately, meeting the first goal tends to work toward meeting the second two. Meeting the third goal may or may not work toward meeting the first two. It’s possible to improve athletes’ performance in the short term but make them more susceptible to injury, thus severely hampering their performance in the long term. Just because an athlete is physically able to perform a movement or take a “supplement” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s appropriate for that athlete to do so. I attempt to follow an appropriate progression of training protocols and make sure that an athlete is ready to move on to the next progression before doing so. This is sometimes complicated when working with groups of athletes, and adjustments have to be made.

In order to reduce the likelihood of injury, I want to make sure that the musculoskeletal system is functioning the way it’s supposed to. I want the athlete’s joints to have an appropriate range of motion and the appropriate muscles to provide that motion. Some trainers/coaches specialize in corrective exercises and perform an assessment that can be very comprehensive in nature. This can be the best way to go when working with individual clients. When working with a team, you can often make assumptions (I know that this can be dangerous) about what the athletes will need based on their age, gender, and sport. Not just athletes but people in general tend to follow patterns as far as their biomechanical needs are concerned.

Joints have varying needs of stability or mobility. Mobility can be defined as the ability to move while stability is the ability to resist movement. As one goes up the body, there is an interesting pattern that can be observed. The feet tend to need more stability, the ankles more mobility, the knee more stability, the hips more mobility, the lumbar spine more stability, the thoracic spine more mobility, the scapula more stability, the glenohumeral joint more mobility, the elbows more stability, and the wrists more mobility. There has been some debate about the scapula needing more stability or mobility, but most of these debates center around stability versus mobility in different planes of movement. This debate can be made for every joint. For instance, we want our knees to be mobile in the sagittal plane (flex and extend), but we want our knees to be stable in the frontal plane (left to right movement) and transverse plane (rotation).

Softball is probably the team sport with the highest likelihood of overuse injuries due to the extreme one-sidedness of the game. You throw with one hand and catch with the other. Most players swing the bat either left-handed or right-handed. You always run the bases in a counterclockwise direction (unless you forget to tag up). Because of this, most softball players are unequally developed when comparing their right and left sides. This is most glaring with pitchers. Everyone has seen pitchers whose pitching arm seems twice the size of their glove arm, but the differences can be more subtle. Softball players typically have differences in shoulder and hip rotation due to the mechanics involved in throwing a ball and swinging a bat. When you combine these differences with the postural problems that arise from everyday activities outside the world of sports, the potential for injury is increased. Teenagers who sit at a desk all day tend to have a kyphotic upper back (forward, slumped shoulders and sunken chest) and have hips with a limited range of motion.

You might wonder why the potential for injury is increased when a muscle has grown and gotten stronger in an athlete. Every movement that we make is accomplished by a muscle or group of muscles shortening or flexing and an antagonistic or opposing muscle or group of muscles lengthening or stretching. A muscle or group of muscles may grow or shorten in response to a certain activity in an effort to aid in that activity, and the muscles that are the antagonists for those muscles will lengthen or even shut off to aid in that same activity. However, there are many other movements that our body needs to perform other than swinging a bat or throwing a ball and what’s good for one movement may not be good for another.

Softball players will have injuries when they attempt to make movements that require their joints to move in ranges that they are unable to move in. They will also have injuries when they attempt to make movements that require their muscles to provide motion and stability when they are unable to. These failures of the joints and muscles are due to the adaptations that have been made from movements (like batting or throwing) made on a repetitive basis. We’ve talked about how joints have varying needs of mobility. When one joint does not have adequate mobility, the athlete tends to compensate by having the joints either above or below that joint move beyond their intended ranges while performing various athletic movements. This hypermobile joint will move beyond the range of movement in which it is designed to move and an injury will eventually result. Injuries will also occur simply because of overuse without adequate rest.

Volleyball players can be at risk for overuse injuries. If volleyball players perform excessive repetitions of the same movements with the same side of the body, they can experience unequal development between their left and right sides. A volleyball player who serves and hits excessively with one hand can experience many of the same issues as a softball player because the movements are very similar. Thoracic spine mobility is a high priority for volleyball and softball players because if the thoracic spine doesn’t move enough the lumbar spine and/or the shoulder will have to move too much to perform the actions needed in these throwing or “overhead” sports. Volleyball players and female athletes in general can be at particular risk for knee injuries. Studies have shown that girls are four to eight times more likely to experience ACL injuries than boys. There are many different reasons theorized for this increased risk including the angle from the hip to the ankle, quadriceps dominance in females, decreased hip and ankle mobility, and menstruation. Decreasing quad dominance and increasing hip and ankle mobility are high priority items for me when I design programs for female athletes.

I consider there to be seven qualities necessary for athletic movement. These qualities are strength, speed, power, flexibility, endurance, coordination, and balance. Some would argue that power is simply a combination of speed and strength, but for training purposes, I believe it best to consider power a separate quality. Other qualities come into play when one considers athletic movements that add a visual component, but these qualities aren’t necessary for movement itself. Visual skills can be incorporated into training and visual skills training could be considered a separate field.

To accomplish my goals of reducing the likelihood of injury, improving general health, and improving performance, I need to do two things. First, I make sure the athlete is moving correctly, meaning that the joints are able to move in a proper range of motion, the correct muscles provide the force in the right sequence to move the joints, and the athlete knows the proper positions to put her joints in. Second, I make sure the athlete is able to make her joints move with the optimum amount of speed and force possible over the necessary length of time. The seven qualities necessary for athletic movement must be addressed to different degrees to make sure the athlete moves correctly with the optimum amount of speed and force over the necessary amount of time.

I use four methods to ensure the athlete’s joints are able to move in a proper range of motion—self-myofasical release, self-joint mobilization, passive stretching, and dynamic mobility drills. I use these methods as part of training and movement preparation prior to any athletic movements. Muscle activation techniques are used to make sure the correct muscles provide the force for the movements and these are also used for movement preparation when needed. Movement coaching is used to make sure the athlete knows the proper position to put herself in and consists of demonstrating and explaining the proper technique when performing specific athletic movements such as jumping, landing, starting, and stopping.

Self-myofasical release is basically a form of self-massage that can be accomplished with a number of different implements. The foam roller is a personal favorite. Myofasical release is an attempt to change the quality of muscle tissue and would benefit many people, not just athletes. Self-joint mobilization techniques are attempts to alter the structures at the site of the joint. This alteration is accomplished by the athlete, not by any physical manipulation by the trainer. Passive stretching involves different techniques including static stretching and proprioceptive neural facilitation techniques. Passive stretching certainly has a place and is necessary at times but is not a technique I use as often as the other methods mentioned. It is an attempt to increase the passive length of a muscle.

Dynamic mobility drills are attempts to take the body through dynamic activities that increase the length of a muscle in movement. They can also increase strength, speed, coordination, balance, power, and endurance depending on the athlete’s condition. Muscle activation techniques are attempts to isolate and activate a muscle. This is done in an attempt to “wake up” the muscle so it will be used in other movements that don’t isolate the muscle in question. Some techniques are combinations of all of these methods. When used as movement preparation, all of these techniques serve to raise the core body temperature and prime the central nervous system to operate at peak efficiency. Most of these techniques have progressions that can be followed depending on the needs of the athlete.

Of the seven qualities necessary for movement, strength is the base that all of the other qualities are built on. Without strength, movement is impossible. An optimum strength level is the number one priority. This doesn’t mean the strongest athlete will necessarily have more of the other six qualities, but without a certain level of strength, the other qualities can’t exist. Athletes have varying needs of strength depending on their sport. They require different levels of strength in different areas of their bodies. Athletes have different needs in all seven qualities dependent on their sport. The selection of the proper methods for training athletes can’t be accomplished without knowledge of the needs of the athlete within her sport. The proper selection of methods can contribute to developing all of the seven qualities concurrently.

Other methods may be used to focus specifically on certain qualities to the exclusion of the others. Certain methods are inappropriate to use with some athletes if the athlete isn’t physically ready to perform them. In an attempt to insure that I “do no harm,” I have to make sure a proper progression is followed. For example, power is a combination of strength and speed and can be developed with a number of different exercises and drills. An athlete is put at risk of injury when certain power specific exercises are used if she hasn’t developed an appropriate level of strength, speed, coordination, balance, and endurance. Program design is a complicated matter. Many factors must be considered, including but not limited to preparedness of the athlete, exercise selection, load selection, repetition range, set range, rest periods between sets and sessions, recovery methods, periodization methods, proper progressions of movements, and movement tempo.

This is a basic overview of my philosophy for training young athletes. Additional detail in regards to the specific methods that I use are beyond the scope of this introduction. My specific methods are often modified when I become aware of what I believe to be more efficient methods. My philosophy isn’t as dynamic as my specific methods but will also probably be somewhat altered as I learn more.

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