I had the pleasure of meeting Mauro deGennaro, Director of Athletics at Hoboken High School, last week. We were talking about his schedule of training for his football team this autumn, and he was saying that they were going to be training easy in the week because of the amount of contact in the game. How many games a season do they play?
9. That’s right 9. His 14 year old Freshman play 9 football games a season, then move to another sport next term.
Speaking to another Coach in the UK last week, whose 14 year old son plays rugby for the school, club and district teams, he said if all the matches go ahead, then that child will play 50 rugby matches this season.
50, that’s right- FIFTY.
That is a prime example of why Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is just another acronym or poster presentation in a folder on a shelf somewhere in this country.
The research is out there, there are rules in place, but coaches and parents will always find a way to ignore these- until the player breaks, or quits at 16. Those that survive will then be put onto a sagittal plane hypertrophy programme and told to put on 10kg each off season (about 5 weeks currently here).
This is not some secret that no one can understand, but it does seem difficult to implement.
Why play our junior players to death, (but don’t do weights under -16 because of the likelihood of injury) and then expect them to cope with a barbell lifting programme designed for adults, that reinforces all the negative movement patterns they have developed from overspecialising at a young age?
Here are some pointers for parents and coaches alike:
Have a quick check as to whether this is happening in your governing body, club, district or school.
Have a look at who is delivering and designing programmes for your youth athletes. Are they experienced, knowledgeable and conscientious?
Is the programme designed for development?
Is there a long term approach? What will your child be looking like and how they will they be moving in 3 years time?
Will they still want to play the sport and be healthy at 18?
Is someone co ordinating the overall plan for your child- between all sports and all teams?
I don’t profess to know everything, but I am lucky enough to know enough great coaches and experts that I can draw upon for advice.
This means I can give the best advice to parents of our club members and individual athletes. Here are two great examples of conversations I had with experts based in the USA answering questions from our athletes.
First up (seasonal relevance for those wanting to avoid post Christmas fad diets) a Q&A with Dave Ellis of “Fueling Tactics” who has worked with many professional and collegiate sports teams. He has a real understanding of how to apply nutritional theory to the real world.
Second up “What a parent should know about helping their child develop and enjoy sport over their lives” with Dr Brian McCormick. (skip the first 2 minutes of tech difficulties!). For those parents who feel pressured into getting their child into a squad, team or “academy” too early.
“Youth sports is a business plan that fluffs egos and packs pocket books”
Said Randy Ballard of Illinois University at the GAIN conference in Houston last month. He was talking about how parents try to get their children to specialise in sport too early, without realising the dangers of this.
“75% of kids quit sports by the age of 13, some of which never become physically active again” according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM). Sport has become an ends, rather than a means.
Burnout (where children quit) occurs from 2 main pathways:
Physical overtraining and lack of sleep.
Social psychological reasons: the quest for perfectionism and excessive parent/ coach pressure.
As coaches “we can’t separate early/over specialisation from the various societal issues at play that drive over specialisation.”
(As a parent, has anyone told you about how their child competed at a weekend, won a medal, beat so and so, went on a camp with famous person Y, been selected for the TomNoddy under 9s squad? Apart from being an extremely boring monologue, you may feel the pressure to get your child to join the rat race.)
What follows are some tips for parents to help this from happening to your child, alongside some blunt facts for youth coaches (and parent coaches) about promoting early adult led competition.
The 3 big rocks of wellness for your child
sleep nutrition stress management
Randy used this analogy when looking at the wellness of your child. When filling up a jar of wellness, it may easy to think about the pebbles and grains of sand such as compression tights, protein supplements and sports drinks.
However, the jar should be filled with these 3 big rocks first:
Sleep is probably the most important factor. Late practice schedules, cross country/ city commutes and excessive screen times are factors in producing low quality and lessened sleep hours.
Some of the early signs your child may suffering are low back pain and knee injuries. Low back pain is often a psycho-social sign that the child is looking for a way out of the sport.
Are kids chasing for parents?
Randy then used a greyhound analogy about kids being forced to compete for their parents. “What happens if the only reason you chase a rabbit is because your Mum drives you to the track?”
(As a study in what motivates kids, take a step back and watch the crowd at an adult led football match with kids playing. Then watch kids playing football on their own terms and see what the adults are doing.)
A lot of kids like competing, but very few really enjoy competing on adult terms and with adult rules in place.
Randy referred to the “empty dugout syndrome” where parents who have invested time, energy and $$ into their child’s sporting career feel the need to keep that going, even when the child has stopped playing or moved on.
This then leads to stress for the child and sometimes coercion by the parent. Parents can be there for their own needs, rather than the children.
If your child develops an identity of being an athlete, then the transition out of sport becomes more difficult. “Sport is something we do, not something we are”. So every comment, every part of body language and approval related to competing/ participating in sport can be harmful, despite being well meaning.
Gardener or fisherman?
Wild flowers in our garden
Gardeners amongst you will understand the need for creating the right environment for growth. Good soil, weeding, watering, feeding the plants, as well as planting at different times of the year and in different parts of the garden create a beautiful environment.
The joy of gardening is in the process and then enjoying the results.
Fishing on the other hand is taking fish out of the sea or river and eating them. There is no give, it is all take.
Eat today, hungry tomorrow
At Excelsior Athletic Development Club we are trying to create a garden of opportunity for young athletes rather than fishing for “talent” from elsewhere in hope of a quick meal.
We never know who is going to make it as a Senior International in sport, nor is that our goal, but by creating the right environment every child and athlete gets an opportunity to grow and develop.
Strangely enough, this environment also creates athletes who succeed at International level (14 year old James Reed, one of our weightlifters, was selected to represent England Golf schools last week).
Compare that to the “fisherman” approach of trying to get a big catch today so that you can win this week without a thought for the future of that child or even the club.
(Thanks to Greg Thompson, a physical education expert from Michigan USA, who also presented at GAIN for the gardening analogy).
Assuming your child makes it through the wasteland of youth sport and is still participating at 15 years old, what next?
Vern Gambetta gave his thoughts on developing talent for coaches which I will now summarise. This is aimed at coaches and NGBs, many of whom still hold antiquated ideas of Talent Identification and pick early maturers over people with potential.
“Talent = Potential”
Youth prodigies do exist and talent definitely matters, however there are no guarantees in sport so talent is only potential. Realising that potential means a process has to be in place and is sustainable.
3 components of talent
Talent Realisation and Refinement
Talent is comprised of Heart, Body and Mind.
These three areas can be developed and encouraged.
Randy Ballard made a counterpoint to this in his seminar. That referring to athletes as “Talent” is dehumanising.
As an NGB is your “Talent Development” programme a road map for developing a human or for poaching ivory?”
Taking the ivory at the expense of the elephant
The seminars by Randy Ballard, Vern Gambetta and Greg Thompson were different but similar. All three focussed on the importance of development and growth.
The very valuable lessons I learnt working with the Sport England funded “South West Talent programme” with Paula Jardine helped shape my thoughts on working with youth athletes: “The Why”.
The mistakes I have seen within NGBs (and are still being made in a Talent Id Bun Fight) and at Millfield School whilst working there for 5 years have helped me from making those same mistakes with our club athletes.
No child should be cast out and thrown on the scrap heap, nor be left to crawl there on their own because of mistakes made by adults in whom they place their trust.
These seminars and discussions at GAIN over the last 6 years have been invaluable in changing what I do with all the people who come to our club. Thanks to everyone at GAIN for helping me and our athletes.
In the rush to get results fast and take shortcuts, or to “get to the interesting stuff” young athletes get broken. Improving the structural integrity of the athlete is essential before moving onto other areas of fitness.
Watching Alien Covenant this week prompted me to update this blog as they used the phrase also.
I used to say that Structural Integrity is composed of 4 key components:
Balance: Static and dynamic, upper/ lower body, single limbs.
Stability: Joints are strong and can support body weight when moving and static.
Mobility: How you control limbs over a range of movement.
But, when presenting at the DAASM symposium in April, I was challenged on the use of “stability” By Dr. Homayun Gharavi MD, PhD, PhD. He suggested that the word “control” is better than stability. Stability has been overused and is vague, the body is designed to move, unlike a table, and so control is more accurate.
This means the new schematic would be this:
The Foundation of Athletic Development
Most of the athletes I initially encounter have glaring deficiencies in their structure or posture that limits their ability to progress. Loading athletes like this either through volume, intensity or weight, will lead to breakdowns. Saying someone needs to get fitter and then giving them a running programme, without seeing them run, is poor coaching.
Instead, after their initial musculo skeletal and movement screening, we start to work on their structural integrity. This is the foundation of Athletic Development and then allows the athlete to work on their athletic ability involving spatial awareness, rhythm, movement abilities and timing. This then allows greater ease of skill acquisition. In this video you see an example of work with young gymnnasts.
Children who get injured or burntout may be competing at sport too much and have too little opportunity to just play. These words on shoulder operations by Hall of Fame baseball player John Smoltz ring very true.
“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 and 15 years old. That you have time, that baseball is not a year-round sport. That you have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.
Don’t let the institutions that are out there running before you guaranteeing scholarship dollars and signing bonuses that this is the way. We have such great, dynamic arms in our game that it’s a shame we’re having one and two and three Tommy John (shoulder operation) recipients.
So I want to encourage you, if nothing else, know that your children’s passion and desire to play baseball is something that they can do without a competitive pitch. Every throw a kid makes today is a competitive pitch. They don’t go outside, they don’t have fun, they don’t throw enough – but they’re competing and maxing out too hard, too early, and that’s why we’re having these problems. So please, take care of those great future arms.”
Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech, former Atlanta Brave pitcher John Smoltz
If an adult is present, then the sport is organised. If the kids are left to their own devices they play more, compete with each other and on their own terms.
Why hiring an expert coach will save you time and money
Young athletes (and their parents) are overwhelmed with information from varying sources that is often conflicting. It is my job to help them navigate the maelstrom.
Originally designed as a concept to deal with organising and displaying online information and layouts, information architecture could as easily be applied to coaching.
“I mean architect as in the creating of systemic, structural, and orderly principles to make something work — the thoughtful making of either artifact, or idea, or policy that informs because it is clear”
Richard Saul Wurman
Too much information, too little time
Athletes I work with come home from a Regional or National camp with a sheet of paper and a directive to “do these exercises or else”. They then ask me what a “SLDRDL” or a “One legged Monkey Puzzle” is.
They go to a p.e. class the next day where they are made to hold a plank position for endless minutes to “strengthen their core”, but not told why or how to improve and if there is any transference to sport.
Finally, they visit their club where the coach drills them through ladders, hurdles and doggies to finish off their last remaining reserves of energy and enthusiasm.
The poor parent in the meantime is standing on the sidelines forking out cash and time for kit, petrol and accommodation. Wondering if they are “doing enough” for their child.
The job of a good coach is to make sense of all this information, filter out what is noise, but still stay abreast of latest research and developments.
That is different from telling all athletes to eat pilchard eggs because one study of 3 Eskimos found that they were able to run faster after eating pilchard eggs for 2 weeks.
The coach then needs to present this information in an orderly and systemic fashion, rather than all at once.
This does include selective delivery of information, feeding it to the parents and athletes at regular intervals. This allows positive behaviours to develop.
3 steps to becoming a winner
Find out what is happening in all aspects of the athlete’s life and write it down. I get the athlete to fill out a 4 week planner that shows all sporting and p.e commitments.
Write down what current exercises are being done and when. Clarify the exact nature of these exercises and make sure the meaning is understood. Any exercise that is written down but has never been coached is binned. Look for duplication of work: hockey might be doing doggies, rugby might be doing 3km runs. Avoid doing both.
Look for gaps between current ability and what is required. Put in exercises accordingly. You might be doing lots of running, but zero postural work. You might be able to hold the plank for 5 minutes (why?) but are unable to stand on one leg with free hip held high: essential for running well.
The complete picture is often forgotten due to the confusion of information and dealing with the logistics of getting the young athlete to the venues, school and training!
Hiring an Expert Coach
Life is too short to do everything yourself. Trying to do it all on your own can cause unnecessary stress. If you want to be the best that you can be, then you will need some help along the way.
The Excelsior Athletic Development Club was started to help parents, coaches and athletes work together. By informing parents and sports coaches of best practice, we are working together, rather than against each other.
It requires coaches of different sports to stop trying to force early specialisation (a difficult task) and to think of next year, rather than next Saturday.
It requires parents to take an active role in planning and ask questions of the p.e. teachers and coaches.
It requires athletes to think about why they are doing things, and to learn how to organise their time.
It requires us at Excelsior to continually strive to make sense of this information and develop ways of improving our ability to coach.
Sign up to our newsletter today to get 2 free ebooks on coaching young athletes.
“Injured young athletes are older, spend more time in organized sports, and specialize too early”
Could this be prevented?
The evidence is quite stark if your child is spending too much time in organised activity rather than free play, if they have specialised in one sport and if they have gone through their growth spurt, then they are more likely to get injured (1).
34% of middle school sports participants get injured each year with an estimated medical bill of $2billion (5).
Talented (or early developing) children get asked to play more sport and therefore have higher injury risk (2).
The cumulative workload increases injury risk e.g. Cricketers who do more than 75 throws a week (3).
Early specialisation in one sport leads to an increase in injury risk (4).
Young athletes participating in more sports hrs/wk than their age and participating in>2 times organized sports:free play are more likely to have a serious overuse injury (1).
Injury risk increases in teenage girls from 12-13 years old and teenage boys from 14-15 years old: at their growth spurts (6).
Injury Prevention is always better than cure
Why wait until your player is injured? I prefer to have healthy athletes available all year round.
A 2 pronged approach is necessary to greatly reduce the risk of your child or player getting injured.
Plan your schedule of training and competing. Include free play time.
Implement a strength/ co-ordination exercise regime and stick to it.
Planning: The best place to start is to look at the next 4 weeks. Use this free 4 weekly planner to help. Put in all the school p.e., games and matches, then club training and matches, plus other activities.
You will probably see a lot of competing and travel, with very few rest days, and little planned physical preparation: running, speed or strength work.
How much free play does your child do? That is “jumpers for goal posts” mucking about with friends in the local park or school playground? None? Then they are at greater risk of injury!
Decisions will have to be made about what is a priority, what is “need to do” rather than “nice to do”. If you are playing more than one age group of a sport, then you should consider dropping the lower one.
Coaches should look at the overall workload that their best players are undergoing: it is unsustainable! Can you afford to lose your best player mid-season?
Strength/co-ordination training: It is the ability to control your own body throughout the match and the season that is the key to avoid getting injured. Your exercise programme has to be specific for young athletes: time spent on crosstrainers, exercise bikes and lying down on a bench is time wasted.
They need to lunge, squat, brace, rotate, push and pull: in combination with braking, landing, jumping and moving from 2 legs to 1 leg, up, down and side to side.
I get athletes to implement daily routines, at first only 5 minutes, then building up from there. This summer I have designed specific warm up routines for team sports players based on the recent research and my experience.
Members of the Athletic Development Clubhave all been given my newly designed protocol cards to help them through the season.
Leg strengthening work
The 11-12 minute warm ups contains all the movements necessary to help reduce the likelihood of injury, as well as improve their sporting performance. If done before every training session and match, the cumulative positive effect will be huge.
Coaches and teachers need to take responsibility
“Quality does not just happen. People who believe so, are people who trust in miracles to make their way through life. Quality excellence is an outcome of preparation and relentless practice. It is surely a given then, that there is time set aside routinely for this.” Frank Dick, Winning Matters.
Resisted running drills
I often hear coaches and teachers bemoan the fact that they are struggling to field a team by December due to injuries. Are they still practicing warm up routines that are ineffective and full of time fillers such as jogging, or encourage incorrect mechanics such as high knees and heel flicks?
Do they have a strength programme that helps improve performance and prevent injury? Or do they just use generic exercises that require little co-ordination and involve a lot of sitting or lying down?
A lot of coaches say they are doing the right thing, but how do they know?
Badminton coach James Elkin, Volleyball coach Denise Austin and the Fencing coaches at the SWFencing Hub have shown a great Growth Mindset by looking at what we are doing with their athletes and then changing their practice.
Injuries are far from things “that just happen“. Chronic pain is abnormal in teenagers, it can be prevented.
I set up theSports Training Systemto help busy parents and teenage athletes fit in physical preparation in a safe, effective and time efficient manner. Join nowand in 4 weeks
Parents, look at how much physical preparation and free play your child is involved in compared to organised camps, travel and competing.
A Guaranteed, Free and Easy Way to Improve Performance…
In a recentworkshopwe ran, every athlete was found to be SLEEP DEPRIVED. Find out how this can impact on your sporting performance here.
In that little training diary that any successful athlete keeps, will be a history of:
the exercises they perform
the weights they lift
the foods they eat
how they feel (RPE -rating of perceived exertion) and ….
how much sleep they are getting
Why we document exercises, weights, nutrition and RPE and how they affect training and performance is well understood, but why do we keep a sleep diary?
Sleep has been shown to have a big impact on sporting performance as well as potentially changing the physiological effects of training.
This article aims to highlight the importance of sleep for athletes and how it affects training and performance.
Evidence of the effect of sleep on performance
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation has lasting negative impacts on health!
Sleep deprivation has an impact on the body’s metabolic and endocrine functions, with some of the effects listed below:
Affect glucose metabolism and appetite (Van Cauter & Spiegel, 1999)
Have a negative impact on the brain and cognitive function
Reduced immune system
Increase Cortisol levels (stress Hormone)
Affect on growth Hormone
Increased injury risk due to reduced muscular control
Dr. William C. Dement, a sleep researcher at Stanford University, suggests that:
“that alleviating the burden of sleep debt could save thousands of lives every year.”
Cheri Mah who has been studying the sleep patterns of Stanford University athletes over the last few years has found increasing sleep has led to improved sports performance for all types of athletes (Mah et al, 2009).
One specific study on University swimmers found increasing the athletes sleep to 10 hours a night improved their 15m sprint time, start reaction time and increased their kick strokes.
She also replicated these findings in American Football athletes with increased sleep improving their 20 yd shuttle time and 40 yd dash time.
With evidence that sleep deprivation can physiologically and psychologically affect individuals and evidence of increased sleep improving sporting performance, are you getting enough?
Why does sleep affect trainability and performance?
Firstly and most importantly sleep is very important for recovery.
Sleep deprivation has shown to
increase cortisol levels,
decrease activity of human growth hormone,
and reduce the efficiency for glucose metabolism.
All of these things can affect our sporting performance (Samuels, 2009).
In addition when we are tired concentrating is hard and our reaction times are slower, not great for competition!
On top of these physiological changes sleep deprivation is also shown to reduce cognitive function and therefore reduce the ability to learn a new skill.
Effect of Glucose metabolism
So why is glucose metabolism important?
The energy we require for any exercise comes from the metabolism of glucose. If this source of energy isn’t readily available then our body is unable to perform at its best.
Food is our fuel but if we are unable to convert our fuel into energy then it becomes useless!
Sleep deprivation also impairs the ability of our body to store glycogen so our energy stores are depleted, something that will hamper your preparation prior to a big competition!
Effect of Cortisol
Cortisol is more commonly known as the stress hormone. Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the levels of this particular hormone.
With cortisol the athlete will often feel irritable and short-tempered as well as have a lack of energy.
Effect of Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
Everybody knows rest and recovery are important or high-level performance as it gives the body time to repair and strengthen itself. HGH is the hormone responsible for stimulating this growth and repair.
HGH is actively required for this tissue repair by stimulating growth via cell reproduction and regeneration. It is naturally produced by the pituitary gland in the brain and is a protein based peptide hormone.
If our HGH levels are low or not doing their job properly then it can result in a decrease in muscle mass and energy levels.
Therefore with sleep deprivation affecting the efficiency of this hormone you can see why it is not great for sporting success!
Am I Getting Enough Sleep?
This is the big question and below are some guidelines to help you answer it.
It is recommended that adults get 7–9 hours of daily sleep and 9-10 hours of daily sleep for adolescents and teens!
If you fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed and wake without an alarm you are probably getting enough sleep say sleep experts.
However if you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow and wake to an alarm you are probably sleep deprived!
So I will leave you with a few tips to ensure sleep is not a factor hindering yours or your athlete’s performance:
Firstly and most importantly make sure you are getting enough sleep (hours highlighted above).
You can achieve the above by prioritizing sleep as a part of your regular training regimen (noting it in your training diary).
Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day, get into a pattern.
Take brief 20-30 minute naps to obtain additional sleep during the day, especially if training hard.
Increase your sleep time several weeks before a major competition to ensure you are not sleep deprived!
Switch off your phone/ tablet an hour before you go to bed: the blue light can reset your circadian rhythm to a later time, making it harder to fall asleep.
I hope this article has highlighted the importance of sleep for athletes wanting to be at their best? It really is the #1 Recovery supplement
For further information on how sleep deprivation can lead to overtraining, read our free ebook here
Van Cauter E, Spiegel K (1999). “Sleep as a mediator of the relationship between socioeconomic status and health: a hypothesis”. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci.896: 254–61
Mah, C. (2008). Extended Sleep and the Effects on Mood and Athletic Performance in Collegiate Swimmers. Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.
Samuels, C. (2009). Sleep, recovery, and performance: the new frontier in high-performance athletics. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am.20(1):149-59, ix.