Back to School, Back to Sports: The Offseason Strength and Power Training Conundrum in Youth Sports
By: Matt Sharpless, Sports Performance Specialist
Here we are, it’s already September. If you’re a parent, your children should have gone back to school by now. (Go ahead – it’s okay to cheer.) If you’re the parent of an athlete, however, the return to school also means another thing: the return to sports. Not only is it time to see how your child will fare in the classroom, it is also time to see if the offseason training you invested in will pay off when your child takes the field or court this autumn.
As for me, a Sports Performance Specialist, I’m in a bit of a different boat. It’s time to see if my coaching will pay off for other people’s children. Unfortunately it can also be a time of frustration.
This summer, we offered a couple different programs for the first time to more specifically meet the needs of different athletes. We created a more specialized Speed & Agility camp, as well as a Strength & Power camp. To our dismay, there were no sign ups for the Strength & Power camp.
Why not one single athlete? The problem is one of systemic proportions, and it is one of the most frustrating conundrums that we, as strength and conditioning professionals, face every day.
There exists a widely accepted philosophy that the way to improve at a sport and get faster is to play that sport more, work on your movement mechanics, and do only sport-specific agility training. That philosophy could not be further from the truth. Unfortunately, it is also the largest contributor to a great deal of avoidable injuries in children. The way to get better at soccer, for example, is not simply just to play soccer more. Playing soccer and furthering your skills as you grow is only part of the solution. A great way to illustrate this principle is through a race car:
In the world of racing, much the same as the sport that your child plays, there are a lot of important components that contribute to the overall performance of a team, and all of them must be highly prioritized in order to achieve success. Take, for example, all the different parts of a race car. You could surely outfit any race car with the best brakes, tires, suspension, and lightest frame and encounter some sort of performance improvement. But, if the engine you put in your race car came straight from a Toyota Prius, you’re going to undoubtedly be limiting your performance.
In this sense, the performance parts are all the latest performance gear, shoes, and the benefits of some offseason agility work. Furthermore, the analogy of the engine represents your muscles and nervous system. Your muscles and nervous system are the sole contributors to the amount of strength and power you can generate at the drop of a hat. That ability to generate strength and power is the sole contributor to nearly every single aspect of athleticism; from how fast you can run to how well you control your landing from an unexpected hit. Simply put, if you want to improve in all areas of your game, you need to create more power. Want to run faster? You need to get stronger. Want to jump higher? You need to get stronger. Want to “break ankles” on the basketball court? You need to get stronger!
Strength and power training also provides injury prevention for athletes of all ages. Something that we place a great deal of emphasis on in the strength and conditioning industry is the two end goals of durability and longevity. Surely, we want to make you jump higher, run faster, and hit harder, but we also need you to do those things safely and have the stability in your body to not be sidelined by an unexpected maneuver or nagging injury. Developing an athlete’s core strength progresses their balance and stability, as well as their ability to develop and transfer power throughout different segments of their body. Stability and rotational training is an integral component of developing an athlete and the progression of their performance on the field, and it is one of the cornerstones of strength and power training that is most often overlooked.
Like I said, all aspects of performance need to be highly prioritized in order to improve performance. You can race as many practice laps as you want on a given course, but that’s not going to improve your car’s (child’s) top speed. At some point, you need to increase the size of your engine. At some point, you need to focus on strength and power. Research continues to reinforce the safety of strength and power training in some capacity at almost any age of athletics. Championships are not won from the bench, and we owe it to our children to be prioritizing every aspect of their success. I have hope that this outdated philosophy regarding sports performance training for our children can be put to rest, and in the very near future. In the world of sports success cannot come without durability and longevity, and all of our children deserve an opportunity at success!