3 Program Design Principles For The Multi-Sport Athlete

   

How do you train and prepare an athlete who doesn’t have a designated off-season? The multi-sport athlete is constantly changing from one sport to another. And odds are the metabolic demands are completely different in each season.

As a general rule - unless you have the genetics of Bo Jackson, Deon Sanders, or some other superstar - the number of multisport athletes significantly decreases from high school to college and professional levels. The typical multi-sport athlete will benefit most from a program that focuses primarily on fundamentals.

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When developing a program for the multisport athlete, the strength coach should follow three basic rules:

  1. Focus on foundational strength training movements
  2. Train the energy systems that are necessary for the current season or sport
  3. Encourage recovery and mobility strategies to minimize risk of injury

1. Focus on Foundational Strength Movements

Too often we get caught up in the idea of trying to perfectly mimic sport movements in our strength training sessions. Instead, we should be focusing on developing good training habits and simple movements that will allow the athlete to continue to focus on the necessary skills of their current sport.

Over the years I’ve developed the idea of creating “Functional Meatheads” or the “Functional Cavemen”. This perfect combination of high function but brute strength can elicit great carryover from the weight room to the playing field.

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When movements are too specific in the weight room, the athlete can create poor habits which negatively affect their performance on the field. Here's a couple principles to follow:

  • Utilizing different variations of the squat is a great way to develop lower body strength, coordination, and flexibility while improving core stability.
  • The Clean and Power Clean also have suitable carryover onto the playing field/court. It generates speed-strength and power without having to spend a great deal of time on multiple exercises.
  • Pull-ups and Rows are especially important to maintain the link between the upper extremities and the lumbar spine. The lat’s originate on the thoracolumbar fascia and insert on the lesser tuberosity of the humerus. They internally rotate, extend, and adduct the shoulder while helping to maintain a firm centerline during high load activities.
  • I saved the bench press for last because even though it’s a great indicator of upper body strength, it may not be 100% necessary depending on your sport needs. I absolutely support programming bench press into sport programing, but if the athlete participates in a throwing sport where scapular movement is of high importance (Baseball, Tennis, Quarterbacks…etc) then we may choose to use an alternative pressing movement. (ex. Standing Cable Press or Kneeling Landmine Press).

Just remember that simple is better for the athlete who needs to be strong and remain functional for multiple sports.

2. Match Conditioning To The Sports Demands

One study that has stuck with me for years confirmed that 6 weeks of cardiovascular training provided an ample base for sport performance (McNeely, 2009). Unless you are a distance athlete who is constantly looking for incremental improvements in aerobic function, 6 weeks will provide virtually most of your aerobic needs for the year.

Once that base has been established, you can continue to push the boundaries of your current sport’s needs and maintain an adequate level of aerobic conditioning.

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In high school the most typical 3-sport athlete will play football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. For the purpose of this topic, I will use this athlete as an example.

  • During football season the athlete will most likely focus on repeat sprints and power output. Each training session should revolve around the idea that most plays last between 4-6 seconds.
  • Then the athlete must transition to basketball, which is classified as a continuous repeat sprint sport. During this season the athlete would typically practice short sprint bouts between continuous activity.
  • Finally, the athlete has made it to the spring sport where their positional needs will further dictate their conditioning plan. If the athlete is a position player then the sprint needs may remain high whereas the starting pitcher may need a greater level of conditioning.

It is important to remember that anaerobic training can help to increase aerobic capacity, but chronic aerobic training can cause a negative impact on anaerobic ability.

3. Go "Little and Often" for Mobility and Recovery 

When it comes to Flexibility and ROM, I try to encourage the “Little and Often” method.

When tissue specific positions are constantly reinforced, the athlete is more likely to repeat it during sport activities. In other words, it’s better to stretch and perform tissue-improving techniques 10-15 minutes a day rather than spend 1 hour in a single bout.

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Exceptional tissue quality is particularly important to multisport athlete because of the variety of demands placed on their body. Some sports are inherently single plane dominant, then a quick change in season can introduce rotational or multi-plane needs. If the tissue quality is poor, the risk for injury can significantly increase.

There is not a single routine that works best; recovery strategies must be developed based on individual needs. The one thing that remains constant is that a combination of sleep, nutrition, flexibility, and other tissue mobilizing techniques should be part of every athlete’s performance lifestyle.

Final Thoughts

Keep the exercise selection simple, train the current sport’s energy system, and help the athlete maintain a performance lifestyle though various recovery techniques.

When designing training programs for the multisport athlete, it’s important to remember that the strength coach’s goal is to develop athletes, not sport specific players.

Let the coach teach the athlete the skills necessary for sport success.

1. McNeely, Ed. "Conditioning for the Anaerobic Athlete." Sport Specific Training Conference. Opryland Hotel, Nashville. 9 Jan. 2009. Lecture.

About The Author

Herman's credentials include Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, USA Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach, and Athletic Republic Level 2. He is the President and owner of 3D Performance Training LLC where he has trained athletes in Major League Baseball, National Football League, PGA Tour, Major League Soccer, Association of Volleyball Professionals, participants in Olympic Track and Field, and Tri-athletes all around the world.

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