There's a huge need for educated strength and conditioning professionals more now than ever. In the last decade we’ve seen more young athletes dedicate themselves to one sport year round, and with year round competition comes increased injury risk.
With multiple games per week, and often many games during weekend tournaments, it is hard for athletes to recover and to build the strength and conditioning necessary to remain healthy.
Not only are athletes focusing on one sport only, but many are also playing year-round with no traditional off-season, which would normally allow them to fully recover and rebuild into the next competitive season.
It's our job as S&C's to mitigate that risk and educate the athlete and their parents. The strength and conditioning coach can play a vital role in helping these young athletes in their long-term athletic development.
Recently there have been many articles on the dangers of the single sport athlete, and the negative effects it can have both short- and long-term. Some of the major issues include mental burnout and overuse injuries.
I don’t see this trend changing in the near future, as freshmen and sophomore athletes (both male and female) are verbally committing to high-level Division I athletic programs.
I'd like to address some options and possibilities for the strength coach to assist athletes in the long-term development by helping to reduce injuries, develop necessary skills, improve athleticism, and create a positive culture not surrounded by winning but focused on the process of daily, weekly, and yearly improvement.
1. Identify common overuse injuries and train to mitigate the risk.
In every sport there are two or three common overuse injuries that, if not addressed, will most likely affect them at some point in the year. When these injuries become chronic, it threatens the athletes career.
There are two types of injuries, collision and overuse. It is easy to educate athletes that most of the injuries will come from overuse. Many of these injuries will occur from too many training hours or games/tournaments.
One of the major goals of a good strength plan is to is to be proactive in keeping the athletes on the field/court. The second major factor is to prevent major injuries such as ACL tears by including some basic exercsies every training session, such as:
- Single leg hopping and landing
- Single leg strength (1 leg squats and single leg deadlift variation)
- Overall lower body strength and power (cleans, deadlifts, squats, etc.)
2. Fact: there is no replacement for a proper strength and conditioning program.
Many club sports do not have access to strength and conditioning facilities. They may claim to be able to fill these roles with on-field training.
But let's be clear: there is no substitute for quality strength training and long-term progression. It takes time, patience, and good coaching to develop Olympic lifts, squatting, deadlifting, etc.
These exercises form the foundation of a good strength program for virtually all sports. These are also the lifting skills that they will need at the collegiate level, the basis of speed, agility, acceleration, deceleration, and vertical jump is rate of force development or strength.
The strength coach can also assist in developing overall athleticism in young athletes. We often see young athletes skilled in their sport, but lacking overall athleticism: strength, speed, power, change of direction. These may be limiting factors as the athlete gets older.
In addition to reducing the common overuse injuries, a well-designed strength plan will also include exercises and drills to develop well-rounded athletes. These can include:
- Movement skills in the warm-up
- Running drills
- Jumping and landing skills
These are best emphasized during times of the year where there are less frequent competitions.
3. Strive to maintain a positive culture.
High-level club sports often include many competitive tournaments and showcases which places a high level of stress on the athlete. The strength and conditioning setting should be about the process of developing skills and consistent long-term training.
This can be done in a positive environment with athletes of different sports and different abilities working together. Too often conditioning is used as a punishment so many young athletes develop a negative attitude toward conditioning. It is up the strength coach to teach athletes that training and conditioning is a major proponent of their long-term success.
4. Multi-sport athletes are always "in-season", so train 'em like it!
Athletes participating in club sports should be trained as if they are always “in-season” since they may be competing every week. Therefore, it is important to make adjustments to the programs so they can continue to progress while competing and training in this environment.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting up training plans for these athletes:
- Keep workouts short and intense. Focus on key exercises and keep the volume relatively low. Two 30 – 45-minute training sessions per week consistently will yield results.
- Multi joint exercises should be the focus. This includes Olympic lifts and variations - upper body, pushing, pulling, squatting, and hinging should provide the majority of exercises with a focus on technique and speed versus load.
- Pair exercises for time efficiency. Key lifts such as squats, dead lifts, or hang cleans can be paired with easier prehab exercises for mobility or stability.
- Educate parents and athletes on the importance the proper conditioning plan will have on their long-term health and development. Repeatable speed matters.
- The perfect scenario is to get athletes train with you twice a week consistently. If this is not possible, have them in a formal setting once a week and doing a short session on their own once a week. If neither of these is possible, having a qualified strength coach create a home program that can be done twice a week on their own time could still be beneficial.
As club sports and sports academies continue to grow, there is an increasing need for good strength and conditioning coaches who understand this environment.
Having worked many years with athletes in both club and academy sports, I have seen how taking a long-term consistent approach can allow young athletes to learn and excel in their chosen sport.
With a well-designed plan, these athletes will stay healthy, learn skills, and be prepared for collegiate sports and beyond - which at the end the day is their ultimate goal.