Finding my Niche
For the last seven weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to lead a youth basketball strength and conditioning program. Mondays and Wednesdays have been dedicated to agility, basketball skills, and conditioning work. Tuesdays and Thursdays have been allocated to strength training sessions. I really enjoy training a wide variety of clients, from older adults to the middle aged, and from whole college teams to youth athletes. It keeps me on my toes and my work is always interesting. Creating these programs for different individuals and groups is like solving a puzzle, and I am always looking for the optimal solution that will bring out the best in my clients and athletes. Over the years, I have really enjoyed working with youth athletes, and I think I may have found my niche. I always look forward to these high energy sessions, and I always leave feeling energized. I have noted some great things that can come out of a youth strength and conditioning program.
- Strength and conditioning helps build confidence in young athletes. A more confident athlete is a better athlete. I have seen athletes who lack confidence on the field and/or court, yet they gain it in the weight room, and it tends to spill back out into their sport. Everyone has the ability to work hard, lift weights, get strong, and build endurance. They just have to have the mind set to work for it. Learning to wrestle with some weight, or pushing through a tough set of shuttle runs will build mental toughness. Grit and determination are keys to overcoming the toughest obstacles whether they be in sport or other areas of life.
- The athletes are coached in a variety of movement patterns. There are recent articles and research studies that have pointed to a relationship between early sports specialization and mental burnout/injuries. Only playing one sport often limits the type of movement that the athlete engages in. My conditioning groups are often focused on a specific sport, but I still throw in a wide range of movements because I am aware of the negative outcomes early sports specialization can lead to. Sure, I will focus on specific movements related to the upcoming sport, but I am going to get my athletes to move in many different patterns, which I often include in the dynamic warm-up. I urge you to read this great article about the negative affects of early sports specialization, titled,“The Path to Nowhere in Youth Sports.” Also check out my recent blog post on the same topic.
- The athletes learn good technique in the weight room. In my opinion, there are specific strength training exercises that work well for teaching good form. Body weight exercises are a good place to start. Once athletes can show mastery of body weight movements, which include squats, hip hinges, and push-ups, we can start adding resistance. There are a few exercises that make great first progressions from the body weight exercises. They include goblet squats and kettlebell deadlifts for the lower body. Push-ups are great prep work for the bench press, and a strap or cable row is a great starting point for pulling exercises. These exercises played an integral part in my general youth sports conditioning program, which was featured in the IYCA’s Big Book of Programs. Establishing good exercise technique at a young age is extremely important. In some cases, teams will not have access to a strength and conditioning professional and the sport coach will be in charge of the fitness program. While some sport coaches may be very knowledgeable in weight lifting, there will be cases where they aren’t. With all the intricacies of teaching sport skills, I would not expect them to know everything about strength and conditioning, just as I don’t coach beyond the basics of sport skills. I do know this, the athletes I have worked with will be able to enter any strength and conditioning program, already having the knowledge to perform proper technique. This gives them a distinct advantage in the weight room. In speed and agility training, we also cover sound technique in sprinting mechanics and cutting. This will be beneficial on the court or field of play.
- A consistent, well structured strength and conditioning program gets results. Youth athletes tend to make positive adaptations very quickly in a program with well thought out progressions and proper coaching. I had excellent results from my 6 week speed and agility program last summer, and I have had similar results in the current basketball conditioning program. Basketball training started with a few simple agility drills, plyometric jumps, speed, sport skill, and conditioning drills, eventually progressing to more advanced drills with higher volume. We finished most classes with core exercises, and six of the nine athletes attended the strength training workouts on Tuesday and Thursday. Their long jump (I didn’t have access to a Vertec to measure vertical jump reach) increased by an average of 7 inches, three quarter court sprint times reduced an average of .05 seconds, and they increased their push-ups by 6 reps in a standard push-up test. Testing was done after 6 weeks of training, even though the training has continued on for 8 weeks because we were able to get additional time in the gym. Not bad for 10 conditioning workouts if you exclude the two testing days (one at the start, and one after 6 weeks), and 8 strength training sessions for six of the nine players.
- We have fun! Let me be very clear, this does not mean that we don’t work hard or act serious, but we do joke around and I try to incorporate some fun games from time to time. The feedback I have received from my previous conditioning classes has been overwhelmingly positive. Words like “fun” get thrown around quite often in descriptions for the athletes favorite part of the class. Some coaches use yelling and harsh words to get their point across. However, it’s just not my style or in my nature to use negativity to get results. I’d rather get my results from positive coaching. I don’t use foul language nor do I allow the athletes to speak that way. At one time, I assisted a youth class at Aikido of Ashland with Michael Friedl Sensei. I learned a lot from observing Sensei teach class. He used humor to keep the class fun and light-hearted, but he could also dial up the intensity and the volume of his voice at a moments notice, when needed (without being mean), to keep the kids focused. I model a lot of my coaching off of what I learned during that time. I have also found that limiting the amount of downtime there is during training, usually doesn’t leave enough time to goof off. Something I have been working on lately, is to not use exercise (usually running), as punishment. Often times coaches use running or other forms of exercise for punishment when an athlete isn’t listening or is being disruptive. I don’t want these youth athletes to associate exercise with something negative. I believe the ultimate goal is to teach them the positive things that can come out of exercise and competition. If someone wants to goof off, then they can sit out and not participate. I want them to exercise and compete for the rest of their lives. I met up this summer with two of my best friends from my college days. We spent the weekend swimming, hiking, running, and stand up paddle boarding. I couldn’t think of any better way to spend time with good friends. I hope the young athletes I work with will feel the same about fitness and sports when they are older.
These benefits of youth resistance training can be corroborated by this position statement paper from the NSCA. I really urge you to get your children involved in sports, and a group fitness program with a good coach. Remember though, there is no reason for youth athletes to specialize in any sport until they are older. Allow them to explore different sports and systems of movement. I am having a blast working with these youth athletes and helping them get stronger, faster, and better endurance. I also try to be another positive role model in their life. The only problem I run into now, is the limitation of space. I would like to expand the group weight training sessions, but my small studio is only capable of holding four athletes at once, and that is pushing it. My vision is to have a larger space where I can train large groups, and if large enough, open it up to community sports activities such as the Ashland winter pitching clinic. I would also cater the space to youth athletes (although their parents could work out there too), and I would like build a sense of community within the gym. That is something that Crossfit has done well with. I’d like to get people together to watch major sporting events or hold seminars there. For now, it’s only a vision, but that’s what I am working on for the future. I know I have found my niche.