Written By Jeff King
Throughout the years, my approach and philosophy towards training young athletes has changed. Many factors have attributed to this: books I have read, conferences I have attended and respected coaches I have talked to. Each has played a vital role in developing my current approach with any young athlete I have the opportunity to train. One major approach that has changed for me since I became a strength coach nine years ago is the emulating sports-specific movements during my training sessions with my young athletes.
Let me take you back nine years ago. I had just graduated from UC Davis and passed my CSCS exam. I was a young and hungry trainer ready to attack to the sports and help any young athlete I train become the best player they can be. My thought process was simple. If I had a basketball player I would do drills/exercises to simulate a basketball game. This would be for football or any other sport I would be exposed to. It made sense to me to improve them as a player, these sports-specific drills needed to be implemented in order to see positive results. My philosophy was this way for about 2 years. However, through readings and conferences from some of the most respected trainers in the business: Eric Cressey, Dan John, and Gray Cook among others, a paradigm shifted occurred in my brain and I started to question what I was doing. I began to realize my top priority as a strength coach was not to make my athletes better players but to make them better athletes. It’s a small difference in wording but a major difference in terms of approach and this change has allowed me in my view to become a better strength coach for my athletes.
I use the case of a baseball player as a prime example how my approach to training has been shifted. In the past whenever I got a baseball player my goal was always to make them bigger faster and stronger. Additionally, I would think what type of movement do baseball players execute and how can I improve on them. In using the baseball example, the sport requires tons of rotational movement such as pitching and swinging. Therefore, I would incorporate tons of rotational movements with baseball players to simulate their swinging and pitching motion. I would use bands, cables, and whatever modality I had at my disposal to help with their rotational movement. The thought was the more rotational work they did; the better they would be at pitching and batting and ultimately a better baseball player.
As I gather more experience, I began to question if my approach to training a young baseball player was flawed. I realized different kinematics are involved in swinging a baseball bat compared to swinging a cable or throwing a medicine ball. Second, any youth player involved in a sport where a repetitive movement occurred such the swinging of a golf club or bat would be better off not doing more of that same movement in a training environment. All you are doing is exacerbating their imbalance or any type of movement dysfunction. In some way you can equate it to a client coming to train with me who has an all day desk job and the whole time we work out in a seated position. Most people would agree this would not be a smart approach to training. Lastly, any type of mechanical movement in sports has a technical component to it from very simple to very complex. There are many elements to an efficient and correct golf swing. I am totally out of my comfort and element if I was not only trying to replicate the swing during a training session but if I was providing feedback on the swing as well. This is better suited for a swing coach whose main job is to dissect and analyze that specific movement.
I found I am more valuable to my young athletes by focusing on improving on their athleticism. Improving their work capacity, strength, speed, and mobility will allow them to have the capability to execute a swing, shoot a basketball or throw a football with great efficiency. In essence, this is General Physical Preparedness ( GPP) training and should be the foundation with any athlete. There are times, however, when Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP) is necessary for an athlete to develop. As an athlete moves up the athletic food chain and get closer to the professional or Olympic level, one can and should then incorporate sports specific movements in their training regimen for this type of stimulus is required and needed to make the small improvements to go from great player to a world-class player. Certain strength coaches have found success with their youth athletes incorporating sports-specific movements. There are different ways to get success when it comes to training. However, the base of your training philosophy should be about movement efficiency and work capacity. Development of a successful young athlete requires the help of many people such as strength coaches, sports-specific coaches, parents and teachers. If each entity fulfills their role then proper athletic development will be seen in most athletes.
Jeff King has a Master of Arts degree in Kinesiology from San Diego State and is currently the Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10 and co-author of the e-book: Pigskin Prep: The Definitive Youth Training Program. Jeff is a youth development specialist who has over 7 years and 1000 hours of experience working with youth athletes of ages and skill levels