B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 11
Too Specific, Too Soon?
Re-evaluating”sports-specific” training for young athletes.
by Mike Mejia, CSCS
A generation ago, training for athletes was a lot simpler than it is today. We lifted a few weights, did various forms of running for conditioning and even stretched on occasion. Granted, we probably weren’t quite as fit as the athletes of today, but somehow we managed to get by. Fast forward about twenty years, and much has changed. Not only are athletes better conditioned overall, but more often than not, they’re specifically conditioned for their chosen sport. These days it’s not enough to simply strength train; it has to be done in such a way to mimic particular sports movements. Running drills, likewise, must simulate the various ways that athletes move on the playing field, or court. While this can indeed be a valid approach for more experienced, physically mature athletes, it’s also become increasingly popular among adolescents. All of which begs the question: is this type of training specificity really beneficial to kids in the long run? Or, is it in fact contributing to the near epidemic rise in injury rates?
Some scary statistics
According to the Centers for Disease Control, high school athletes alone account for an estimated 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year; with an additional 3.5 million kids under the age of 14 receiving medical treatment for sports related injuries (1). While it’s true that overall sports participation among these age groups is at an all-time high- leading to higher injury rates in general- the fact that nearly half of them are attributed to overuse, raises at least some cause for concern. It appears that the current trend towards early specialization in a single sport, and near year-round training and competition schedules are placing too much of an overload on developing young bodies. To then add sport-specific movements into their conditioning programs, often under additional load, seems at least somewhat questionable. Especially for younger kids, who’s bodies have not yet fully matured, and aren’t of an age where specialization in a single sport is even desirable.
When you consider the number of balls a young player hits during a given week between practices and matches, is it really a good idea to add resistance to their swing in the form of say, rubberized tubing? Or, would that athlete be better served by first doing some more generalized strengthening of the core, as well as the muscles that help to stabilize the shoulder, elbow and wrist? And what about agility drills that attempt to mimic the exact same movements players use on the court? Theoretically they might help make an athlete quicker to the ball, however, if an underlying imbalance exists (and one usually does in this population), overuse of faulty movement patterns might in fact predispose the player to any number of lower body injuries. Remember, a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link; and when an athlete repeatedly engages in the same movements, sooner or later weak links are bound to develop. Instead, more emphasis needs to be placed on strengthening muscles like the glutes and hamstrings to help better stabilize the knees and thus, lessen the likelihood of injury.
All I’m saying is that before a player worries about getting too specific with their training, they need to spend some time building a sound, overall conditioning base. Improving things like systemic strength, and enhancing range of motion around key joints such as the ankles, knees, hips and shoulders will do a young tennis player infinitely more good than trying to simulate the exact physical demands of the sport. In fact, by focusing their training efforts on becoming more athletically balanced and bolstering resistance to injury, I find that young athletes usually end up reaping huge performance benefits as a mere byproduct of this decidedly more holistic conditioning approach. Not to imply that they should engage in the type of generic workouts you see people doing at the gym. They still need to train more for function than anything else. They just need to do so in a manner that helps make them a better athlete, and not necessarily just a better tennis player.
In the end, how specific your training should be really depends on a variety of factors. Things like your age, current level of fitness, and injury history, should all come into play. Older players who’ve been training for a while and have paid proper attention to bolstering the areas on their bodies most susceptible to injury, can likely benefit from some degree of sports-specific training. Younger, less experienced athletes however, need to forgo all the fancy training gadgets and specialized footwork drills, and focus on building the kind of foundation that will allow them to improve their overall athleticism. Once they’ve done all the necessary groundwork, there’ll be plenty of time to use a more specialized training approach later on down the line.
- JS Powell, KD Barber Foss, 1999. Injury patterns in selected high school sports: a review of the 1995-1997 seasons. J Athl Train. 34: 277-84.