B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 13

Don’t be Lax when it comes to pre-season conditioning.
by Mike Mejia, CSCS

As the oldest and fastest growing team sport in America, lacrosse is currently enjoying an enormous wave of popularity. A unique combination of speed, agility, endurance and power, this fast-paced game places intense physical demands on the body. Nowhere are these demands more apparent, however, than during the pre-season, when young athletes who’ve been dormant for most of the winter are suddenly subjected to sprinting, shooting and rapid changes of direction. Needless to say, a lack of proper conditioning leading up to the start of the season can set the stage for acute and chronic injuries that will limit both participation rates, as well as overall enjoyment of the sport. In fact, According to the National Athletic Trainer’s Association, at the high school level, pre-season conditioning should commence a full six weeks prior to the start of the season in order for athletes’ to be adequately prepared to compete. If you think all that entails is running a few sprints and “hitting the gym” to do some squats and deadlifts a couple of times per week, then think again. A well structured approach to lacrosse conditioning is one that places a premium on injury prevention. Focusing on things like joint mobility, core strength, balance and multidirectional speed development will do far more to guard against injuries than the decidedly more generic approach so many young athletes currently opt for. Special attention should also be paid to the physiological differences that exist between male and female players; particularly in terms of the impact those differences can have on injury rates. A prime example of this being the almost six times greater likelihood that females will sustain an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) than their males counterparts- with the majority of those injuries being of the non-contact variety. With all of this in mind, I thought it would be helpful to outline the type of approach that I use with my athletes. In doing so, I hope to establish a new paradigm for youth lacrosse conditioning. One that focuses less on training for the specific skills of the sport, and more on improving overall athleticism and injury resistance. 

1.  Make Mobility a Priority:

Actively increasing range of motion around key joints like the ankles, knees, hips and shoulders is one of the best ways for young athletes to guard against injuries. Unlike the typical static stretches I frequently see kids engaging in before practices and games, mobility drills help develop the unique interplay between stability and mobility that serves as the foundation for athletic movement. Drills like Frankenstein’s, hip cradles and Spidermans (pictured below) should therefore, all be a regular part of your warm-up routine. They’ll not only help increase body temperature, blood flow and range of motion, but they’ll also fire up the central nervous system and get your body ready for action!

2. Focus on your Core:

It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, but core strength really does play a vital role in just about everything you do out on the field. It doesn’t matter whether you want to get better at facing off, improve your speed, or develop a more powerful shot, it all starts with strengthening your core. And no, in case you’re wondering, that doesn’t mean doing endless amounts of crunches, leg lifts, or any other exercises that isolate your abdmoninals. Real core training involves strengthening not only all of the muscles that surround your midsection, but also your hip and groin area, as well as the muscles of the upper back that help stabilize your shoulder blades. Exercises like planks, hip bridges (pictured) and medicine ball wood choppers  will all help address these areas and best of all, don’t require any kind of specialized equipment, or a pricey gym membership.

3. Be Smart About Strengthening:
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with exercises like squats and deadlifts, I find that young athletes often rush into them before their bodies are physically ready. Before you can even think of adding any kind of external load, whether in the form of free weights, or machines, you first have to be able to control your own body weight. Think about it, if you can’t do a simple body weight squat without your back rounding, or your knees caving in, or a push-up without your lower back sinking downward, or your head hanging forward like a bowling ball, what do you think happens when you add extra weight? At the very least, your body will find a way to compensate and direct stress to other areas- like your joints- just so you can complete the exercise. You may not feel any pain initially thanks to the resiliency of youth, but bad lifting habits like these will definitely take their toll over time if left uncorrected. Another important consideration is the fact that most of what you do on the field takes place with your weight unequally distributed on one limb at a time. That’s why I prefer exercises like one legged squats with a cross body cone touch and rotational lunges. Not only are they more functional than traditional squats and deadlifts, but they do even more to help improve joint stability and protect you from ankle and knee injuires- two of the biggest potential problems for lacrosse players. Likewise, upper body drills that promote shoulder stability, such as windmill push-ups and one arm band rows with rotation will also have a greater crossover to athletic performance. And the best part is, you don’t have to subject your body tons of additional weight before it’s physically ready. Most of these types of drills can be done with just your own body weight, some light dumbbells, or medicine balls for resistance. Don’t take that to mean that they’re easy, though! As you’re bound to find out, drills like the one’s listed above will challenge you beyond belief. They’ll also help you build a more solid foundation so that when you do start lifting heavier down the road, your body will be better able to withstand it.

4. Don’t Fear a Power Shortage:

There’s no arguing the fact that plyometric exercises like jumping up onto platforms, or over hurdles can improve explosive power. What is up for debate, however, is exactly when athletes should be exposed to these types of drills. Sure, they look cool and kids love doing them, but unless they have an underlying base of stability and strength, performing exercises like these can actually do their bodies more harm than good. A young athlete who can’t even do a proper body weight squat, for example, has absolutely no business jumping over hurdles! The simple fact is that any short term improvement in power that may result from this type of training is almost guaranteed to result in injury further on down the line. This holds especially true for young female athletes, who due to their inherent anatomical structure and tendency to overuse the muscles on the front of their thighs, have much more trouble dissipating ground forces and as a result, place far more stress on their knees, hips and ankles. My advice: take a pass on the power training until you’ve built a strong physical foundation. 

5. Fast Facts:

You hear it all the time: “Speed kills”. Well, I’d like to to amend that slightly to “Multi-directional speed kills”. That’s because most team sports, lacrosse chief among them, have very little to do with straight line, or linear speed. It’s the ability to shift gears; to decelerate and take off in the opposite direction in the blink of an eye that separates the good players, from the great ones. So, when training to improve speed, spend more time working on decelerating and then accelerating in a different direction than just straight up sprinting. Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to be fast, so speed training is definitely important. It’s just that learning how to control your body and get yourself in the proper position to optimally change directions will do a lot more to improve your game. Here’s the catch though- this isn’t something you can just rush into. The types of deceleration/ acceleration drills I’m talking about here require a base level of stability, strength and conditioning. Simply spacing out a few agility cones and running things like box drills and zig-zag sprints after a winter of relative inactivity is a great way to sprain an ankle, a knee, or develop a nasty case of shin splints. Reason enough why you need to follow the advice contained above for several weeks before ever hitting the practice field. In the end, getting physically ready for the lacrosse season isn’t all that different from preparing for any other sport. Concentrate on getting your body to move more efficiently and doing more functional strengthening exercises that incorporate various aspects of balance, core strength and coordination. Training this way will help you improve your overall athleticism and bolster your resistance to injury, so that you can avoid the burnout and physical frustration that often result from taking a more specialized approach.

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