B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning – Articles 53

Rebuilding the Elite Athlete.

By Mike Mejia, CSCS

Scenario # 1: You’re an elite athlete- strong, fast and absolutely dominating your sport. Maybe you’ve already committed to play in college, or at the very least, have several schools keeping close tabs on you. Despite your on-field success though, nagging injuries are starting to take their toll. Your lower back often hurts and your knees constantly ache.

It’s taking you longer to get warmed up before games and your body doesn’t seem to bounce back as quickly afterwards. Is it possible that all the practicing, playing and hours you’re logging in the gym could actually be doing more harm than you realize?

Scenario # 2: You’re a strength and conditioning coach who’s been contracted to work with a gifted young athlete. He or she is already a phenom in their chosen sport, but your trained eye tells you that trouble is looming on the horizon. Upon assessing them you find several glaring imbalances that could serve as precursors to potentially serious injuries. The question is though; how do you get an athlete who’s already excelling at such a high level to heed your warnings and buy into what will likely be a radically different approach to training?

Sadly, situations such as these have become common throughout high school athletics. Thanks in large part to the continued trend towards early specialization, sport-specific skills are often quicker to develop than more global physical abilities such as systemic strength, coordination and flexibility.

The result is legions of young athletes, who despite suffering from poor movement quality, are still able to go out and dominate their competition.

Which of course begs the question, “If it ain’t broke…”  

That’s just it though; there is eventually going to be a “break” at some point- and with potentially devastating results! You can’t just keep piling excessive training volume on dysfunctional movement patterns and expect kids’ bodies to withstand it.  

But, if you’re a young athlete, how do you figure out where your weaknesses lie and begin the process of bringing yourself back into balance?

Or, if you’re a strength coach, how do you essentially overhaul an athlete’s approach to physical conditioning without it negatively impacting his, or her already impressive skills?  

No Quick Fix

The following four step plan offers you a blueprint of exactly how to go about achieving these objectives. It’s an approach I’ve used countless times with athletes from a wide range of sports and one which I feel will be beneficial to kids and coaches alike. Be forewarned though, it takes time, patience and a “big picture” mentality.

1. Having a movement screening done is a must:

My test of choice here is the famed Functional Movement Screen (FMS), developed by physical therapists Gray Cook and Lee Burton. This easy to administer 7 step assessment can give an athlete, as well as and his, or her strength coach, some keen insights into where their physical deficiencies lie.  

For an athlete, the test can be a real eye-opener; as it essentially crystallizes how restricted your movement patterns have become and/ or just how much you’re lacking in terms of core strength and coordination.

For a coach, the test serves as an excellent starting point; allowing you to hone in on those areas that are causing the most trouble- such as restricted ankle mobility, or strength imbalances from one side of the body to the other.

Whether you’re an athlete looking to find an FMS certified coach in your area, or a coach who’s looking to become certified, you can get more information on the company website at www.functionalmovement.com

2. Get back to basics:

Here’s where things start to get a little bit dicey for an athlete- especially if they’re already fast and explosive. You see, they don’t necessarily care if they run with sloppy mechanics (leading to poor movement economy), or that they change direction with lousy positioning and land improperly from jumps (increasing their risk for any number of lower body injuries). They don’t care because they’re usually the first one to the ball, the puck, or the finish line.

It’s also a tough sell for the strength coach. After all, why would any athlete want to take a perceived step back and do what are essentially “basic” drills when they’re already performing at such a high level?

Perhaps they’ll be a little more open to the idea when you explain that said poor movement economy is a big reason they’re always gassed at the end of games. Or how faulty change of direction and landing mechanics is at least partially to blame for why their knees and ankles hurt all the time.

Going back and doing some fundamental drills to improve sprinting and change of direction mechanics, as well as work on plyometric exercises that stress proper body alignment on takeoffs and landings, will reduce injury potential by teaching athletes to move with much greater efficiency.

Some of my favorite drills that fall into this category include:

• Wall accelerations

• Seated Arm swings

• Linear decelerations

• Lateral decelerations

• Box jumps

• and Speed skaters

And don’t overlook the importance of incorporating some diaphragmatic breathing drills here as well. Learning how to breathe from deep in your abdominals instead of being a “chest breather” (as so many athletes are), poses numerous benefits to both overall health and athletic performance.

It leads to greater relaxation and mental focus, allows you to supply your muscles with more oxygen rich blood while enhancing the removal of metabolic waste and decreases the mount of tension carried in the muscles around the shoulders and neck. The latter of which can play a key role in your ability to avoid chronic shoulder injuries.

3. Re-evaluate your approach to strengthening:

Any serious gym rat would be reluctant to make changes to their current workout program. When that gym rat is a successful young athlete, expect there to be even more reluctance than usual.

Telling a kid who’s already been pounding the iron pretty hard that they’re going to have to give up some of their favorite lifts- at least for a little while- is not something they want to hear.

The truth is, though as great as traditional lifts like squats, cleans and bench presses are, doing them too often and with too much weight, probably at least contributed to the need for a new strengthening program in the first place!

For example, if the movement screen uncovers an inability to perform a simple body weight squat without several bio-mechanical “issues” being present, what do you think happens when you add extra weight to the equation? I’ll give you a hint, things don’t just suddenly get better!

Feet that pronate (arches collapse) and knees that pinch inwards don’t magically correct themselves when you place a couple of hundred pounds of iron on your back. If anything, the stress being applied to your joints is only made worse! The same holds true for heavy bench pressing in the presence of forward head, round shouldered posture.

While every athlete is different, here are some guidelines that seem to apply well to the majority of kids who fit into this category:

– A greater focus on unilateral strengthening exercises that emphasize the posterior chain i.e. unilateral Romanian dead lifts,     reverse lunges, step-ups etc.

– Lots of rowing, reverse flys and external rotations, paired with a de-emphasis on chest work.

– More core stability work (anti-extension/ anti-rotation drills) and less forward flexion of the spine i.e. crunches, sit-ups etc.

– A de-emphasis on training the lats and overhead pressing work until thoracic spine mobility and core strength have been improved.  

– Adding mobility drills and active isolated stretching between sets to further increase range of motion in restricted muscle groups while keeping nervous system activation high.

4. Cover your bases outside the gym:

When you add up all of the time you spend in the gym training to correct the imbalances uncovered by the movement screen, it will pale in comparison to the amount of time spent practicing, playing and engaging in poor postural positions that just feed into the problem.

Athletes need to appreciate the importance of paying attention to posture throughout the day, stretching and foam rolling on a regular basis and making sure their bodies are properly fueled and hydrated- with the majority of that coming in the form of whole foods and good old fashioned H2O.

Because although not as “cool” as the idea of using the hottest supplement on the market, or hitting the gym with reckless abandon, these relatively simple daily habits can ultimately have a much greater impact on health and performance.  

By the same token, coaches need to preach the value of these principles by constantly keeping athletes accountable. When they come in to train, ask if they did their stretching and soft tissue work the previous evening. Quiz them on what they’ve eaten so far that day; pointing out any poor food choices and offering healthier alternatives.  

While I realize that the plan I’ve laid out here may be a radical departure from what many of you are used to, I urge you to give it strong consideration. Because heeding this advice just might be the difference between being a high school standout who’s body just couldn’t make it to the next level, or successfully playing into college… and possibly beyond.

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