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The Importance of an Athletic Developmental System

NBS Fitness was created for the purpose of making people better. Pure and simple, I wanted to expose people to the highest level of training possible to allow them the greatest stimulus for growth. When referring to higher training, I do not mean a higher intensity necessarily (although that is the case sometimes) but more so I mean a higher cognitive approach to the development and implementation of specific training programs. These programs are intended to provide the necessary stimulus needed for the continual development of my clients, whether they are professional athletes or people looking for general fitness. When it comes to athletes, specifically high school athletes, I see a need for this type of programming and development. This article is not a critique of anyone’s program nor is it saying that there is only one way to achieve athletic development. Instead, this article’s purpose is to educate and suggest possible changes that could be implemented to ensure the athlete’s greatest chance of success. In the end, NBS Fitness wants to help athletes achieve healthy and successful careers, for as long as they choose to play the sport.

Why is a system of athletic development important?

One theme that I find myself constantly referring to is the idea of having a system of athletic development in place to ensure the athlete is matured correctly throughout his or her athletic career. This period usually begins around age 7, continuing on through high school if the athlete chooses, and on into college and professional sports if the athlete is good enough and chooses to continue. Currently, in the United States there is no unifying system in place for this type of development. Schools are required to meet certain standards in reference to children’s cognitive learning but their physical development is mainly left up to parents and coaches without any specific standards to meet. One might ask why a system of development should exist and what the benefits are. In regards to such a question, I like to refer to the Soviet Union’s system of athletic development. Political issues aside, the Soviets were the best at developing top level athletes, and their dominance in the Olympic Games is a credit to this system. T his systematic training routine was revolutionary for its time and allowed the Soviet Union to rank first in total medal count 14 out of 18 games, and come in second in total medal count in the other 4. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, 12 of the 15 former republics competed together and took first place in total medal rankings again in 1992. In weight lifting, the Soviet Union, despite only competing in nine Summer Olympic Games, still holds the record for most medals and most gold medals.

In a school, a system of athletic development is equally important. Take a look at De La Salle High School in California which holds the greatest winning streak in high school football history with 12 perfect seasons, 12 state titles, and 151 wins in a row. Their coach, Bob Ladouceur, is credited as being the mastermind behind such an incredible feat. When asked about the win streak he said, “…we had a system and it was effective…we always wondered what we could do each day to get better-how we could improve our weaknesses-and that also includes the offseason.”

South Panola is well known in the Mid-South to be one of the greatest high school football programs in the country. In fact, in 2010 they won the High School National Championship making them the best program in the country. Lance Pogue, the head coach for the team, stated that winning the national title was his goal when coming to the school in 2007. The school has won 8 state championships and in their national championship year they outscored opponents 687-117. When referring to that fact Pogue said, “Sometimes we get overlooked in high school football because we aren’t Florida, Texas or California. A lot of that has to do with population and we can’t control that.”

Football isn’t the only sport that can be affected by a quality system. In fact, the entire athletic program can gain from it. Look at school like Long Beach Ply in California, Dematha in Maryland, Saint Thomas Aquinas in Florida, Punahou in Hawaii, and Cheery Creek in Colorado. They were named the country’s top high school athletic programs by Sports Illustrated. Long Beach is known for having a great football team along with holding the state title in boy’s golf, boy’s tennis, cross country, and badminton. Dematha has lackluster facilities in which the wrestling team practices in an old auto warehouse, and the football team doesn’t have a home field. Despite this, their basketball team is nationally ranked and 39 of their 180 graduating seniors received athletic scholarships including 17 Division I scholarships when the SI article was written. St. Thomas Aquinas has been named the State of Florida’s best sports program 19 of the last 20 years. Punahou has won 318 state titles in 20 sports with dominance in volleyball, swimming, and diving. Cherry Creek has won 162 state titles with a 316 match win streak in men’s dual tennis. Girl’s swimming has also dominated with 21 state titles.

When it comes to athletics, the obvious goal is to win games. Games are won by individual players winning individual battles on the field, court, track, etc. The best athletes will win the most battles and so the goal is always to have the best athletes. In the professional ranks, these athletes are acquired through drafts and trades. In college, these athletes are recruited and given scholarships. In high school, most times, schools are given athletes based on who enrolls. Therefore, the teams who can develop these said athletes the best will be able to win the most games. Win games, win championships.

What is the importance of an athletic development coach?

The person in the NFL with the most Super Bowl rings is not a player, nor did he ever play college football. This man is Mike Woeick and he is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the New England Patriots. In fact, only four strength and conditioning coaches have coached nearly half of the teams that have played in the super Bowl in the last 19 years.

Another example of the effectiveness of a strength and conditioning coach is Boyd Epley. Epley was the first full-time paid strength coach in college football when he was hired by Bob Devaney in 1969 to be the head strength coach for the University of Nebraska football team. Prior to the hiring of Epley, program wide strength and conditioning, in-season, and off-season workouts were almost nonexistent in college football. The first two years Epley was at Nebraska they won national titles. Currently Epley is the director of the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Brad Roll, former Miami Hurricanes’ Strength Coach is credited as forging the identity of “The U” during the University’s dominance in the 1980’s.

Marv Marinovich studied Eastern Bloc training methods, and was hired by the Oakland Raiders as one of the NFL’s first strength and conditioning coaches. During his time there, between 1967 and 1970, the Raiders finished first in their league. Also, Marv is credited for the creation of his football prodigy son, Todd Marinovich. While Marv’s means could be argued as a bit excessive, Todd was a phenomenon of a high school athlete.

The strength and conditioning coach in American athletics is a relatively new idea to the development of athletes. Although strength and conditioning coaches were being hired sporadically by NFL and NCAA football programs in the 70’s and 80’s, it hasn’t been until the last 15 years or so that most sports have employed the use of strength and conditioning coaches at the professional and college level. However, still some colleges and most high school programs have yet to follow suit. If a strength coach is present, he or she is usually only involved in football. Also, most professional and college strength and conditioning coaches are required to have a degree in an exercise related field, a CSCS through the NSCA, and/or many years of professional experience. I find that this is rarely the case at the high school level which is disturbing since the period of youth and adolescence is the time frame in which athletes are the most malleable and have the potential for greatest improvement and greatest harm.

What are some major issues we face in the development of our youth and adolescents?

The biggest issue I see when it comes to the development of our athletes is fragmentation of the athletic career. This refers to the passing along of athletes from one sport to another and from one coach to another without a unifying vision for the athlete. Often times a youth athlete will play football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring, and soccer in the summer. This is great for the youth’s development because he will acquire varying motor skills from each sport that will help keep him balanced and raise his overall physical preparedness. However, the football coach develops the athlete without any regards to the basketball, baseball, or soccer season. The baseball coach develops the athletes without any regards to the football, basketball, or soccer season and so on and so forth. This is detrimental to athlete because there is no one looking out for his overall athletic development. Instead, each coach is only trying to develop the youth into a better sport player instead of a better athlete. This usually continues on even into high school with coaches disregarding any development that is not directed towards progress in one particular sport. This can limit the athlete’s overall development which in turn will limit the athlete’s specific development in his or her specific sports.

Another issue that I commonly see is early specialization and subsequent overuse it causes. Former coach for the championship Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers is credited with saying, “40 million kids play sports, and most of them are between 7 and 12. By the time they are 13 more than 70 percent of them have stopped playing because it’s not fun anymore. All of a sudden when kids get into junior high, we feel this need to have them become professionals, and the coaches become professionals. The message I’d like to get out to them is to honor the game. The goal, or the victory is important, but team sportsmanship, the athletic endeavor itself is just as import.”

Most team sports are actually late specialization sports and young athletes have not matured enough to handle the extreme competitiveness that we place upon them. This in essence retards the development of the athlete instead of speeding it up. In fact, there is a large amount of research showing the increased injury risk with specialization in one specific sport at a young age instead of a well rounded youth athletic program. Youth baseball pitchers that pitch more than 100 innings a year are almost guaranteed an arm injury later on if they continue playing. This may seem like a lot until you realize that middle school baseball players are playing spring, summer, and fall ball in addition to receiving specific instruction sessions with their pitching coaches. Baseball, basketball, and soccer seem to be the guiltiest of early specialization. This leads to an unbalanced, undeveloped, injury prone, burnt out adolescent.

With the addition of strength and conditioning to the professional and college ranks, many parents, coaches, and “trainers” have caught on to this and decided that they too should implement some strength and conditioning into their kids and their programs. While with good intentions, I often times see improper implementation and introduction of such drills and programs. There are many variables that go into the general physical development of athletes, especially at the youth and adolescent age. Failure to fully understand and implement these can not only lead to a less than optimum developmental process but also an increased risk of injury, both acute and long term. Factors involved include the athlete’s age, the athlete’s training, emotional, and mental age, what sport(s) they are playing or play, what part of the season they are in, genetic factors, prior injuries, injury risks inherent to their sport, facilities, equipment, number of athletes training with said athlete, specific strengths or weaknesses, etc. Without a knowledgeable coach in place that can account for all of this AND teach it, the athlete suffers in the end.

One final problem that I see that goes along with the previous issues is the lack of multi-year and multi-seasonal programming. Athletes are in need of general physical preparation (anything that isn’t sport practice) in addition to their specific skill preparation (sport practice) throughout their careers. This means that only training with weights prior to their season or for a month or two post season is not enough. An athlete needs to be doing some type of GPP work from the beginning of their athletic career till the very end of their athletic career without breaks and blocks of no training at all. Obviously, the degree of their GPP work will vary based on all the factors stated above but it must be continuous. Because of this, it must be well thought out and well managed with a wider outlook than just a specific sport, season, or year. General physical preparation allows the athlete to achieve higher levels of athleticism by raising his capacity to get the most out of his skill specific work without incurring an injury.

Although these are just a few issues that we face in the development of athletes, I feel as though they are the major ones. If we truly want the best for our children, then I see no reason not to begin to move towards a better way of doing things. Yes, it will allow our athletes to compete at a higher level and therefore win more game,s but it will also give them the chance to get the most out of their time spent in the sport, whether that be through middle school, high school, college, or even the professional ranks. NBS Fitness is committed to helping athletes, parents, and coaches realize this type of development and to improving the athletic career of our youth and adolescents.

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