The education system in America is flawed beyond belief. In my opinion, schools should
focus on teaching life-long applicable skills that can be applied, presenting complex problem-solving situations to sort through, enabling development of an array of communication skills by manipulating environments, introducing experiences that involve failure and challenges, and creating a fun, enjoyable learning environment. On the contrary, the school systems have resorted to teaching mostly meaningless facts, in an environment that is often not fun, with an emphasis on memorization and regurgitation. This could not be further from how the world
exists once school is completed. Now this is not a post to rag on the school system of America, but this is a perfect analogy for what I believe happens during periods of athletic development, and I will explain why.
In America, a tremendous amount of attention is given to feats of athleticism. This spans
everything from big weight-room lifting numbers, fast sprint times, massive vertical jumps, explosive basketball dunks, monster baseball and softball home-runs, mesmerizing football catches, to unbelievable Olympic performances; this is not a comprehensive list, but serves as an illustration as to the praise that is given for rare accomplishments in sports.
I am by no means knocking anybody who loves to observe and watch these incredible
acts, because I, too, love watching athletes do amazing things within the confines of their respective sports. However, I think that a problem with many coaches who work with athletes, particularly those developing younger athletes for future performances, often focus too much short-term expressions of athleticism as opposed to long-term development of athleticism.
For example, I hear all the time about high school football coaches having their athletes
perform powerlifting exercises with heavy loads to identify one-rep-maxes. First off,
powerlifting should be left to powerlifters. Secondly, many, if not all, of these athletes have earned absolutely NO right to move loads this heavy (just like everything, powerlifting is a skill.) Third, one-rep-maxes most times are NOT a great strategy for developing strength, or any other marker of athleticism in non-advanced athletes. Fourth, this is highly dangerous and will more than likely lead to deleterious adaptations, if not a major injury. And lastly, this is much more an
expression of athleticism than it is a way of training for future athleticism. Rant over, but this is a topic that really makes me frown upon the strength training and sports performance community as a whole; we all have to be better than that!
Contrary to creating environments that promote the expression of athletic feats, or
training to elicit short-term improvements to earn a paycheck, the focus should be on
facilitating a long-term development model that slowly layers elements of movement,
performance, and wellness on top of one another in a seamless and non-invasive fashion. I am planning to write much more detail about this in the future, but this topic is much too expansive to fully elaborate on here. In short, keep a majority of training below maximal threshold, and be mindful about when to put your foot on the gas pedal. Make movement fun, and allow opportunities for learning and exploration that will provide a foundation for a lifelong journey of movement, wellness, and training.
For example, rather than running 40 yard dashes just to achieve the fastest time, create
an environment that allows for more fun and experiential learning. Things like running over hurdles, which Joel Smith of Just Fly Sports often talks about, or running with one arm as Adarian Barr of Barrunning speaks about, or simply playing tag, chasing one another, or throwing a football that you have to try to catch like everyone does as a kid. These are all tasks that include elements of sprinting without excessively stressing the nervous system and creating strict and rigid guidelines with high expectations.
Another example would be to use higher repetition schemes for strength training such
as the 1x20 method, as made popular by Dr. Michael Yessis, as opposed to looking to find one-rep maxes that are truly meaningless unless you compete in a strength sport anyway. This gives more opportunities to learn high quality movement patterns, establishes a foundation that can be more specific and intense in the future, and avoids overly taxing joints and the system as a whole by reducing loads. You must moving your bodyweight and light loads before looking to move heavier loads that often put a ton of stress on the spine or other joints! And if you start out your training career by using lower intensity methods, you have a direction to go once the athletes mature and are ready for more strenuous activities. If you start with too much intensity, the system will desensitize and you will have left opportunities for improvement on the table. In short, less is often more.
Despite the need to make training more “vanilla,” there is no denying that training for
performance is undoubtedly risky. To elicit performance improvements requires high amounts of effort and progressively challenging tasks. Whereas training for health is a less stressful process that inherently reduces risk. However, when applied in intelligent doses and intensities, the risk can be mitigated enough to allow for safe and sustainable environments. And the younger the athlete, I would argue the more likely one should be training for health than performance, but a good mix of both is usually the ultimate solution. It is a spectrum as with all things, but the goal should be centered on being the best when the time is right, not necessarily the best right at this very moment (although sometimes that is the case).
The best athlete in the world who is on the bench due to injury is still doing less for the
team or themselves than the worst athlete who is on the field or court. So be intelligent, and know when to dial things back. It is all a matter of perspective. Moral of the story, do not be in a hurry to be great, it will come with time. As a coach, be adaptable. Create a plan to make small progressive improvements over the long-term, and plan for things to change. As an athlete, have a great work ethic and attitude, and the rest will come naturally with time if the environment is right. Long-term development will always lead to better outcomes than short-term gains, a metaphor for life!
1. Be smart
2. Keep it simple
3. Perform tasks mostly at sub-maximal intensity
4. Include elements of fun
5. Offer opportunities for learning
6. Add in activities that emphasize variability and the expression of creativity
And the rest should take care of itself!