Youth Sport :What to look for in a summer training program

Having dealt with many incoming collegiate athletes and having trained numerous high school level athletes, I see many things parents should consider when choosing a strength training program for an athlete during the offseason months. I’ll briefly cover the most important points and what one should look at when choosing such a program.

The first one (and possibly the most important) is choosing an experienced strength coach with a diverse training background. All too often you see coaches promoting themselves because they may have played a sport, went to a weekend certification class and magically became an “expert.” Just because you played the game doesn’t mean you have considerable knowledge and understanding of the physiology of training and especially the process of youth development. This might have been how you trained, but that doesn’t make it the correct.

Many training programs produce elite athletes periodically simply because they employ a “only the strong survive” mentality. If you make it to the program and succeed, you will most likely be genetically predisposed to excellence at the next level. Coaches who possess experience with various sports and age groups are usually the best simply because they pull knowledge from all disciplines and direct them in a concentrated manner. For example, in dealing with groin and hip flexor problems, I was able to draw upon my knowledge from other Olympic sport disciplines and develop programs at Minnesota specifically geared towards hockey.

One issue to consider when looking at a coach is how he or she approaches evaluations and measurements. Over the years I’ve seen many programs fail to track their athletes over time and get a gauge of how their teams are progressing physically. The foundation of all training is rooted in track and field because everything it is highly measurable with limited extraneous variables. In ice hockey, you can become slower and physically less developed yet score more goals because your experience and knowledge of the game, your linemates, coaching methods, and practice style propel you further.

Take into consideration the experience of a coach when choosing your offseason training program for your athlete. I’ve seen many coaches that are considered “good” simply because they perform flashy drills and use unique equipment. Ultimately, many of these drills will not carry over to sports performance. The athlete thinks they are fun and look cool, but in reality these exercises do nothing for developing true results based on training and performance.

Many parents don’t understand sports training at its deepest levels. My hope is to give you a bit of guidance and understanding in what to look for when you’re trying to choose a program for your youth athlete.

One practice I see athletes commonly do is skate on the ice for an hour or practice for the same duration and then hop off quickly for dryland/weight room training. This is not the ideal scenario when trying to physically get the most out of your athletes. The following may not be what you want to hear, but ultimately some separation of 2-3 hours of your on-ice session and dryland session may be the ideal scenario. At the very least, there should be 20-30 minutes in between sessions if time is a constraint.

The biggest reason workouts and practices are separated is to maintain the speed and quality of work. Quality of work refers to performing the appropriate movements at high speed while maintaining technical proficiency. If you want your child to maximize his or her potential in any athletic endeavor, speed and quality of work must be at the forefront of your program.

Now, what is speed? Speed is nothing more than a skill. Like any skill, the accumulation of fatigue leads to impaired proficiency, higher metabolic cost, and decreased performance.

Do not succumb to the belief that the sole purpose of exercise is to get tired!

If your goal is to get faster (and for any program it should be) you must keep in mind that the quality of work must be very high and not detract from the speed of movement. Your child may not feel completely tired after a workout, but lower volume,  maximal effort/speed exercises, with full recovery elicit unparalleled benefits in speed development.

Any athlete I’ve worked with at the collegiate and professional level understands the importance of prioritizing high quality speed. To cover the biochemical, molecular and physiological effects of training for sport would fill volumes of books. The nature of hockey for example lends itself to some negative effects, especially for young athletes.  In reality, any sport is going to have positives and negatives as they pertain to the human body. These negative effects will accumulate over a hockey athlete’s lifetime as a result of excessive specialization at an early age.

The goal, ultimately, is to select a program that places a premium on speed and quality of movement. To train a skill to the highest ability requires focus and energy. When fatigue begins to accumulate such that technique breaks down, the skill is now just work. And that skill you’re looking for in your training program is speed.

I had an athlete in the past ask me to observe a training session with a coach of theirs. I knew the athlete’s vertical jump was somewhere around 33-34 inches; by the end of the workout, which consisted of endless plyometrics and jumps, the athlete could only jump 5-6 inches off the ground. I can’t even begin to cover the negative effects and absolute waste of time this was for the athlete. He was jumping at 15-20 percent of his full potential due to the amount of fatigue!

The hardest part with true speed training is explaining to young athletes how even though they may not be breathing heavily and drenched in sweat, they are still getting a workout. I’ve come up with many methods to train speed in my elite athletes and regulate their workouts with techniques that can be applied at the youth level. Remember, speed is a skill. Elite athletes and young athletes can use similar techniques because the only thing that changes is the absolute speed of movement. Relative to their level of fitness, however, speed should try and be maximized. One question invariably always comes up: “How do I get my child in shape?” We’ll address that issue in the next section.

Getting in shape for the season

One question I get asked often is how I manage to score so many goals in the third period. The easiest answer is simply that I have the privilege of working under coaches who practice and drill the athletes in season at high speeds to simulate competition demands. The summer should be spent getting faster, building some base of fitness, and getting stronger. As the Gophers’ strength coach, I can administer any  known type of conditioning I want, but if my coaches at the University practice the athletes incorrectly, they’re just as likely to get out of shape and/or become overtrained.

Spend the summer training high quality speed work and let the coach get them in shape once the season starts. You actually find out that athletes will peak at a higher level of performance at the end of the season if you work high quality speed during the summer months. You can only stay at a high level of conditioning for so long before negative performance begins to set in. Learn how to monitor your athletes and their fatigue, and adjust practices/workouts accordingly. This takes come collaboration between sport and strength coaches. The goal is to be physically ready during the most important competitions of the year.

I’ve been talking a lot about speed during the course of this article, but I need to address one other issue: strength. Speed depends on the ability to produce force quickly and in the right direction. Athletes who don’t possess adequate strength can’t maximize their force and speed production. Taking 2-3 months getting stronger will help you reach the next level. Every athlete I’ve ever trained has had to address the issue of strength at some point in their career. Training is a process; take the time to develop athletes to their potential and everyone will win in the end!