Athletic Development Training – Are your ABSOLUTES Improving?

Summer is a common time of the year for many athletes to make athletic development training a priority. As I drive by many school facilities, I see kids in a variety of sports using agility ladders, medicine balls, running sleds, etc.. to go about their journey of becoming more athletic. Make no mistake about it, there are many physical components to improve when it comes to becoming a better athlete, and most of these areas do indeed get covered during these workouts that I witness, but the one area that seems to get neglected quite often is a well thought out plan to improve an athlete’s “ABSOLUTES”.

What are these “absolutes” that I am referring to? I am talking about an athlete’s maximal output in the areas of speed, acceleration, quickness, power, and explosiveness. These are extremely difficult to improve and take well thought out planning to make progress a reality. In general, most existing programs emphasize endurance so much so, that these absolutes never have a chance to get programmed into the regimen. The byproduct of such an approach is athletes who become fairly well conditioned, but athleticism improvement is non-existent.

The ideal athletic development training program needs to have a plan for improving absolutes. They should be the emphasis of the overall training program and not just thrown in to a small degree. When an athlete is exposed to this type of training, improvements in game performance are common and occur on a regular basis.

Athletic Development Training: How Much Is Enough?

The journey of pursuing to become a successful athlete is a challenging one. All of the team practice time involved along with self-improvement activities that are necessary to become the best athletic version of yourself can take a toll time-wise and physically. The question I get from many parents who inquire about hiring a trainer to help with athletic development is, “How much time is enough for my son/daughter to workout besides his/her own team practice?”. My answer is always the same…”it depends”.

What does it depend on? There are many different components that come into the equation to answer this. How much athletic development training, if any, is being done within their team setting? Is your son/daughter currently playing games in-season or is it the off season? How motivated is your son/daughter to want to strive to be the best athlete he/she can be? All of these questions carry weight and need to be discussed before making any type of decision to pursue athletic development training outside of their team setting.

Generally speaking, to answer this “How Much Is Enough?” question, I want to first say that whatever athletic development training that takes place outside of team activities, it needs to be short in duration and high in quality. Long, drawn out sessions that usually over-emphasize aerobic training are pointless and un-motivating. Shorter, highly organized sessions that cut out the unnecessary and only apply the essential areas of becoming a better, more functional athlete need to be the basis of the program. Two to three quality 30 to 45 minute sessions per week that cover mobility, speed/acceleration, agility/quickness, strength, power, body control, coordination, etc… is IMO the sweet spot for solid athleticism development to take place. If an athlete is in-season, adjusting to one or two sessions per week would be recommended. The key thing here is “quality”. As mentioned earlier, the workouts should be high in quality and shorter in duration.

Teaching Athleticism: Turning the RAW Into SKILL

I have been around youth sports for many years now and I still get the opportunity to work with youth athletes in one on one and team environments. I am also able to talk to many of their coaches for whom they play for. The one thing that they tell me almost every time I talk to them is how many of their players have a lot of natural talent, but are very RAW with the talent they have. To me, this simply means that this talent is simply not being recognized in their athletic endeavor.

I just had the opportunity a week ago to work with an AAU basketball team made up of high school freshmen and sophomores. This particular group up to this point in their athletic career has had modest success. I also get a chance to work with a high school varsity team made up of all juniors and seniors who have had tremendous success and have won 3 league championships in a row. The funny thing about this is I truly believe after working with each group that the younger AAU team is a more athletic group than the much more successful varsity team. How can this be? I am sure the coaching of the game may have something to do with it. The one thing that I definitely can pinpoint from my point of view is that the athleticism “skills” of the older group are far better than the more athletic younger group. They run with better technique. They shuffle, backpedal, and change direction much more fluidly and smoothly. Their body control and coordination of movement patterns is much more advanced. The only difference with these groups is that the older varsity group had 2 years of regular, concentrated, high quality athleticism development under their belt, whereas the younger AAU group was basically just starting to go through this type of training modality.

This example of how a group of youth athletes who have every bit as much, if not more, raw ability than a more successful group, but aren’t nearly as successful, is a common one. I believe the solution to not have this occur is for the coach of any team to take initiative and teach the players a good foundation of fundamental athleticism skill development that focuses not on “conditioning” the athletes by only having them run aimlessly back and forth and doing agility drills just for the sake of doing them, but emphasizes the technique, grace, skill, and preciseness of athletic movements such as speed, multi-directional agility, and explosive jumping. This type of training done on a regular basis does wonders for the ability of the athletes and the success of the team.

Simply put, turning the RAW athlete into a highly SKILLED one is well worth the effort and just might be the biggest difference maker for the success of the athlete and team that there is!

Athletic Movement Quality

Athletes at the youth level all the way through the professional ranks are always looking for ways to get faster, quicker, and more agile. There are numerous ways to go about achieving these needed qualities to improve athletic performance. Sprint, cone, and reaction drills are being done in a variety of ways to get the bodies of these athletes to get a step faster, or react a bit quicker. While I like most of the drills I see coaches have their athletes do in this regard, the one thing that I believe lacks in these training sessions is coaching the detailed skills and coordination that comes with these movements.

Any athleticism movement that athletes perform should be broken down as a coordinated skill that needs to be broken down by the coach in detail and taught as such. One thing I see constantly are sport skills being taught with great detail, but when it comes to general athletic movements like sprinting, shuffling, backpedaling, changing direction, etc… the detailed approach to teaching them goes out the window. In reality, these movements are skills just as any sport skill like throwing a ball,  swinging a bat, or shooting a basket are.

As an example of this, let’s take a speed session where we will have our athletes perform a series of sprints to get faster. Let’s say that we decide to have the athletes run six 30-yard sprints. What I see a lot in this scenario are coaches who line their athletes up, encourage them to run hard, blow a whistle to get them started, and try to hurry through them to get them done as fast as possible. There are many errors with this approach and while it does some good for the fitness of the athletes, it does very little to improve speed and teach these athletes proper speed technique.

Sprinting cues before each sprint is ran should be emphasized to focus the athletes mind on certain techniques that they should be concentrating on. It could be a lower body cue such as “punch the knee” or “push down and back through the ground”. It could also be an upper body cue such as “elbows down and back” or “chest tall when in top end phase”. Now the athletes have a focus on the actual skills of developing speed and can run these sprints with a detailed plan of working on them to get faster. Also, there is a rule in speed training which states that if speed acquisition is the desired goal for the day, then for every 10 yards sprinted, one minute of rest is needed. Hurrying athletes to finish these sprints to teach toughness or live by the “no pain, no gain” theory is counter productive to get athletes faster.

Taking a coordinated skills approach to teaching athleticism is a solid way of improving athletes. When the variables of total volume of workout and rest in between repetitions are also thought out correctly, athletes are now in a situation where they can improve greatly and enjoy the process of becoming the best athlete they can be.