Thread: The Unmaking of an Athlete
01-29-2005, 12:26 AM #1Retired Vet
- Join Date
- Feb 2004
The Unmaking of an Athlete
The Unmaking of an Athlete
By Jason Ferruggia
I sometimes wonder if there are any prerequisites at all to getting a job as college strength and conditioning coach. As the owner of my private athletic training company (Renegade Strength & Conditioning) I have had the opportunity to work with athletes from numerous colleges and universities across the country and have witnessed their disgust with their schools strength and conditioning programs. Some athletes, such as those attending Arizona State, are fortunate enough to have outstanding strength coaches and tremendous programs that they need not look elsewhere for help. Others are not so lucky. Every August I try to send my athletes back to their respective schools as one of the strongest, fastest, and most well conditioned players on their team. Come December I see the unlucky one's come back to me weaker, smaller and slower. These athletes have the misfortune of training under some Neanderthal strength coach who hasn't learned anything new about weight training since the release of Pumping Iron. There have been countless advances in the field of strength and conditioning over the last ten years, yet very few people seem to take advantage of them. It is inexcusable that, in 2004, a college strength and conditioning coach does not have a thorough knowledge of exercise and nutrition and can not properly prepare their teams for competition. If your athletes are losing size and strength, slowing down, and becoming more injury prone I think it's time to go back to the drawing board.
Every college athlete that hires me as their strength coach brings me their schools workout to look at before we get started. Some of the things I see in those programs are absolutely unfathomable.
One such example of the insanity is the baseball player I train whose school conditioning program includes running three miles through the city of Philadelphia ala Rocky Balboa every morning at 6am before lifting. Long distance running is useless for nearly every sport, especially baseball. Baseball players will normally run no more than 90 feet at any one particular time. That 90 foot sprint usually comes only once every half hour or so and only if the player gets a hit. So how, I ask, does running three miles each morning improve your ability to play the game of baseball? The only player on the field who needs real endurance is the pitcher. A well known strength coach once told me that if a baseball player can play Playstation in the locker room, without getting winded, he is aerobically fit enough for the game. Baseball is a game of skill and hand-eye coordination and the players need size, strength and speed. The major leagues are filled with pumped up monsters that hit 500 foot home runs and can bench press a car, yet many college coaches continue to run their players into the ground. Endless distance running will only cause the athletes to lose size, strength and most importantly…games. To get a few more wins this season, ditch the counterproductive marathon training and get your baseball players doing sprints and lifting heavy weights.
Another one of my athletes is a Division 1 field hockey player whose conditioning test on the first day of camp consists of running from New York to Los Angeles and back in under an hour. I am, of course, exaggerating but not by much. The test involves more running in one morning than the girls will run in a seasons worth of games. Field hockey players must be highly conditioned, no doubt, but the best way to achieve that high level of conditioning is not through an outdated approach of long distance running. Coaches who implement this kind of training are preparing their athletes for a marathon, not a stop and go sport such as field hockey. While the athlete's may be able to run a faster time in the mile, the question is, how does that equate to better performance on the field? The answer is obvious, it doesn’t. There is no sport that consists of running miles at a time. Most sports involve a combination of sprinting, jogging and even walking. Field hockey is no different and as such, these athletes would be best served to do a mix of interval sprint training and longer 200-400 meter sprints. A colleague of mine who works with several NHL players, arguably the most highly conditioned of all athletes, has found that 400 meter sprints performed three times weekly works wonders for conditioning while avoiding muscle and strength losses.
I once trained a football player whose team workout consisted of no work for the lower back or hamstrings, the most important muscles for sprint speed. I have another athlete whose school training program is 100% machine based. One of my standout football players, who I began training in eighth grade lost nearly forty pounds in his first year at college because the team workout consisted of full body circuit training of 15-20 reps with 30 seconds rest, three days a week, year round! There must have been some strong guys in that lineup. Another amazing training program was the one that had EVERY kid on the team do the exact same weight regardless of bodyweight, strength level or position! The reasoning behind it was they had 50 kids to train and didn't have time to change the weights.
To those with a good deal of strength training knowledge the above stories may sound like fiction. But trust me they are all true, you can't make that kind of stuff up. Unfortunately, I have dozens more and could go on forever with similar stories. There are endless mistakes made by strength coaches and head coaches on a daily basis but here are some of the biggest ones and some ways to improve upon them:
1) Excessive endurance training- Nearly every athlete I work with gets run into the ground on a daily basis. This is counterproductive and is usually done because the coaches don’t have the necessary understanding of the body’s different energy systems and how to train them properly. Most sports require speed. Speed can only be improved through proper training of the nervous system and by avoiding excessive endurance work. Too much distance work can convert fast twitch muscle fibers into slow twitch fibers and can actually decrease an athlete's speed over time. Unfortunately I've seen this happen more times than I care to remember and have watched great athletes have their careers ruined by improper training techniques. If coaches kept in mind the requirements of the sport they are preparing their athletes for, maybe this would not be such a problem. For example, in training an offensive lineman, why would you ever have him run miles at a time or sprint more than ten to twenty yards in practice when you know that he will never run that distance in a game? Unless I am missing something, the point of practice is to get ready for what you will do in a game. The problem, much of the time lies in the fact that head coaches dictate how their team's running is implemented. Most of the time a head coach does not have a degree in anatomy or physiology or even a general understanding of either. The head coach is required to know the sport inside and out but is rarely an expert in energy system training. If head coaches could check their egos and let a qualified speed and conditioning coach handle this aspect of training they just might add a few more victories to their record.
2) Overtraining- Most coaches have an old school military attitude of "more is better," and usually end up overtraining their athletes. Spending more than an hour in the weight room is a classic mistake. Performing extra sprints at the end of practice as a form or punishment is another one. By forcing the athletes to run in such a fatigued state, you increase their risk of injury and teach them to adopt improper sprint technique. This combined with three-a-day practices, limited rest times, insufficient nutrition and hydration all leads to a severe state of overtraining.
3) Improper sprint training- Anyone who understands how the body works knows that to improve speed you must target the central nervous system (CNS). Proper neural training requires the appropriate amount of recovery time between sprints. The CNS takes five to six times longer than the muscles to recover, a fact which seem to escape most coaches. Running ten forty yard sprints with a fifteen second rest is not speed training, it is time wasting and nauseating. The frequency of high intensity speed training is also too great. Most athletes are forced to perform maximal sprints every day of the week. The great Olympic sprint coach, Charlie Francis, has his athletes perform no more than three max effort sprint days per week and finds anything more than that to be detrimental in speed development.
4) Too many reps in the weight room- Most of the college weight training programs I see focus on sets of 10-15 reps, even for Olympic lifts. Any strength coach who has yet to learn that Olympic lifts are never to be performed for more than six reps should not be working at the college level. Where is the strength work in these programs? With all of the other endurance work the kids are doing the last thing you want to do is turn the time in the weight room into another endurance session. Focus on strength and speed which is best accomplished by using multiple sets of 1-6 reps and heavy weight.
5) Using the wrong exercises- Triceps kickbacks, leg extensions, and pec deck flyes are all exercises that I have actually seen in the programs of Division 1 schools. These exercises are completely useless for any athlete. Strength is built using basic compound movements and heavy weight. Focus on squats, deadlifts, bench presses, military presses, rows, dips, and chins and throw out the machines and isolation movements.
Another mistake is taking kids who have little to no training experience and having them perform power cleans or some other complex lift. By the time most male athletes reach college they have done a decent amount of weight training but that is not usually the case for females. I have heard of schools taking freshman girls and throwing them right into a workout consisting of snatches and split jerks. Just because a girl may be superstar Division 1 athlete does not mean she is ready to start doing Olympic complexes. Beginners should always train like beginners regardless of the situation.
6) Improper exercise form- Even if you utilize the proper rep scheme, and train heavy on the compound exercises listed above it is all a waste if your exercise form is horrendous. In the college weight rooms I’ve been in, I’ve seen people bench press with their asses a foot and a half off the bench and have seen more varieties of a hang clean than I ever knew existed. As a strength coach it is your job, above all else, to at least be able to teach your athletes proper exercise form and help them avoid injury.
7) Doing conditioning work before weight training- The point of lifting weights is to get stronger. To do so you should be as fresh as possible upon entering the weight room so you can train at your maximal capacity. Running and doing conditioning drills immediately before lifting drains your glycogen stores and saps your energy, leaving you weak and unmotivated, not exactly the way you want to feel before a heavy workout. Completing an exhausting two hour practice and then going straight to the weight room for some heavy squats is also a great way to get injured.
8) Training the whole team with the same workout- You would be amazed at how many schools use the exact same workout for every player on the team regardless of position. Why would a cornerback train like an offensive lineman? Why would a pitcher do the exact same workout as a left fielder? It makes no sense at all. Even though all athletes share a common need for improved strength, the needs for each player can sometimes be very different and the training programs should reflect that. When it really gets to be appalling is when the weights to be used on a certain exercise are already written in ahead of time. Some workout sheets will say something like: Bench Press- 3 sets x 10 reps x 225 pounds. So the 150 pound kicker who has never lifted before and the 375 pound nose tackle who has spent his life in the gym are supposed to do the same exact weight. It will staple one of them to the bench and be a joke for the other; even a first grader could tell you that. This is one glaring mistake I will never understand.
9) Never changing the workout- Too many schools use the same workout month after month and year after year. They have an in season program and an off season program and the workouts NEVER change. Every year, for a good laugh, a Division 1 baseball player I train brings me his teams’ workout book at the start of each season. For four years straight, it was the exact same three-day-a-week workout, fifty two weeks a year! Talk about boredom and burn out. I would go absolutely insane if I did the same workout for more than a few weeks straight, never mind four years. If you are getting paid to write workouts for a team, the least you could do is put a little thought into them and add some variety.
10) Constant negativity- After many years working as a strength and conditioning coach I know that most athletes do not respond well to constantly being verbally berated. It is, of course, part of the job, you have to toughen the kids up and earn their respect. But when they hate you and no longer enjoy coming to practice or the weight room, you have ruined what should have been a great experience for them and you have just lowered the performance output of your athletes. I appreciate a hardcore, militant attitude and train most of my athletes in this manner. However we do have fun and lighten up when the work is done. At the end of the day, everyone needs positive reinforcement once in a while or they will just give up or lose interest, it’s human nature, look into it.
The intention of this article was not to bash all college strength coaches and head coaches, because, as I stated earlier there are many great ones. It was simply a way of trying to get through to those that have been stuck in their outdated ways for far too long. Hopefully it opened some eyes and will cause at least a few people to take a step back and rethink their strength and conditioning programs. Properly trained athletes win more games, which as a coach, is always your goal. More importantly, when an 18 year old kid puts his or her athletic future in your hands, it is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. The training you give them over the next four years could literally make or break their careers and shape the rest of their lives. Think about that before heading for the copy machine to rehash the same useless workouts you’ve been using forever.
01-29-2005, 12:27 AM #2Retired Vet
- Join Date
- Feb 2004
The Unmaking Of An Athlete, Part Two- The Beginning
The Unmaking Of An Athlete, Part Two- The Beginning
By Jason Ferruggia
When Part One of this article was written nearly two years ago the focus was on college strength coaches. Unfortunately the unmaking of an athlete begins long before college. It starts at a very young age with uninformed but well intentioned parents. By doing what they think is best for their kids; many parents actually end up destroying their children’s athletic futures. For this story to be complete we have to go back to the beginning.
The father of three high school aged boys I used to coach is one such example of the type of parent I am referring to. Paul is a father who lives vicariously through his kids and demands that they excel in whatever sport they play. He picked wrestling and baseball as their chosen sports to specialize in from a young age. The reasoning for this, he told me, was that white kids have a much better chance of achieving greatness in those sports than they do in football or basketball. Fun was not an issue; the improved chance of long term success was all that mattered. Weather or not they liked football or basketball was of no concern to him, he picked their sports and that is what they would play. They were in several baseball leagues and a number of wrestling schools, often rushing from one to the other, inhaling a fast food burger for dinner in the car between practices. On many nights after they went through their training sessions with me they would go home and be forced to do several hundred more pushups and sit ups. This was because Paul didn’t like my approach of keeping their training sessions under an hour. He thought the volume was too low and they needed to do more. Other nights they would have to run a few miles or take a few dozen swings in the batting cage. I explained how the long distance runs were detrimental to size and strength gains and actually had no benefit to either wrestling or baseball because they train the wrong energy system. He refused to listen. When I told him I would have to stop training his kids if they continued to do this, he told me it would stop but snuck it in behind my back. These kids were not allowed a normal social life, because athletic excellence was the number one priority in their lives. The father was banned from Little League baseball and several other town organizations. He was an embarrassment to his children and himself but he didn’t care.
On his final trip to my gym, Paul pushed me too far and I had to escort him out of the building and ban him permanently from the premises. He took his kids with him and I haven’t seen them since. I hear they are working out in their basement and doing more running in a day than Forrest Gump. The sad part is that these are two great kids who have had their lives and athletic careers destroyed by an overzealous parent.
Last week I received a phone call from the mother of a baseball player. She told me her son was a standout shortstop with a great arm who never misses a ball. The only problem, she said, was that he really needed to improve his first step out of the batters box and get just a little more power behind his swing. She said that he needed intensive sport specific training for baseball on a one on one basis. She was convinced that I was the man that could help him and that with his added speed and power he would be the next Derek Jeter in no time. Squeezing in the time to train with me would be tough, she informed me, because he is currently playing in three leagues and takes hitting lessons four nights a week in the batting cage they just installed in their backyard. He also goes for two linear speed workouts and two lateral speed workouts a week. Even with all that, he will make the time, she assured me, no matter what it takes. When she finally took a breath and allowed me to speak, the first question I asked was how old her son was. Without hesitating she told me that he was NINE!
This is a trend that we see happening way too often these days. It seems that early specialization is the latest craze sweeping the country. According to a recent news report, the training of young children is now a four billion dollar industry which is growing rapidly. Gyms are popping up with kids weight training programs and speed and agility camps every where you look. It’s on television and talked about on the radio. Unfortunately most of the coaches associated with these programs are just trying to cash in on the latest fad and haven’t a clue as to how to properly prepare an eight year old for his or her athletic future. Parents have been persuaded to believe that they have to get every kind of coach, trainer, and instructor they can find to help give their kids an edge over the competition. They put them in six different leagues at once all in the hopes of creating the next Michael Jordan. Start them early and they will be destined for greatness. After all, it worked for Tiger Woods and the William’s sisters so it will work for your kid too. Right? Wrong.
Early specialization in any one particular sport is, in fact, the worst thing for a young child. It actually does more harm than good to their athletic skills. Playing baseball during the spring, football in the fall and basketball throughout the winter will do more to create the next Barry Bonds than only swinging a bat and fielding fly balls all year will. The athletic carryover a young athlete can get from playing a wide variety of sports is huge. Playing as many sports as possible allows kids to develop an enormous capacity of motor skills. Each sport has different athletic demands and requirements and forces the athlete to call upon different types of strengths, energy systems and neural capacities. NBA superstar Allen Iverson has said he was a better quarterback than he is a point guard. NFL quarterback Michael Vick was a multi sport star throughout his childhood and never specialized in anything. By developing the skills necessary to be an all around good athlete, a child can be better prepared to specialize later in his or her teenage years when it becomes necessary. As my friend and youth training expert, Brian Grasso says, “You have to become an athlete first, before you can become a champion.”
Another thing that needs to be addressed is the concept of “sport specific” training for young athletes. The bottom line is this… there is no such thing as sport specific training! I repeat…there is no such thing as sport specific training! Especially when we are dealing with young kids. All athletes have similar needs which include improving strength, speed, and flexibility as well as preventing injury. When you think about it, most sports have the same requirements. Some of the common needs of most athletes are the capacity to stabilize the core properly and protect the body from injury, the ability to quickly decelerate and change direction, and the potential to rapidly absorb and produce force. Train hard, train smart, and get stronger. That’s all there is too it. There is no need for anything “sport specific” at an early training age. Of course, as an athlete gets into his later teenage years he may need to start to implement certain things in his training that may be individual to his sport but this is often the exception and not the rule. The case of pitchers avoiding pressing movements is one such example. Hockey players needing to correct the imbalance between the vastus medialis and vastus lateralus that occurs from doing a lot of skating, is another. When over use injuries or imbalances occur from a specific sport they need to be addressed. But for the most part, if kids would focus less on the exact “sport specific” exercises they need to do to improve their jump shots or swings and instead focused solely on getting bigger, stronger, and faster, they would be much better athletes.
In countries such as Russia and Bulgaria, early specialization is looked down upon and avoided at all costs. These countries laugh at the notion that the United States has the best ten year old soccer player or best eight year old tennis star in the world. They know that it doesn’t matter what a kid can do at a very young age because that rarely correlates to long term success or Olympic gold. These countries have learned that early specialization is a recipe for disaster. The Process of Achieving Sports Mastery (PASM) is a system that is used in Russia to create super athletes. The odd thing about it, to most Americans, would be the fact that it forces kids to play as many sports as possible and does not allow for early specialization. Athletes usually begin training programs at age six with a focus on a wide array of running, jumping and tumbling type drills. An athlete can not begin to specialize in a particular sport until at least fifteen or sixteen and in most cases, eighteen. Through years of research, the Soviets have learned that early specialization results in a much higher incidence of over-use injuries and mental burnout as well as a great deal of inconsistency in an athlete’s performance. They prefer a “multilateral” approach, forcing kids to play as many sports as they can. The children are watched closely and assessed as they mature. Finally, when specialization becomes a necessity in the later teenage years, the athletes will have developed a wide variety of athletic skills and will not have suffered the mental burnout that comes with trying to master one sport from a very young age.
The take home message to parents is to let your kids have fun. They are kids after all. There is no need to try and make them the next Wayne Gretzky just yet. Let them play several sports and learn to enjoy them. If parents put too much pressure on their children, the sport is no longer fun. It is supposed to be a game, not a life or death situation. Kids only learn what we teach them. If children are taught that the pee wee football game on Saturday afternoon is supposed to be a blast, then they will have a blast. But if they are taught that it is a high pressure, can’t lose situation, it will no longer be fun. And when it’s not fun, the chances of them wanting to play long into the future are slim. Everyone understands the desire to want what’s best for their kids. It’s only natural do all you can to help your children succeed. Sometimes, however, it might be what you don’t do that can actually make all the difference in the world.
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