A Better Way to Train High School Athletes

The best program to improve football players is to have them play basketball, wrestle, or run track.

So there is a tweet that I read tweeted about the number of Ohio State University football recruits the play other sports. 29 of the 34 recruits played at least one other sport. Five of which did not.

Now what we can see from stats like this can be misleading. I think it was naive to think that playing other sports will make you better at other sports by itself. I don't think that the formula is as cut and dry as "the more sports you play the better you are at all of them." Which is probably more realistic, which was pointed out to me by Thomas Newman, is that the better players at certain sports often play multiple sports. It is the question of: "Does playing other sports make me a better athlete? Or am I a good enough athlete to play multiple sports?

Regardless of what the right question is, the answer is probably not to discourage athletes from playing multiple sports.

Another factor involved is that one sport for youth athletes is still year round. Two sports, the year-round training is doubled. This highly complicates things. Another train of thought is that with sport training methodologies, athletes can benefit from off-season programming. This theory has the assumption that it is viable to find smart off-season youth training at the youth and high school levels. That is sometime wishful thinking.

Is it the athlete's decision?
I have never met a young athlete that chooses to focus on one sport without outside interference and persuasion. It just doesn't happen. If the kid chooses not to play a sport, it is almost always because he or she has lost interest due to burn out, or just doesn't have a good experience. Those kids will not consciously decide to quit a sport they love to do because they honestly feel it is hurting their development in another. Again, it just doesn't happen.

So the question is, what do we do with this information and how do we handle the situation our kids are in when it comes to sports. There is so much to discuss when it comes to the culture of youth sports, the environment of high school athletics, and the destructive influence of most parents. But, is there a simple solution in order to put a Band-Aid on this issue.

So let's assume we will have a mixture of high school athletes that play multiple sports and some that play one. Let's also assume that the athletes that only play one sport are playing those sports year-round in terms of club, nontraditional season, etc.

A Possible Solution
The best solution I can give you is this: create an athletic development curriculum with in the physical education department at each high school that will facilitate year-round, comprehensive training for every athlete in every sport. This means training is set up and targeted toward in-season training, year-round. So, what we will we have to be comfortable with as coaches is this:

1.) My athletes can train without being sore for games?

2.) My athletes will physically develop and improve during the season?

3.) My athletes will not be fatigued for games during the season?

Question is, can high school athletes train in an in-season template and still develop physically for all the sports played? The answer is absolutely, IF it is set up correctly.

Putting things in Motion
There are several obstacles that you're going to have to overcome before you can put this curriculum in place at the high school level.

1.) Money. You need to have enough funding to hire qualified, certified, competent individuals to train these athletes year-round. While most high schools use this stipend money to throw their sport coaches extra money; there should be a qualified strength and conditioning coach with no major ties to any particular team in this position. It is also necessary to have the funding for a facility that can accommodate multiple teams year-round.

2.) Cooperation. This will need to be a project that involves principals, athletic directors, teachers, and coaches to be on the same page. Communication will be critical. As long as the students are held as the top priority, this will work. This needs to be transformational change for the good of all students in the school and not a transactional change for coaches to have more control.

3.) Education. There's no doubt in my mind that a large group, maybe even the majority, of coaches will not understand, and therefore believe in, training year-round. It is amazing to me that there is still this "dinosaur state-of-mind" when it comes to coaching at the high school and small college levels. This is another reason professional development is so critical for coaches. Knowledge give the strength and conditioning coaches the ammunition they need to justify their training to sport coaches, administrators, and parents.

4.) Buy-In. This could be classified as the result of good communication and meaningful education of coaches. Regardless "buy-in" can also start at the ground-roots level with players and parents. If student athletes believe that what they do in the weight room will help them on the field, court, or track, they will do whatever is asked of them.

Outlining the Program
Step one: Physical education

In my experience, there is no reason there needs to be a traditional physical education curriculum at the high school level. I believe we have this whole phys ed system flipped upside down in this country.

Elementary school should consist of movement skills, motor development, team work, sportsmanship, self-confidence, self-efficacy, general rules of the sports, and as much exposure to physical activity as possible. Look at every elementary school gymnasium in this country. Its a hard rubber or wood floor and basketball hoops. Shouldn't all elementary gyms look more like a gymnastics facility? Tumbling should be the foundation of all physical education curriculum.

Middle school is the awkward time where puberty sets in it where interests start to vary and expand between students. The self-interest can be contradictory to the social constructs of a traditional physical education class. If there is ever a time to have co-ed gym class, it's this time. You will get much more participation and much more enrichment from a physical education class where boys and girls are separated.

In the high school setting, this separation of interest expands even farther. This is where varsity and junior varsity athletics should realistically take the place of the physical education curriculum. A lot of schools that do this already. I just see no reason why an athlete who plays multiple sports at the high school level needs basic phys-ed, recreation, and fitness type classes. For the students who do not play varsity or JV athletics, wouldn't it make more sense for them to engage in activities that will help them build the skills to help lead healthy lifestyles? Why is it that we try to create lifelong learners in every subject except for physical education? Knowledge provides the appropriate skills for students to make good decisions for the rest of their lives when it comes to health, wellness, and fitness. This is where we need to rely on school districts to be creative and proactive with the class choices. Offering both ends of the spectrum such as weight training to Zumba to Pilates to Yoga. On the other hand, there should be recreational activities such as bowling, golf, dance classes, etc.

So, count inter-scholastic athletes for PE credit.

Step Two: Scheduling
So this is where I cannot speak for every high school situation. But, hopefully you will be able to adjust these parameters to your situation. Some of these may even contradict your situation, but again, you have to make the choice of what you implement.

1.) In-Season Teams Train in the Morning.
Whether it is before school starts or during a morning PE class, getting your athletes strength training before lunch will ensure they have more recovery time and at least 2 meals before practice. The cardinal sin of sport coaches is to do a sub-par training session after a 2 hour practice.

I realize you will need to staff the weight room before school which will cost money. I also realize that scheduling in-season athletes in particular PE classes can be a logistical nightmare. But, that would be the most optimal situation to improve physical ability while in season.

The best way to set this up from a weekly scheduling situation would depend on the sport. The best way to provide a suggestion is to provide an example. Let's take a sport like basketball.

Now at the small college level, most games for most conferences are on Wednesday and Saturday. A lot of high school games are on Tuesday and Friday so let's use that.

MONDAY: AM training session, PM practice
WEDNESDAY: AM training session, PM practice
THURSDAY: AM training session, PM practice
SATURDAY: AM films & training session

Now Wednesday would be the most intense training day with all days being low volume. A common example template could be:

MONDAY: Clean from blocks, Barbell Push Press, Med ball pull-over throws
THURSDAY: 1 Arm DB Snatch, 1 Arm DB BP, BW rows

Something like that. The only time this becomes an issue is when multiple sports have games on the same day.

Step Three: Implement Systems with clarity and unity
Having separate programs with different philosophy from different coaches is not the most optimal path, but it is probably the most common.

Having a school-wide methodology with one professional scheduling and programming all sports (with input for coaches) makes the most sense in an environment with so many moving parts. It amazes me when all off-season athletes start their training on the same time and on the same days. Some steps I have taken to try to alleviate issues with scheduling.

1. Don;t be afraid of 2 day per week programming. I have talked to Coach Dan Stevens about this. You can get kids very strong on two days per week training. My favorite split:

Day 1: Snatch, Push Press, Squat, SLRDL, Row
Day 2: Clean, RDL, Bench, Chin, Lunge

2. Don't be afraid to do speed training in large groups. If you have the space, you can mix teams. The best thing I figured out to improve speed regardless of sport or level of athlete? Competitive speed groups. Match them up and have them race.

3. Set up your weight room so you can stagger the starts. Have an area for pre-hab and warm-up, racks or platforms for the main lifts, and an area for circuits. Be organized enough to hold athletes accountable to complete their work.

4. Complexes and circuits. Combo explosive movements and prehab with the main movements. Exercises that don't need to be tracked, insert into intensive circuits. These need to have purpose and not "let's get our kids tired" circuits.

Bottom line is we need more solutions to the problems of youth and HS athletics.

Hands Free Front Squat

250 for 2 doubles

DB Bench Press
50s x30

Chest Supported Incline DB Rows
50s x15

Log Press


Trap Bar DL
440 for 3 doubles

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