In today's youth and high school sports scene, year-round participation and specialization are the accepted norms. Very rarely do we see the two- or three-sport athletes excel at those respective disciplines.

For the bulk of the 70s, 80s and 90s, it was common practice to participate in whatever sport the season dictated. Fall was the time for football, when we ran, tackled and chased. The winter had us cutting, spinning, jumping and running for longer periods of time during basketball, or some rolled around on a mat tugging, pulling and sprawling as wrestlers. The spring time was the hand-eye dominant sports of baseball, softball and some tennis. Others ran for speed or threw heavy things for distance in track and field. This was great because you were never bored. Although I don't make any excuses for random training approaches, I do see the value of the ability for the mind and body to be challenged in various ways, especially as a youth. Nevertheless, the specific demands of playing and practicing these sports developed a well-rounded base of athletic needs. Basketball helped with agility and balance. Wrestling developed needed combat skills such as taking falls, fighting hand to hand and learning to use leverage. Whether you threw or sprinted in track and field, these sports taught one the timing of force application. Most all of these skills come in handy in contests such as football, water polo or anything that uses controlled chaos in a team setting where a ball is fought after.

Let's fast forward to 2015. In my work as a private strength coach, I've had the honor to work with many athletes from many disciplines, including ones from the aforementioned “year-round” sports such as swimming, volleyball and baseball. The typical scenario here is that we get a kid with two or three contests a week, twice a day practices and then major tournaments on the weekends. The kid (and his parents too) wants to be bigger, stronger and faster on top of it all. After hearing this, I usually have a wide-eyed stare and steam coming out of my ears. Then I ask, "When does (fill in name) have time to eat or sleep or do homework for that matter?" An impossible task? Maybe, but at this point, I have come to expect that my “year-rounders” must do what they need to appease their coaches. After all, I don't have the ability to affect their standing on the team and I certainly don't want to harm it. At least I can provide an environment where they can work on their weak areas, blow off some steam and have a bit of fun while doing so.

Inadvertently, what also exists during this specialization process is the early peaking and subsequent “burnout” common with these year-round athletes (1). On more than one occasion, I've had several of my young sportswomen and sportsmen comment on how they enjoy being in the weight room more than in practice or competing. My swimmers tell me that they actually have a chance to talk to each other as opposed to swimming straight ahead in one lane for hours on end. A few of my water polo gals feel empowered when they get a chance to take out their “anger” on some deadlifts. And my wrestlers, as tough as they are, like throwing up some big weights and posing down in the mirror.

Note to self: When you train teenage boys who are extremely fit and compete in a sport with a form fitting uniform, they will check themselves out between sets. After all, if they think they look good, they play good or at least enjoy it more.

On a more severe side, a high frequency of chronic injuries end up crippling a promising career (2). For me, this time of year is our "just before taper time” for swimming. (This is the period of time in which pool and dry land volume is drastically decreased in an effort to “recover” from the previous period of “hard” training.) Wouldn't you know it? An outbreak of shoulder (freestylers) and knee pain (breast strokers) has occurred. Lately, our sessions have taken on the identity of the lovechild of a M.A.S.H. unit and meditation class. There are bodies sprawled out on the floor wrapped in compression or with bags of ice on them while smooth jazz plays in the background. Yes, this happens in a weight room. But we do what needs to be done to keep my kids together.

The sad truth is that many of these promising young careers are cut short. Many succumb to the progressions of the aches and pains and the emotional burnout of constant competition. It's my opinion that year-round competitive “requirements” (the focusing of immediate results) has retarded the further improvement of these athletes. With so much emphasis on the competition aspect, the bulk of the time is spent demonstrating current abilities, not developing them in a controlled manner. The two most basic aspects of development that are sacrificed are technical proficiency and strength [yes, strength (3)]. After all, the whole point of training is the development and preparation leading up to an event or competitive period (season). Would a fighter train for a fight by fighting all the time? Or would a football team play several games a week in preparation for a Sunday game? Probably not because someone would get killed.

You can argue that the non-contact sports don't have the same stress as contact sports, but there isn't any argument of the mental and emotional stress that any contest has on an athlete. There must be a period when things are scaled back and slowed down and an amiable thought process must be adhered to. The bottom line is that these promising young athletes are literally thrust into a professional (some beyond) level schedule when their minds are drained and their bodies are ill prepared to do so. They are left with zero time to recover physically, mentally and emotionally, and they don't have any time to redevelop the foundational elements of their physicality (GPP). Keeping this process in play for long enough is a recipe for disaster.

The great thing that my work as a private sector coach has brought me is the opportunity to work with young women and men who have a desire to become better. After all, their families wouldn't pay me to do so if they didn't. Sometimes (more like most of the time) I don't get the blue chip kid, the all-area guy or the all-state gal. Sometimes I've gotten the runts of the litter who other coaches said were too short, too slow or not good enough. Despite this discouragement, these kids are seeking an outlet for their competitive endeavors. It is thought that sports is one facet of life that embodies a fair playing field, where each and every participant has a chance to succeed. Unfortunately, in the high school team sports, this isn't always the case. Social standing and exposure sometimes play a role in who gets in and who doesn't (and at private schools that function off private money, you had better believe that booster contributions play a role in who makes certain teams). So what is left for the kids who still have that fire inside of them to compete, become better and become stronger if you will?

Related Article: Why Compete?

Now, I may be biased here (being a former lifter myself), but I've found that the sport of powerlifting has allowed these runts, castoffs and extremely driven individuals to flourish. For one, most team sports are structured around the collective of the individual efforts for the glory of the team. Powerlifting (an individual sport) offers the yang to the yin of the team sport mentality, as it takes a team effort for the good of the individual. In all honesty, I've had more fun—and I know my kids can second this notion—taking these kids around the country to meets and coaching them to federation and personal bests alike. I also love the bonding experiences on the road traveling, rooming and eating together. These experiences forge bonds that are hard to break. (Please check out the links at the end of the article to view these kids in action.)

Powerlifting is weight class dependent and void of extreme physical attributes playing a role. Smaller kids won't be outreached or overpowered by larger kids or slower kids who are outrun by faster ones. It's just you and the loaded barbell. Squat it! Press it! Pull it! The simplicity lies in the squatting, pressing and pulling. Most any kid can do it and/or has done it in his weight room at school. While a powerlifting meet (as any contest does) demonstrates strength, the training involved develops strength as well as the intangible benefits of toughness, discipline and camaraderie. As stated before, becoming stronger is imperative for decreasing the risk of injury. Albeit in a general sense, proper practice and execution (in a controlled and properly coached manner) of these lifts involve the extension patterns of the upper and lower body that challenge grip strength, shoulder girdle control and trunk strength in the process. This gives us a solid foundation build on other attributes such as power production and speed (via relative strength). In addition, competitive powerlifting boasts an injury rate of 0.0008 per 100 participation hours. In stark contrast is soccer at 6.2. And wouldn't you know it? It even beats gym class (0.18) in terms of overall safety!

For you football coaches looking to give your guys a competitive edge during the winter and early spring, there is probably no better way to do this while getting your guys bigger and stronger at the same time than training for a meet. To hammer home a point, in 2013, the state of Texas featured 247 (three- to five-star) Division I scholarship recruits (5). Texas is also one state that has its own powerlifting organization, the THSPA. The number 18 ranked recruit out of that state in that year was Andrew Billings. He was listed at six feet, two inches and 315 pounds. Andrew also broke a long standing record of the great Mark Henry (legendary powerlifter, weightlifter, Strongman and professional wrestler) with a 2010-pound three-lift total squatting 805 pounds, benching 500 pounds and pulling 705 pounds at the age of 18. If your kids knew that they were going up against him, how many stained pants would there be? After all, two-thirds of the year is spent in off-field activities for the upcoming year. As Buddy Morris said,“67 percent of our time is spent in preparation” (Buddy Morris, American Football Preparation Manual, pg 17).

With the advent and popularity of the various 7v7 leagues now available, this is changing the time distribution with the “skill” players, but don't leave our linemen in the cold. They're still pretty important as well. Nonetheless, our football kids aren't playing football to prepare for football. The violent, high intensity and extreme nature of this game dictates a longer and progressive recovery and redevelopment. This is why there is a premium on weight room participation (i.e. strength and conditioning programs) during this time.

Whether you're an off-season athlete or an athlete who isn't getting everything you want out of your school's team sports, I feel that powerlifting can be a viable option in your yearly process. Outside of the quantifiable rewards of strength, training for a meet a couple times a year can provide the mental stimulus of a new challenge that is directly rewarded by your individual effort. Don't be afraid to be strong!







6)   Trippe M, Gilmore L. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.

Meet videos

Pete Arroyo has worked as a private strength and development coach in Naperville, Illinois, for the past 13 years. Currently the owner of Legacy Strength Systems (LSS), Pete services a host of clientele ranging from housewives to collegiate and professional athletes who value a strength element in their lives. LSS is also contracted with Naperville Central women's and men's swim team as well as the Naperville North women's and men's swim and women's water polo. In his competitive powerlifting days, Pete boasted a top total of 2210 pounds. That placed him third in the 2011 APF senior national powerlifting event.