Specialization in High School Athletics

TAGS: specialization, Josh Jacobson, james smith, high school athletes, football

There is a big debate going on right now concerning whether or not a child should specialize in a particular sport endeavor. Travel baseball, softball, and AAU basketball teams have swept the nation like an epidemic. High school coaches with athletes that excel at their sport have to compete with other sports during the most critical training time: the off-season. A football coach has to deal with his athletes participating in basketball or track in the football off-season. Is it outlandish to tell a young athlete that he needs to concentrate on football only? If so, why? Is it because “an athlete should have all around development,” or that coaches should, “let the kid be a kid, and don’t put pressure on him?” If your task as a football coach is to ensure that your players receive the highest scholarship from the best school, it only makes sense to encourage a certain classification of players to specialize. By the end of this article, you should understand why certain individuals should specialize in a single sport in high school — specifically football, what I coach.

When you receive the incoming ninth graders into your program, typically the summer before their freshman year of high school, all you need to do is glance over the group to know who will excel and who will not. James Smith provides a context of three categories of athletes. These categories were devised with high-level athletes, but the correlation of the potential between the two is clear.

Categories of Athletes

Category 1

Athletes in category one are the most gifted. Their output potential is so great that the physical nature of technical-tactical practice alone is tremendously stressful. These athletes are the high-performance racecars of the team. While they are capable of producing the highest outputs, they are also the most susceptible to injury and requite the most maintenance (therapy). It is for this reason that the practice of sport and minimal physical preparatory training is enough to stimulate impressive physical characteristics in category one athletes.

Category 2

Athletes in category two are the least physically gifted. These athletes possess output levels so low that they project the illusion of greater durability because they are incapable of generating the same type of output as category one athletes. Their neurophysiological skill and work ethic, however, allows them to perform at a technical-tactical level that is a sufficient contribution. Their work ethic is directly proportional to their playing potential. Additionally, off-season training is their lifeblood.

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Category 3

The general population of Division I and professional athletes fall under category three. Like category one, they cannot afford to miss practice or training weeks. However, they are gifted enough to not require the same magnitude of training load as category two.

Recognizing the Categories

There is a correlation between your high school athletes and the explanations above. If you know what to look for, you can quickly place athletes into each category. This will lead to changes in coaching and programming.

Category 1

When those incoming ninth graders arrive, a select group of players demonstrate higher output levels than others. As years progress and their adaption to certain stimuli (strength, aerobic, reactive/elastic, etc.) rapidly develops, they should transition to more locomotor-based activities in correlation to the position they play. These activities should be at submaximal intensity and progress linearly after each intensity zone is successfully completed. It serves them no purpose to stay in a weight room except in a complementary role to enhance locomotor efforts via specialized preparatory/developmental exercise and to maintain the shape of connective tissue/muscle when faced with the collision of the sport. These players are the BCS level kids.

Category 2

This is your blue-collar athlete. He demands as many stresses as possible, in a logical fashion, while typically being able to recover from them more quickly than other athletes. This is due to his output capacity being so low and requiring tremendous amount of time to develop. In a quadrennial plan, he may not expose himself straight to locomotor efforts until after his junior football season. This athlete could range from a lower Division I school to IIA.

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Category 3

This player is a combination of one and two. His output level becomes adequate over time, eventually reaching the point that his field-based work could begin around the spring or summer leading into his junior year of football.

Baseline Numbers

How do you know if your players are ready to graduate from the physical preparatory load and enter into more technical aspects of training? Well, that is up to you, but here are some example numbers that may help:

  • RB’s/LB’s- For Strength-Squat-1.5x BW, Bench-1-1.25x BW, Power-65-80 percentile of Quadrathlon
  • Linemen- For Strength- Squat-1.5-2x BW, Bench-1.25x BW, Power-65-80 percentile of Quadrathlon
  • WR- For Strength-Squat-BW-1.5x, Bench-BW-1.25, Power-75-90 percentile of Quadrathlon

These are all baseline numbers, and you can alter them to fit your situation, population of kids, and factors out of your control. If you hold a high value on the power clean, you can substitute that and place value on a certain bar speed or weight cleaned. Anything you want to choose can be designed for power, speed, strength, and explosive qualities at baselines numbers. I am not speaking of strength record boards, because that is the easiest necessary operational football quality to obtain.

Once you have established a set point for these qualities, you can then transition to focusing on the actual sporting movement itself, broken down by position. To spend one or two days a week for 20 minutes at full intensity will not make your football players better at football. You must gradually increase the intensity of the movement once they have displayed efficiency.

For acceleration, since it is a complex skill, the timing should be in a linear fashion. Then there should be particular intensity zones for the athletes to focus on. Once they graduate from one zone, proceed to the next. The intensity zones, per James Smith, should be no more than 10 percent from one to the next. The same could be established for locomotor efforts, with the exception being a 5% increase in each zone. Depending on what block you are in during your calendar, it is very simple for a player to practice mechanical skills in a submax intensity without interfering with any other currently-trained qualities. Within reason, performing many reps in low effort results in quality repetitions for the athlete at no expense to any other training load.

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At no point in time do we ever leave a specific quality in relation to the demands of each position. I utilizes Charlie Francis’ Template of Vertical Integration, and adjust everything we do based on where each individual is at for training age and time regarding the competition calendar. Further deviation is created if a player is two-sport or three-sport athlete. Upon arrival, we integrate power/speed drills, medicine ball throws, various jumps that emphasize acceleration mechanics or linear speed, oxidative qualities, and linear speed mechanisms. However, there is a certain amount of time that needs to be dedicated to movement-based activities, and since strength is the easiest attribute to obtain, it only seems logical to progress to a higher order of tasks as the athlete progresses.

The main cause behind this proposal is a current sophomore wide receiver I coach that is a genetic freak. As a freshman going into the summer of his sophomore season we tested squat one-rep maxes. He squatted 475 pounds and made it look easy. I stopped him there because I wondered to myself how strong this boy’s desire was to play wide receiver. His sprinting mechanics were poor, his change of direction was poor, and his understanding of the game of football was poor. Unfortunately for me, he plays three sports for our school, so I do not have the opportunity to improve the necessary things for him to obtain a BCS scholarship. He may still receive one, because he is genetically special, but that is not the point. I want to send him to the next level as the most physically, tactically, and technically prepared athlete as possible.

As a high school coach, I realize that there is not enough time to take things slowly. This is also not the nature of the businesses or schools you will work for, who want you to win now or relocate. However, the take-home point should be that you need to look outside of your weight room to develop certain athletes. If that requires that you learn more biomechanical principles regarding acceleration, deceleration, change of direction between one to 180 degrees, positional bioenergetics demands, or anything else, then do it.

I will leave you with this. James Smith has said, “if an individual displays the capability for high achievement in a specific sport, why subject him to risk of injury in another, in which he will never excel? Particularly as he draws near to time in which it becomes mandatory to raise the skills in that sport to the highest possible level for scholarship reasons.”

References

Smith, James- Sports Training Management, The Criminal Nature of its Absence, p.5-6.

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