It seems every year there is some new training system or technique that high schools coaches are salivating over. It doesn’t matter if it’s football, volleyball, basketball, track, wrestling, or baseball. Somebody, somewhere always figures out the latest and greatest way to cash in on the youth sports market. Today’s coaches get so caught up in the specialty training for each individual sport (i.e. special physical preparedness) that they lose sight of the fundamental deficits that their athletes have (i.e. general physical preparedness).

Each year, schools and parents spend thousands of dollars to send children to the top sports camps, coaches, and programs. Even more is spent on travel, lodging, and food for athletes to participate in things like MAYB basketball and AAU off-season sports. While working at a local supplement store, I spoke with dozens of parents who had brought their children in to stock up on protein, creatine, glutamine, and other supplements in hopes of making them bigger, faster, or stronger. Ninety percent of the children had virtually zero off-season time. They competed almost year round in one sport or another. The time they did have off was limited to a few weeks that were broken down into separate periods (typically a week or two immediately after each season). Often times, “off-season” participation is encouraged by the children’s coach in order for them to have a shot at getting any playing time during the season. If the children have more than one coach with this mindset, their entire summer break could potentially be spent recovering from their last competition when it should be spent improving their overall strength and conditioning.

There are two main factors to consider when you’re planning off-season training and competitions. The first is mental status. Many athletes, at least in the area where I’m from and currently live, play at least two if not three sports per school year. That leaves approximately two and a half months to further develop their skills and physical attributes. It’s also a period of mental “deloading” so to speak. They’ve just spent the better part of nine months preparing for one contest after another. By the end of the school year or the end of their last sports’ season, they can be mentally exhausted. Their body may have recovered in a week or two, but mentally, it could take them longer to get back in the groove of enjoying the idea of competition.

For the athletes who transition directly into summer MAYB, AAU, or other competitions, lack of proper recovery can be detrimental to performance both over the summer and at the start of the next year’s seasons. Getting burned out on a sport or competition in general can occur very easily without the proper downtime. Having a couple months away from serious competition is a great way to get your athletes primed up to begin the season.

The second aspect is the actual physical aspect. What most high school kids are lacking is proper muscular balance, strength, flexibility, and conditioning. Years ago, athletes may have gone to a short camp or two over the summer, but for the most part, they spent their time in the weight room getting bigger and stronger. Today it’s very commonplace to see athletes with their summers booked solid with different tournaments, camps, and clinics, yet they have virtually no time set aside to work on getting stronger. These are all designed to build sport-specific skills for a particular sport. Some parents will spend thousands each year on equipment and coaching for their little star, but ultimately what this does is deny them the opportunity to work on their true weakness—they’re physically weak. The sport-specific skills are built upon the basic skills like sprinting, jumping, agility, and body control. While working on technique can be very useful to an athlete, it’s useless without the strength to back it up. It doesn’t matter if your son has perfect throwing form. If he doesn’t have the arm strength, that ball isn’t going anywhere. The same thing goes for the volleyball players with perfect spiking form who don’t have the power to get high enough off the ground to make it effective. The same holds true for every sport.

Parents and some coaches think that having two to three weeks for the athletes to actually lift will magically bring them up to where they need to be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. What ends up happening is the athletes wind up in a perpetual cycle of recovery from the weekend tournaments or they spend the time that could be devoted to strength at a speed camp or some other sport-specific camp. Sprinting, jumping, quickness, and agility can all be increased by improving the athlete’s ability to generate, stabilize, direct, absorb, and redirect force.

Considering that while running the weight placed on the leg during each step is several times one’s body weight and it’s easy to see why making the athlete stronger is going to be more beneficial than simply improving their form. When you’re constantly recovering from the last contest or preparing for the next one, it makes it extremely difficult to program and make any progressive strength gains. Very few high school athletes are only lacking in sport-specific skills. Most have major muscle imbalances between the anterior (chest, front deltoids, biceps, hip flexors, quads) and posterior chain (rear deltoids, back, glutes, hamstrings, calves). They have joint mobility issues as well as a lack of flexibility. The combinations of all these issues can prevent proper strength output by the athlete and can also make the athlete more injury prone.

If the goal is to have a more productive and efficient athlete at the end of the off-season, why would you devote huge amounts of time to a very small portion of the skills needed for the game? It isn’t sexy and it isn’t cutting edge, but the most efficient way to build better athletes is by getting them under the bar, on the Prowler, and jumping on or over objects. There isn’t any camp or coach that can replace the athlete’s own strength.