Heavy footballs, “banded” sprints, basketball with ankle weights. While all this could easily be mistaken as sport specific training, in reality this is simply simulation of the actual sport.
If you’re someone who’s used these methods to train your athletes, you’re not alone. Logically, it makes sense. If Johnny Utah can throw the heavy football thirty yards, he’ll be able to throw the a regular football forty yards...right?! Wrong. All Johnny is going to get is an overuse injury and false sense of accomplishment.
In-game play happens at ludicrous speed, and training those movements any slower (read: heavier) is only going to put your athlete at a disadvantage. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t get specific. This article is going to help you sift through the bullshit to find the golden nuggets of what will help empower your athlete's performance as they get close to The ‘Ship. After laying the massive foundation of fitness that you did during their GPP phase, SPP, or specific physical preparation, will be the icing on the cake that allows them to truly reach their athletic potential.
Specialization, not Simulation
As mentioned, we’re not looking to just copy the movements and maneuvers seen in your athlete’s sport, and then “make them harder”. We are looking to reverse engineer our individual athletes, and specifically enhance the parts of their sport they are lacking.
Leave the critiquing of technique to the sport coaches; your job as a strength coach is to empower performance. You are an expert of all things iron...except the grid-iron (or basketball court, swimming pool, etc.). If you’re that mythical unicorn that wears both hats, try to keep these two separate. Don’t cross the streams!
The first step to specialization is opening the lines of communication with the sport coach. If you’re unsure how to do this, refer back to what @Tex laid out for us earlier. From what the coach has told us, we progress to implementing it into our training plan.
What time is it?
When talking about implementation into your training program, we need to divide our season into different phases. Depending on what phase your athlete is in, you will have to change the volume of sports specific training you prescribe. This is called periodization, and there are many different models to subscribe to. For this article, we’ll use a three phase model of periodization. We could get more complex, but when dealing with a novice athlete, there is no need to.
These three phases are going to be: pre-season, in-season, and offseason. Let’s start first with the preseason.
Pre-season is the most exciting time of the year. Equipment is getting checked out. Schedules are being posted. Athletes are starting to get more hyped up about opening day.
As a prudent coach, you want to make sure they are prepared. But, just because the times are changing doesn’t mean your program has to. Stick to your guns. Lift heavy and sprint fast. Even though things like “non-mandatory” practices might be in the picture, that doesn’t mean you have to back off on conditioning.
If you are going to make changes, let’s bounce back to the conversations you’ve already had with the old ball coach. Whatever it is they are looking for from their players, give them time to work on it during the week. We build a block of time into our Bedrock program every Wednesday for SPP. If Johnny needs to work on his throwing mechanics, guess what your role is coach? You’re catching passes for 20 or 30 minutes for him. You are NOT coaching him how to throw; you’re providing him opportunity to work on what he and his sport coach have already talked about. Got a D-lineman who needs to work his swims and rips? Congrats, you’re the new O-line dummy. If someone needs to work layups, get them a basketball hoop. Provide opportunities, that’s your mission.
Now, there is a scenario in which you get to flex your strength and conditioning knowledge. If the coach is looking for something along the lines of better change of direction, this is your wheelhouse. Are you going to hit them with a separate session of lateral drills? Probably not, but now the sprints you have already been working on can change form and check two boxes. Those Flying 30’s might morph into 5-10-5 shuttles, box drill, or things of the like. Once again, you’re providing opportunity for these athletes to build the skills that will enhance their gameplay. Speaking of gameplay…
In-Season: BE THE HAMMER
This is, from a strength and conditioning standpoint, the easiest part of the season. You have one job: keep the players healthy! Well...maybe a second job. But seriously, if a player is too beat up to play, they are useless to the team.
Does this mean we avoid bangin’ weights? No, not necessarily. John’s already covered all of that though. But, in season, we do back off the SPP work. Why? Because they are getting a maximal amount of SPP work in their sport during the season; it’s called practice. Any more, and you risk being a cause of injury as opposed to preventing them. Stick to the triple segmented approach that John laid out in the Be The Hammer e-book to maximize success of in-season training, and let the sport coach handle the SPP work.
Kick back and relax
Once the season is over, after the athletes have had a week or two of rest, it’s time to get back to it. At least in theory that’s how it should work. But, in the current state of today’s youth sporting world, the offseason has all but disappeared.
Now, the actual sport may still only last three months, but there is this looming facade that more is better. If Johnny wants to get the scholarship, they can’t just play a sport for three months out of the year. They’ve got to be on a travel club team, go to their individual skills coach, their speed and agility coach, and don’t forget their strength and conditioning coach. If they want to be their best they can never stop playing, right?! Wrong.
The offseason is necessary for them to get better. But just because he is out of season, doesn’t mean Johnny can’t touch a football every now and then.
This is a time where the priority is put on getting strong, faster, and building a more resilient body. Since you already played to the sport coach’s favor asking them for SPP work earlier in the year, you’ve built a relationship where you can ask for their trust at this time of the year.
For the novice athlete, we’ve got that covered in Bedrock. Now, since it is the off-season, those Wednesday blocks that used to be SPP time could easily be switch to a game day. No, I’m not talking about Fortnite, I’m talking about school yard games. Tag, kickball, SpikeBall! All are great opportunities for your athletes to keep their competitive drive alive and move athletically. If you think this sounds too childish, think again.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing you need to emulate sport in training. But, utilize history as your example. Tried and true methods of strength and conditioning have been used for decades, well before weighted footballs and band-resisted jumps were even conceived. Stick to the basics, master the movements, and add a little bit of play time in your training. Do this, and you will be too busy helping your athletes navigate the college recruiting process to think of new ways to potentially mess them up.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.