Today’s guest blog is from Rob Panariello. Rob is an individual who has my deepest respect. Click here to read an interview I conducted with him a while back. What I really love most about Rob’s stories is the respect and reverence that he shared for his fellow strength coaches. It shines through in his writing. I’m really close to some of the strength coaches and professors out here in NZ so I can relate. Rob’s post today is on early specialization; a growing problem in the United States.Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS Professional Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy Professional Athletic Performance Center New York, New York
The lack of early age athletic “preparation” as well as the common occurrence of youth athletic “sports specialization” is presently an all too common theme in the United States. The dream of a college scholarship and perhaps an ensuing professional payday appears to often be the incentive for such early sport specialization. However, too early a sport specialization does have its consequences. An example of such a consequence is the 12-year-old baseball pitcher whom I recently rehabilitated after arthroscopic elbow surgery. According to his father “this young man is going to be the next Roger Clemens”. Obviously the father did not realize that throughout Roger Clemens athletic career, this Hall of Fame caliber pitcher never had elbow surgery. My time and experiences with this young athlete was my incentive to write this article.
The athletes of today live in a much different society than the athletes of decades past. The days of walking or riding a bicycle to one’s destination is often replaced with a car ride from parents, an arranged “carpool”, or perhaps a helping hand from a friend or neighbor. The advances in technology have provided us with the Internet, a venue for obtaining information effortlessly and provides an ease of multiple tasks as it is no longer necessary for one to leave their home as often to make a sales purchase, communicate with friends, travel to the public library, etc… and essentially producing instant gratification at one’s fingertips.
The days of sandlot competition and playground pick-up games have been frequently replaced with various video games played at home in a sedentary position. However, there are certainly millions of children, teenagers, and young adults that participate in athletic activities. Some of these young athletes partake with the aforementioned dream of their participation evolving as a gateway to a college scholarship and perhaps even an eventual professional occupation. Though the number of Americans that participate in some type of physical activity, and more specifically, the number of present day athletes who physically train with the goal of athletic enhancement is probably at an all time high, the question arises are these athletes prepared for the stresses of vigorous Athletic Performance Training as well as the enduring repetitive stresses that will occur over a long competitive season? Unlike the athletes of decades past, many of today’s adolescent and teenaged athletes are often sedentary when off the field of play, and many are of the mindset of “sport specialization”, meaning a significant percentage of these individual athletes participate in one specific sport and only that sport activity throughout the year (i.e. 24/7/365).
Each year an increased number of athletes (just like that 12 year old pitcher) walk through the doors of our physical therapy clinics with both performance training and athletic participation injuries. Many parents with whom I speak are of the opinion that the performance training as well as the organized athletic participation of these athletes is initiated at too young an age. I have had many conversations with a number of Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Coaches, many with whom I associate, and their opinion with regard to this subject matter is that prior to the initiation of the athletes performance training a “lack of physical preparation” occurs all too often. This opinion comprises athletes of all ages and levels of competition including those at both the college and professional level of play. Often times it is the athlete’s skills that render them successful, but it is their lack of physical preparation and at times, their lack of “athleticism” that may “set them up” so to speak, for potential injury.
At the time of the initiation of an athletic performance training program, many young athletes, and at times their coaches, are more concerned with the amount of weight the athlete can lift vs. the proper way to prepare to train. A common question a coach or teenage athlete may ask their peer is “How much can you bench?” vs. “What kind of training program do you utilize? “
If the present day young athlete is less physically active (sedentary) during the early developmental stages of life, and disregards the opportunity for their body, and more specifically the neuromuscular system of the body to adapt and develop from the experiences of the various environmental stresses that occur in a child’s life, are they less prepared at the time of the initiation of performance training and/or their selected sport of participation? If the physical stresses such as walking, running, bicycle riding, tree climbing, participation in various sports and physical activities, etc… occur less frequently or are even eliminated, in addition to elementary schools and physical education classes eliminating “dangerous” activities such as a schoolyard game of “tag”, or climbing ropes in the gym class, is the young athlete of today as physically well prepared as the young athlete of the past? Are today’s young athletes prepared to adapt to the high stresses that are applied to their body over a prolonged period of time without breaking down? Are college and professional athletes, whom are so specialized and demonstrate high skill levels for their particular sport of participation, also prepared for the high stresses of their off-season training program?
Skill vs. Athleticism
Many successful one-sport specialized athletes are very “skilled” at their particular sport of participation. Though a baseball player may have a .300 batting average, or a basketball player may make a high percentage of his/her shots, are these athletes flexible, strong, powerful, and fast? Is their conditioning and work capacity at optimal levels? Are they prepared for the training that hopefully will not only enhance their level of play, but also allow them to resist the stresses associated with athletic participation over a long season (avoid injury) while maintaining their ability to perform at an optimal level of performance time and time again?
There are also many athletes that display high levels of ‘athleticism”, but are not necessarily “skillful”. For example, an athlete with a superb vertical jump many not be a very good shooter of the basketball. A football player who displays excellent running velocity but demonstrates the inability to catch a football may be assigned to become a defensive back or with special teams. There is certainly a difference between “skill’ and “athleticism” and it would be a crucial mistake for a coach to not recognize the differences between these two physical entities. Our responsibility as S&C Coaches is to enhance the athleticism and work capacity of our athletes, as well as assist in injury prevention. The newly developed athletic “enhancement” will eventually transfer to result in optimal athletic “skill” performance as the athlete continues to practice their skills over time i.e. hit a baseball further. The S&C Coach is also responsible for the preparation of our athletes, when necessary, prior to their participation in a stressful performance training program, to ensure that the training is applicable, that athletic enhancement is achieved, that overall work capacity is enhanced, and that the reduction of a potential risk injury is attained. The coaches, and more specifically, the position coaches of the specific sport of participation are the individuals responsible for enhancing the specific skill(s) level of the athlete. Due to the distinct differences displayed in these two physical entities (skill vs. athleticism), a very highly skilled athlete may not be prepared for the task of strenuous athletic performance training, or for their long season of participation during athletic competition.
The Neuromuscular System of the Body
The significance of the nervous/neuromuscular system of the young athlete was very highly emphasized during my time studying in the Eastern Bloc. Many of the coaches and instructors stressed of how “plastic” the nervous system of an adolescent is, and how this system of the body could be “molded” during the athletes early years during the initiation of the process of “general physical preparation” (GPP) that would assist to result in the young individual becoming the best possible athlete that they themselves could come to be. In fact, these coaches and instructors stated that up to 57.5% of the physical qualities that are potentially developed over the athlete’s career (athletic life) occurred between the ages of 12 to 16. This information was further substantiated to me by Mr. Gregorio Goldstein, a former Soviet Weightlifter and Weightlifting Coach here in the U.S with whom my friend and at the time NFL New York Giant S&C Coach Johnny Parker and I studied with for approximately 5 years. Coach Goldstein also highly recommended, as the other Eastern bloc athletic enhancement authorities, the necessity for young athletes to participate in as many different athletic endeavors as possible. This participation was necessary to develop their nervous system, athleticism, and work capacity, prior to focusing on the specialization of their particular sport. This GPP also prepared the athlete for the high stresses of performance training to not only enhance the individual’s athletic performance, but to ensure the body’s resistance to these appropriately applied high stresses and reduce the risk and avoid possible injury. Even at the professional level of competition, Coach Goldstein recommended that the NY Giant football players participate in at least 250 to 300 hours of GPP annually.
Preparation for Athletic Performance Training
Prior to the initiation of any athletic performance training program, an evaluation of each athlete should be performed. If an evaluation were not performed, how would the coach possibly know of the deficiencies incurred by each athlete? The method of evaluation may be specific to the opinion and choice of each individual S&C Coach, but the utilization of some type of evaluative method is highly recommended. What is also recommended, if necessary, is a period of athletic performance training preparation. This preparation period of training will ensure that the athlete has achieved the necessary physical qualities of flexibility, muscle, tendon, and joint strength and stability, familiarization and the actual demonstration by the athlete of the proper exercise technique of those to be performed during the training program, as well as the enhancement of the athletes overall general physical conditioning and work capacity.
Preparation for the Training of the Adolescent Athlete
During the yearly training of the adolescent athlete, as previously stated, this young individual should participate and perform in as many different athletic sports and activities as possible. However, the total avoidance of specialization training is also not recommended. The emphasis is placed on GPP vs. sport specialization for a superior variety of stresses applied to the body for eventual adaptation by the athletes neuromuscular system in an attempt to “create” an overall better athlete. The preparation (GPP) vs. specialization guidelines for the adolescent through the early teenage years of training may be reviewed in Table 1.
The appropriate progressive and repetitive practice by the athlete of their actual sports skills performed over time, will support the transfer of these enhanced neuromuscular qualities resulting in an “overall” superior athlete.
Adolescent athletes will initially utilize body weight exercises (i.e. push-ups, pull-ups, squats, etc…) and medicine ball activities during their training program. Rubber bands and other implements may be used to assist in unloading the athlete during the performance of specific exercise activities such as pull-ups, if the athlete cannot perform these types of exercises with their full body weight. When appropriate wooden dowels, PVC pipe, and lightweight bars may be utilized to assist the “eye of the coach” to ensure that proper exercise technique is maintained and/or improved while the application of these additional light intensities will continue to enhance the appropriate amount of applied “stress” for the athletes adaptation from the exercises performed.
Preparation for the Training of the “Older” Athlete
As a S&C Coach begin their work with the “older” (i.e. high school, college, professional) athlete, the biological age and sports skill experience of the individual athlete may not correlate to the same level of athleticism or physical condition/work capacity of these same athletes. These differences, if presented, are undoubtedly a consideration and will certainly have an influence during the planned course of applied stress of performance training for the desired outcome of optimal athletic development. Over the years during multiple conversations with S&C Coaches, and more specifically my friends Al Vermeil, Johnny Parker and Al Miller, I have heard time and time again how often the professional athletes they have worked with were not prepared to train. They have stated how frequently they have had to physically “prepare” many of their professional athletes prior to allowing the athlete participate in their professional teams the off-season S&C program. This is not to insinuate that the athlete’s previous S&C Coach was a poor coach. This is simply stating that at the time the athlete arrived to participate in the team’s off-season S&C program, they were not physically prepared, in the opinion of these coaches, to partake in the teams strenuous off-season training program. We have also had this same experience with some of the college and professional athletes we train at our Performance Center, as this was also often the case during my 10 years as the Head S&C Coach at St. John’s University.
The necessity of an athletes physical “preparation” is especially true of those specific high school, college, and professional athletes that have participated and completed a course of physical rehabilitation prior to their arrival for participation in an Athletic Performance Enhancement Training Program.
I have often heard at lectures, or during my conversations with other S&C Coaches that they don’t have the time to “prepare” the higher level athlete for their off-season athletic performance training program. This “preparation” would take away from the valuable training time that is necessary for the athlete’s actual participation in the specific off-season training program. Many of these coaches have been of the opinion that the athlete should participate in the same off-season program as their teammates, as the athlete will either adapt or not adapt i.e. “sink or swim” during the training process. The obvious response by many coaches would be how could a coach not spend the time to preparing the athlete?
As an example, during the 1980’s Coach Goldstein spent a significant amount of time teaching both Coach Parker and I the value of the overhead squat as both an evaluation and performance training tool. Al Vermeil substantiated this information when he expressed the importance of the overhead squat to me during a conversation that occurred in 1990. If the S&C coach utilizes the overhead squat as an evaluative tool, and a particular athlete demonstrates poor exercise technique, why would an S&C coach apply inappropriately high intensities to the athlete during squat exercise performance when the athlete had previously demonstrated such a poor squat performance? Should an athlete that demonstrates limited shoulder range of motion or poor thoracic mobility be stressed inappropriately and instructed to perform the overhead press or the snatch? Is it reasonable for an S&C Coach to prescribe excessive and inappropriate specific exercise intensity and/or volume when deficits in specific physical qualities and work capacity have been demonstrated? This is especially true when one would consider that these improperly performed exercises (poor technique) are to be performed repeatedly over time where both increases in exercise volumes and intensities will be applied as usually prescribed in any athletes training program design.
Preparation for training of the higher level athlete probably does not occur as often as we would assume. Yet it is very simply achieved in a fairly short period of time. Utilizing methods such as Javorek’s complexes, where an athlete will perform a “cycle” of 5-6 exercises in immediate succession for 6 to 8 reps per exercise and eventually complete 4-6 cycles in a training session is a very effective training method to establish the necessary exercise range of motion (flexibility), muscle and joint strength and stability, familiarity of the exercise performance (technique), and enhance the overall work capacity of the athlete. Initiating the exercise complex at 25% body weight and eventually achieving 40% body weight, as well as instituting activities such as medicine ball and running tempo, etc… depending upon the individual athlete, the GPP may take a total of 2 to 4 weeks to achieve. At that time the athlete will be well prepared for the advanced yet appropriate exercise volumes and intensities required of an off-season performance enhancement training program.
Considerations based upon the athlete’s biological and training (experience) age, athleticism, training experience, and evaluation test results will assist, when necessary, in the program development and prescribed exercise selection to be utilized by the athlete to prepare them prior to the initiation of their performance enhancement training program. Although many of these off-season athletic enhancement training programs may differ, what is certain is that often “preparation” of the athlete is essential to ensure optimal training success. There are coaches with the opinion that they do not have the necessary time to prepare the athlete for off-season training. These coaches will unfortunately likely find that that the athlete will lose that preparation time and perhaps an even greater amount of time when during the training period, the athlete performs poorly, breaks down, and is possibly injured. There is an old saying that states “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later”. We as S&C Coaches should determine the best time to write the check.
Bret, thanks for hosting Rob, and thank you Rob for writing this piece. I found the recount (and results) of your time in the Eastern Bloc particularly useful as I try to balance my two sons’ training for various sports in high school.
I have always encouraged athleticism over specialized skill for a few reasons: First, I have no illusions that my kids will further their sports endeavors to a professional level; I would rather they experience a full spectrum of pursuits now that hopefully translate into an active adulthood. Second, though there are some, most kids do not enjoy drilling skills that emphasize only a few outcomes, and I have my suspicions that well-meaning coaches have no idea how or when this repetitive motion begins to damage growing bodies. Finally, I remember vividly that most of the active sports players from my school days graduated only to gain a frightening amount of weight very quickly. They had trained (and been encouraged by coaches to do so) for their “skill”, not for athleticism that fostered general health. When their skill was no longer required they were left without any idea how to translate their desire for activity into an athletic pursuit. I know this doesn’t pertain to truly gifted young athletes who will pursue their sport at a collegiate/pro level but let’s face it, 99% of the kids we know are not in this catagory – my condolences to all you overzealous parents.
If you are taking questions I’d be interested in hearing both of your thoughts on heavy weight training for high school age boys and girls. Are you of the mind that after the initial testosterone/estrogen rush it is safe to lift heavy?
How has no one responded to this yet? Loved it. Very similar to James Smith’s write up over at Juggernaut Training Systems.
Great post! Brett, thanks for allowing him to post. Question for both of you guys….how would you train a group of high school soccer players? I have my own ideas but would love to hear some opinions from the experts first! 🙂
Jeff, this would require an entire book, but in general, do mobility/activation work, power/speed/agility work, strength work, and conditioning work. They need it all. Ensure good form and proper progression. -BC
In addition to what Bret has stated I am of the belief that you need a good aerobic base to enhance anaerobic abilities. I also would develop optimal levels of elastic strength (this starts with a good strength base) as it has been demonstrated that high levels of elastic strength are not only important for speed/power type activities i.e. sprinting,kicking, but just as improtantlyimproves the body’s/muscle economy during prolonged (endurance type) activities as well.
Believe me….aerobics is definitely part of our program. What would you recommend for elastic strength exercises?
A good strength base is a prerequisite prior to the (focus)development of elastic strength qualities. This is to ensure that appropriate levels of muscle and joint “stiffness” are present, which are necessary for the optimal development of elastic strength qualities. One of the most common methods utilized to develop elastic strength is the incorporation of plyometric activities. Just be sure that your program design progresses from low to high stress activities as well as an appropriately prescribed exercise volume (foot contacts) for the level of athletes with whom you are working.
Thanks Brett! I have implemented many of those techniques within our practice/weight training sessions. I make it a point that every athlete keeps track of their workouts and sets proper goals. Now all we need is for the “Glute Guy” himself to come help us out! 🙂
Echo and Anthony,
Thank you both for your kind words. Echo, with regard to your question re: the high school athlete lifting heavy weights, in my opinion hormone levels are only one consideration. I certainly do not believe in the application of very heavy intensities to the skeletally immature athlete. Also remember that young American athletes are of a different culture (preparation) vs. the young athletes of the Eastern bloc, China, etc….
I believe the real ability (talent) of the coach is utilized during the training of athletes at this age. This is where “teaching” is critical. Instruction as well as the athlete’s demonstration of proper exercise performance technique is critical prior to the advancement of exercise intensity and volume. The individual physical “maturity” of the athlete, body structure (i.e. ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph, anthropometric measures), the athlete’s sex, biological and training age, etc…) are just a few of the parameters to consider. All will have an effect on coaching ability and exercise performance.
Once the athlete can demonstrate proper exercise performance technique and work capacity, a safe and appropriate increase in exercise intensity may be applied. However, one consideration I have found that is often ignored is the question of how strong does the athlete have to be vs. how much weight can the athlete lift? Does your 15 year old baseball player who swings a 29-30 ounce bat and throws a 5.5 ounce baseball have to squat twice their body weight? Yet a 15 year old football lineman or 16 year old shot-putter may need to lift, and may safely lift heavier weights vs. the baseball player. If you consistently coach and observe, you will know when exercise intensities are starting to become excessive. If you are not sure, err to the conservative side of your consideration.
I am also of the opinion that during the application of athletic enhancement exercise prescription, exercise volumes are not as carefully critiqued as they should be. Excessive exercise volumes, over time, will result in an undesirable high level of physical fatigue. Excessive fatigue will negatively affect the position of various anatomical structures during exercise performance as well as a change in the overall biomechanics of exercise performance. Some examples demonstrated in the research include but is not limited to the superior migration of the humeral head in the glenoid, changes in scapula position, changes in hip position and stride lengths during sport (i.e. pitching, tennis serving) and running activities, as well as decreased application of force into the ground surface area. Similar changes also occur in the weight room. When excessive exercise volumes are prescribed and the athlete is injured, the blame will then be placed on the exercise performed, i.e. back squat, overhead press, etc…
I have also found that since high school females “mature” before the males, considerations of exercise performance from the waist down to the feet, the females usually can perform the same appropriate exercise volumes as their male counterparts, although the exercise intensities will usually differ.
Just my opinion
Really thrilled to get your take on this since evidence of “hormone rush” is all that the wrestling coach, football coach, and track coach have told me they take into consideration. Along with those three I am also forwarding this to the one school training coordinator that they share as he is responsible for developing programs for spring training, summer maintenance camps, and pre-season training (I hope he pays particular attention to your statements regarding volume and intensity). Thanks so much; wishing you continued success.
Thanks the same to you. Just don’t be surprised if they don’t agree.
Always enjoy hearing your thoughts. They are sensible and grounded in the basics which, contrary to what some try to sell us, haven’t been re-invented and have stood the test of time. You never seem to lose sight of the big picture( a la Charlie Francis ) and have re-affirmed my belief that, while loading more weight on the bar may be good from a strength standpoint, the accumulation of stress may tell us otherwise.
A few questions come to mind and here’s two:
1. What are your thoughts on the often quoted stat that agility and co-ordination are set in stone by the age of 12 and that attempts to develop them beyond the age of 12 is a waste of time?
2. Last I heard, in Massachusetts only 5% of athletes who play a particular sport in high school go on to play it in college which, to me, implies that most athletes’ competitive moments in the sun are over by the age of 18. My subsequent realization is that specialization should occur at some point if one is to optimize genetic potential. Do you have any thoughts or guidelines on who should specialize and when should they?
Thanks for your kind words. As far as your questions we could speak for hours but I’ll do my best to be as succinct as I can.
1. I am of the opinion that agility and coordination are not set in stone by the age of 12. I do believe the statement in the article that 57.5% of physical qualities for the “athlete’s life” occur between the ages of 12 – 16. I believe this because the athlete has the ability/does continue to demonstrate improved physical qualities such as strength, elastic strength, speed, power, work capacity, etc…. after the age of 12, do they not? I also believe that agility, like any type of ground reactive task, is the ability of the athlete to put the greatest amount of force into the ground surface area, in the shortest possible time period possible, for that specific task. Athletes also improve their ability to perform a skill with repetitive skill practice over prolonged periods of time. In a recent discussion with Derek Hansen, I know that both he and Charlie Francis were of the opinion that they did not “train” cutting abilities often. Charlie’s opinion was if you could produce an increase in the physical parameters necessary to enhance linear velocity, since these same physical parameters are necessary for the enhancement of cutting (agility) and we’re using the same nervous system of the body, then wouldn’t enhancing linear velocity also enhance an athlete’s ability to change direction?
In my opinion improvements in agility and coordination will continue even for an athlete in their 20’s. The question is, is this improvement due to the enhancement of ‘athleticism” or a “skill”. So as an example, an athlete prepares for the 5-10-5 of an NFL combine. In doing so and practicing this “event” they lower their time. There are some that may be of the opinion that the athlete improved their athleticism because they became more agile and thus lowered their 5-10-5 time. There are others who would state that through repetitive practice of the performance of the “skill” of the 5-10-5, the performance time was decreased. The belief of this “skill” opinion is due to the additional belief that although demonstrated performance improvement in NFL combine training will allow the athlete to make more money (i.e. raise their stock so to speak), is there any carry over to the performance (athleticism) on the actual field of play i.e. we don’t perform a 5-10-5 on the field of play.
The answer is probably a combination of both enhanced athleticism along with an enhanced skill set. The question is the best way to do this, and in my opinion, it is briefly described in the article I wrote for this “blog”.
2. Yes this is true. An athlete is going from a larger pool of opportunity to a smaller one (there are less pro teams than colleges and less colleges than high schools in the U.S.) But going back to question 1, I can assure you that at my time with all of the teams I coached at, especially St. John’s University, we had plenty of high school kids come in that were supposed to be the star of the team. So many didn’t make it for several reasons. We also had some pretty good kids that did wind up being “stars” as they improved to unexpected levels of performance during their time in college. The same is true of the Pro teams I coached and my time with Coach Parker and later Coach Miller with the NFL NY Giants. Some big school draft picks did not fair too well. Guys like Dave Megget who went to a small school became stars. One thing I do know for sure, all of the athletes mentioned in this discussion were over the age of 12.
As far as the second part of this question re:”specialization”, I am of the opinion that you always include some type of specialization (see table 1) with your athletes because they have to play the game. You just wouldn’t perform various running drills throughout the year and not have the kid run in a race would you? The question is how much time is spent in preparation, athleticism, and skill training? The answer to me is always the same; it depends upon the performance of the athlete under the coach’s eye. The “eye of the coach” is what coaching is. We need to coach and advance our athletes based on our opinions of their performance. Isn’t it a similar “talent” so to speak when training athleticism i.e. determining when to add weight to a bar, when to advance a drill or add a new exercise, as a coach also has to determine the advancement of individual “specialization” training as well i.e. advancement of skills? The problem that often occurs is that the “athleticism” coach and the “specialization” coach are usually 2 different people often resulting in a “conflict” so to speak, of training.
Last but not least and once again in my opinion, elite athletes “pick their parents well”. There is no substitution for genetics. For example we as coaches can certainly enhance the elastic strength levels of our athletes to a certain extent, but the fastest athletes, highest jumpers, etc… in the world just have the genetics to put them in that class. As Johnny Parker used to tell me you can supe up a Chevy but it’ll never be a stock Rolls Royce.
Again just my opinion, sorry so long.
Once again thank you Bret, the quality of the material is always first class and even better, thought provoking. Not the “this is the only way to achieve x,y and z’ epidemic that is sweeping the fitness and s+c communities.
Many thanks to Rob for writing this piece and also the responses to the q+a. Worthy of a read on their own.
Great stuff guys, many thanks
Thank you for your kind comments.
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