Prior to opening OA, I only worked with Collegiate and Professional Athletes who rarely, if ever had these issues. However, for the past 4 years or so, I have worked with numerous middle school and high school athletes who started out with a lot of the problems listed below. I’d like to share some of the things I have seen over that time that hinder their performance output on the field, court, mat, and ice.
1. Can’t do basic movements
This is a big issue, and unfortunately one of the most prevalent. Young athletes need to LEARN how to move, not just be told to go from point A to point B. When you ask a young athlete to shuffle, sprint, jump, or change direction you can not expect perfection if they have never learned how to do those things!
I believe this responsibility falls squarely on the sport coaches shoulders, and to a lesser extent the parents’ (See #4 and #5). A foundation must be built when it comes to the movement of a young athlete. Sadly, I rarely see one who moves properly, and must address that when I work with new athletes. Here are some of the most prevalent issues (and fixes) I have encountered.
Issue: Hips not low enough
Fix: This could be a few things. Athletes who stand up too tall when moving generally are too weak to keep a low, athletic stance for more than a few seconds. Strengthen the low back, glutes, hamstrings, quads and trunk to keep posture. I like movements like the squat, lunge, step-up, back extension, and reverse hyperextension to fix the strength issue. Further, we perform monster walks (with and without bands) to increase the muscular endurance of the athletic stance.
Issue: “Bounces” instead of pushing off the ground.
Fix: I use the analogy of the movie “Fast and the Furious”. When the car is speeding and goes off a jump and is in the air with the wheels turning fast, is it getting faster or slower? The answer is slower! The same principle applies to shuffling feet. If you are pushing off vertically when shuffling instead of pushing off laterally you will be getting slower. Notice how one of the NBA’s great defenders Scottie Pippen shuffles. Hips low with power lateral strides!
Issue: Not taking long strides or keeping a forward lean
Fix: Many athletes don’t understand the value in acceleration in sports. Top end speed rarely matters in team sports, but acceleration does! Athletes must be instructed to never stand upright when accelerating and to take long, powerful strides instead of short choppy ones! An athlete must also have the strength to exert the horizontal force to accelerate so make sure to keep up with the strength exercises listed previously!
Issue: Sprinting with flailing arms and shoulders or a rounded back
Fix: Athletes should always run with arms at 90 degrees, relaxed shoulders and hands, and a flat back. Generally the arm, shoulder, and hand issue can be fixed with the following drill and the flat back may need to be corrected through strength/posture training.
Issue: Not jumping with your arms
Fix: Surprisingly I see a lot of young athletes jump without using their arms, or jump using their arms but throwing them down instead of up. Not only is this important to help jump higher, but rarely will an athlete jump without using their arms!
Issue: Inability to absorb force when landing
Fix: Many young athletes are too weak to absorb the force from jumping when landing and are slowed because of it. Again, strengthening the entire body and also teaching an athlete to absorb force is important here. Focus on strengthening the “weak link” here. Some may be able to handle the force with their glutes, quads, and hamstrings but not their lower back or vice versa.
Issues: Not taking stutter/deceleration steps
Fix: Many times athletes will jump or “float” into a cut/change of direction. While this will make one slower, it also puts a tremendous amount of force on the knee as well. Unfortunately many sport (and even some strength) coaches do not understand this and don’t teach the proper mechanics. Make sure athletes know how to keep the hips low and take stutter steps when changing direction. Further, many times the inability to decelerate fast is due to poor eccentric strength in an athletes lower body. Be sure to focus on the eccentric portion (lowering) of lifts at times as well as the concentric (raising)!
2. Gets away with cheating
Unfortunately, our society keeps getting softer and softer. From participation trophies, players being given their starting spots (due to parents donations, angry emails, etc) instead of earning them, and allowing losing to be “ok”, parents and coaches have given improper ideals.
Too often I hear of coaches who would rather their athletes be comfortable and happy than getting better. I see athletes who come to the gym who’ve gotten away with improper pushups, or pullups their entire life, who don’t run through the line, and who quit when they are tired. Those athletes coaches have failed them! Young or old, athletes need to be pushed to see what limits they can reach that their mind did not believe possible before. When you push through pain, you discover your mind is much stronger and that there is “more in you” this breeds confidence and confidence breeds success on the field/court/mat/ice. Furthermore, I believe it goes beyond the playing field and teaches the young athlete valuable life lessons. I can say that in all my years of coaching I have noticed that the athletes who are babied by their parents/coaches are the worst ones.
Fix:Iron Sharpens Iron. Make sure your athletes are around coaches and teammates who take pride in what they do and don’t cut corners.
3. Doesn’t have any relative strength
Unfortunately this needs to be addressed although it shouldn’t be. If your child cannot do a pushup, pullup, or squat without looking like he/she is having a seizure, then mark my words…they will suck at sports! Athletes of all kinds need a high level of relative strength in order to be strong, lean, fast, and powerful.
Fix: Do your body weight exercises! I give all of my athletes “homework” when they first come to my gym. Any athlete who would like to graduate to the next level must first develop a baseline strength level in bodyweight exercises.
4. Specializes too early.
Look, I get it. Every parent wants their child to be the next Michael, Tiger, Kobe, or Jordan Burroughs, and they want it now. Too bad though. Studies, both anecdotal and scientific have shown that the best athletes peak in high school/college, not grade school! 2 studies (Harre, 1982; Nagorni, 1978) examining youth athletes over long periods of time found that the ones who specialized in one sport and peaked at a young age, rarely kept that level up and were eventually passed up by their multi-sport playing counterparts. Furthermore, the instances of overuse injury and burnout were far greater in the early specializer’s.
Need more proof? In a great blog post (1) by Elsbeth Vaino, she noted that out of the top 10 athletes in each of the 4 major sports leagues, only 7 out of the 40 did not play another sport. If it’s good enough for Kobe (soccer), Lebron(football), Adrian Peterson(track), and Sidney Crosby(baseball)…it should be good enough for your kid.
Fix: Give your child the opportunity to play multiple sports. Generalize at an early age and specialize in high school and beyond when it actually matters. Lay a solid foundation filled with numerous movement patterns, general strength, and a love for the sport they play. Besides, when was the last time a 12 year old was offered a college scholarship?
5. Parents’ desire encourages over-training/burnout.
‘Just because you’re good at something does that mean you have to do it?’ -Todd Marinovich
Too often I see parents’ who want their children to succeed in sport so much that there is a tremendous pressure on them. In fact, at OA Athletics, and many other club sports facilities, parents are not allowed to watch their children practice due to that fact. When young athletes carry the burden of pressure and success their parents put on them at such a young age, many times they will crack.
Marv Marinovich was the definition of an overbearing father. His son, Todd, was bred to play football the minute he was born. From only feeding him vegetables, fruits, and raw milk, to stretching his hamstrings before he could walk, Marv Marinovich did all he could to ensure his son would be the next big thing in football and he was…for a brief period of time.
Todd made it to USC as a starting QB, and even played in the NFL for the Raiders, both teams his father had played for as well. Unfortunately, his career was cut short due to drug use. In the documentary “The Marinovich Project”, Todd speaks about the intense pressure on him to be the athlete he was molded to be, and ultimately how it played a large part in his inability to fulfill those ideals.
Fix: Don’t treat your child like the Russian in the movie Rocky. Give him/her a few weeks away from sport every year and give them the opportunity to play multiple sports as well. Let THEM love their sport and want to succeed in it, not you.
Every athlete is different. Some work too hard and need time off, while some don’t know what hard work is, and need to be pushed. The most important years as an athlete are NOT elementary and middle school. Let your young athletes enjoy playing sports and getting better at them instead of trying to turn them into a machine.