Damany Taylor, Senior Performance Coach overseeing Student ATHlete at ATH-North Houston
Ty Hill, Senior Performance Coach overseeing Student ATHlete at ATH-Allen
In the world of youth sports performance, there is much confusion around what sports performance training looks like. For some athletes and parents of athletes, it resembles a sport practice with drills that incorporates the sport-specific equipment, rules and game scenarios. For skills that resemble sport, we can consider them sport-specific.
As sports performance coaches, a different type of training is often employed. This may look like sprinting and technical speed drills, agility and strength training. These skills would be an example of non sport-specific training.
So the question then becomes, which style of sports performance training should youth athletes participate in, sport-specific training or non sport-specific training? While both are important to the overall success of the athlete, the goal here is to understand why non sport-specific training is beneficial and actually compliments sport-specific training.
The following sections will go through why non-sport-specific training holds just as much, if not more value than sport-specific training by explaining the athletic abilities that give athletes an advantage, downside of early specialization, and the upside of early variety.
Athletic Abilities That Gives Athletes An Advantage
When people describe a great athlete, they use words like fast, quick, explosive, strong, etc. These adjectives could describe an athlete in a variety of different sports, ranging from football to golf. When analyzing the different sports that athletes play, there are a ton of overlapping athletic qualities. Explosiveness, linear speed, change of direction speed, ability to move in a variety of ways, strength, power and endurance are all athletic qualities that give an athlete an advantage.
Let’s take a look at soccer and baseball for instance, from an equipment and goal standpoint these two sports are extremely different. In soccer, the goals are to defend the offensive player/ball, dribble, pass and/or shoot the ball, and it is played with your feet only. While the goals in baseball include using a bat to make contact with the ball, catching the ball in the glove, throwing the ball and running the bases.
But when you compare the two sports from a speed standpoint, the sports have similar speed requirements. Both sports require linear speed – in baseball when running to the bases or chasing a ball in the outfield and in soccer when running to steal a pass or cut the offensive player off. They also require change of direction speed – fielding a ground ball in baseball or trying to steal the ball from an offensive player that is attempting to evade in soccer. In this example, we can clearly see how that non-sport-specific training would hold tremendous value for either of these athletes despite them playing two completely different sports. In fact, many sport-specific skills can be traced directly back to a base of non-sport-specific skills.
In addition, we can assess the athletic advantage of being able to move in a variety of ways. Sports don’t only require us to move front and back or side to side but we also have to be able to move rotationally. So when we take two sports like swimming and golf, both of which again have two totally different goals, we can still train both athletes non-sport-specifically. The swimming athlete needs proper rotational movement patterns in order to get to the next stroke efficiently while the golfer needs proper rotational movement patterns in order for their power to translate to the ball.
Strength is crucial. Strength is the foundation on which all of the other athletic qualities, such as speed and power, are built from. Strength is vital no matter what the sport is. A good amount of the foundational strength that you get from non-sport-specific training is not attainable without this strength training. Strength plays a huge role in injury prevention and nothing is worse than an athlete having to sit out because of injury. Having said that, there’s no doubt that strength is an important quality for any athlete to have despite the sport.
Downside Early Specialization
Every athlete wants an advantage in their sport. Oftentimes, the drive to increase performance on the field or court leads to playing for school teams, club teams and private lessons. Youth athletes are starting to play their sports as if that was their job, with parents playing the role of a manager/ agent to the athletes. This year-round, job-like play can be great and keep the athlete “busy and out of trouble,” but it can also lead to burnout from the athlete that used to love the sport. By the time the athlete gets to what should be their peak performance, they could be burnt out from the 10+ years of playing, or even worse – could get injured.
Let's look into baseball and soccer again. Both are sports that tend to specialize early and have seasons that are played year-round. The average professional athlete retires before the age of 30 to 35. Let's say a youth athlete starts playing competitively year-round sports at age fourteen, or once they reach freshman year of high school (which for many sports this would be considered a late start). Assuming the athlete makes it to a professional level and plays a “full career” (sport dependent), that athlete would be playing for at least 16 years. If the athlete starts playing competitively at ten, that is over 20 years of competitively playing a sport. That is longer than most adults stay with a career. For most people, fifteen to twenty years of doing anything could easily lead to burnout, much less that long of a highly competitive and stressful environment.
At Athlete Training and Health, we do not do sport-specific training so that we can avoid burnout and encourage long-term athletic development. As opposed to sport-specific training, we believe in training total athleticism and non-sport-specific training. If an athlete only trains movement related to their sole sport, that opens the door to overuse injuries, boredom and burnout. Our long-term athletic development model is geared for athletes of all ages. Whether they are starting at eight or sixteen years old, we have a science-based training system for them to be able to supplement their sport at a world-class level.
Advantages of Early, Non-Sport-Specific Training
The more exposure to a wide variety of motor skills an athlete can have early in their development, the greater skill they will carry forward after their maturation. Furthermore, with the development of a higher level of competency and confidence youth athletes are more likely to stay active longer throughout their adulthood. We track maturation by looking at peak height velocity (PHV). PHV occurs during an athlete's growth spurt, and is the timeframe in which growth rate is the highest outside of the first years of life.
Our youth training is broken up into 3 sections:
- Pre-adolescence (pre-PHV, 8-12 years old) which is before the growth spurt
- Mid adolescence (mid-PHV, 12-14 years old) which occurs in the middle of the growth spurt
- Late adolescence (post-PHV, 14-18 years old) at the tail end of the growth spurt
The younger the athlete is, the more malleable and plastic-like the brain is, which allows for the faster uptake of new skills. As people age that plasticity has been shown to diminish.
Finally, exclusive to ATH, each youth training group has a different training focus to support the maturation process and give ample exposure to different movements and skills. Our pre-adolescence groups are lower structured with a very wide variety of movements to support neural plasticity. Our mid and late-adolescence groups are more structured to reinforce and progress training.
Non-sport-specific skills are those that do not directly mimic sporting skills, however, are applicable from a performance standpoint. These skills are important for the growth and development of the athlete and help to enhance athletic performance by giving the youth athlete a more well-rounded base of skills to build upon as they age. In fact, many sport-specific skills can be traced back to a fundamental motor skill base.
Youth athletes that have a more well-rounded set of skills are more likely to play multiple sports and develop a higher level of athleticism that will last throughout their entire lifetime. Our coaches at ATH are well-versed in pediatric motor skill development and our programs are designed to fit a wide range of athletes and skill levels.
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