The Importance of Preseason Training
Training in the months prior to the start of a sports season is critical to an athlete's success, no matter how old or how advanced the athlete. In addition to the physical advantages an athlete will gain, a successful preseason strength and conditioning program prevents short- and long-term injury. A study on preventing adolescent sport injuries, based on a review of 154 clinical papers, concluded that preseason conditioning and education are vital in preventing injuries in youth athletes.1
Coaches of all youth sports at all levels must educate players on proper off-season training and preparation for the season, emphasizing the need for effective training regimens. However, maintaining a balance between work and rest is crucial throughout the year, as coaches cannot risk overtraining their young athletes, which may have a detrimental effect on an athlete's performance and health.
Athletes who neglect off-season training put tremendous strain on their bodies once practices have commenced, making injuries such as tendonitis and muscle strains, as well as heat-related illnesses, very common. Many injuries occurring during the first weeks of practice stem from inadequate preseason preparation.
Preparing Athletes for Success
Off-season and in-season training vary from sport to sport and through various levels. While the human body is tremendously resilient, pushing a body—especially one that is young and not fully developed—beyond what it can handle can have significant short- and long-term consequences. To avoid over-training young athletes, follow the simple 10 percent rule: Do not increase weight, training activity, mileage or pace by more than 10 percent a week.2 This prevents stressing the body beyond capacity by allowing it to rest, rebuild, and recover. In fact, increasing training intensity too quickly can actually lead to a decrease in aerobic capacity.
When designing an off-season training regimen, the ultimate goal is preventing injury and bringing athletes to peak performance levels. While different sports and ages require different approaches, the central idea is making improvements gradually, remembering the 10 percent rule. As a general guideline, it should take an athlete six to eight weeks of training to safely reach optimal performance for an upcoming season.
For all sports, focus on improving core stability and balance first. A sound core and optimal balance is crucial to controlling and stabilizing the limbs. An example of this would be growing a strong trunk to support the limbs of a tree.
Next, focus on improving overall cardiovascular fitness and endurance, focusing on long duration and low intensity workouts. Even if the sport is primarily anaerobic, an athlete with a strong cardiovascular status will advance faster when training for aerobic/high-explosion activities. Remember, in youth and high school athletics we are training the total athlete, not just athletes for an individual sport. Coaches should have a strong understanding of what is and is not needed for training healthy athletes.
A Coaches Dozen: Twelve FUNdamental principles for building young and healthy athletes.3
1. Remember: young athletes are not mini-adults
2. Value preparatory conditioning
3. Avoid sport specialization before adolescence and preferably not before late high school
4. Enhance physical literacy, such as fundamental skills
5. Realize it's better to under-train than over-train
6. Focus on positive feedback
7. Maximize recovery: stretch, cool down, hydrate, eat a nutritious diet, and relax
8. Remind athletes that it is not what you take, it is what you do
9. Get connected: listen to the athlete
10. Make a long-term commitment to safe practices
11. Maintain open communication: there are no secrets
12. Never stop learning
Sports are meant to be fun while facilitating the social development of our youth. Over-training can burn children out quickly, stripping them of the enjoyment associated with sports for years to come. Coaches and parents should attempt to instill that winning is not everything and instead inspire the enjoyment of physical activity and the camaraderie associated with being part of a team.
Warming Up for Play
The years of watching players lying down and counting off their static stretches before practice are over. More and more teams around the country are correctly introducing dynamic warm-ups to their pre-practice and pre-game routines. Recent studies conclude that static stretching (stretching that is held for ten or more seconds) does not reduce the risk of injury.4 Furthermore, studies conclude that static stretching prior to competition actually decreases athletic performance in highly explosive movements such as sprinting and jumping.5 6 This has led teams of all levels to incorporate dynamic stretching and plyometric activity into their warm-up routine.
Dynamic stretches facilitate movements similar to those during play and target muscle groups as they relate to specific sport movements. In addition to raising muscular tissue temperature in the body and increasing blood flow, dynamic stretching activates the nervous system, preparing the body for movements performed during play.7 Plyometrics is a system of exercise in which the muscles are rapidly and repeatedly stretched and contracted for optimal function.
Common dynamic and plyometric exercises include the following:
- Warm-up: 1/2-speed jog, 3/4-speed jog, backwards jog and karaoke
- Mild jog with high knees, skipping, butt kicks, and reaching to toes
- Lunges with twist and walking quad stretch
- Crawling calf stretch
- Simulating 3/4-speed sport-specific activities (plyometrics), such as bounding, hopping, and diagonal cutting
Coaches must constantly adapt and research dynamic warm-up routines that will be most effective for their athletes and sports.
Coaches and athletes often sacrifice cooling down properly after practices and games. Taking an extra 15 minutes after play to statically stretch will speed the recovery process, lengthen muscles, and improve muscular range of motion.8 As dynamic stretches are beneficial prior to play, static stretching is effective for cooling down properly.
Athletes also should continue to drink plenty of fluids after play. Drinking water or other sports drinks 20 minutes after physical activity will help the body recover and recharge, as well as avoid potential heat illness.
Coaches should emphasize the importance of warming up and cooling down properly. Warming up effectively will not only prevent injury, but also dramatically improve performance during play, while static stretching after play has been proven to be highly beneficial in helping muscle recovery. By following these practices, coaches will greatly reduce injury, increase performance, and keep our children in the game for life.