USA vs. World – Advantage World?

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U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A!!!

You can almost hear the cheers coming from London!

You’ve no doubt watched a little of the Olympics this year, I hope. The spectacle that is the Olympic Games is certainly a site to behold; with all its triumphs and tragedies, its tears of victory and cries of defeat, it’s the culmination or crumbling of a life’s work right before our very eyes. The Olympics engender emotion rarely produced by any sporting event. As much emotion and appreciation as we have for these moments, I question if the majority of us truly understand what went into making them possible.

As a strength coach that works with countless athletes I have a unique perspective on the Olympics, even though I’ve never worked with an Olympian (at least not yet). I understand the tens of thousands of hours of practice, and the millions upon millions of reps that go into these seemingly effortless performances. I fully get the all-encompassing nature of high level athletics. I know the effort the athletes put forth, because I’m the taskmaster. I’m the one that directs the effort. I’m the one that expects the total time commitment of a near-full time job from my elite athletes.

One of the other perspectives I truly understand from working with high level athletes is the thought that we might be getting it wrong in this country in terms of our athlete development. Now I know this may seem blasphemous and unpatriotic to say DURING the Olympics, but the Olympics do provide me a logical springboard to talk about something that is one of my biggest pet-peeves about sport in America.

One of the hot topics of research and discussion contemporarily in strength and conditioning is long-term athlete development. That is, how you identify athletic ability, foster it, train it, nurture it, and maximize it to its full potential.

The rest of the world does a fairly good job with this. Say what you will about communist countries from a governmental perspective, but they have long-term athlete development down to a science. In fact, we still use training principles and schemes developed in the 50’s and 60’s by Soviet Block exercise scientists and coaches. Studying these systems, as well as a lot of other countries around the world tells me one thing about our athlete development model in America – we get it wrong!

Now I’m not saying we don’t have great athletes, and I’m not saying we can’t compete at a high level on the international stage. In fact, far from it, we have such a talented athlete pool in this country, and so many resources to train them with; we excel, we compete, and we win. But could we do better, absolutely! Are we doing a disservice to our athletes the way we do things now, no doubt. For every Michael Phelps or Carl Lewis, there are millions of other athletes that don’t make it, but could they?

Now what am I saying here? I’m saying we have the wrong emphasis in this country on developing an athlete from a young age. From the first time our young athletes put on a uniform they’re taught to win, and win now. Now don’t get me wrong, I like fostering competition, I think it teaches great life lessons, but I think there’s a major downside to the overemphasis we place on it. The by-product of this win, win, win approach to athletics is athletes spend A LOT of time competing. Makes sense, right? You can’t win if you don’t compete, and after all sports is about winning. Well, not so fast on that one. Higher level sport (varsity in high school, college, professional, and international) is about winning, all levels below that are about athlete development so when they get to that higher level they can excel, and win, win, win!

Our young athletes compete entirely too much! They seem to compete all the time. Athletes might play a sport 2, 4, maybe 6 hours at a younger age, with 50-60% of that time being spent competing rather than doing preparatory work. Research suggests this is nearly the opposite of what we should be doing. In fact, young athletes (below varsity level in high school) should probably spend 60-70% of their time in preparatory work (practices, fitness development, technical work, etc) and only 30-40% competing. Is that what’s currently happening? Ah, I don’t think so.

Taken a step further, what preparatory work is performed is nearly always technically and tactically-related to the sport (i.e., practices) and very little of it is emphasizing fitness development. This is really where we do our athletes a disservice in this country. We spend so much time focusing on sport (competition and practice) we neglect fitness, without realizing fitness is the foundation all sports performance is built on. Failing to spend at least 30% of total training in developing fitness for sport ultimately impairs an athlete’s performance capabilities and puts them at an increased risk of sport-related injury.

When I say fitness for sport, I refer to all the underlying physiological responses that allow sports performance to occur; strength, speed, power, agility and so on. These are all fitness capacities that directly relate to an athlete’s ability to perform their sport, and they just don’t get trained enough, if at all, until it’s almost too late. Indeed, we miss critical windows of trainability for young ages, and these opportunities to develop sports-specific fitness may be lost forever (at least in terms of their magnitude of change).

Now, we are all to blame for this problem. Athletes who want to win at all cost at all ages, parents and coaches who are too near-sighted to realize you shouldn’t sacrifice performance in senior year of high school, for performance in 7th grade… I’ll even place the blame on my colleagues and myself who use this notion of win now to motivate our athletes at all ages. We have become far too outcome oriented, and gone away from the process-orientation we need with our athletes, and it needs to stop.

The beauty of this problem is we can change it. In fact, I believe the movement has already started. What can you do to help? Well if you’re a parent or a coach, try to emphasize winning a little less, and preparation a little more. I’m not saying don’t foster a competitive fire in your athletes, but I am saying temper it with an emphasis on developing skill and fitness. Also, encourage your athletes to get actively involved in fitness development for their sport. I see so many talented athletes never reach their full potential because their technical abilities are light years ahead of their fitness. Don’t let the athletes you’re around fall victim to this. Start making changes today.

Right now, it’s USA vs. World, and sadly I have to say: advantage world. We need to change that.

U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A!

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