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Strength in Numbers?
by MikeMejia on 

Strength in Numbers?
Fitness coaching tips for large groups.

I love working with clients on a one on one basis! There's just something about being able to put my blinders on and give my undivided attention to one person's needs during the course of a workout.

I guess it's because I started out as a personal trainer and to some extent, that's still where my passion lies.

That said, I also thoroughly enjoy working with groups of athletes... and even entire teams. The only caveat being that in a group setting, it can be difficult to keep the level of movement quality as consistently high as I might like it.

That's just the nature of the beast when you're working with groups in general, and teens in particular. At times attention will start to wane; which can be a huge problem for a population whose bodies are going through various developmental changes and often lack the kinesthetic awareness to self-correct during the course of a given exercise.

The other big factor when working with groups of young athletes is that commitment levels tend to vary... A LOT! In my experience, any time you're working with multiple athletes you're going to encounter three distinct personality types; with the number of each differing from one group to the next.

First up will be the self-motivated kids. These are young athletes who want to get better and are going to follow every instruction to the letter. They understand and appreciate the value of the training they're receiving and intend to do everything possible to get the most out of each session.

I call these my "run through a wall" athletes, because they will basically do anything you ask of them. They are extremely focused, take coaching cues well and are generally an absolute pleasure to work with.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have what I like to call the "tuned out" group. These are kids who typically do not want to take part in the team training session and are only present because the coaching staff requires them to be. They display poor body language and tend to talk, or fool around when you're giving instructions.

Somewhere in the middle you'll have your "tweeners". I call them this because this group could go either way- they haven't yet been bitten by the training bug, but seem genuinely intrigued. On the other hand, they're also easily distracted and can often fall in with the poor example set by the tuned out group.

This is the group you'll want to focus on the most, because it's where you can make the biggest difference as a coach.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating giving up on the tuned out group. Over the years, I've converted plenty of them into some of my best students with a little time and effort.

Nor am I recommending that you let that first group rely solely on self motivation. Even driven young athletes need a little push and some guidance now and then.

I'm just suggesting spending the bulk of your coaching energy in the area where you can have the greatest impact, in the shortest amount of time.

Because, as is often the case when working with groups, you may not have access to your athletes for a prolonged period. Once the season begins, training time is typically reduced as athletes and coaches focus more on skill refinement and conserving energy for competition.

So, the question is, how do you effectively manage training sessions when presented with these three distinct personality types and you're just one coach working with a group of a dozen athletes, or more?

And, perhaps even more importantly, how do you do so while establishing the type of training culture that gets athletes buying into your system as quickly as possible.

Throughout the course of my career in working with young athletes age 10, right up through the collegiate ranks, I've found that the following strategies work especially well.  

1. Establish easily recognizable cues: While you don't necessarily want to bombard kids with tons of technical jargon (warning a young athlete about "placing too much valgus stress on their knees" when squatting, for instance, will garner you little more than a confused look), you do want to try and develop a "training language" that your athletes can easily remember and even parrot.

I find nothing more gratifying than listening to a couple of my athletes coach their teammates through different movements. Hearing them tell each other to "sit the hips back", or "rip the floor open" during a squat, lets me know that they understand the importance of what they're being taught, even if they may not be familiar with the exact anatomical mechanisms of why they're doing things a certain way.

2. Put out the biggest fires first: Even a form perfectionist like myself realizes that during the course of a rigorous a team workout, there are going to be a few less than perfect reps. And while one, or two athletes slipping slightly out of a good core neutral position during a plank isn't the end of the world, allowing some egregiously bad form just to "keep the flow of the workout going", simply cannot happen.

If you notice an athlete, or a couple of athletes really struggling with a particular drill, don't hesitate to direct a little more attention their way. Try to quickly ascertain where the problem lies (i.e. is it a mobility issue, a strength imbalance, or were they simply not paying attention to instructions) and work from there.

Sometimes a simple form cue and some personal attention will do the trick- while others might require slightly regressing the drill and/ or assigning some follow up "homework" (more on this in a minute). Either way, some type of immediate action on your part is necessary to help ensure that bad movement patterns are not engrained and so that athletes know they can't get away with simply going through the motions.

3. Give homework drills: Sometimes you won't be able to offer a quick fix when you see an athlete struggling during the course of a workout. This is where it pays to have a battery of stretching, foam rolling and corrective strengthening exercises on hand that you can assign to kids in need.

Whether in the form of a handout, a follow-up e-mail, or simply referring them to your website, giving kids access to tools such as these can make a huge difference. I also make it a habit to stay a few minutes after each session to answer any specific questions and work with kids who may require a little more personal attention.

Now, not all of them will follow through. However, the one's who do heed your advice, on a consistent basis can make some major improvements in a relatively short period of time.
4. Progress drills based on ability... not a desire for variety: Let's face it; as motivated and "elite" as some of your young athletes may be, the bottom line is that they're still kids. So as a coach, part of your job is to make sure they're having fun- while still working to improve things like systemic strength, speed, agility and coordination.

And when you're working with kids, fun often means including lots of variety. After all, who wants to do the same drills over and over again?

That said, it's important that said variety doesn't come at the expense of first mastering basic movement patterns. Take the time to get your athletes movement mechanics "programmed" with staple exercises like squats, lunge variations, push-ups, rows and planks.

Easy enough to do with younger groups, but what about older athletes who want to push hard and consider these exercises "too easy", despite often executing them with less than perfect form. Here's where a little communication and some coaching creativity can go a long way.

Point out any specific flaws you notice that may be impeding your athletes' ability to perform these drills properly- such as poor ankle and hip mobility while squatting, or an increased lordotic curve during planks and push-ups. Then, offer up some simple form cues that may help correct the issue by getting them more aware of the mechanics of the exercise.

I like to call these "mini clinics" where I take a group of athletes through a couple of quick troubleshooting strategies to correct common exercise mistakes. Doing something as simple as teaching them how to go into a slight posterior pelvic tilt during a plank(to help offset an exaggerated lumbar curve), or cuing them to maintain an arch in their feet during squats and lunges (to prevent excessive pronation) can often give them a whole new appreciation for how an exercise is supposed to feel.

Oddly enough, exercises that were previously perceived as being too easy, suddenly become much more difficult. Add in a few static holds in the hardest part of the range of motion, or slow the rep cadence down significantly (that's where the creativity part comes in) and you've got a workout guaranteed to challenge, without having to resort to assigning athletes drills that are beyond their current level of ability.

5. Make a Connection: Simply showing up and trying to run team training sessions like some type of drill sergeant rarely yields good results. While there may be a handful of kids who respond to that type of approach, the vast majority do not.

If you want to gain the trust of your athletes and have them buy into your system, you have to show them that you have a genuine concern for their health and well being. It doesn't matter how scientifically sound your workouts might be, or how much knowledge you posses about the human body.  

It's like the saying goes: "Your athletes won't care how much you know, until they know how much you care". Follow up with them on a regular basis. Ask questions before and after training sessions and provide them with your contact information, so that they can call, e-mail, or text you if they need a little training and/ or nutritional guidance.

Not only will it mean a lot to them, but you'll find it to be an extremely rewarding experience. Because working with groups is not about the prestige of training a particular team, or the increased revenue potential it can generate. In the end, it's all about the number of lives you can impact.

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What's in a name
by MikeMejia on 

What's in a Name? 

Decoding some of the rhetoric surrounding youth sports conditioning. 

There's no arguing the fact that youth sports have gotten waaaaay out of control in recent years. Things like early specialization, ridiculously demanding practice and competition schedules, and well-meaning, yet overly invested parents have turned something that was once supposed to be fun, into big business.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the number of kids who now participate in "sport-specific" fitness programs, or attend "speed and agility" classes several times per week. In fact, this whole notion of "strength and conditioning" for young athletes has gone from something of a novelty a mere decade ago, to one of the biggest and most lucrative trends in the entire fitness industry.

And therein lies the problem.

Any time people start to see dollar signs, you're going to get unscrupulous individuals looking to claim their share of the pie. In this instance, throwing around buzzwords like, "strength and conditioning" or saying that they offer "speed and agility", or "sport-specific" training. When in truth, many are no more qualified to deliver such services than the local little league coach.

Combine this with motivated young athletes who are looking for every possible edge over their competition and parents who may not necessarily be educated in the finer points of athletic conditioning- especially as it pertains to proper growth and development- and you end up with a potentially dangerous situation.

Now don't get me wrong, as a "strength and conditioning" coach myself (and yes, I am actually certified as a strength and conditioning specialist- it's not a self appointed title) I applaud the idea of kids training to become better athletes. I just hate when I see them being guided through exercises they're not yet physically ready for, by individuals who lack the proper credentials and experience to be administering such programs.

So, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at some of these terms (which seem to get young athletes and parents frothing at the mouth), in an effort to give people a better understanding of what they actually mean. And as a result, make more educated decisions as to whether or not programs carrying these labels are truly suitable for their children.  

1. Sport-Specific: Do young athletes really need sport-specific training? Or, in other words, should their fitness efforts necessarily attempt to mimic the same movement patterns and train the same energy systems they're already often overusing during sports participation? Let's see....umm, how about NO!

I won't start to introduce any type of sport specific training emphasis until my athletes are at least 16-17 years old; and even then I don't do a whole lot of it. By that time, they're of an age where specialization in a single sport is more appropriate, so adding a little resistance to certain sports based movements, or getting slightly more focused on a particular energy system makes more sense.

That said, I'll still lean towards more generalized efforts in terms of building strength and power, while also attempting to restore their bodies to a more balanced state to help prevent injuries (more on this below). The main focus, however, is trying to improve their overall athleticism and allowing them to use those skills as a means of becoming more proficient at their sport.

Bottom line: The idea of a kid being labeled as an 11 year old "soccer player" is silly. The idea of he, or she doing "soccer specific" fitness training is utterly ridiculous and in many instances, downright irresponsible.

2. Strength and Conditioning: Probably one of the most bastardized terms in the industry. I literally cringe when I hear this terminology being used in regards to youth fitness programs- especially as it pertains to the middle school set. That's because there's a lot more to a successful strength and conditioning program than just randomly having kids do a bunch of exercises that may, or may not be appropriate for their particular level of physical development.

I constantly have new athletes enter my program that tell me they take "strength and conditioning" in school, only to be unable to execute a proper push-up, or even do a simple body weight squat correctly. The fact is, just because a workout contains lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, or Olympic lifts, doesn't make it a strength and conditioning program.

It's a program when the exercise prescription makes sense, the drills are properly taught and executed and the primary objective is to help progressively improve athletic performance and reduce the likelihood of injury.

So coaches and trainers, please stop saying that you "do strength and conditioning" when your approach involves little more than having young athletes run through a battery of physically demanding exercises with little rhyme, or reason.

3. Speed and agility: If strength and conditioning is one of the most bastardized terms, say hello to the leader of the pack! Want to get a coach, a young athlete, or their parents to pay attention? Simply sprinkle these two words into the mix and you'll have their undivided focus for the next several minutes.

That's because more and more people are beginning to understand the importance of these two qualities in terms of their potential to improve athletic performance. Unfortunately, there is far less understanding about exactly how to go about achieving these improvements and that's where the waters start to get a little bit murky.

True speed and agility training involves more than just having kids run endless sprints, or having them dart around a bunch of brightly colored cones until they become fatigued. At a minimum, coaches need to be able to teach kids the basics of proper sprinting mechanics so they can run more efficiently.

They also need to be able to convey the importance of how to properly decelerate going into, and then accelerate when coming out of a direction change. This involves everything from showing an athlete proper foot spacing, to how to get into their hips to change their center of gravity, to achieving the right angles needed to effectively apply force into the ground.

So in essence, teaching speed and agility requires a thorough knowledge of biomechanics, along with an appreciation of how athletes must first strive to improve strength and mobility in order to adopt the proper positioning and be able to apply the required amount of force.

Translation: There's more to it than a coach having played a sport in college!

4. Injury Prevention: The unprecedented rise in youth sports injuries over the past several years has spurred a movement towards including this phrase in much of the advertising surrounding sports performance training for young athletes. And why not- it's trendy, it sounds good and lends a certain level of credibility... at least to the untrained eye.

Take it from someone who's been stressing the injury prevention angle long before it became fashionable to do so- many of the programs that go out of their way to highlight it, often give it nothing but lip service.

Simply including things like foam rolling, and/ or a dynamic warm-up for example, will do little to prevent injury if athletes aren't  performing the drills properly and also lack a thorough understanding as to why it's important to do so. Likewise, touting the ability of lifts like squats to promote better knee stability, or planks to improve core strength will do nothing of the sort if the drills aren't executed with proper form.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen trainers allowing kids to squat with their arches collapsed and knees pinching together, only to add more weight on the next set! Or timing them as they do a plank with their lower back area caved in like a hammock and head hanging like a bowling ball! Really? Exactly what are we trying to accomplish here?

If injury prevention is truly the goal, coaches and trainers must first take the time to assess their athletes in order to determine their specific areas of weakness. Only then can steps be taken to eliminate, or at least minimize said weaknesses by helping to offset some of the strength and flexibility imbalances likely created by chronic sports participation.

We need to move away from this practice of just haphazardly throwing certain exercises, or stretching protocols at young athletes under the guise of injury prevention.

5. "Get him into the weight room" : Sorry ladies, but this is a term that is almost exclusively used in regards to male athletes. It's usually uttered by the father, or coach of a young athlete, typically around the age of 14, or so (because after all, we all know that's the time a boy is supposed to start lifting weights, right?).

They'll tell me how he needs to "bulk up", or start "hitting the weights" as if doing so will somehow miraculously correct his glaring postural imbalances, knock-kneed stance, or apparent lack of anything that could be even remotely mistaken for flexibility.

You see, it's not as simple as just "getting kids into the weight room". There needs to be some sort of plan in place prior to them getting there; a plan determined by an analysis of their individual needs. Granted, this can be hard to do for large groups, but there needs to be at least some type of rudimentary assessment done before simply allowing kids to hit the weight room with reckless abandon.

I understand that "back in your day" you were thrown into the weight room and "nothing bad happened". Although the chronic low back pain and limited range of motion you now have in your shoulders may beg to differ a bit. The point being, the world has changed dramatically since then.

For one, we are a much more technologically dependent society and kids are understandably some of the worst offenders. Take a look at the posture of the average teen when they text, or play video games. Do you think just allowing them to make a b-line for the bench press (and don't kid yourself, that's exactly where they're going), is going to make the situation any better?

Or how about trying to put up massive poundages on lifts like squats, deadlifts and cleans, despite often having massive restrictions in hip and ankle mobility? In actuality, all this doing is stacking the deck further against them by increasing their risk of injury!

We need to squash this old school mindset and stop treating the mere act of "pumping iron" as some sort of panacea for athletic success. While it's true that a well designed and executed strengthening program can be extremely beneficial to young athletes, care must be taken to make sure kids are going about things the right way.

Sorry for the long read, but this is a topic that I've been meaning to address for a while now and I had a lot of frustrations to get out! Be sure to keep an eye out for future bog posts where I promise to be more succinct, but no less passionate about my views towards youth athletic development.

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Welcome to the all-new B.A.S.E. Blog!
by MikeMejia on 


After a busy summer of working with some of the most dedicated athletes on Long Island, I'm finally ready to get back at this writing stuff!

Oh, I'll still be working hard to build the young champions of tomorrow- I just have a little more time on my hands to fill you guys in on things like helpful nutrition tips, new training ideas and just about anything else you can think of to help keep you fit and injury free!

So, whether you're a young athlete, a coach, a parent, or a school athletic director, you can count on this blog to be one of your most reliable, go-to sources for anything and everything related to youth sports conditioning!

Stay tuned! New articles will be featured soon on the STACK magazine and Inside Lacrosse websites. Plus, I've got a few other exciting projects I'm on working on this fall. You won't want to miss any of it. So be sure to check back often!

Your in Strength,

Coach MIke

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