Sport-Specific Training vs. General Physical Prep for the High School Athlete

We’ve all heard the spiel before…

Usually, it’s the father of the high school freshman or sophomore ballplayer you can hear, his voice boisterously booming above the other conversations taking place in the crowded bleachers behind home plate. The parent is proudly describing to another the training his kid is undertaking off of the field. This dad is as loud as he is proud, and every parent, coach, and player can hear him. He talks of all of the ladders and cones, the jumps and throws, and let’s not forget the bands and tubing. All of the exciting stuff — the sexy “sport-specific” training.

Rarely do we hear a parent boasting about general physical preparation. No, quite the contrary. Instead, they ask the strength coach, sport coach, or personal trainer questions such as the following:

“My son is a pitcher, what does your pitchers’ program look like?”

Or…

“My son [who’s only 15, by the way] needs to improve his 60-time 3 hundredths of a second to stand out to scouts. What kind of speed and footwork training are you doing?”

My answers to questions like those above probably shock parents (more on this next) which is why I often avoid conversations such as these if possible. Trust me, as much as I’d love to educate a parent, I’d sooner let the kids and the training itself do the talking. In my experience, the kids generally tell the parents about their enjoyment in the weight room, and they certainly see results as well, getting stronger, faster, and more resilient.

When I do respond, though, I typically give some rendition of my philosophy:

1. Build a foundation of movement quality ->

2. Improve the ability to produce force (strength) ->

3. Develop the ability to produce power and express it in multiple planes of motion ->

4. Use this power to develop other specific athletic traits

Notice, I don’t mention explosiveness, quick-twitch, quickness, or anything you normally hear parents asking for. That’s for 2 reasons:

1. Our ultimate goal is to produce a more powerful and explosive athlete. It doesn’t need to be explicitly stated, as it will always be the goal. But, there are so many other qualities that come with/before this goal.

2. Because the high school (like college) timeline is four years, your 14-year old’s training program is (or should be) developed as a quadrennial (4-year) plan. This means we can slow-cook athletic abilities through proper training over the course of their time in high school.

But, why is general physical preparation important at all? Why slow-cookathletic abilities when we could just hammer explosive, sport-specific work all year, every year? You’ve got to train fast to get fast, right?

Not so fast… (pun intended)

HIERARCHY OF NEEDS

First, you have to take stock of what physical activity you’re already exposing your child to. When it comes to youth baseball, most kids are already playing and practicing year-round. This means that they perform endless amounts of unloaded sprints, hops, jumps, shuffles, and changes of direction, and minimally loaded throws throws and swings. And, chances are, they have not done anything loaded, nor have they worked on improving the efficiency or quality of their movements – save for their swing or throw, of course.

Think of training as a continuum in this sense:

General <-> Special <-> Specific

In terms of the activity generally accumulated by a typical high school baseball player, we’re usually talking about specific training. This end of the continuum refers to activity that is most specific to the sport in both movement and loading characteristics. For example, baseball players usually move unilaterally (with one or more limbs working independently from the rest), rotationally, unloaded (except for a 5 oz. baseball or ~33 oz. bat), at a high rate of speed.

On the other end of the spectrum we have general training, which utilizes movements and loads that are more general in nature, allowing the development of more general physical characteristics, not necessarily matching that of the sport. For example, the squat is a bilateral movement (both lower-limbs performing the same action at the same time), significantly loaded (with a barbell, dumbbell, or other forms of resistance), at various speeds.

With all of this in mind, we need to consider the hierarchy of what a youth ballplayer needs in his training at the beginning of his quadrennial plan. Does he really need to continue to excentuate the right side of that continuum? Or, rather, does he need to begin working on the left side (i.e. general physical preparation)? And, let’s face it, he’s going to continue playing and practicing baseball [year-round, most likely] during this time anyway, so the specific work is not going to be neglected by any stretch of the imagination.

Ultimately, what we’re discussing here is off-setting all of the sport-specific activity they’re already experiencing. Without doing so, fatigue in those movements will accumulate, movement quality in sport will deteriorate, and chronic injury will be the end result.

So, to that end, to answer the parent or player who asks about my “pitcher-specific” off-season program for a high school athlete: I’ll be first addressing the needs of the athlete before addressing the needs of the pitcher at this point in his “career”. That right there meets their hierarchy of needs.

STRENGTH IS THE PRECURSOR FOR POWER, AND POWER IS STRONGLY ASSOCIATED WITH MANY IMPORTANT ATHLETIC CHARACTERISTICS

It’s also vital to understand that this course of action will not come at the detriment of baseball performance. On the contrary, a foundation of movement quality and strength will actually enhance performance.

The common misnomer is that if an athlete “trains slow” they will get slower and less powerful. Thus, moving high loads (the heavier the load, the slower you’ll move the load, that’s physics) will make you slower. It’s true that strength isn’t the characteristic that we’re looking to see expressed on the field. But, it’s strength that we need in order to improve power — and power certainly is what we want to see exhibited in competition. Take this very simple example:

If an athlete can initially back squat 135 lbs for 3 repetitions, he will move that weight relatively slowly. If that athlete’s strength progresses to 200 lbs for 3 reps, the athlete should be able to move 135 lbs at a relatively faster rate.

Although remedial, this exemplifies how improving strength can increase the capacity for power. I stress “capacity” because we still need to go about training appropriately in order to translate (transmutation) this general strength into specialized power, and ultimately specific power and speed.

Athletic performance isn’t all about acceleration, though. Deceleration is a vital component as well, especially when it comes to change of direction and tissue resilience. Want to be agile and quick? Learn to absorb and reapply force as quickly as possible. Want to withstand the stress and strain of a misstep or accidental awkward movement at full-speed? Learn to decelerate and absorb force. Strength is the basis for this, especially eccentric strength.

Love it or hate it, just about every athletic trait you’re looking for is going to begin with the development of strength and efficient movement as a base.

***

All of this isn’t to say that we will never do specialized or sport-specific training. But, it all goes back to the hierarchy of needs for the youth athlete and the methods that are necessary to optimize performance and avoid injury from accumulated fatigue.

We must also take into consideration the time the athletes have to train when it is fit into the grand scheme of their student and personal lives, not to mention travel baseball as well.The more that the baseball is in their hands, the more we will need to allot training time to general prep. Kids these days are highly specialized, which might explain the higher occurrences of early peaking and increased rate of injury — more specialization, less resilience.

Moreover, the entire process is about preparing the youth athlete for their current level of competition, educating them about why each aspect of training is important to their craft and a healthy lifestyle, and developing the strong traits of successful and productive members of society.

If at the end of the day we accomplish these things, we will know we went about their training the right way.

Respectfully,

RJF

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