Recently I have spoken with quite a few different coaches, parents, and players about performance enhancement methods for the youth or high school athlete. They usually ask something to the affect of, “I know that a lot of pro’s do _____, what do you think about that for my kids?” or “What is the best recovery/training/nutrition that we can utilize?” No matter how the question is posed, I have found myself always coming back to the same general answer. I had started to compose a tweet about these conversations, but soon realized that even three to four tweets was not going to be enough to cover the topic and explain my rationale.
Instead, I’ve decided to write this piece to discuss some thoughts that I have on seeking professional-level performance enhancement interventions – whether they be training methods, recovery protocols, or nutritional tactics – for the high school-aged athlete.
Before I dive into each of those three aspects of performance, I’ll outline my basic philosophy on the whole process of working with high school-aged, amateur athletes versus professional/collegiate elite athletes…
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains
It’s important to understand one of the major differences between a high school athlete and a seasoned or elite professional athlete. It doesn’t matter how good, gifted, or advanced a high school player is, they are not “elite” by the same standards as professional athletes – even though they may be considered “elite” for their relative competition and age group. Here’s why: The training age of nearly all high school athletes/youth athletes is going to be much, much lower than that of a collegiate or professional athlete. In other words, the older athlete generally has been exposed to much more training – strength training, yes, and just about every other aspect of training – than the young athlete. And, as training age increases, gains from training begin to diminish. Thus, each decision in training and performance enhancement, no matter how minute, matters, since we can’t afford to waste any time or energy on ineffective methods.
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains – that’s the name of the game when it comes to elite athletes. Meaning, we are working to squeeze out every tenth or hundredth of a percentage point increases in performance.
This just isn’t the same case when you’re dealing with an athlete – especially a young athlete – that possesses a lower training age. We aren’t seeking a few ticks of improvement here and there; we are after big chunks! To achieve this, the approach to training, nutrition, and recovery must be quite different, and much more general than the elite or professional athlete. Now I’ll briefly touch on each of these aspects of performance enhancement, and how we can go about getting the most bang-for-the-buck in each avenue.
Strength Training for the Youth Athlete versus the Professional Athlete
When it comes to training, almost any program can be effective with a youth athlete, so long as it is safe and the athlete buys into it – at least in the initial years. This is because their neuromuscular system is basically begging for exposure to resistance. In the first few months of training, the youth athlete’s nervous system will learn to fire properly in coordination and with greater speed, they will inherently learn to control their body in space, and the muscle groups will be able to produce more force with less effort (increased efficiency).
If this is going to happen to at least some extent with even bad programming or poor exercise selection, why not take advantage of this window of opportunity by addressing movement quality, and foundational strength, as well as relative strength? This isn’t to say that training for hypertrophy, speed, power, agility, etc. shouldn’t be included at some point with the younger athlete, or that advanced methods such as dynamic efforts, accommodating resistance, contrast training, etc. don’t have their place, it’s just to say that it isn’t necessary at this level early on.
We can safely achieve a whole lot of gains in the weight room by simply focusing on general physical preparation, or in other words, building a foundation of movement quality, foundational strength, and relative strength through the “meat and potatoes” – tried and true progressions/regressions – while leaving the more specific, fancy, complex training to the elite athlete who needs every bit of variation and specificity imaginable just to make a marginal gain.
Nutrition for the Youth Athlete versus the Professional Athlete
Parents and coaches are always looking for the best fuel for their young student-athletes. There has been a recent increase in marketing for the supplementation of athletes, especially as it pertains to protein and recovery, and I assure you it has not gone unnoticed. With every kids’ favorite athletes posterized drinking a protein shake on their TV, it’s not hard to understand why, “What supplement should my son/daughter be taking?” is one of the first questions asked by a parent in regards to nutrition. Common as well are the questions about nutrition plans, and if I can make them one.
Much like advanced strength training approaches, I tend to take a more general stroke on the topic of nutrition for the youth athlete. Rather than ensure that your child or athletes get the exact amount of protein needed post workout via immediate supplementation, or making sure their macronutrients are right in line each day with a strict meal plan, it may be more prudent to make some broader, yet less invasive changes to diet. In other words, seeking to fill larger gaps in nutrition versus trying to plug the smaller hole that are only going to yield marginal gains. Remember, it’s the elite athlete that needs to worry about accumulating minute improvements with fine methodologies.
One example of a broader, more general approach to improving the nutritional aspect of performance enhancement for younger athletes would be to just make sure they’re eating enough. Many kids will either skip breakfast, fail to pack snacks, or skimp on a filling lunch – or a combination of these scenarios. This can leave a student-athlete groggy, tired, unfocused, or irritable during the day. It can also lead to a caloric deficit, which means any athlete seeking to gain lean muscle mass simply CAN’T, no matter how hard they train for it. If we can encourage a young athlete to eat a filling breakfast and pack wholesome snacks, we can have a much greater impact, in my opinion, both on performance and lifestyle, than if we tried to get the kid to choose only “healthy” choices for lunch, or to make sure he has a protein shake after his workout.
Again, it is the elite athlete that stands to gain marginal gains in performance, and will need to do so by making the minute changes in nutrition here and there. It’s for that reason the Los Angeles Dodgers invest in all organic, whole foods for their athletes. But, it is the youth athlete who, more than anything, simply needs guidance, education, and general lifestyle/nutritional improvements.
Recovery for the Youth Athlete versus the Professional Athlete
Finally, it is important to understand the role of recovery. First, it may seem obvious, but as much as the word “recovery” is thrown around, I believe it is often forgotten: in order for recovery to be a necessity, there needs to be something to recover from.
Take the deload/unload week in strength training for example. If we are only training our athlete, say, two times per week in the off-season, or with minimal load/volume/intensities, and their training age is low, do we really need to unload them after 3 weeks of training? What are we unloading from?
Similarly, mobility circuits for youth athletes with lots of laxity, foam rolling for athletes who feel great and move without any major restrictions, contrast ice/hot baths for athletes in their first week of competition/training… all great recovery modalities in their own right, but slightly undue and an inefficient use of time for these specific scenarios. Again, this isn’ to say there is no place to foam roll or hop in a hot tub for a young athlete – I’m all for building solid routines and having the athlete feel good about their readiness. But, I am also all about getting the most bang-for-your-buck, and when it comes to recovery there may be more beneficial avenues to pursue.
One such avenue would be trying to tackle sleep. Most kids these days are up until 1am playing Call of Duty no matter how early their wake up call will be in the morning. Also, they are glued to their cell phones, taking in all of that blue-light in bed. If we can encourage them to actually get a decent night’s sleep and maybe take a nap in between training sessions, we might stand to see the greatest performance and lifestyle benefits – and at a much lesser cost than purchasing a team’s-worth of foam rollers and lacrosse balls, and the hassle of locking down facilities to implement other protocols.
On the other hand, it is the professional athlete who not only will need to chase the marginal gains found in the fringes of specific modalities, but they are also the ones who need to recover the most, as they will spend more hours per day, week, and cycle training and competing, as compared to a youth athlete.
Overall, it isn’t a fault that coaches, parents, or players at the youth/high school level seek out professional-level performance enhancement methods. In fact, it is a great thing that they care enough to seek out the best resources possible. That being said, oftentimes less truly is more for the youth athlete, and general proves to be more effective than specific.
There will indeed be a time when the scale tips in the other direction. But until that time, it will be much more prudent to reach for greater gains with the minimal effective dosages with young athletes who are still in their most physiologically and neurologically formative years.