The Ace Up Your Sleeve: Understanding Long-Term Athletic Development and Diminishing Returns

Below is an excerpt from a book that I currently have in the works, centered on helping the high school sport-coach write safe and effective training plans for their athletes.

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At 18-years old I got my start in coaching. Fresh off of walking across the stage in cap and gown at DeLand High School, I lucked into an opportunity to begin coaching ballplayers at my newly-minted alma mater.

For all four years of my undergraduate studies, I volunteered my time at DHS, first beginning as a Junior Varsity pitching coach and working my way to coaching from the Varsity bullpen. In that time, I also progressively took on physical preparation responsibilities: leading dynamic warm-ups, creating competitive training sessions on-field, and ultimately — after devising a crude Strength and Conditioning Manual — taking on training sessions in the weight room.

At the time, the only qualifications I possessed were a barely-accredited Personal Training certificate and all of the self-study I had been doing in pursuit of becoming a credentialed strength and conditioning coach.

As I coached at DeLand High, the prevalence of and reverence for strength-training at the high school level began to grow in our area. Maybe a bit presumptive of me, but I do think it was in some part a result of what we were doing at DHS and the results our team was achieving on the field; largely, though it was due to the growth of the S&C field in general. However, at that time, Florida still had few true strength & conditioning professionals. Instead, we had (and still have) many sport coaches with few resources but their own devotion and determination to help their athletes improve.

These well-meaning, yet underprepared leaders do their best to educate themselves on best practices, however with so much information out there and such a vast field of knowledge to get lost within (and plenty of rabbit holes to fall into), it is understandable that a sport-coach might not know where to start in devising a program for their team.

Thus, I have found my passion for helping sport-coaches understand the basic concepts of performance training and athletic development. The book I am currently writing delves into many areas of program design for high school athletes, however at the heart of each is the mission to arm coaches with the conceptual keys to writing programs and training their athletes, as opposed to just handing coaches a cookie-cutter program. Success in coaching is largely understanding our athletes and their circumstances, and then devising methods to meet these parameters.

Since nobody knows your athletes better than you, the key will be to discuss the most important and relevant training principles to the high school athlete, so that you may apply them to those under your care given these unique circumstances.

Today we will discuss one of those major conceptual keys: long-term development and its relation to diminishing returns.

Long-Term Development and Diminishing Returns

I am not much of a card shark myself, but I like to think of choosing training methods as selecting which card to play out of your hand.

If you are playing a game against an opponent where the highest card wins, and they pull out, say, a ‘2’ (the lowest value in the deck), would you grab the highest card in your hand and slam it on the table? Or, would you more aptly reserve your highest cards (since probabilities say your opponent has several higher cards than that ‘2’) and select the lowest possible winning card – say, a ‘3’ card? I am sure you are thinking what I am: let’s save our good cards for later when we need them most.

Ace up your sleeve

To me, choosing training methods for novice trainees (or any athlete in general) is about finding the lowest possible winning card. In other words, what is the simplest, most time-efficient yet effective training method that we can play out of our hand?

For older and more experienced athletes, we might need to go to the face card or ace up our sleeve – the complex and advanced exercises, the precise volume and intensity prescriptions, and the targeted recovery modalities and periodization schemes. But, for our population of young, untrained athletes, the safest, simplest options tend to yield incredibly effective results with relative ease.

To understand why this is the case, we will introduce the concept of Diminishing Returns, as well as why Long-Term Development is also so impactful in the short-term.

In the above graph, we have a curve that represents a specific physical quality. Let’s think of it as representing strength for right now. The Y-Axis (Vertical) is the amount of strength, the X-Axis (Horizontal) being training age.

Training age refers to the amount of years an athletes has been exposed to structured training targeted at physical development

Due to the relatively low training age and physical baseline of young athletes, they will progress very quickly in most physical qualities, including strength, and do so relatively easily without much need for complex methodologies. This is illustrated by the steepness of the curve above – the rapid rate at which strength increases relative to training age.

As the athlete gains more experience (or training age), the curve begins to level off, eventually becoming nearly horizontal as it approaches the theoretical max capacity for that athlete (this being years or even decades down the road, mind you). This theoretical model can be applied to most other physical qualities: speed, power, size, etc.

The graph above illustrates how, as athletes accumulate greater training experience, the adaptation they can make for any given unit of stress/loading/time diminishes. In other words: less bang-for-your-buck over time.

But, why is this? Why can’t we just add 5 lbs to the bar week on week and expect to see the same results? That would be following the Overload Principle, right? While this would, in fact, be adhering to that principle, it only begins to scratch the surface of how complex our athletes are as human organisms.

As humans, we are essentially composed of multiple systems, each one incredibly complex.

  • The Nervous System and the Musculoskeletal System
  • The Endocrine System and the Lymphatic System
  • The Circulatory System and the Pulmonary System

… just to name a few. What’s more, each system is also made up of organs, and organs of tissues, and tissues of cells, and cells of organelles…

We can spare ourselves the Biology lecture by simply stating this: the body is made up of systems, and systems are complex because they all interact with one another. A prime and topical, macro-level example of this is how introducing a respiratory infection can not only cause breathing issues, but also cause a cascade of downstream effects since impaired breathing radically alters our body’s ability to do so many other vital things.

Now, let’s pull this concept of complex systems back into the scope of training and relate it back to long-term development, and why we can’t just make steady progress week-on-week infinitely:

In the early stages of training, one of the systems above is a near-lock for expeditious development: the Nervous System.

In short, the nervous system includes your brain, brain stem, spinal cord, and all of the nerves running throughout your body. In the context of training, this system is responsible for communicating messages to the muscles, telling them when and how to contract and relax. In other words, the nervous system drives how well we can coordinate and express movement.

The initial exposures to resistance training early in the development of an athlete will require the nervous system to adapt quickly, thereby leading to substantial strength gains. And, this is regardless of an athlete’s biological age (how mature their body is — think late-bloomer vs. early-bloomer). Why is this latter point important? It means that an athlete can get a lot stronger without needing the hormones required to build muscle mass.

This is why you can see even middle school-aged athletes (or entry-level high school athletes) be so strong relative to very meager body weights. They have developed more efficient and effective coordination and sequencing of movements, and their nervous system can send out messages that illicit stronger muscular contractions.

Surely I have overcomplicated the simple questions of ‘why do we need to think long-term?‘and ‘why do we have to worry about diminishing returns?’ But, now that we have talked about two of the numerous systems that make up our athletes, and how complicated those systems can be when they interact with one another.

Given all of our systems, the individual differences of our athletes and their bodies, and the responses their bodies will have to training, this is exactly why we should keep our high cards – our aces of programming – firmly in our back pocket. Down the road, our athletes will inevitably begin to see diminishing returns across multiple physical qualities and at varying times in their career. If we know that we can achieve rapid progress at onset with simple methods, then there is no need to do anything more complicated, strenuous, or challenging than that.

Not only will this be an incredibly time-efficient decision for you, the athlete’s current coach, but it will also be a meaningful choice down the road for both the athlete and their future coaches, as it allows the athlete to continue bumping adaptation, if you will, for years to come with progressively more advanced methods saved for when they will ultimately mean the most for their development.

This is exactly why we wait to play the ace up our sleeve.

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