By Dean Benton & Vern Gambetta
To focus solely on the improvement of the athletic qualities of speed, strength and endurance with developmental athletes will eventually restrict their progress. If individual attention is not paid to key areas of functional and technical capability the developmental athlete:
- Will not continue to improve athletic qualities at the same rate, or stagnate
- Will have a greater likelihood of injury
- Will not reach their potential in terms of overall physical capability
It is proposed there are five primary areas of functional and technical capability that must be addressed in conjunction with the appropriate progression of athletic qualities. These five critical areas will be apparent in various degrees across ages, gender, sports and individuals. Importantly, these five areas are not mutually exclusive and are very much interdependent:
- Running technique
- Strength training technique
- Postural strength
- Force reduction ability
Definition of terms
Capability: innate or developed ability relating to skills or physical qualities. Not to be confused with capacity, which is the ability to produce work and energy over time
Athletic capability: The athletic qualities of speed, strength and endurance and their sub qualities required by all athletes in the context of their event, position or sport
Functional capability: This is an athlete’s ability to control their musculoskeletal system in terms of muscle synergy, alignment, optimal length and multiple postures in all planes of motion in the context of their event, position or sport. Dysfunction is the opposite of this.
Technical capability: This is an athlete’s level of skill and coordination as it relates to running, jumping, landing, swimming, throwing and catching. This also encompasses skill and coordination with all types of resistance training modalities of increasing complexity as the athlete’s training age increases – so as to facilitate continual improvements in athletic capability
Key growth and development considerations
- Develop key physical capabilities before puberty to minimize the loss of coordination during puberty. Place an emphasis on moving body weight at a young age to prepare for changes due to puberty and continue to reinforce this throughout puberty
- Children grow up and then grow out; therefore we must take into account the strength-to-length relationship. Get them strong before they grow long
- Establish pristine movement patterns through full ranges of motion and through all planes from the youngest age groups on
- Understand and take into account the difference between developmental age and chronological age
Key concepts that transcend all sports
- Non-negotiables – attendance, attention and effort
- Mastery – necessary to progress to next step and ensure freedom from injury
- Warm-up to play – essential part of athletes daily routine to prevent injury and to prepare to play
- Routine/Routine/Routine – create positive habits from youngest ages up
- Connection/linkage – toenails to fingernails – connect all extremities to allow for optimal force transfer
- Consistency and structure more important than variety, especially at younger ages
- Think and train movements, not muscles
- 3P’s – Postures/poses/positions – learn to make as many shapes as possible and combine them
- Basic movements to complex movements
- Increase number of sessions, before increasing length of sessions
- Teach first, and then train what has been taught
- Achieve mastery of an exercise before moving to more complex movements
It is a process not a pathway; because it is a process it is not linear nor does it fit a neat framework or algorithm. There are many steps and missteps that are part of the process. The key is the growth of an adaptable athlete who has a robust mastery of fundamental movements upon which to build specific sport skills.
- Concept – lead in, then lead up, based on mastery of preceding movement
- If you can do fundamental movement skills then you will have a strong foundation for sport skills
- Extending — dial up or dial down the activity based on ability and mastery. This concept allows for individual variability. Not everyone will or can start at the same place
- Refinement — use external cues to help in performance of task
- Challenge — must challenge the youngster to keep their interest
- KISS – keep It short and simple
Develop – give them all the tools by the time they arrive at the senior group to be able to thrive in training and competition.
Recognize & Account For
- Early Maturation and late maturation. Also, relative age effect
- Fast Adaptors and slow adaptors
- Male and female differences
- When fundamental motor skills are under emphasized they will ultimately limit sport skill
- Damage done at early developmental ages is difficult to be corrected later
- Physical competencies must be developed in parallel with or ahead of technical competencies
Gait is the cornerstone of function with running the most extreme permutation of gait. The development of an efficient running gait is dependent on functional and athletic capabilities. If an athlete has the ability to control their musculoskeletal system efficiently they will tolerate greater stress, strain and load. Deficiencies such as poor posture, inflexibility or lack of lumbo-pelvic control will have a profound negative on the running cycle.
Running is an essential skill in a majority of sports. As such, running should be seen as a generic skill to be attained in early developing years, not necessarily as specialisation skill in later years. It would seem that the teaching of running technique for developmental athletes in all sports should be fairly obvious; however this is often not the case. Developing athletes are told how ‘fast’, how ‘far’, which ‘direction’, but not ‘how’ to run. There are reasons why this does not occur, some of which may be a knowledge gap, but more so the necessary attention to detail and the time required often puts coaches off. As a consequence, mediocrity is routinely accepted with many young athletes adopting a poor running technique.
Often a young athlete would have to possess a technique significantly different from what is deemed ‘normal’ before being referred to as incorrect, for which a technique would be identified as being a limiting factor in the athlete’s performance or development. Quite often limitations in running performance based on technique are misinterpreted for underdeveloped energy systems. This tends to be based on the misconception that the metabolic capacity of an athlete relates to running performance in an almost linear fashion and has little to do with technique. This can result in programming becoming misdirected to a volume-based approach, which only compounds poor technique and leads to overuse injuries.
Interestingly some 90% of all injuries reported are to the lower limbs and the most significant mechanism of injury is running. The reasons are multifactorial, including neuromuscular fatigue, immaturity of the musculoskeletal and physiological systems and inadequate strength and stability for the desired movement (Price, Hawkins, Hulse and Hodson, 2004).
It could be argued that equal priority should be placed on teaching running skills and ball skills with developmental field sport athletes. Namely as you have to run to the ball and the vast majority of the game involves participation without the ball. Experience also shows that placing an emphasis on teaching running skills before introducing formal maximum strength and power training with external loads creates a more efficient and coordinated athlete. Of course this does not imply running skills should not be developed concurrently with strength – they should be. However, strength programming needs to be functional and complimentary to the development of running skills for developmental athletes. If this occurs it develops an innate understanding that movement, speed and efficiency is not always about force production. If programmed in reverse, the athlete tends to ‘muscle’ running. Mainly because the athlete has not learned to improve running performance primarily via skill, which is primarily how it should be developed.
There is almost no difference between proper running technique required for linear constant speed running and linear maximum speed running. Therefore it makes sense to initially teach generic linear constant speed running mechanics to developmental athletes. This is the posture where most distance and time will be spent in the future depending on the sport. Subsequently teaching acceleration mechanics provides a focus point of accelerating to constant or maximum speed. Typically high-speed mechanics take longer to learn due to the higher degree of fast coordination motor skill required. The ability to accelerate quickly is very much dependent on leg power, which is often still developing with younger athletes. However, once leg power is present acceleration is a quality that is not that difficult to improve.
The Bosch and Mach series drills should be placed in the functional capability category. Particularly when coached as resisted technique drills – as opposed to resisted running. These drills serve as tremendous developers of anterior hip range of motion, specific posterior and lateral hip strength – as well as facilitators of calf complex stiffness. They do not necessarily improve running technique directly, but indirectly provide the specific strength and body awareness to express better technique. The most effective way to teach technique is via running – not drilling.
The primary difference between track athletes and field sport athletes with regard to running technique is in lower limb mechanics. Efficient upper body technique can be resolved and taught quickly. Technical errors that occur from the waist down can be improved effectively within a team sport setting with running technique drills that involve no arms or arms placed overhead. An ancillary benefit of these running technique drills is that they improve general coordination and dynamic balance by default, which has a positive transfer to field sport speed when running with a ball or implement.
By developing running skill capability in the early developing years it can broaden sport choices available to emerging athletes and enable talent transfer across sports in later years. For example, from water-based to running sports such as swimming to triathlon. Also, running is a common and valued training modality for swimmers and water polo athletes. It certainly makes sense for these athletes to be efficient runners.
Strength Training Technique
Strength is in many ways the most all-encompassing of all the biomotor qualities. All forms of motion require some expression of force; therefore all sports will derive benefit from sport appropriate strength training. The physical quality of strength is the underpinning for the optimum development of the other biomotor qualities. It is imperative to appropriately develop functional strength in parallel with sport skill development and in certain situations it can and should lead sport skill development.
To understand the role of strength training in the process it is necessary to redefine strength training. Strength training is coordination training with appropriate resistance to handle bodyweight, project an implement, move or resist movement of another body, resist gravity and optimize ground reaction forces. The definition clearly directs the process of resistance training. Master bodyweight resistance first and foremost. This is the foundation. Once the developing athlete can handle their bodyweight consistently then it is appropriate to progress to external loading and more advanced resistance modes and methods:
- The term strength is chosen as an umbrella term rather than weight training which both refers to only a portion of the strength-training spectrum and is limiting
- Teach coordination, control & speed with bodyweight, gravity and ground reaction before external load
- Prioritize technique and foundational strength before strength endurance and power before power endurance – an athlete cannot ensure a quality unless they possess the quality in the first place
- The goal is rather simple: develop strength the athlete can use and apply to sports instead of strength that can be measured in artificial environments
One key to performance is how you use strength. How is the force expressed? Can you produce and reduce the force? Force production is all about acceleration, but often the key to movement efficiency and staying injury free is the ability to decelerate—which is the ability to reduce force. The muscles of the core play a major role in this function. A good functional training program will work on the interplay between force production and force reduction with core training at the centre of the program.
Flexibility is a dynamic not a static quality therefore it is recommended that flexibility primarily be attained by way of coordination throughout multi-plane, multi-joint with full range of motion. This approach facilitates concurrent musculotendinous integrity and dynamic joint control. It is often overlooked that athletes can get faster and stronger simply by becoming more flexible alone.
Recently flexibility training has been portrayed in the literature as having no significant direct effect on reducing injury and negative effect on force production. This is due to a misunderstanding of the concept of flexibility and the fact that is often measured in a static and sterile environment that does not accurately reflect the demands placed on the athletes. Gary Gray (1996) framed flexibility by using the concept of ‘mostablity’ – which is the correct amount of motion, at the correct joint, in the correct plane at the correct time will go a long way to making flexibility more functional. There is no question that the inability to handle a variety of positions and postures due to limited ranges of motion directly contribute to performance decrements and can contribute to injury. Establishing symmetrical whole body functional flexibility allows gains in strength across a large range of motion through triple flexion of hip, knee and ankle and facilitates technique. This can greatly enhance an athlete’s skill with landing/deceleration. The longer & stronger a muscle the more force it can tolerate. Each sport and the position or event within the sport requires a variety of postures or shapes that are totally unpredictable. Lederman (2014) presented the challenge to reconcile the difference between what shapes you need and the shapes you make. Thinking of flexibility as the ability to make a variety of shapes opens up a whole new vista for the growing and developing athlete. It is challenging for them in a way that allows them to see the transfer to movements they are working to master. This concept also integrates flexibility with the other components.
The body is a link system; this link system is referred to as the kinetic chain. Functional postural training is all about taking advantage of this linkage – it is about how all the parts of the chain work together in harmony to produce smooth, efficient patterns of movement. Movement occurs from “Toe nails to finger nails” through the centre, which is referred to as the core.
The core works as an integrated functional unit to accelerate, decelerate, and dynamically stabilize the body during movement. All movement is relayed through the core. The core in effect is a swivel joint between the hips and the shoulders that allows the entire body to accelerate the limbs, the entire body to decelerate the limbs and the entire body to support a limb.
In order to truly understand core function in the context of function of the whole body we must shift our focus from muscles to movements. The brain does not recognize individual muscles. It recognizes patterns of movement, which consist of the individual muscles working in harmony to produce movement.
Another key to core function is the role of gravity. Gravity has maximum effect on a body in motion. We simply cannot ignore gravity; it is essential for movement because it helps us to load the system. Therefore we must learn to overcome its effects, to cheat it and even defeat it occasionally. The fact that we live, work and play in a gravitationally enriched environment cannot be denied. Gravity and its effects must be a prime consideration when designing and implementing a functional core training program or we are not preparing the body for the forces that it must overcome.
Ultimately, what links everything together into a complete functional program is proprioception. Proprioception is awareness of joint position derived from feedback in the sense receptors in the joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. It is a highly trainable quality. It is almost too simple. We must strive to constantly change proprioceptive demand throughout the training program. In fact this variable is manipulated more frequently than change in exercise mode or change of exercise.
Posture is a dynamic not static quality. The larger core muscles know as ‘anti-gravity muscles’ play a major role in maintaining a sound functional athletic posture. Experience has taught us that there is little carryover from static postural evaluation to athletic movement. We need to shift our thinking away from posture as a still picture or a posed position. It is dynamic. Posture must be assessed relative to the athlete’s sport. Each sport has its own specific posture and each individual within the sports have their own posture. The combination of the two allows for much variability. Our goal should not be to fit everyone into certain parameters, rather it should be to understand what each athlete brings to their respective sports and adjust accordingly.
Force Reduction Ability
In the programming of strength and agility training the role of force reduction is often significantly under-emphasized. There is an inordinate emphasis on producing measurable numbers in force production. As such, exercises and movements programmed in the weight room setting almost totally neglect force reduction and proprioception. Unfortunately, it is often only after the athlete is injured that these qualities are addressed in the rehabilitation program. The ability to decelerate and stop is a key performance factors in a large number of sports. The underlying qualities of eccentric strength, isometric strength, reactive strength underpinned by proprioception to heighten awareness are all highly trainable qualities. These qualities must be trained from the youngest ages beginning with balance games and stop/start activities progressing to more formal programs as the athlete matures. If the athlete is prepared mechanically through emphasis on proper technique before achieving peak height velocity (PHV) then the risk of injury later is significantly reduced, especially in the high-risk female athlete population. PHV is a period when the athlete’s height is at peak acceleration. This can vary with gender and individuals, but generally occurs with females between 12.5-13 years and males between 12.5-15 years (Balyi & Hamilton, 2001). The PHV period often forms the point at which coordination has to be re-learnt with basic force reduction movements.
Conceptually it is convenient to think of using as many joints as possible to reduce and subsequently to use as many joints as possible to produce force. Think of proprioception as lending quality to the movement by getting all the joint segments in proper position to execute the movement. Aside from performance errors the ability to reduce force is the major factor in causing deceleration injuries like anterior cruciate ligament ruptures, ankle sprains, hamstring and adductor strains. These injuries can be significantly reduced with a balanced program. Providing a comprehensive strength training program balanced in force reduction, force production and proprioception allows the proper progression with agility training and running mechanics.
There is no need for expensive equipment, facilities or large amounts of space. All of this is based on the concept of using the normal training environment and teaching the coaches and athletes how to take full advantage of what is available on the field, the court, or the track. It is a process completely driven by the coaches. It is important to make these physical preparation elements part of each athletes daily routine of preparation for training and teach them how it fits with their sport specific preparation. It is the foundation of winning the workout.
In summary, all of this is about the process of developing the physical capabilities of the young developing athlete to the fullest extent possible to prepare adaptable ‘bullet proof’ athletes to thrive in the competitive arena. All of this must be seamlessly integrated with sport skill development and tactical and strategic preparation for their respective sport. The overriding consideration is the individual athlete’s rate of growth and development from a physical, psychological, emotional and social point of view.
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Gambetta, V. (2007). Athletic Development – The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishing Company.
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