Conditioning programs keep young athletes in top form
Troy Watchorn, T7 Fitness
10700 Sapp Brothers Drive
14706 Giles Rd.
Turman Quarterback Academy
Fourteen-year-old Alex Nelson of Elkhorn shot up several inches in middle school, throwing off his basketball and track skills. Working with a personal trainer at T7 Fitness in Omaha, Alex shaved significant time off his 400 meter dash and increased his vertical jump by six inches, just in time to start high school in the fall. He also gained confidence.
“He’s happy with the results he’s seen so far, and that’s what makes him want to go back,” mother Jenny Nelson said. “He wants to be a better athlete.”
Today’s young athletes have a plethora of options to boost their athleticism in the off-season, whether through school programs or at area fitness facilities. High schools host summer strength and conditioning programs to help players stay sharp for the fall. Outside facilities offer one-on-one training and small group instruction with personal trainers or sport-specific coaches. With the extra support, kids (and their parents) aim to push their athletic performance to the next level.
“Most athletes, when they come to us, are looking to excel better in their sports,” said Gibbie Duval, owner of Xplosive Edge. “They are looking to run faster, jump higher and make the next greatest team.”
While numbers documenting off-season training are scant, it is clear that more students are participating in sports than ever before. Nationwide, participation in high school sports has increased for 24 consecutive years to a record 7.7 million boys and girls in 2012-2013, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
By putting in hours of training during the summer months and/or off-season, young players build the individual skills to improve their game once they rejoin the team.
“From our perspective, this is when great players are made,” said Elkhorn South High School basketball coach Alex Bahe.
Building better athletes
Both high school coaches and outside trainers emphasized the importance of off-season training for building well-rounded athletes.
At Elkhorn South High School, basketball coach Bahe said the school’s summer strength and conditioning program is geared toward the multi-sport athlete. Instead of specializing in one sport, Elkhorn South encourages players — particularly younger players — to participate in multiple sports, Bahe said. “We believe that participating in other sports helps improve overall athleticism, toughness and competitiveness, which prepares them well for basketball,” he said.
During the summer, Elkhorn South basketball players participate in a circuit-training program organized by football coaches and a speed camp organized by track coaches. The dual programs help students improve core strength and explosiveness while reducing injuries. “We wholeheartedly believe the benefit has been evident in the performance of our basketball team over the past two seasons,” Bahe said.
Elkhorn High School is also invested in promoting a culture of multi-sport athletes, said basketball coach Spencer Peterson. “When you participate in multiple sports, you build a much more well-rounded person, and athletically you develop bodies better,” he said.
Similarly, the summer programs at T7 emphasize broad athleticism, owner Troy Watchorn said. “It’s about making the kids more athletic across the board,” he said.
A high school football player might do a tennis drill to diversify his skills, he said. With younger players, programs are more foundational and emphasize teaching kids the art of efficient movement. “Even though there are a lot of athletes in youth sports, a lot of kids can’t jump rope nowadays,” Watchorn said. T7’s programs teach functional movement patterns to set the stage for better performance as youngsters develop.
Learning how to do things the right way at a young age is also a focus at Xplosive Edge. Middle school athletes learn the basic movement patterns to jump, squat, cut and change directions as well as how to eat well. “If we can teach them how to do things the right way when they are young, they will excel in sports later in life and have a significant reduction in sports injuries,” Xplosive Edge’s Duval said.
Going Vertical, another fitness facility, utilizes multiple systems to improve young athletes’ speed, agility and power. Computerized, interactive training systems create customized drills to enhance agility and range of motion, while also providing feedback on reaction time. Over time, younger kids notice improvement in their performance, Going Vertical’s Tyler Nieland said. “They become more athletic, their movement is smoother and they’re not as awkward,” he said.
When young athletes stick to a training schedule in the summer, they reap the rewards once play starts again.
“The off-season is essential for individual skill development, and the top players in our program are those that have been willing to put in the long, hard hours to improve their game,” said Bahe of Elkhorn South High School.
Trainers at outside facilities also said that dedication in training can close the gap between great players and average players. “Hard work is better than talent,” said Going Vertical’s Nieland. “If you train and you are consistent at it, you’ll catch up with those kids that are not training and are just talented.”
At T7, the emphasis on movement efficiency can help young athletes learn how to work with their bodies to maximize their effectiveness, Watchorn said. For example, a personal trainer can point out a running issue that, when corrected, can improve performance. “If you’re not the world’s fastest kid, you can become faster by utilizing the system more efficiently,” he said.
The Turman Quarterback Academy offers football-specific training to middle school students from across the state. Players work on quarterback fundamentals to improve their game in the fall. “We work on footwork, ball handling, drops, option, throwing, reading coverages,” said the academy’s Matt Turman, who is also a football coach at Skutt Catholic High School.
Older high school athletes may utilize outside training programs to prepare them for college play and catch the eye of college coaches, Nieland said. In one case, Going Vertical trainers worked with a high school football player to develop the explosive speed needed in the next level of play. In a couple of months, the athlete noticed significant improvement, he said.
Bahe cautioned that a youngster’s drive is often more important than the training program he or she utilizes. “Most of the best basketball players have been developed on their own, spending hours alone in a driveway, on a playground or in a gym, driven by no one but themselves,” he said. “And this can’t become a lost art.”
High school coaches and personal trainers agree that supervision during training, especially weightlifting, is critical to preventing injuries.
“Whether it’s at a school or in a facility, supervision is the most important emphasis,” said Peterson of Elkhorn High School.
The basketball coach said he often sees youth performing lifts incorrectly. “If they start doing a lift wrong — and I see it all the time — and start straining muscles that aren’t supposed to be strained, who knows what kind of drastic injuries they will come across?”
High school students may be tempted to show off their abilities in the weight room. Without adequate supervision, “it’s basically a free-for-all where the athlete can do whatever they want with as much weight as they want on the bar,” Duval of Xplosive Edge said. “It’s a recipe for disaster and injury.”
For middle school students, who typically do not lift weights, trainers say they still work to get kids thinking about proper technique. The early practice sets the stage for safer sports participation. “It’s a stepping stone before they get to high school,” Going Vertical’s Nieland said.
A growing body of research is recognizing the risk of overuse injuries among youth who specialize in one sport too early.
“Children are playing at higher intensities and at younger ages. Grade-schoolers may be playing in multiple leagues,” said Dr. Mininder S. Kocher in an interview with the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. “By high school, many adolescent athletes concentrate on one sport and play all four seasons, which means they don’t cross-train or change loading environments.”
One Loyola University study found that kids who highly specialized in one sport were 36 percent more likely to suffer a serious overuse injury, such as stress fractures in their backs, arms or legs; damage to elbow ligaments; and cartilage injuries. In fact, nearly half of all sports injuries sustained by middle school and high school students are overuse injuries, according to the organization Safe Kids USA.
Research shows that diversification not only protects against injury, it also improves performance. Elite athletes generally wait until their mid- to late-teenage years to specialize, several studies have found. Athletes who specialize earlier stop short of achieving the highest ranks.
Regardless of the sport, doctors say early detection of an injury is key. “If we can catch these injuries in the early stages, we can modify the patient’s activity to allow him or her to heal and regain normal anatomy and function,” Kocher said.
Keeping it positive
Trainers say their approach to building kids’ abilities also focuses on fun. “Our goal is to try and give kids a positive, fun experience that will keep them enjoying the game, while helping them perform at a higher level,” T7’s Watchorn said.
Going Vertical’s Nieland said fitness programs also boost youth’s confidence. Youth at Going Vertical work out with others their age as well as older athletes, helping them learn communication skills alongside athletic skills. “They’re able to be more social,” he said. “Especially nowadays when kids are on their phones, here they get out and meet different kids.”
At T7, 14-year-old Alex worked with Watchorn to understand his body type and natural strengths and weaknesses. “(Troy) has done a good job of thoroughly explaining why Alex is built the way he is, and I think that’s important for kids to know,” said Alex’s mom, Jenny Nelson. “It helped his confidence and increased his strength and overall body composition.