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Athletic Development, by Thomas Emma

From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
"Helping coaches coach better..."

Tom Emma was a graduate of Duke University, where he was a three-year basketball starter and captain his senior year, and was later drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1983. He held a Masters degree from Columbia University, specialized in sports conditioning, was the owner of Power Performance, Inc. and published several books. Tom authored several other articles on this website. Sadly (after the original posting of this article), Tom died on June 8, 2011... Coach Gels.

Are We Pushing Our Young Athletes Too Fast? - You Bet We Are

basketball training clinic

Here's a scenario I encountered recently while attending a high school basketball practice in the Miami area. Four or five Division 1 assistant coaches were sitting in the bleachers taking in the action. The objects of their attention were the team's two standout junior guards, one of whom is the son of a former NBA all-star. As practice rolls on they also notice a thin, somewhat gangly youngster who stands in the neighborhood of 6'8".

After inquiries about the player to the high school coach, they learn that the boy is a sophomore who has yet to turn 16. While he's expected to contribute this season, the coach considers him a project who desperately needs to get bigger and stronger if wants meaningful playing time.

As practice winds down and the players engage in their post-workout stretching and cool-down, each and every recruiter makes sure to touch base briefly with the lanky youngster. They all mentioned that they will follow his career progress closely and also emphasized that his focus over the next few years should be on packing on the pounds. This, the coaches agree, is the key to him succeeding on the next level and beyond.

For the next week all the boy could think or talk about, other than the fact that the college coaches actually noticed him, was how he could put on weight. And fast! Obviously, he had heard this weight gain song before from numerous people, most notably his high school and AAU coaches and his older teammates. But hearing it from such prominent basketball people gave him a new sense of urgency.

From now on, he vowed, all stops would be pulled out in the name of muscle building. Everything would be on the table, including, but not limited to, twice daily protein shakes, mass building weight-lifting workouts, and even creatine loading (creatine is a natural substance manufactured in the body that, while not a muscle builder per se, helps enhance power production during intense, explosive workouts).

All this sounds well and good except for one small problem: The young player's body is perhaps two or more years away from actually being able to put on substantial (and even unsubstantial) amounts of body weight. While his strength can be increased with proper training, until his hormones kick in it will be impossible for him to gain noticeable muscle size regardless of diet/supplementation plan or weight-lifting program. This is true for all late blooming adolescents. Their minds may be ready to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger but their bodies simply are not prepared to cooperate.

Unfortunately, this scenario is endemic to what is happening in youth sports around our country and throughout the world. Athletic development is being rushed to fit pre-existing time and age conditions that are simply not applicable to a large number of youngsters. It doesn't help matters that these age conditions seem to be moving lower and lower every year.

While it may seem like a harmless piece of advice for a coach or recruiter to throw out something along the lines of, "Kid, just put on some weight and we'll see you next year", in truth it is far from. In the case described above, the tall boy's biological age (physical maturity level) is behind his chronological age.

This common phenomenon can be extremely stressful and frustrating for an aspiring athlete, causing him or her to either give up prematurely or overtrain to make up the difference. Worst case, some may be tempted to experiment with harmful, so-called performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in order to catch up. Either way, attempting to speed up which can't be sped up is always a losing proposition.

While it would be nice if coaches and other authority figures could learn to act more responsibly when it comes to the development of young athletes, we all know that isn't likely to happen. As such, it is imperative that the young athlete and those close to them take control. Managing one's own career interests closely is, in my opinion, the only way to go in today's win at all costs climate. Below I give some suggestions and strategies that will help you accomplish this. Good luck!

Keep Your Own Council

While extremely difficult in this day and age, especially for talented and busy young athletes, it is imperative that you keep your own council when it comes to your career. You'll inevitably be pulled in a million directions by numerous individuals, some well meaning, others strictly out for themselves.

Interestingly enough keeping your own council as a young person involves first putting together an inner circle of experienced people who have your best interests unequivocally at heart. These will be the ones who you bounce all your major decisions off before making them. And while it will ultimately be up to you to make the final determinations, having caring sounding boards around will make things much easier.

It is advisable that at least some of your inner circle group have sports experience (i.e., trusted coaches, experienced teammates, trainers, etc.), but most important is that all give you the straight scoop ("yes men" and "yes women" need not apply).

Finally, be sure not to open the door to your inner circle to anyone with their own agenda. They'll be out there in numbers, especially if you are a star performer with money making potential down the road. The good news is that agenda oriented people are usually easy to recognize if you keep your eyes open.

Consider a Year of Prep School

There was a time not all that long ago when athletes attending post graduate prep schools were viewed with suspicion. Players who followed this route were more often than not dealing with academic eligibility issues and most had little interest in anything but getting through the year and moving on. It didn't help that some of the schools drew scrutiny for allegedly being nothing more than diploma mills with good sports teams.

All this has changed considerably in recent years. Attending a year of prep school after graduating high school has become common place even among athletes with solid high school academic records. There are many reasons for this. Some young athletes require an additional year to develop emotionally, learning to live on their own away from home, making their own decisions, and self motivating.

Others missed out for one reason or another on their college of choice, so the extra year can give them another shot at the recruiting process. Still others take the time and opportunity to work on their bodies. Using the prep year to get bigger, stronger, and faster can have a positive impact both physically and mentally on how a youngster eventually handles the rigors of college competition.

The additional 12 months of growing, training, and eating is especially helpful to late bloomers. These youngsters are behind the curve physically, and if they don't want to waste a year of college eligibility getting their bodies built up, prep school, in my opinion, is close to an absolute necessity.

Try to Limit Year-Round Competitions

Putting a self imposed limit on off season competitions and tournaments is far easier said then done. These events have become staples of the recruiting circuit and in some sports such as lacrosse and basketball they are widely considered more important from an exposure standpoint then are regular season games.

College coaches and scouts have found it much easier to evaluate a group of top players in one location over the course of a summer weekend than the alternative of traipsing around the country attending dozens of high school games during the school year.

As you might expect there is tremendous pressure on elite, young athletes to compete in these so-called showcase events. The pressure comes from a variety sources, some legitimate like college coaches and some not so legitimate such as profiteering event organizers, many of whom employ scare tactics (i.e., if your son/daughter doesn't participate in this or that tournament their chances for a college scholarship will diminish considerably) to ensure high attendance rates and money in their pockets.

Despite the above mentioned information, I still strongly suggest that you judiciously select which off season events you decide to attend. Find the ones that are most respected and worthwhile from a recruiting and competition standpoint and disregard the large majority that are a waste of time, energy, and money (in addition to travel and lodging expenses, event promoters usually charge a hefty fee for participation).

A little due diligence will be required here. Usually the best (and most impartial) sources of information concerning off season competitions are respected coaches and older players who have been through the off season drill recently. Contact these individuals, pick their brains, and make your choices.

Finally, it is important that you always remember what the off season is for. It is a time for recharging your batteries and improving your abilities. Traveling on a weekly basis to endless tournaments and competitions will inhibit your athletic and skill development and unnecessarily fatigue your body and mind.

No matter how much exposure you get it will mean very little unless you're performing up to your highest capabilities. In my opinion too many off season competitions will hinder these capabilities greatly.

Hire a Strength and Conditioning Coach

I strongly suggested that you employ the services of a competent strength and conditioning specialist, preferably one who has experience in your particular sport and is at least somewhat removed from your team and/or school program. This important member of your inner circle will help you stay strong, conditioned, and most important, healthy throughout the long, grueling sports/training year.

Because of the busy, year-round nature of youth sports, proper physical preparation is often neglected. A competent and independent strength and conditioning specialist can also be a trusted confidante. Most of these professionals have dealt extensively with athletes who have been through exactly what you're going through now. Many have also played high level sports. Their suggestions and insights can prove very helpful as you move through the maze we call youth sports.

individual training

Enjoy the Game/Sport for it's Own Sake

We all remember when we first threw or caught that ball, ran or swam that race, or swung that bat. It was a time of pure joy. We didn't think of winning or losing or even how well we were doing. We just had a feeling that what we were undertaking was something special, magical if you will.

While competition and improvement are important and rewarding aspects of sport, it is important that we never forget why we participated in the first place. It wasn't for accolades. It wasn't for money. It wasn't even for satisfaction of a job well done. It was for the love of what we were doing in the moment.

In fact, I can still recall how perfect the rough leather of the basketball felt on my finger tips when I launched my first shot toward the rim. And when my competitive career concluded, other than the camaraderie all dedicated athletes experience with their teammates and competitors, what I missed most about the game was the feel of the leather in my grip.

I suggest that as you negociate through the pressures, frequent ups and downs, and glorious wins and painful losses that sports participation inevitably brings, you always aspire to enjoy the game/sport for its own sake as you did when you began your athletic journey. This approach will help you to keep things in perspective while at the same time making your athletic career pure and ultimately more successful.