How to specialize (hint: be a generalist) by adam rogers

I think it is important for me to start this article with a disclaimer, especially for those who haven’t read my prior post on training principles for The Young Athlete. I am against early specialization for young athletes, in that I believe that they should be allowed to fully develop before they decide what they want to do (or have someone else make the choice for them). Luckily, this isn’t too controversial of a stance to take these days, but seeing as there are still people in the opposite camp, I felt that it was important to recognize that bias for anyone reading. It is my opinion that the risks of early specialization (overuse injury, mental burnout, and even the chance of compromising an athlete’s potential ceiling of performance) outweigh any of the intended benefits that come with immersing a kid in a sport and its specific training year round.

But, I am also willing to recognize that there might come a point in time when an athlete will be ready to take this step in their journey, to select a sport that they enjoy and are passionate about and want to focus their energy on to realize their full potential. If we, as the parents/coaches/trainers, believe that the athlete is physically, emotionally, and socially mature enough to make this decision for themselves, it becomes our job to then help them navigate this course as best we can. The good news is, we can take the lessons that we learned from implementing early diversification into the journey of our young athletes, and apply them to the competitive season of our specializing athlete. What we see is that the same principles that govern the sequencing of training qualities over the course of the natural maturation process, also apply on the smaller timescale of an athletic season.

There is a natural progression here that cannot be ignored. Training qualities build on each other to maximize performance and also protect against injury, and skipping steps in this process in either long term athletic development or inside of a competitive season I believe will lead to avoidable consequences. I’ve drawn out below how I picture the overlap actually manifesting, but I should stress that this chart is simply for the sake of visualizing the similarities. We will certainly have athletes in their early offseason doing different ‘stuff’ than my 4 year old who is still trying to figure out how to catch a ball with his hands and not his face. But the depth with which the underlying principles overlap can help guide our thought process for designing long term plans for individuals in either camp.

For the sake of this post, let’s look at how we can use this approach to create a yearly training plan for a specialized athlete, and use the comparisons to our still-developing young athletes to check our work. What we’ll end up discovering is that even a specialist is actually best served to spend the majority of their year improving their general athletic qualities and AVOIDING their sport of choice in its competitive form.

Early offseason

At this time in the year, our athlete has just finished their season and perhaps even an intense post-season. The best thing they can do at this point is to get away from it. A training season needs to have a natural rhythm of stress/rest, and after the potentially intense conclusion to the season, it’s vital for the athlete to mentally and physically take a break from something they were completely immersed in. They need to ensure that they have retained, and continue to foster, a sense of self that exists outside of their performance in their sport, and this can only be found with a clean break.

As coaches, what we gain from this break with their sport is a chance to take a step back and focus on some very foundational training qualities that will benefit them later in the season. Referencing our chart above, this would mean time spent on things like movement quality and movement variability. Where these concepts might look like basic fundamental movement skills for our kiddos (running, jumping, throwing, kicking, catching, striking), our offseason athlete could use this time to focus on

  • locomotion drills and tumbling to build kinesthetic awareness and motor control
  • low intensity gymnastic work for connective tissue strength
  • circuit training with low volume of contractions and varying external loads and odd objects

Similar to early diversification for the kids, this training cycle is designed to provide the variety needed for the athlete to expand the pool of motor patterns that they can draw from in unexpected athletic situations. As Frans Bosch says,

“No one can directly teach the learning system how to organize. All the coach, physical therapist or movement expert can do is create conditions that optimize the self-organizing system’s chances of finding generally valid principles of satisfactory solutions….One of the key needs of the motor system is control that works in a wide variety of contexts. A method of control that works in only one particular environment is useless.”

The other focus at this time of year is exactly in line with how we want to frame our kids early exposure to sports - to have fun! Unstructured play, with different people, even playing different games/sports, but generally enjoying their physical self will help to remove the monotony of a training routine, and keep the process more sustainable. Kids and athletes alike have to enjoy what they’re doing in order to find the intrinsic motivation to get better at it, so we have to ensure that we build this focus into the long term plan.

Middle Offseason

Now we’ve allowed for some time away from the game, recovered physically from the rigors of the season, and have a hunger to get better for next year. What should the main focus be? The temptation might be to go for the sexy stuff; power, absolute speed, high velocity agility drills. But we have to realize that these qualities can only exist sustainably if they are built on a solid foundation, one that takes into account movement quality/efficiency, and the structural strength needed to support higher power outputs. This means building in sufficient volume of eccentric contractions and isometric holds. In his book Triphasic Training, Cal Dietz does an incredible job of explaining the value of eccentric training for athletes. In his words, “Every dynamic movement begins with an eccentric muscle action.” Basically, athletes have to learn how to eccentrically absorb and isometrically store energy before they can apply force concentrically. If we ignore this and jump right to force development, we are effectively building strength on top of dysfunction, which is always a risky venture.

Eccentrically focused movements, coincidentally, should also be the focus for any weight training with pre-adolescent kids. Slowing the movements down, building control and consistency before adding speed and intensity are tenets of any good resistance program for young athletes. They have to accumulate a ton of volume at preset tempos to build the confidence and strength required to develop higher power at a later time. Build eccentric strength, THEN concentric power. This same principle can be applied to some low intensity change of direction skill work as a prerequisite for more dynamic and reactive agility drills later on.

This portion of the offseason is also a great place to start to do low intensity conditioning work. The best route for this is usually accumulating cyclic volume, using rowers/bikes/swimming/running, but we have to be smart about which modality we use. Having someone with poor running mechanics go for a 45 min jog as their aerobic support work would be a mistake. Find methods that allow the athlete to get a continual but low intensity respiratory stimulus while minimizing the residual mechanical damage that they experience from the session. Around the world circuits with a mixture of cyclic, strongman implements, and flow work are great options here. Incorporate some odd objects for carries/holds/drags, keep them moving, and keep them breathing without pushing too hard.

Late-offseason

Now that we have established the necessary structural integrity through our focus on movement quality and eccentric strength, we can start to work towards absolute strength and concentric power production. This is the fun stuff. Since our athlete has trained their body to efficiently and quickly absorb energy eccentrically, their rate of force development (RFD) will be higher as a result. This is due to the combination of leveraging the stretch shortening cycle of the working muscle-tendon unit to absorb and create force, and also having an eccentrically strong and confident antagonistic muscle that won’t aggressively inhibit the movement. As a simple example, picture aggressively extending your elbow by concentrically contracting your tricep. The speed of this movement will be limited not only by the contractile potential of the tricep, but also by your bicep’s ability to absorb and stop the force as the joint nears end range. So not only is this order of training qualities important for safety, it will also yield better performance as measured by the RFD. Training the concentric portion of the movements aggressively will also improve inter-muscular coordination, improving the efficiency of multi-joint movements as a result.

Our base level of strength also allows us to start training the pre-requisites for absolute speed and more dynamic agility at this point, specifically acceleration/deceleration drills and change of direction at sharper angles and to external cues instead of pre-planned patterns. In my opinion, the most important quality for safe participation in field sports is the ability to decelerate and change directions quickly and safely, in any direction and in response to a huge variety of unexpected stimuli (ball, defender, whatever). Non-contact injuries usually come from these unexpected change of directions or perturbations in our usual movement pattern, and while we will never be able to eliminate them I do believe that we can minimize them by improving an athlete’s balance and ability to decelerate and absorb force safely in many different directions.

Also at this time we can start to incorporate some more aerobic threshold work into the athlete’s conditioning sessions. These should still be sustainable efforts, and limited to modalities that don’t have high skill requirements, but we can start to push the intensity up higher now and start to build their capacity on top of the prior foundation work. These aerobic intervals are still best progressed in volume instead of intensity at this point in the season, building comfort and confidence at higher efforts.

Preseason

This is the first time that I would recommend beginning to incorporate sport specific work. Our conditioning work will start to converge towards the kinds of energy systems that we expect to be touched on most often, with infrequent maintenance work on our base aerobic capacity, even for athletes in the power sports to improve their recovery between efforts. We can start to build higher power efforts into our strength work, with touches on strength speed and speed strength efforts. While our focus will begin to narrow, there is still plenty of value to be had in variety of the methods chosen. There should be enough repetition of a drill to allow for an athlete to adapt to the stimulus, but also enough variety to ensure that we aren’t overloading specific movement patterns or creating monotony in the process. Remember, we want our athletes to be flexible and resilient, where they can handle a huge spectrum of unknown challenges rather than a small subset of movements that they over-prepared for.

For our young adult, the same principles apply. They have put the time in and have earned the right to do higher power work, to focus on reactive strength and agility, and to incorporate higher intensity conditioning into their workouts. They are also now mature enough to be able to focus their time and energy on more clearly defined goals. This is the point where we are able to confidently allow them to specialize, and accept the risks that come with it.

In-season

The training plan at this point is built completely around the schedule and the demands of the sport. How often the games are, what the length of the season is, what the physical impact of a competition is like, etc. The focus becomes attempting to give them the best chance possible to recover effectively between efforts, and counteract the stress that the sport places on them. This might take the shape of focused accessory work to counteract overuse patterns, or it might be low level active recovery sessions to allow the body to ramp down after high efforts. Either way, at this point the training goal is less about improving fitness, and more about slowing the rate of decay of the athlete’s overall fitness as their season progresses.

Our correlation with a fully grown and developed adult is similar, but exists on a larger time scale. We want to maintain a rhythm to their training that mimics the stress/rest nature of a competitive season. Games are replaced with seasons, and the time between games is replaced with the offseason. We want to improve/optimize their readiness in the offseason, and put them in a position to succeed during the season. A very effective training tool at this time is video review and visualization to expand an athlete’s sport specific situational awareness, essentially applying a mental stressor and seeking a mental adaptation to improve their performance with minimal physical stress.

Conclusion

As was mentioned previously, there is definitely going to be differences in the implementation of these overlapping principles for either developing young athletes or off season athletes. But I think the biggest and most valuable takeaway that I’ve taken from observing these overlaps is that this natural sequencing of training is vital for health and performance for athletes in either camp. The value of early diversification for our young athletes is mirrored in the value of an early and general offseason for the specialized athlete. It prepares them for the future, mentally and physically. Then, when it’s time to specialize/compete, they can do so to the best of their potential, and have a more sustainable experience as well.

~ Adam

Recommended further reading

  • Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach - Frans Bosch
  • Triphasic Training - Cal Dietz
  • How to do things all wrong - Eric Cressey
  • Transfer of pattern recall skills may contribute to the development of sport expertise - Abernethy
  • Intensive training and sports specialization in young athletes. American Academy of Pediatrics. Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness
  • National Athletic Trainers' Association position statement: prevention of pediatric overuse injuries - Valovich McLeod TC
  • Late specialization: the key to success in centimeters, grams, or seconds (cgs) sports - Moesch K
  • Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: perspectives and recommendations - Wiersma LD.
  • Sport-specific practice and the development of expert decision-making in team ball sports - Baker J, Côté J, Abernethy B
Created By
Adam Rogers
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