Training Sport Athletes

Hey Coaches!

So this article is long but I’ll say one thing upfront about training sport athletes that will hopefully spark your interest: “Traditional CrossFit is NOT the most effective way to train a sport athlete.”

That’s not to say it isn’t effective, it’s simply not the MOST effective.  So how should we alter what we typically do for these athletes?

Let’s do a little exercise…

Quickly come up with a list of as many movements as you can……….keep thinking……, seriously come up with a list……how many of those involved moving up and down? Forward and back? Left and right? Unilateral vs. bilateral? Rotational? Involved agility and balance? You get the picture – more often than not we move up and down, sometimes forward and backwards and mostly with two arms and/or two legs.  

Now think about a sport athlete – a lacrosse player’s shot, a football player’s cuts, a soccer player’s kick, and a baseball player’s swing.  They cut from side to side, one leg at a time, rotating around all axes, often using one side of the body at a time.  Quite a bit different than what we do right?!

Don’t get me wrong – functional movement (especially constantly varied at a high intensity 🙂 ) is the most important thing for an athlete to build the basic foundation of athleticism. Buuuuut – by supplementing or even altering this functional movement to more specifically train the needs of their sport we can produce an even better athlete!

So how do we do it?

1. Adjust jumping, landing and squatting positions to mimic the athletic position – wider stance!

Regardless if you are a third baseman or a linebacker, your ready position is the same – inside of your feet lined up underneath your shoulders ready to move in any direction needed.  This is different (i.e. wider) than our traditional squat position.  Our goal is for our athlete to be comfortable, balanced, strong, and quick in this position; thus, we must train them in this position!  In other words, they should squat with a slightly wider stance with the inside of their feet lined up underneath their shoulders.

The same goes for when they land from jumping – box jumps, broad jumps, burpees, etc.

2. Adjust jumping, landing and squatting positions to mimic the cutting position – toes and knees straight!

Think about how you properly change direction.  Dig in the outside foot with toe faced forward.  Drive through foot with knee tracking the toe (i.e. facing straight forward) and change direction.  If in this scenario we face our toe out and/our knee out, that’s a ton of force placed on the knee which greatly increases the chances of one of the most (if not the most) common sports injury – ACL tear!

Once again, we want to train an athlete in the position they should be in, so toes should be forward when they squat and knees should track the toes not outside of them.  This sounds like an old school squat, but try it out – it’s not much different than our regular squat.  With a wider stance, your knee tracks the toe as it should and you still sit back in the heels….way different than the old school narrow, knee initiated squat.

The same goes for when they land from jumping – box jumps, broad jumps, burpees, etc.

3. Be obsessed with PERFECT positioning even at the expense of intensity.

When an athlete starts to breakdown in a game, they will default to the position they are most comfortable in and conditioned to be in.  Thus, if we as coaches can make that position be one of perfection, they will excel when everyone else is weak.

This means if they don’t land a box jump, broad jump, or burpee in the perfect athletic position then don’t count the rep.  If they don’t change direction with the toe forward, knee tracking, pushing off the foot, don’t count it.  If the chin breaks neutral position on a pull up, don’t count the rep.  Be ruthless! 

4. Train on all axes especially rotational and lateral.

Yes, if I build fast, strong hips and a strong midline via olympic lifting, squatting, gymnastics, etc. my swing, shot, and kick will improve.  If I supplement that by actually rotating more often, I now further increase the neurological connections and musculature needed to move in a sport specific way.  That’s even better baby!

It can be simple things like rotating during a box jump or kettlebell swing, tossing a med ball side to side, or even mimicing a movement they do in their sport.

Same goes with side to side movement.  Change of direction is one way, but even side lunging, side stepping during kettlebell swings, and jumping laterally will suffice.

5. Change direction.

Nearly every sport demands proficiency at changing direction.  Traditional functional movements will help with the strength needed to support and accelerate but only practicing the actual movement will reinforce the proper positioning.  All it takes is one cut out of proper position to end an athlete’s season or career.

6. Train unilaterally.

We should all have equal mobility, strength, and comfort in using both sides of our body but we rarely do.  It’s way more critical for a sport athlete than a regular athlete because their sport demands it of them.  If they aren’t adequately equipped to meet the demands then they can get hurt.  When training bilaterally we can compensate for our weak side with our strong one.  We eliminate this and force adaptation by simply lunging instead of squatting and using dumbells instead of a barbell.  I still tend to train bilaterally the majority of the time with unilateral accessory work but depending on the athlete predominant unilateral training may be required.

7. Sprint and run.

It’s easy to overlook, but sprinting and running are skills like anything else.  Yes we will get faster as we get stronger and leaner, but we will also get faster via better technique and actually doing the movement.  It’s important for sport athletes to have both all out sprinting with lengthy rest and longer running with less rest.  They will be required to do both in most sports.

8. Go heavy often when they are ready.

In many sports, an athlete is required to go from 0 to 60 in a split second.  This may be in the form of a block or tackle, check, shot, or swing.  This kind of athletic demand comes down to fast twitch muscle fibers.  How do we train these? Lift heavy things explosively.  Obviously if an athlete doesn’t have the movement to support heavy load, then we have to stay away from large loads, but when they are ready to do so safely, it’s time to push!

9. Bias the programming to the demands of the sport and the athlete.

I know most of you don’t program for sport athletes, but it’s important for you to understand why we train sport athletes the way we do. 

Remember Coach Glassman’s statement “the needs of an athlete vary by degree not kind”? We often think of that in terms of scaling for the grandma next to the best athlete in the gym, but instead let’s think about it in terms of needs of athletes by sport.

The average play in football is 6 seconds and is followed by a significant amount of rest between plays.  In lacrosse, athletes may run or sprint the entire length of the field multiple times before resting for a brief second and then doing it all over again.  Would it make sense to train both athletes the same way?  The answer is yes and no!

The majority of what both athletes need is a solid foundation of strength and conditioning through functional movement.  However, it’s obvious that a lacrosse player must have a greater aerobic capacity while the football player must have greater power.  If you want to get geeky, what I’m really talking about are those energy pathways from our L1: phosphocreatine, glycolytic, and oxidative.  A lacrosse player must have a higher proficiency in the oxidative pathway while the football player must have a higher proficiency in the phosphocreatine and even glycolytic pathway.  In terms of WODs, this means that Murph is more relevant to a lacrosse athlete while EMOMS with a few heavy oly lifts each minute is more pertinent to the football athlete.  Both athletes should train across all three pathways of course, but the overall biasing of the programming should differ based on the sport and athlete!

I hope all the info above sheds some light on the approach we take when training our sport athletes.  Let me know if you have any questions or comments.



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