Ask any elite or professional athlete and they will tell you exactly how important their off-season is to their in-season performance. European tabloids often show top-level football (soccer) players lounging on the beach sporting love-handles and a funny caption. NHL players are notorious for their high-intensity off-season dryland workouts. Those NHL players that I’ve worked with always take a few weeks to do nothing before getting into the gym and when they do, they start from scratch with light weights and body weight activities designed to reset their connective tissue and neuromuscular system to a baseline that allows them to build a foundation of strength, durability and explosive power just in time for preseason. NBA players are known to travel to exotic locations to do a couple weeks of yoga and relax their bodies after months and months of banging away on the hard-wood. Pro tennis players will skip a tournament here or there when they need to take time away from the court. Even endurance athletes, the most compulsive and consistently overtrained group of athletes of them all, understand how crucial it is to rest the body seasonally and annually. While NCAA athletes may not understand the role or importance of time-off, their coaches do, and they are forced to rest at different points throughout the year. High School athletes seem to be the only group out there failing to grasp how critical the off-season is to development and injury prevention. The goal of this blog/article is to define the purpose of the off-season and it’s role in optimizing performance and preventing injury.
I happen to coach a Varsity High School Soccer Team. In addition to my role as a soccer coach, I am also the head strength and conditioning coach for over a dozen youth sports teams (hockey, soccer, basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, track and field, Nordic and alpine skiing among them) and a number of other youth athletes that I work with through my gym’s youth strength and conditioning program which we call the Junk Yard Dogs. I have been coaching strength and conditioning for nearly a decade and I have been involved in it for almost two decades now. During that time I have designed and implemented hundreds of programs for athletes who have one goal in mind: to play to their potential in their sport. My best moments in coaching have been seeing athletes complete programs that bring them closer to their potential in their sport and then watching them achieve greatness. It would seem that if this is possible, everyone would be doing it but sometimes it’s harder not to do the things that aren’t in your best interest as an athlete as it is to do the things that will make you better. Turns out, these can be one in the same. If there were one thing that I wish I would have understood better while I was competing it would be that adaptation is a process that takes place during recovery not during training. Additionally, rest, food, hydration and your emotional environment define recovery.
Last fall, about 50 high school soccer players arrived on campus a few weeks before the first day of school for an annual ritual: tryouts. Our school has a rich soccer history, so tryouts are competitive and the kids play hard competing for the coveted 18 varsity spots. The same thing is taking place on the girls side and football is kicking off their season simultaneously so it’s quite the atmosphere. By the end of the second day I had seen two spinal fractures, two concussions, two sprained ankles, and two knee injuries just between the girls and boys soccer programs.
While I can’t say that the concussions would have been avoided had the players been more rested coming into the season, there are some illuminating conclusions to be drawn from the other injuries.
First of all, it is worth differentiating between the two biggest problems that we see in the high school sports world. The first one is deconditioned athletes: these are athletes who come out for a sport
without being physically prepared for the demands of that sport either at the competitive level that they aspire to play at or just generally—this is a totally separate societal issue that should be covered separately. The second group is the athletes who are generally overtrained or under-recovered. These terms have very similar meanings and symptoms physiologically. Likewise, the leading indicators of these conditions are essentially the same. This is the group that is the focus of this blog. In a case study, 5 of the 6 athletes injured by the second day of tryouts were overtrained not deconditioned. The 6th was definitely deconditioned.
The overtrained/under-recovered high school athletes generally fall into one of two categories: multi-sport athletes or single-sport specialists. Multi-sport athletes are athletes who play more than one sport throughout the year. Single-sport specialists are athletes who play one sport year round and focus all their energy on training for and competing in this one sport. Both of these groups suffer from similar symptoms and weaknesses for different reasons.
The multi-sport athletes tend to jump from the end of one season right into preseason for the next sport without any breaks. The individual coaches of these sports know better than to push an athlete that hasn’t taken any time off but these multi-sport athletes tend to be athletic and so the coach has no choice but to prioritize the team and ask the athlete to come to every training and play every minute of every competition in the name of the team. The individual athlete’s long-term development is sacrificed and the athlete’s exposure to injury is increased drastically.
The single-sport specialist, who I will refer to as simply specialists from here on, if overtrained, are guilty of a different crime. These athletes, depending on the structure of their sport’s organizing bodies, generally are caught between worlds. Most youth athletes do not become specialists at a sport without showing a great passion, talent, capacity or aptitude for that sport. Sometimes it is driven by the athlete himself or sometimes by the athlete’s parents; usually, it is a combination. In any case, it is not the nature of our society or our economy to organize sports as government-driven systems. There are generally national level organizational bodies for each sport: USSF (United States Soccer Federation), USATF (United States of America Track and Field)...but these organizations are not present in the schools and they generally do not provide year-round programs for the youth athletes that are participating. There is a deficit in terms of teams, coaches, and competitions that is usually filled by more local-level organizations or clubs. Single-sport specialists, therefore, are caught between worlds. Is it best to train year round with a club team and forgo the high school team? What about the converse of just competing through the high school and not a club? In most cases, choosing one or the other won’t lead to overtraining—although there are some exceptions here that we will get into. Generally, the specialist’s problem arises when they are trying to combine a club team or coach with a school team. Seasons and competitions start to overlap and all of a sudden the off-season that seemed overwhelmingly long, is non-existent and overuse injuries start popping up left and right. (Author’s note: I have also encountered high-school specialists that mistakenly think it would be a good idea to become a multi-sport athlete in the name of cross-training. Overtraining and overuse ensues and the athlete’s potential remains a mirage.)
There is one more piece to this agonizing puzzle that is worth discussing: strength and conditioning programs. Due to a number of factors: the technologically driven spread of information, societal interest in physical performance and appearance, and the evolution of sport, to name a few—there has been a dramatic increase in the perceived need for strength and conditioning in youth sports. Parents, coaches and youth athletes looking to gain every possible advantage have created a massive industry that personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches around the country are making a living on. Trainers and strength and conditioning coaches are the best resource in a youth-athlete’s community to identify the leading indicators of over-training and under-recovery before an athlete is too far gone on this path. A couple days off can go a long way when academic and athletic pursuits start to add up to more than an athlete can handle. Even greater is the process of sitting down and mapping out training and competition cycles and creating a relationship that works with an athlete and her family to monitor training and competition with the athlete’s long-term development in mind.
When an athlete understands how the body adapts to training and competition to get stronger, faster, more powerful, coordinated, accurate, and durable, they can become their own best advocate for how much training and competition they can handle. More often than not, athletes are thinking less about themselves and their “development” than they are about their competition and their competition’s ability. There is a fine line in the mind of an athlete between pushing through discomfort in the name of adaptation or competition and knowing when it’s time to take some time off.
With elite and professional athletes, there is a coach, usually a team of coaches that is able to identify signs of overtraining and tell an athlete when to dial it back and take a few days to focus on recovery. It is worth stating here that recovery is not just doing nothing for a certain period of time, rather, it is an methodic approach to refueling, repairing and recharging an athlete’s systems. In youth sports, it is less likely that an athlete has a team of coaches monitoring their performance this closely and so these athletes can slip through the cracks far enough that serious injuries happen.
Parents and athletes should be careful when seeking out personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches for their youth athletes. One of the first questions a parent should ask a coach is what are their methods for identifying overtraining and how does the coach deal with nutrition and recovery with their athletes. These are easy questions to ask because any strength coach worth their going rate will have good answers to these questions and will be happy to talk about these topics!! This is the stuff of optimizing human performance and that’s the reason why a strength coach does what she do! The difficult questions arise when a parent is forced to take a critical look at the training and competition schedule set forth by the team or coach that their son or daughter is thrilled to be a part of. The next part of this blog will discuss the details of the off-season on a sport by sport basis as well as it’s role in the long term development of a youth athlete.