(Cover photo: Tony Duckwall of EDGE Sports Performance works with a high school athlete. Credit: Megan Stearman Photography)
Tony Duckwall, EDGE Sports Performance
Coaches, players and parents often look at things like hitting, pitching, passing and shooting as skill development, and strength training as something you just do. However, approaching strength training as skill development is one of the best ways to maximize a female athlete’s sports performance while reducing her risk of injury.
Let’s start by understanding what skill development really is. Webster’s Dictionary defines a skill as,= “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience, or practice”. It defines development as “the act or process of growing or causing something to grow or become larger or more advanced”. Skill development can literally be seen as anything you practice to become better at, including strength training.
Developing strength as a skill reduces injury risk and improves performance for a number of reasons. Muscles contract to pull bones around a joint’s pivotal axis. The stronger and more stable the muscles are through a full range of motion, the safer the joints become. A big component of sports performance is power; stronger muscles that fire in the correct sequence produce more power. Skilled strength training develops muscular movement through a complete and proper range of motion and ensures proper muscle sequence firing, promoting both safety and power production. Sloppy training develops muscular imbalances and muscle chains that do not fire correctly.
When developing strength as skill, a program must build to an end result. The program must contain an educational component to teach proper technique and be a methodology with an emphasis on correct execution, allowing for progression.
Coaches, therefore, need to approach the weight room as they would any other practice by using an outline with a focused goal for the day’s activities. Each day should reflect another step in the progression towards the end goal for the athletes. Workouts should start with an affirmation from the coach explaining what the day’s exercises are, how to do them, and why they are being performed – the physical elements they will affect and how this change will improve play or safety.
Athletes who are being taught have an increased buy-in of the coach’s vision and the effort required of them to actualize that vision. This approach is especially effective when dealing with young female athletes as it reinforces their natural desire for knowledge, enhancing both physical development and self-esteem.
Before starting in the weight room, make sure athletes have the proper joint stability and mobility that enables safe training. One of best ways to measure this is by using a tool called the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). FMS-certified strength coaches use a seven-test system for grading joint mobility, joint stability and asymmetrical issues. The FMS guides the coach in designing corrective exercises workouts for athletes with limitations that may otherwise lead to injuries during the season. It is also a great gateway to identify the need for additional screening for ACL safety. Local FMS-certified strength coaches can be found at FunctionalMovement.com.
Once screening is finished, coaches should assess the strength skills needed for the athletes to preform at their best while avoiding injuries. Set up a base of proficiency, test those strength skills and establish exercise progressions for each level of proficiency. Seeing what you have to work with helps program design and planning for success.
When designing a program, keep exercise choices simple as you will need an in-depth knowledge of these exercises in order to teach them. This knowledge will include set up, execution, function, muscles used, common training errors and how to fix them, as well as the coaching cues needed to ensure athlete success. There will be athletes with different skill levels on the team, so coaches will have to know how to regress (decrease difficulty) or progress (increase difficulty) each exercise. As a coach, remember: you cannot teach, correct or progress what you do not know. Successful coaches hammer the basics in practice. The same hold true in strength training.
Regardless of exercise choices, coaches should focus on developing a solid strength foundation for athletes, avoiding random training programs and things done for “fun” that don’t target the athletes’ specific needs. Everything should work toward the goals and is based on the athletes’ needs. An athlete’s success is a coach’s success. It comes from the mastery of technique and metered progression, not just picking up consistently heavier weights. Exercise patience when progressing both exercise difficulty and the weights used. All athletes acquire skills at different rates, so developing strength is no different.
The order of developing a strength movement is as follows:
1) The perfect execution of a strength pattern without additional weigh;
2) The perfect execution with a light load; and finally
3) The perfect execution under increasingly heavier weights over time
Skipping any of these steps will ultimately limit the athlete’s performance and increase her injury risk. For more information, visit us at Edge-Trained.com.
NASM CPT, PES, FMS, USAW
Owner EDGE Sports Performance LLC
Athletic Performance Director, KIVA Volleyball