Building a Better Sport-Specific Athlete

    I have a lot of discussions with parents about their kids and how to get them better at their specific sport.  They want their kids to be able to be successful in high school and maybe have the chance to get a scholarship. Having played baseball in college and a little after that, as well as multiple sports in high school, I have a pretty good idea of the approach that most people take to get better at their sport.  I made a lot of mistakes with my own training and I want to be able to share that with others.  The way that most people approach getting better at their sport is backwards and is not setting them up to reach their potential.  In this article I want to talk about common mistakes that I see when people are trying get better at their sport and what I would recommend a kid should do if they want to achieve their maximum potential in a given sport.


    Think about the kids that you know that have gotten a college scholarship for a sport. Then think about the kids who move on from college to the professional level in their sport.  What do they all have in common?  The answer is that they are the best athletes.  In baseball, for example, it's the kids who can run the fastest, hit the farthest, and throw the hardest.  It's not necessarily the kids with the best technique.  I'm not saying that technique is not important because it is, but the people who make it to the highest level in any sport are the best athletes in that sport.  When I played baseball I saw kids all the time get scholarships just because they ran a fast 60 time or threw over 90, even if they couldn't swing their way out of a wet paper bag or hit the broad side of a barn with a fastball.  There are even collegiate football players who get drafted by MLB every year who do not even play baseball anymore.  These college and professional coaches know that they can teach a great athlete the technique they need to succeed in the sport but they can't teach a kid with great technique who is a poor athlete how to be a better athlete.  The poor athlete is already close to their maximum performance level in the sport while the great athlete with poor technique has much more potential.  The best overall athletes are going to be the ones who get the opportunities, no matter what the sport.


    If the best athletes are the ones getting the opportunities, then this is what kids should be spending most of their time doing.  They should be making themselves better athletes.  But is this the case today?  Absolutely not.  Most people have it completely backwards.  They spend all of their time practicing and playing their specific sport and little to no time making themselves a better athlete.  This leads to a whole host of problems, burnout and injury being the two main ones, but the problem I want to discuss is a low performance ceiling.  If you spend all of your time playing your sport and not building your athletic base then your top level performance is going to be much lower than it could be.  I'm going to use baseball as an example for the rest of this article because it is the sport I know the best but this applies across the board.  Modern baseball has kids playing 50 to 100 games a year, sometimes more, from the age of 8 (or even younger) on.  What results is that the best athletes do end up better than they would be (because they are already the best athletes and have the highest ceiling of performance) but the vast majority of kids end up hurt or burnt out by the time they reach high school.  It is disturbing to see the yearly injury statistics rise as more and more kids are hurting themselves due to overuse at a younger and younger age.  Not only are a lot of kids dropping out because they are hurt or burnt out, but most of the kids are setting themselves up to peak way to early.  They don't spend the time making themselves better athletes and therefore never make it past a certain level of sport specific performance.  If your kid is by far the best athlete around then this method can work well for him (but I would argue that it still is limiting their potential), but for most kids you are setting themselves up for failure in the long term.


    So what does the theoretical development of a better athlete look like?  There are ten general physical skills that CrossFit defines as part of fitness (or athletic ability).  They are endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.  The better that you are at these ten skills then the better of an athlete that you are.  Now obviously some of the skills are more important for some sports and other skills for others, but they all play a part in every sport.  If you want to improve your athletic performance then you need to get better at all of these.  I like to think of these ten skills as the base of the performance pyramid.  The better that you get at these then the bigger your base.  Your specific sport performance is the peak of the pyramid.  What this means is that the bigger your athletic base then the higher your performance peak.  If you only focus on a few of these skills then you are making your base somewhat bigger, but the only way to make the biggest possible base that you can make is to get better at all ten skills!  Neglecting any of these skills is setting yourself up to not reach your full potential.


    Ok, we know that it's important to develop the ten skills if we want to get better at our sport.  So how do we do it?  CrossFit is the best program that I have found (and I have done them all) at developing all ten of the skills simultaneously.  There are other programs that might help you get better faster at some of the skills, but nothing that I have found can come close at helping your improve in all areas as well as CrossFit does.  Anybody can help you get you stronger, or get you more flexible, or get your endurance up, but getting better at all of them together is the trick.  It's not easy to do and requires a lot of dedication and hard work, smart programming, and great coaching, but it can be done.  If you want to make yourself a better athlete or help your kid become a better athlete then I would encourage you to ask your trainer how they are helping you or your kid get better in all ten areas.  If they can't tell you then find someone who can.  You should be measuring your progress in all ten areas and making sure that you are progressing in them all.  If you do this then you will be setting yourself up for your highest performance peak. Another way to make sure you are getting better at all of the physical skills is to play multiple sports.  Different sports require different skills and playing a variety will help develop more skills.  I still believe that you should be doing CrossFit as well but playing multiple sports for as long as you can is much better than specializing early in the athlete's career.


    Let's take a look a what a theoretical year of training and competing might look like for a sport specific athlete. I will use baseball for my specific example but the same principles can be applied to any sport.  Most kids start their seasons around March or April and go through at least July, and then play fall ball for a month or two.  This year around playing leaves little time to become a better athlete.  When I was in college we didn't play more than 50 or 60 games a year and we were much more physically developed than kids.  There is no reason that a young kid should be playing more games than an 18-22 year old young man.  Kids should be sitting around the 30-50 game amount per year and shouldn't be playing more than 3 or 4 months a year.  The rest of the year should be spent recovering and improving the 10 skills.  So if a kid's season starts in March then they should be done playing by July.  They should get at least a month off to recover both physically and mentally and then get back to training sometime around August.  The time from August to February should be spent focusing on the 10 physical skills.  A smart trainer can design a program that will slowly start focusing on the skills required for the sport as the season gets closer, but all 10 skills should be made a priority in the offseason.  This approach will not only create a bigger base which in turn will make a higher performance peak, but will help prevent burnout and injury.  During the season a simple two or three day a week maintenance program should be implemented to help maintain the gains made in the offseason but should not be the focus of this time.  Professional athletes follow this model for their training and there is no reason why young athletes should not be following the same protocol.


    I hope I have showed you how to help yourself or your kid to improve their sport specific performance.  I always tell people that I wish I knew what I know now when I was playing.  The more I have contemplated this the more that I realize that I am glad that I didn't.  It has led me on this path of discovery that has taken me to the point that I can teach other people what I have learned and help them achieve their goals and dreams.  My childhood goals and dreams are no longer my current goals and dreams but I want to help others achieve theirs.  I hope that this article can help some kids learn from my mistakes and achieve what they want. I know how disappointing it can be to not perform to the level that you feel that you should be able to and doing so is only a matter of knowledge of what to consistent, disciplined action.  Hard work is not the only action needed-it must be smart work as well.