Kids these days do more of everything earlier than kids of 20 years ago. From a sporting perspective, they play a wider variety of sport (certainly in Australia), they train more for the sports and they certainly appear to be commencing “train for competition” activities earlier.
So what is happening in the “trenches”? How are the current trends in LTAD manifesting once players reach the professional ranks? Clearly there will be mixed and varied opinions to this question depending on what sport you work in and the systems of development that feed it.
Here’s what I see on the ground…
I recently received an email from a young S&C coach working in Australian Rules Football at the TAC (U/18) level.
He asked the following "I would love if your next topic could be about how you think S&C coaches should approach physical prep at this level (U/18) to bridge the gap to elite and ensure these young men have a solid base to make the transition to league footy in the next few years”.
For those not familiar with the Australian Football League (AFL), an annual draft is conducted in which professional clubs select athletes from a national pool. All athletes are around the age of 18yrs and once selected, they join an AFL club for a mandatory period of two years. Typically clubs get 3-6 of these young athletes in addition to another 2-3 that may be ~21yrs of age.
For the most part these players come from a club-based system that extends into a moderate length representative season where players represent their states (this becomes the prime “showcase” for clubs to view prospective draft choices). Some player will also play school based competitions and the very elite ~30 players are included in a training squad with the AIS (Australian Institute of Sport).
Having been involved in the AFL system for the last six years I have now seen enough of this system to have a feel for where the holes are.
In my opinion, the vast majority of young players coming into the AFL system are grossly under prepared physically. There are clearly exceptions to this statement among the top 5-10% of players in the draft (evidenced by those that successfully play AFL in their first year). However, as I haven’t been in a position to have any of these kids in my program I can only comment on the players that fall outside this range.
That being said, at the recent ESSA (Exercise and Sport Science Australia) Convention, offline conversations with many of my peers in the AFL confirmed the same opinion…the kids being drafted are no where near ready for fulltime professional sport.
For the most part the kids that come through the draft can run, which is a baseline capacity for performance in the AFL. By run I mean specifically they can exhibit a moderate-high relative VO2max, in straight line running. Unfortunately, the modern AFL game is not played at VO2max pace, nor is it played anywhere near a straight line.
One of the big issues for players is the difference between age group football and AFL. The repeated acceleration / deceleration nature of the modern AFL game requires that players have high relative strength and power capacity within their locomotor musculature and appropriate motor patterns to ensure that their body can handle the rigors of not only playing but also team training.
One suggestion that has recently been voiced by a very experienced physical performance coach in the AFL is that we draft athletes later at say 20-21yrs of age. While physical maturity would certainly help the issue, most of the athletes we see at that age still exhibit the same issues…they can run but that have limited ability to move effectively in a sustainable manner.
The main issue as I see it is those guiding athletes at the development level (school / age group) are preparing their players for the immediate task: winning junior competitions, as opposed to laying the ground work for a much higher level of competition. Few exhibit solid lumbo-pelvic coordination and control, even less exhibit the ability to repeatedly accelerate and decelerate using hip dominant kinematics.
So what can be done to bridge this gap?
The European / South American football (soccer) model would suggest you play as many games as you can as often as you can and that will prepare you adequately for elite competition. Many kids coming out of the club / school system in WA and Victoria often play twice a week and train very little in between and the resultant is what we see entering the AFL level.
My view is that the aforementioned soccer model works on the basis of attrition. In essence huge numbers of players playing at progressively harder levels produces a “survival of the fittest” model (those that can do, those that can’t fall by the wayside). While clearly this appears to work in these settings, playing the numbers game in Australian sport is risky at best due to the comparably small numbers of players available.
What do we need?
- Lumbo-Pelvic control - stabilize the pelvis on the femur both laterally and anterior-posteriorly, on two legs and on one, building from static situations to dynamic.
- Lower Body Strength (general force production capacity) – the ability to effectively “stack” the ankle, knee and hip, to generate high force.
- Lower Body Power (general and specific rate of force production and reduction) – learn to start, stop in all directions, jump and land.
How do we achieve it?
Main issue is to understand what it is you are trying to achieve. Build the capacity of the system first then build the power of the system.
Teach the kids to stabilize the pelvis in easy positions (kneeling, four point etc.). Use body weight, bands or even resistance from other players (controlled) to build capacity. Sort out functional imbalances and mobility issues.
Progress stability work to more functional positions e.g. standing and single leg. Introduce bracing strength in all planes; basic movement patterns threads (squat, lunge etc.) and running drills (with an emphasis on skill development not speed).
Integrate progressive strength overload while reinforcing stability features (single leg strength threads). Introduce jumping, hopping, skipping and landing skills.
Overlay rapid force production / reduction (jumping, hopping etc.) with strength progressions. Maintain high focus on stability…any lose of dynamic stability must be quickly identified and then re-trained at an appropriate level.
When does all this happen?
Warm ups, cool downs, small blocks between drills. Nothing I’ve noted above requires equipment beyond possibly a few rubber bands here and there. All that is required is some creativity and genuine understanding of what you are trying to achieve. This can be implemented from the earliest levels.
The activities noted are in the early phases, no harder than what most kids would do in the playground. Unfortunately, we seem to get too hung-up on getting to power cleans and all the flashy stuff, we forget about basic movement patterns and the fact that in order to be successful we need to control and move our own body weight.
Think back to the classic Milo of Croton tale. Legend has it that the 6th century BC wrestler developed enormous strength and power by lifting and carrying a newborn calf as a child and repeating the feat daily as it grew to maturity. Progressive overload 101…don’t try to start your program by lifting the bull!
We are what we repeatedly do. Teach kids to move well and then progress it.
If I get kids at the AFL level that can move well and are “rock solid” in general movement, we can teach them to lift and build advanced strength and power. As it stands most of us are forced to start from the beginning with a majority of 18yr old athletes entering the AFL.
This article was written to stimulate the thinking of coaches coaching young athletes. You have a tremendous responsibility to address basics. Coaches in the professional ranks stand on the shoulders of coaches at the development level. If you are weak in your approach, your players will be weak and we continue to “patch ‘em” together when in some cases it is too late.
The best development program you will ever engage in as an S&C coach is at the development level. Get that right and the rest will flow.
Here’s to the kids!