Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Building Better Athletes - A Practical Guide

When the subject of athletic training
is broached, the very first concept that
needs to be addressed is physical health
and immunity. To be an athlete-- to even
consider competing in anything-- you must
first be healthy. Yes, some athletes compete
with broken bones and torn ligaments,
but they cannot perform optimally in
that condition.

Next, and I'm being practical here, the
concept of physical fortitude and constitution
must be addressed. This means that in one's
athletic training, there should be a built-in
resistance to injury; and there should be
some promotion of regeneration, or the
ability to recover from injury. If you pound
yourself mercilessly, and do not recover
well, you will never compete well.

After the core concepts of health, fortitude
and regeneration, an athlete must develop
foundational body skills. The first and most
important is balance. Most definitions I've
seen are ethereal, esoteric or meaningless.
I like to define athletic balance as "the
ability to maintain physical advantage over
gravity and / or the earth." There are lots
of different methods to develop balance,
but we'll get back to that.

Next, an athlete must develop proprioception,
or the ability to perceive one's body position
in space (not outer space, but three-dimensional
context). This kind of mind-body skill can
be developed alongside balance, but it can
also be overlooked and ignored in error.

Basic movement skills like running, jumping, 
and balance-recovery seem like the next
logical step. But without coordination, or
the ability to move as a whole, the body won't
perform these basic tasks well. Imagine a
small child or an elderly person trying to
jump. Maybe they have enough power, but
without coordinating the limbs, the trunk,
the head and the mind, it's difficult to go
very high or very far. Talk to the top coaches
in almost any sport and they all seem to agree
that coordination is more important than
strength and most other skills.

Speaking of strength, we've gone way off the
deep end when it comes to the development
of strength. We seem to think it's the end-all
be-all for athletics, seniors, the injured, you
name it. But alas, strength can be a liability.
Most pure strength training ISOLATES muscles
and muscle groups to enlarge the muscles and
make them more powerful; but muscle isolation
training can un-develop coordination, which
will take you back to not being able to jump.

Read Tom Green's Sprinter Training Program
to learn why upper body strength is slowing
you down; and be sure to recognize how Tom
differentiates between strength and power.

Power does not mean strength. While impulse
power, or the ability to move or react quickly,
is critical to athletics, it is much more of a
coordination function than a strength function.
Yes, I know all too well that muscles are
what move the body; but quick reflexes, like
those required in fencing or boxing, come
from coordination and relaxation training,
not strength. There is also power derived
from special movements, like the pike, that
do not require strength but coordination.

An especially important power function
is called "The Serape Effect." This is
the ability move the limbs powerfully
through coordination with the trunk. Think
about a baseball player throwing a 90 mph
fastball. He doesn't have to be a big, strong
guy to do this; he just has to be very
coordinated. I like to call this the issuance
of power.

For most sports, the next most important
skill-sets are accuracy, agility and dexterity.
This is the ability to perform intricate or difficult
tasks well. Again, these are fine motor skills
that require coordination, relaxation and
high-level proprioception-- not strength.
Prehensile ability is the ability to seize, carry
and control objects. Tennis requires so many
different kinds of motor skills that make the
game extremely regimented in the way to
learn how to play it.

For muscle-heads, the concept of "throttle"
only occurs when they're driving; it's the
pedal on the right or the twist grip for
acceleration. But an athlete's ability to move
at different speeds can be a real game changer
in tennis, volleyball, pugilism, etc. The
off-speed volleyball spike or the slow
feint in boxing can be very difficult
to defend.

This brings us to efficiency and stamina.
When we're young, we're all impulse and
no longevity.  But aging athletes naturally
develop the ability to continue to perform,
rather than blowing it all in a few minutes.
Of course, the high school kids who run
cross country learn how to extend their
energy by moving efficiently; but most
of the rest of us have to figure it out over

In kinesiology, technique usually means the
sport-specific skills requiring dexterity.
If you never take swimming lessons, you're
probably never going to compete in Olympic
swimming competition because it takes a
very knowledgeable coach to teach you the
techniques and iron out the problems. Once
you attain a high degree of proficiency in a
technique, you may be able to "tweak" it
to develop your own personal "style."

Tri-planar flexibility is the ability to move all
the joints along extended routes. When you can
develop the ability to rotate the body in beneficial
ways, like turning, twisting and spinning, you
can have major physical advantages in balance,
power, and coordination.

The highest-level athletics require not only
physical skills, but mental acuity, cognition,
volition, patience, and a high degree of strategy.

Most sports have two basic training modes:
calisthenics (including resistance training) and
sport-specific training. Inevitably, there will
be gaps in skill. But when we look at the
athletes in the pugilism sports, they are the
finest on earth. Fighting requires all of the
elements I've mentioned here. So notwithstanding
getting punched in the head so many times
you slur your words, pugilism training takes
the body to its highest physical and mental
development. Most pugilism even develops
the spirit.

This is why Tai Chi training is the best in
the world. The athletic development comes
quickly and steadily. All the skills progress,
and power comes bountifully without the
use of strength. The breathing training more
than makes up for the lack of "cardio," which
is merely panting. And the physical fortitude,
joint development and immune system
development are second to none. And unless
you're stupid and aggressive, you'll have
all the best athletic skills
and you'll never have to fight.