Competitive. Determined. Focused. Ambitious. Someone who doesn’t know how to give up. Someone who leaves it all on the field. These are all of the traits that come to mind when I think about what makes an athlete elite. These are traits that most coaches look for in their perspective recruits. But can having this drive and determination to always be the best actually hinder our performance and our maximum potential?
While it is great in theory to approach every practice, lifting session, and competition with the overly used “110 percent” requested by your coaches, the truth is that some situations require more precision, accuracy, and attention to detail than others. To maximize your potential, there needs to be a balance of focus on mechanics and working smart with working hard. Time spent off the field should be utilized to make advances with form and precision so that when on the field, it becomes second nature and the focus can be placed on more explosive and powerful reactions to the varying situations.
Football is an excellent example of a sport in which there is often too much of the “110 percent” requirement of athletes without allowing them ample time to refresh fundamentals and understand proper movement patterns. When it comes to off season lifting programs, there is an emphasis placed on how much an athlete can and should be lifting. We push our players to reach the 1,000 pound club (a combined 1,000 pounds lifted via squat, clean, and bench press) while allowing them to throw form out the window. I am not saying that all athletes who reach the 1,000 pound club are doing something wrong. However, I have seen numerous videos of these 1,000 pound club “achievements” and can confidently say that most of these athletes are doing more harm than good for their performance.
When it comes to lifting, there is a right way and a wrong way to lift. There is also a smart way and a, well for lack of a better term, a useless way. There are certain muscle groups that should be utilized during performance and should be activated in a certain order. Without this particular pattern of activation, the body will still function, but not in the most effective manner. Think about it like how you would think about coverage on a kick off. If I run 50 yards straight down the field until I reach the line of the returner and make a 90 degree cut and then drive straight at him, could I reach him before he takes off with the ball? Possibly, but wouldn’t it make more sense if I just cut in on a diagonal from the start and reached him faster? Both ways can be effective; however there is clearly a better and worse option here. The same goes for body movement efficiency.
The glutes are one of the strongest, most powerful muscles in your body when used correctly. The problem is that many of us have over developed our quad muscles and rely on them for many of the actions that should be done by the glutes. We fire our quads too early and additionally place undue stresses on surrounding muscles such as the hamstrings. The way in which we are performing our lifts in the weight room plays a huge role in developing our movement patterns on the field. If we are squatting at the wrong angles, it changes the pattern in which the muscle groups activate. Doing this motion repeatedly makes it become second nature which directly impacts our performance once we step on the field. If we only work on developing our quads, we will then overuse them during sprinting, cutting, and jumping motions which will cause us to sprint slower, cut inefficiently, and jump less. The pressure placed on athletes to always need to be the best and perform the best can hurt long term outcomes. An athlete can win that 1000 pound club challenge but then he gets caught on what should be a clear break away TD run.
Instead of rewarding our athletes for the numbers they can put up, we should be rewarding them for who can perform the movements correctly and build the best foundation. This will give them motivation to make the necessary corrections which can lead to them producing better numbers when it actually counts. Some of the key points to look for in the squat, for example, are that the athlete has his hips back and that his knees do not drop forward over his toes. Try starting with a lower weight or for some even with no weight and have the athlete squat down, focusing on keeping the hips back and the chest up while keeping his stomach in, creating a flat back posture. Before the athlete stands back up, instruct him to “squeeze his glutes” this will retrain the body to begin activating the glutes and not rely on the quads. Once the athlete is capable of maintaining this athletic position and complete a proper squat, you can then begin adding the weight. If the athlete needs to break form in order to lift a weight, the weight is too heavy for him. A good general rule of thumb is that an athlete needs to perform at least 80 percent of his reps with clean form before moving to the next weight class. And remember, the spotter is there just in case, he should not be there lifting the athlete through every rep.
Lifting less weight, but reinforcing glute utilization will allow the athlete to fire the glutes more frequently while in an on-field situation. From a sprinting perspective, an athlete will be much faster when it comes to acceleration, a movement that from sheer necessary body angle relies on the glutes to produce the force needed for movement. From a top-end speed perspective, an athlete who possesses glute activation tends to limit the cycling aspect of a run movement which takes stress off the hamstrings and prevents the breaking force caused by in improper stride. When looking at cutting and agility, an athlete will now be able to understand and function through proper hip load and be able to appropriate the proper eccentric/concentric power movements needed to increase the post-cut acceleration. When jumping, the quads should be utilized last to extend the legs, not to create height.
While being determined and driven are great attributes to have on the field and I commend athletes for having that same drive in the weight room, we as coaches need to learn to channel that into a more form focused session. By judging athletes solely on their outcome numbers, we are forgetting about how important the process goals are. To answer the question, can the same traits that make you a force to be reckoned with also slow your progress, the answer is yes, if they are not channeled properly.
Valerie Bozza, MS, ATC, LAT Director of Performance / Injury PreventionTop Tier Athletics Edison, NJ 908.510.2710 www.TopTierAthletics.Training for more grteat info information on Biomechanics & Sports