PEAK PERFORMANCE: skill maintenance

Many athletes spend countless hours of practice in an attempt to get better at their sport.  Shooting numerous free throws, hitting buckets of golf balls, spending handfuls of quarters at the pitching machine are all ways in which athletes attempt to fine-tune their sports skill.  Many athletes even recognize the necessity of “outside” training to improve their speed, reactive ability, and/or strength.  However, many people don’t realize that running, jumping, being explosive or powerful are all skills, just like shooting a basketball, and must be constantly trained to both maintain and improve them.

As athletics becomes more and more of a lucrative business on the collegiate level, more time is dedicated to sports performance training.  A large portion of the recruitment process is spent discussing the ability of a particular school to improve its athletes.  At this time, there are very few Division I programs that don’t have year-round sports performance training programs in place for their athlete population. 

Many high school and younger-level programs have attempted to copy this model and design great off-season lifting/conditioning programs.  Unfortunately, since many younger athletes are involved in multiple sports, in different activities, etc., the ability to perform year-round training is difficult.  The big problem here is, at younger ages, an athlete has the greatest potential to change sports performance skill, and this seems to be the time they are least likely to follow an adequate training program.

There are several research studies done at the collegiate and professional level documenting the amount of detraining that occurs following periods of time when an athlete engages in no activity, or just in-season sports activity and practice.  Many of these studies, greater than 10 weeks in duration, find significant drops in power expression through the vertical jump test, a decrease in anaerobic conditioning, and a decrease in flexibility – which could be used as a marker for increased injury potential.

Studies involving short duration stops (less than 6 weeks) in sports performance training find decreases in all the same markers, but at a less significant level.  One point to ponder: If an athlete in college has a 32-inch vertical and loses one inch it may be a non-significant change, but a 14-year-old athlete with a 16-inch vertical that loses 1 inch may have set back his/her progress six months.

When dealing with sports performance in athletics it is important to always keep your mind on your long-term goals, which for most is getting collegiate scholarships.  To illustrate this point, here is a typical example using the vertical jump marker: 

A pair of 14-year-old athletes begins sports performance training to aid their basketball ability.  Each trains the same for the 3 months prior to the season and each raises their 14-inch vertical to 15.5 inches.  One athlete stops training throughout the season (ST), the other continues at a reduced frequency, once per week (CT).  After the 4-month season, ST has lost 1 inch from his/her vertical; CT has gained .5 inches.  Now beginning the next round of more frequent training, CT has a 16-inch vertical; ST has 14.5.  If this cycle continues through high school, and results will slow a bit, CT will have a 26-inch vertical, while ST will only be at 18.  Based on athletic ability, who will have an advantage to college scouts?

So remember, any skill can be improved – but to maintain and continue to improve even the most basic skills it requires year-round dedication and practice.  By following a properly-designed sports performance program, you can help yourself reach your athletic potential.