The Multi-Sport Challenge

Contrary to popular belief, itís possible to design a safe and effective strength program for multi-sport athletes. The key is to find commonality between the movements and pay attention to timing.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning and can be reached at www.gambetta.com.

Training & Conditioning, 13.8, November 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1308/multisport.htm

Many people believe that those who try to serve two masters usually end up pleasing neither. But strength and conditioning coaches are often required to serve two masters when they work with athletes who compete in more than one sport. And both these masters must somehow be satisfied.

Training multi-sport athletes certainly presents some challenges, since preparation for a future season must fit around the demands of an active season. But itís far from impossible. Contrary to popular belief, the demands of most sports are usually not that different, so itís actually not that hard to design a program to benefit an athlete involved in more than one sport.

Often, the biggest issue is time, since in-season athletes have limited time available for strength training work. Another concern is overloading the body. But by taking advantage of the common demands of different sports, you can design an efficient program that does not result in overtraining, no matter how many sports the athlete plays.

Constant Building
A common misconception is that once the playing season begins, strength training should go into a maintenance mode. Letís dispel that myth early on because this is an outdated concept that needs to be reconsidered. (For a look at other myths, see ďDebunking MythsĒ below.)

It is imperative for athletes to continue to build strength within a playing season, especially high school athletes, who are still very much in a developmental stage. These athletes benefit so much from strength training that even a limited strength program is beneficial. And the length of playing seasons at the high school level means athletes will actually regress if their in-season training goes into a maintenance mode.

It is also important to keep building strength throughout the playing season so that the athlete can begin the second season at a higher level than he or she began the first. This does not require huge amounts of time, just consistency of effort. Even 20 minutes of strength training a couple of times a week can do the trick. Think build, not maintain.

Planning a program that will keep building strength requires careful program design based on each athleteís stage of physical maturation and the amount of playing time he or she will receive within a season. For example, a backup sweeper on the soccer team can do more strength training during the season than a starting midfielder. In order to properly design a program for a multi-sport athlete, you must first talk with all of his or her coaches to understand his or her role on each team. You should check in regularly with the offseason coaches to see if anything has changed in their plans that would affect a playerís expected role.

Common Ground
When training multi-sport athletes, many people focus on the differences between the sports. But most sports are more alike biomechanically than they are different. For example, in terms of body movements, basketball is very similar to soccer with the use of hands, while soccer is a form of basketball played with the feet. Yes, there are certainly specific skills unique to any sport, but these skills usually make up a small part of the sportís physical activity. Too many people focus on the 20 percent of activity that is unique to a sport and forget that 80 percent is not unique.

Thus, the best place to start when faced with training an athlete who plays two or more sports is to look at compatibility of the sports. Carefully assess each sportís strength and power demands and look for commonalities in strength and power that you can capitalize on. Use those commonalities to build as unified a program as possible. For example, a basketball player and a football player will both need explosive power from their lower body, so exercises that work the core and legs should be emphasized.

Even at a casual glance, you will see that strength programs designed for specific sports are already similar in structure. Every strength training program should have a remedial injury prevention component. There must also be core strength, leg strength, and explosive power components to every program regardless of the sport. Upper body strength requirements vary by sport, but there will almost always be an element of upper body training required. By tweaking programs to take advantage of commonalties between sports, you can create effective programs for the multi-sport athlete without straying far from the single-sport programs.

Program Structure
As in any good training program, the strength and power needs of each multi-sport athlete must be reconciled with the in-season sport demands. In addition, careful consideration must be given to the developmental level and training ages of the athletes involved. Older players who have already done strength training will be able to do more than those just beginning.

How much time is needed to strength train? Start with 30 to 40 minute sessions in the early season. After two or three weeks, this should drop to 25 to 30 minutes. The assumption is that the athletes know all the exercises from participating in an offseason program. If not, then you must start with a very remedial program for any athletes new to strength training. The goal is to gradually get them up to the level of the athletes who participated in the offseason program. The time demands will drop to 20 to 25 minutes in midseason. At the very end of the season, when the game demands on the athletes are the highest, itís safe to go into a maintenance mode of 15 to 20 minutes per session once a week.

Each strength training session should have a specific emphasis. For simplicity, I divide the training into a total-body emphasis, a lower-body emphasis, circuit emphasis, and an upper-body emphasis. Core training is included in every strength training session and also should be part of the daily warm-up. Endurance training is usually not an issue, since that is typically covered through work in the in-season sport. Excluding core exercises, the maximum number of exercises in a session, is six, unless it is a circuit training session.

In selecting the emphasis for a particular session, make sure that it is coordinated with what the coach is doing in the teamís practice session on that day and fits into the game schedule. This, of course, requires constant communication with the sport coach, in addition to the usual preseason meeting where you discuss goals, directions, and schedules.

When choosing specific exercises, a good rule of thumb is to always build from the ground up. Start with the legs! Emphasize total body movements and compound movements that allow for efficiency as well as variability. Narrow the menu of exercises and build the program around variations of those exercises. Remember that the adaptive stimulus in-season is intensity. An optimum goal to shoot for is three to five sets with three to five reps per set.

Once youíve got the basics in place, you can think about how to address the parts of the sports that differ from each other. The most common example of divergent demands is the need to improve power (such as jumping ability) while still working on endurance, as with a basketball player who runs cross country. The best way to address this is to set priorities based on which quality is most important during that particular playing season. In this case, you could emphasize endurance early, with more strength and power work phased in later in the season.

In some cases, one sport will clearly be more important to the athlete than another. At early training ages and developmental levels, general strength work should predominate, so there is little need to prioritize sports since this work will not vary by sport. With advancing training age and development levels, strength training can be more closely tailored to the individual and increased emphasis can be placed on the needs of one sport over another.

Sample Plans
There are two distinct scenarios youíll encounter when implementing comprehensive strength training programs that span two sports. The first is the consecutive-season scenario where the athlete goes immediately from one sport to the next without a break. This requires an unloading period to ease the transition between the sports and to take full advantage of the strength training program. This unloading will take the form of a taper at the end of the first sport season, which is often needed for performance reasons anyway. Following the late-season taper, the first phase in the second sport takes on more of a general strength emphasis and should look like the off-season program for up to six workouts. This structure will also work well for three-sport athletes who have no break between their seasons.

In general, the training weeks should be something like this:

Off-season
3 or 4 strength training sessions a week rotating between total body, upper body, lower body, and circuit training.

In-season I
Early season: 3 sessions per week rotating between total body, upper body, and lower body.

Midseason: 2 total body sessions per week with a slight alternating emphasis on upper body and lower body.

Late season: 1 total body session per week, with lower number of reps, emphasizing intensity over volume and tapering to the end of the season.

In-season II
Early season: 3 or 4 sessions per week rotating between total body, upper body, lower body, and circuit training, similar to a preseason program.

Mid season: 2 sessions per week with a slight alternating emphasis on upper body and lower body.

Late season: 1 or 2 sessions per week emphasizing intensity over volume, with a taper toward the end of the season, if needed for performance reasons.

The second scenario is a split-season schedule where there is a distinct break between the seasons, such as a fall sport and a spring sport. The key here is the break between seasons. This period of time offers a chance to tap back into the work done in the previous offseason and make substantial gains. The distribution of workouts per training week in a split-season scenario will look something like this:

Off-season I
3 or 4 strength training sessions a week rotating between total body, upper body, and lower body.

In-season I
Early season: 3 sessions per week rotating between total body, upper body, and lower body.

Midseason: 2 total body sessions per week with a slight alternating emphasis on upper body and lower body.

Late season: 1 or 2 sessions per week emphasizing intensity over volume, with a taper toward the end of season, if needed for performance reasons.

Off-season II
3 or 4 strength training sessions a week rotating between total body, upper body, and lower body.

In-season II
Early season: 3 or 4 sessions per week rotating between total body, upper body, lower body, and circuit training, similar to a preseason program.

Mid season: 2 sessions per week in mid season with a slight alternating emphasis on upper body and lower body.

Late season: 1 or 2 sessions per week emphasizing intensity over volume, with a taper toward the end of the season, if needed for performance reasons.

Remember that training is cumulative. Plan ahead and divide the competitive season into distinct blocks with a specific emphasis for each block. Look for opportunities to make remedial strength movements part of the warm-up or the cooldown.




SIDEBAR
Debunking Myths
Athletes and sport coaches often carry a lot of misinformation when it comes to strength training. This misinformation can be multiplied when athletes play more than one sport. Here are some common myths that coaches and athletes sometimes believe about strength training during the season, and the truth hiding behind those myths.

Myth: I will get tired.
Truth: Fatigue will not be a problem if the program is appropriate for the sport and the athleteís development level. A properly designed strength training session should be energizing, not fatiguing. Remember, an in-season program it is not a body building program where multiple sets are devoted to developing an individual muscle, which would be fatiguing and counter productive.

Myth: If I put that much time in, I will burn out.
Truth: Burn out comes from monotony, not from directed work with built-in variability. It is important to have as much variation as is reasonable in the strength training program. As a matter of fact, many of the athletes I work with look forward to the variation their strength work provides from the demands of their playing season.

Myth: The sports are too different.
Truth: They may look different to the sport coach, but you can point out similarities between the sports. Use video to show common movements and areas that must be strengthened to succeed in both sports.

Myth: Strength training will hurt skill level.
Truth: When placed in proper relation to skill work, strength training will not hurt skill work. Stronger, better conditioned athletes are usually better able to develop their skills. But the strength work must be coordinated with skill work. Do not target the upper body if the team practice that day focuses on skills involving the upper body. Also, strength work must be related very closely to strength training done in the off season and the preseason. A playing season is not the time to begin a strength training program.