Strength and Conditioning for Performance Athletes

Maggie Vessey Runner

When we talk about performance athletes, most are going to have a coach that helps them with their technical skills – a volleyball coach, a throwing coach in baseball or football, a shooting coach in basketball.  These are the people that know the technical aspects of the skills required for an athlete's sport.  In terms of their ultimate performance though, they need more than just technical skills.  Technical skills can only get them so far.  They need the ability to maintain their peak performance in the sport, in the moment.  There's endurance, strength, stability, balance, coordination and agility.  These are all elements that we infuse into an athlete's sports performance program.

Before we even get started, we want to see how well an athlete moves, because the thing about athletes is that the greatest athletes are the greatest cheats.  I mean that in a very admirable way.  No matter how good you are, you have found away to get past your weaknesses.  You keep them hidden and they're not exposed very often.  So what we try and do is put an athlete through movement screens to unmask those weakness; to find out how well they move.  Can they maintain good mobility in their joints and yet be stable?  We call that dynamic stability.  Can they maintain that stability through movement?  Once we know where an athlete breaks down, we can focus more of their training on that element to make them a much stronger athlete without those weaknesses.  We peel away the layers of compensation to find the true nature of their movement, expose it for what it is, and then improve it.


It's all about programming.  When we talk about stability we're talking about reaction - reflexive movements.  It's not something that is necessarily thought, it's unconscious.  The central nervous system maintains body stability.  Questions we ask include:  Do they have the motor control?  Is the nervous system reacting properly?

For some athletes the answer is no, and they have to find stability somewhere else.  They have to hunt down stability in order to maintain the movement they're trying to achieve.  So, when it comes to that type of programming, we are programming the central nervous system to react better.  If they're too stiff, maybe it's a flexibility or mobility issue.  Then we're going to work on opening up that area, letting it relax on the tight, shortened muscles, and get the movement to be better in terms of their mobility.  At the same time we have to infuse stability.  It's a nice dance that you play back and forth.  It's an art to create the program based upon each athlete's needs, what the screens show us about how they get by, and how they compensate.

If we think of this on a spectrum, on one end you have ultimate function and peak performance.  Further down you lose function and become dysfunctional.  If you continue down that road and don't correct it, then that dysfunction can turn into a pathology.  At that point very few corrective measures can be help it return to a functional state and it may eventually require surgery.  That of course would be the last resort.

Everyone is going to be somewhere on this spectrum.  What we're trying to do in order to get them to their peak performance, is to first remove any dysfunction.  You have to take away the negatives and once you do that, you can improve the positives. You can't build on negatives.  You can't build a house on soft sand and expect it to withstand the test of time..  You need a solid foundation upon which to build a structure.  That's what we're really trying to do – remove the soft sand (the dysfunction), and put in a good cement foundation (proper functional movements) from which we can grow.

Sometimes the dysfunction can be a mental block in terms of previous injury.  For example, diver Katie Mills had a horrible back splat in the Olympics 30 feet off the water.  It took her awhile to get back on the platform.  So, once bitten, twice shy to get past that issue.  It can be a programming thing not only letting them know its ok, but also making sure their movements are clean and they own the exercise and the movement before advancing on.  It's this progressive type of thing we're talking about.


Strength Coach and Knowing the Sport

To train a baseball player, I don't need to know what the strike count is or the catchers signals, but I do want to know how they hold their hand on a curve ball compared to a slider, fast ball, or knuckleball, because that changes the angle of their shoulders.  If I have a downhill skier I want to know what kind of stance they take.  Are they going to stay high?  Are they going to keep the skis together? What's their positioning?  It's the same with a surfers or snowboarders.  If they come in to see me, are they a regular foot or a goofy foot?  This tells me a lot about how their weight is distributed and when they take their turns, what the mechanics of these actions are.

I need to know the movements more than anything else, and then the energy systems of the body – what kind of energy is used in their sport.  It's going to be the energy that a Sumo wrestler uses compared to a Western wrestler.  A Sumo wrestler lasts for maybe 30 seconds at the most, whereas traditional wrestling bouts are more like boxing.  They're going to derive different energy to accomplish their sport.

The athletes themselves are good sources of information.  They give me quite a bit of insight in terms of the movements they do. Seeking out their coach gives me an in-depth understanding of their movement and plays a bigger part. Talking to the sports medicine individuals that deal with the athletes is another source of information.  For example, I recently went to Soquel High School to screen the girls tennis team.  Before that, I talked to their coach about the demands that a tennis player has.  By talking to her and knowing what she is trying to work with the players, I got a better sense of what they need to do in terms of conditioning.  I didn't have previous tennis experience personally or professionally.  However, I have numerous players that are ranked who come in and train with me.

There's certain foundational information for a type of sport - i.e. rotational sports such as golf, baseball, racquet sports (racquetball, tennis, handball).  There's a lot of carry over information from one to the other and more and more information is coming out to prove this point.  So if you're familiar with one rotational sport that carries over quite well to others.

As a Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) Certified Golf Fitness Instructor I can take that knowledge and carry it over to a baseball player.  The difference between a golfer and a baseball player is the golfer holds on to the club and a baseball player lets go of the ball.  Those things need to be taken into consideration, but the actual mechanics of a baseball throw and a golf swing are very similar, so you can use that information.

It's the same thing with basketball and volleyball.  There's a lot of carry over between these sports.  Skiing and snowboarding.  Snowboarding and surfing.  Road cyclist and mountain bikers.  All of these sports have common aspects.  It's always good to have more information on each individual sport, but my job is strength and conditioning, not technical coaching.  So it really just comes down to  how the body moves, how can we make it move at it's best, and how can we keep an athlete at their peak performance.

No matter what sport you're in, when you break it down into movements, there are certain categories of movements that the body will do.  Any sport can be decomposed down to these elemental movements.  This set of common movements, and how well the body transfers force through each joint during these movements, is the foundation of a strength and conditioning program for any sport.

We have three dimensions that we live in.  We have four limbs and one trunk, so we become finite with the ability to move.  There are numerous ways that a body moves – just watch a martial artist – but nonetheless, they stay in the sphere of energy - a circular path of energy.  Knowing that, knowing the physics and how levers work, knowing how muscle systems move and what energy systems they utilize, you can put together a fairly complete and comprehensive strength and conditioning program regardless of the sport.