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Secrets to Training the Student Athlete

Written by Lauren Hunsberger

Bellevue Club trainer Jerry Flynn was a college football player who admits he trained all wrong. Going from high school football at Tahoma High School to the college field at Yakima Valley College and then Western Washington University, he was plagued with hamstring injuries and a general sense of frustration with his performance. Adding confusion to the mix, he was spending all his time in the weight room to get stronger but had few results during game time.

“I didn’t have power; I didn’t have explosiveness,” Flynn says. “We were doing stuff that just wasn’t right, and we were all doing the same thing at the time. I didn’t realize until I started studying the science of performance training that I was on the wrong path.”

While at Western, Flynn got a degree in exercise science and ever since has dedicated his career to helping other student athletes train smarter. He’s since worked at Washington Institute of Sports Medicine, where he trained athletes from University of Washington and area high schools. In all this time, he’s boiled down a few often-overlooked tips for student athletes looking to make their career as successful as possible.

Mobility Is King

Flynn says many athletes come to him worried that they can’t touch their toes. “That’s static flexibility, and it’s not a bad thing to have, but in sports it’s not nearly as important for performance. The more important thing is mobility. Athletes need to be able to move their body through ranges of motion involved in their sport with ease and no pain—it is much more important than a static, or a hamstring, stretch,” Flynn says. “But that’s everybody. I always emphasize mobility.” On the other hand, Flynn says some female athletes (think gymnasts) have too much mobility without the strength to properly balance certain movements, and therefore risk injury. No matter which side of the spectrum an athlete is on, Flynn says mobility should be trained with equal importance as strength work or endurance to maximize performance.

Reward Recovery

The old adage “less is more” should be applied to student athletes who are balancing a heavy workload, practices and a social life, according to Flynn. “We’re finding that doing less is often better for an athlete than doing more,” he says. “I see it all the time: people are not recovering enough and they are drinking tons of coffee or caffeine without enough sleep to make up for it.” Flynn cites hydration, nutrition, sleep and stress management as critical aspects of recovery that should be weighted with equal importance. “A lot of kids will do fine in a training environment, but when it comes to critical times, they underperform because they are completely burned out. Sometimes the best performance enhancement is just getting kids to recover.”

Practice Deceleration

In sports like football, basketball, track, soccer, tennis and so on, the most common injury remains an ACL tear, and it often occurs when an athlete is decelerating, stopping and pivoting into a different direction. “If you just think about someone traveling really fast and then stopping to change directions quickly, you can see where stabilizer muscles become hugely important,” he says. When training athletes, Flynn uses a wide range of deceleration and agility drills to prepare students’ bodies for the task and to minimize the risk of injury. “There is no such thing as injury prevention, but there is a lot we can do for injury reduction, and a lot of that has to do with how to decelerate properly.”

Master Mechanics

Part of Flynn’s own frustrations, and injury, as a student athlete came from misunderstanding the mechanics of movement. “I didn’t train properly to use the glutes for springing actions. Later I realized I had been using the hamstrings to extend the hip—but they can’t be used as a hip extender, so I didn’t have the right mechanics,” he says. Flynn says none of his coaches at the time were breaking down the exact way in which he was running, sprinting or jumping, so he now spends time evaluating each athlete’s unique way of using their body, fixing specifics about ways in which people are compensating.

Core Concentration

“A lot of kids these days are exposed to the concept of holding planks for extended periods of time,” Flynn says. “But actually we’ve found that the core fatigues in about 30 seconds, so what happens is they just start hanging on with whatever they have and they aren’t actually doing something productive.” Recognizing the core is still important for most athletic movements. Flynn’s solution to this training flaw is to practice very dynamic core training that integrates movement versus static holds or basic crunches. “Even with sports like baseball, where the arm is typically susceptible to overuse injury, you can help that with solid core training, teaching students to move from the base of their body,” Flynn says.

Psychological Stability

No matter how hard athletes train, injury is always a possibility with sport. In his experience as a trainer, he says getting back into the mental game can often be the hardest—and most neglected—part of the process due to a lack of trust with the injured area. If working with a post-injury athlete, Flynn is a big believer in trust-building exercises. “Going through drills to get them to trust that they, for instance, can balance on one leg again is important,” Flynn says. “Aside from physical drills, I also heavily encourage visualization, working on seeing themselves making the movements and performing again.”

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