The Summer Camp Conundrum

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Here are a few recent exchanges I’ve had with youth athletes (ages 11-18) and/or their parents:

“I’d love to get the boys in, but my oldest is doing a 10 day speed camp, lifting with his High School football team, and working a part time job, and my youngest is doing 3 different Lacrosse camps.  There just isn’t enough time.”

”My daughter is going into 10th grade and colleges are already starting to notice her for Softball.  I really think getting her in to train with you is a great idea; just so you know though she has tournaments for club teams pretty much every other weekend, and she’s also going to a week long softball camp at her favorite college.”

“This next season is a really important one for me in football.  I need to be stronger and faster if I want to have any chance of seeing the field… (10 minutes later) Coach I won’t be in town for 2 weeks in June and I have baseball tournaments pretty much every weekend in July.”

First and foremost I need to let it be known that I empathize with our younger population.  It’s a chaotic, exciting, awkward, and critical phase in our development as a human being, and it’s something none of us get to skip over.  Trying to fit in while yearning to stand apart from the crowd, getting pulled in a million different directions by friends, parents, teachers, and [ahem] coaches, figuring out what the heck you want to do with your life, and somewhere between it all trying to have some fun… sounds great, doesn’t it?

Those factors all contribute to summer being sacred for our kids.  It’s a chance to let them breathe and stretch their limbs a little bit, doing whatever it is kids do when they don’t have the constraints of school placed on them.  Yet that “free time” quickly gets consumed, especially for young athletes.  Skills camps, Speed camps, Team training, Individual training, and Tournaments quickly fill that gap to a point where summer can often be more “busy” than the rest of the year for some of these kids.

More and more people in the athletic community are becoming familiar with the concepts of General Physical Prepartion (GPP), Special Physical Preparation (SPP), and Technical/Tactical Preparation (TP).  Both Juggernaut founder Chad Wesley Smith and world class hammer thrower/club coach Martin Bingisser have written/spoken about it extensively, helping me further my understanding of the principles in my own writing/speaking/lecturing.  I highly encourage every coach reading this to study up on these concepts, because it truly makes THE difference in organizing the training for athletes.

Now what does that have to do with summer?  Everything.  Whether you’re an athlete or a coach, there are five points that need to be considered when entering into summer training, which I’ve listed below.

1.     Prioritize and Honestly Self-Assess.

Summer is basically a 12 week block out of the year.  How far or close are you or your athletes to the primary competitive part of the calendar?  For multi-sport athletes, what season is the most pressing priority?  Again, for the multi-sport athletes, what sport means the most to you?  What are you training for?  Are you looking for speed this summer? Strength? Size?

This is challenging, but if you get the most out of your summer, it is absolutely imperative.  There is no such thing as “not having enough time.”  You need to do the hard work of figuring out what your priorities truly are, and then make the time.  Typically the competitive season that begins the soonest should take priority in training.  This can get complicated with summer league baseball, softball, and basketball, but don’t be afraid to make a choice.  Don’t be afraid to say no.  If you enjoy playing football but Lacrosse is your true love, put in the work that you need to for ball, then take that week to go to Lacrosse camp at Duke.  If you’re an athlete, don’t be afraid to have an honest conversation with your coach.  And if you are a coach, sometimes you need to step back and actually listen to what kids are telling you.

2.     Skills camps and Team Practice DO have their place.

To delve a little deeper into the GPP/SPP/TP concept, it’s best to begin thinking in terms of exercise selection, and to use the terminology of Anatoliy Bondarchuk, one of the undisputed leaders in this field.  Here is how Bondarchuk group exercises:

–           General Preparatory Exercises (GE): exercises that use different systems and movements as competition movements

–           Special Preparatory Exercises (SPE): exercises that use the same muscles and systems but different movements

–           Special Development Exercises (SDE): exercises that use the same muscles, same systems and parts of the competitive movement

–           Competitive Exercise (CE): the competitive movement itself.

For the sake of this article, I want to narrow down those four categories into two groups:

–           Preparatory Exercises (GE, SPE)

–           Developmental Exercises (SDE, CE)

The more developed the athlete and/or the closer to the competitive season, the more important the Developmental Exercises become.  Football players simply cannot spend all of June and July building their base and expect to have a successful year.  It’s absolutely maddening to get phone calls from parents in the middle of July asking how to get Billy faster for football in two weeks- where was he in February and March?  But I digress…

Preparatory Exercises still have their place (see below), but those activities reach a point of diminishing returns in both an athlete’s training career as well as in the annual calendar.  The one thing an athlete cannot replace or replicate is the specific practice for his or her sport.  I don’t care if your High School linemen are 600 pound squatters: if they’ve never devoted time to developing their technique, they will eventually be exposed.  The actual selection of Special Exercises goes beyond the scope of this article, so once again I would like to refer you to Martin Bingisser’s work on the matter, especially “Selecting Specific Strength Exercises.”

 3.     Gaps in GPP still need to be addressed.

One of the biggest steps forward in my understanding of this topic is learning that it’s not General OR Special Prep: it’s learning how to balance the necessity of both.  And if I’ve learned one thing in my career as a physical preparation coach it’s that even world class athletes have base level flaws that need to be addressed.  I’ve seen Pro Bowl Linebackers in the NFL that can’t jump, elite collegiate football players that are horribly inefficient in changing direction, and All American High School Linemen that can’t correctly do more than a handful of push-ups; I’m sure a lot of you are familiar with the story that’s currently making the rounds on the intrawebz about the top NHL prospect not being able to perform a single pull-up at a recent combine.  GPP is almost like brushing your teeth: just because you got a passing grade from the dentist doesn’t mean you never have to do it again.  If the best athletes in the world still have room for improvement, than our youth athletes unquestionably do too.

By cleaning up your running, jumping, change of direction, and movement mechanics, you will be a more efficient mover and displayer of strength on your field of choice.  Remember though, this is true General Physical Preparation.  Learning and refining the skills of running, jumping, changing direction, and moving; this is not playing with parachutes, bungee cords, agility ladders or other fancy gadgets.  Those things can have a marginal place in a training program, but they should NOT be your primary tools when it comes to honestly preparing your athletes.

4.     Don’t force development.

I’m a fan of having high expectations for my athletes.  But that does not mean the “slow” kid in the group is destined to fail and immediately needs to be relegated to the back of the pack.  I think the greatest gift you can give a person is believing in them when they may not necessarily be believing in themselves.  Teach.  Help the kids that are struggling.  Let the kids on your team who do “get it” develop into real leaders by teaching them how to teach.

You have to push yourself and your athletes.  The horses that are going to help you win games and competitions need to be ready to race.  That does not preclude you, however, from building a stable of developing athletes that will be giving you a competitive advantage next year and the year after that.  Be patient, persistence, and supportive of those kids, and I promise you it will pay dividends.

 5.     Facilitate productive down time.

This article began talking about how youth athletes can often over extend themselves in the summer.  A well designed summer preparation program should be able to meet the preparatory and developmental needs of kids while still keeping large blocks of time open.  Appropriately designed, 5-10 hours a week of both Preparatory activities and Developmental activities can make an impact while still allowing kids to be kids, especially for the 14 and under crowd.

As children move beyond the age of 15, their desire to succeed in sport will only be met by their willingness to commit to consistent preparation, but even for that age bracket in youth sports, they’ll still have down time during the summer months.  Committed to their sport doesn’t mean physical prep 24/7, nor should it.  Educate them on building the habits of a champion.  Start teaching them the importance of sleep and recovery from a sporting perspective.  Give them all a book to read over the summer.  Help them understand that even down time can be productive time.  If you build an army of kids all working at being the best version of themselves, than that’s when you’ve truly made an impact as a coach.

Coach Ryan Burgess is a physical preparation coach who specializes in working with football athletes.  A former collegiate football player himself, Coach Burgess has trained hundreds of youth, high school, and collegiate athletes as well as dozens of NFL players.  In early 2014 he shifted his career focus from working with professional athletes to developing youth athletes with a long-term perspective.  In addition to coaching, in 2011 he began competing as an Amateur Strongman and recently started competing in Powerlifting.  For more on his youth football training program, go to  He can be contacted through his website at



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