Training

Youth Athletics and Special Strength


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There are some debate topics that never die among coaches. One is nature versus nurture. And another is specialized versus general training for young athletes. Those arguing for specialized training just point a finger at Tiger Woods or the Williams sisters. Those advocating a more general approach point to the need to build a good base with varied activities and movements. Last week on Juggernaut Ryan Burgess provided the simple reasoning for this: “If you try to build complex skill on top of a poor or non-existent foundation, two things will happen: injuries, and less than optimal performance.”

If I were to have to choose a side in the debate I would quickly join Burgess. But even he falls into the common trap of framing the debate wrong. There is no need to choose one or the other since the answer for most sports is found right in the middle.

This might sound a bit odd coming from a guy who is most well known for special strength training. But most theories of special strength focus on elite athletes, not youth athletes. Special strength has much of its roots in Eastern Europe, but even a quick look at the talent development models used there shows that they didn’t apply it much to beginners. Anatoly Bondarchuk, for example, has written extensively about special strength in training for the hammer throw, but at the youth level he has also shown that nearly any type of physical preparation will help them throw further. The same is true in other sports. Just get a kid active and stronger and they are bound to improve in everything. Supplemental special strength training begins to play a larger role only at the more elite levels.

I did an extensive interview last year with two-time Olympic hammer throw medalist Jüri Tamm in which he talked about his path to the hammer throw and Olympic podium in the USSR. The common image of the Eastern bloc is that kids are selected for a sport in kindergarten and immediately commence intense and specialized training for it. In actuality, the talent selection process was very decentralized and informal. As Tamm told me “Everyone needed to do some sport and you were lucky if your coach found you.” Until age 10, all kids tried each sport in school. At his particular school, around age 10 the bigger boys were pushed towards power sports and he pursued wrestling a little and also tried the throwing events. He did not really begin focusing on the hammer until age 14. His story is a common one I have heard from others Soviet athletes of his era.

Tamm was able to successfully combine both general physical and specific technical preparation together, which is essential to elite success. In fact his developmental model closely follows the popular model laid out by Ericsson in which children begin with unstructured play, then move on to structured play with skill development, and finally deliberate practice. The key to the second step is play with skill development. Is it not one or the other; it is both together. Burgess even makes this a point of emphasis: “Skill practice does have its place, don’t get me wrong . . . You’re not going to be that great of a basketball player without learning how to dribble and shoot.”

Part of the difficulty is how to implement this in the modern system. Tamm relied heavily on the school system for the play element. But in America and other countries, obligatory sport in school is disappearing. And play at home is being replaced by video games or intense studying, with more of the former unfortunately taking over. A coach twenty years ago could focus solely on technical development, but now they have to fill the gap and cover both structured play and skill development.

But the solution is pretty straightforward and an example can be found in another Eastern European enclave. Since the fall of the Soviet Union the capital of hammer throwing has moved to another Eastern European country: Hungary.

Per capita the town of Szombathely, Hungary is the undisputed capital of hammer throwing over the past 15 years. During this time the town has produced an Olympic gold medalist, six world championship medals, and 10 World or European champions at youth and junior levels. Just this year they had a second place finisher at the World Championships, second place at the European Junior Championships, first and second at the World Youth Championships and a European Youth Olympic Festival champion. On the outside they seem to make the case for early specialization since their approach to training calls for lots of throwing and creates young champions every year. But their head coach Zsolt Nemeth said the opposite when he spoke at a conference I attended last month. Training is quite simple when kids start out in the event training: it consists of one hour throwing and one hour of soccer. They do this year round. Throwing builds a solid technical foundation; soccer develops coordination, speed, and general fitness. They develop both concurrently and as his athletes progress major injuries are rarely a problem. Like everyone they have athletes leave the sport, but the reasons are mostly financial.

Just like Tamm and Nemeth have shown, young athletes do not have to choose between general and specific preparation. And coaches do not need to frame the debate that way. Both can be used together to create a strong athlete.

Martin Bingisser is the founder of HMMR Media, a website bringing together ideas on training and throwing from top names in the sport. He is also the current Swiss national champion in the hammer throw and coach at Leichtathletik-Club Zürich. Raised in Seattle, Bingisser was a two-time NCAA All-American at the University of Washington. Throughout his career he has sought out knowledge from the best coaches in his sport, including the legendary Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, which he chronicles on the site. He currently lives in Switzerland where he splits his time between training, coaching, and working as a tax attorney.

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