Importance of the Off Season
Off-season training isn’t just for athletes with hopes of one day playing on college teams, or those competing at a high level. UW Health Sports Performance coach Alison Regal explains that most youth athletes can benefit – although how they approach it and the benefits they gain will be different depending on their age.
To figure out what’s best, it is helpful to understand the different developmental stages.
Sampling Years: At this stage – 6-12 years – there’s not really an off season. Instead, free play is critical during this time because the wide range of activities is important to help them learn to move and coordinate their bodies. It’s also during this time kids should be playing a variety of sports – and it doesn’t have to be with a league. Letting kids develop a full range of movement skills – what Regal refers to as “motor programs” – helps create a movement vocabulary. These movements become stored memory in the body and can be used no matter what sports or activities kids do at any point during their lives.
One way to think about it is soccer, a sport Regal played competitively and now serves as a strength and conditioning coach for the Forward Madison FC. Dribbling the ball, receiving and turning it – those rely on specific motor programs. If that’s the only activity kids participate in, their movement patterns are going to be limited in development and will affect how they are able to perform other activities. If kids play soccer, throw footballs with friends, swim and play on park equipment – all of those different activities engage different muscles and motor programs. While some may worry that not focusing on one sport may limit growth with those skills required for that sport, Regal points out that being good athletes – not just specific-sport players – will help kids be better in whatever sport they do as they age.
Specializing Years: In the middle school years, it is still important for young athletes to play multiple sports – although it is common during this time for kids to start limiting their focus to just a few. In this phase, the off-season training is really about playing multiple sports and/or participating in a sports performance program that helps build higher skill movements – like jumping or squatting. Research has shown that participating in a single sport increases an athlete’s risk of injury. Continuing to participate in multiple activities is critical to help reduce the risk of injury and help prevent burnout. Activities in this phase help create good habits and continue to develop well-rounded athletic skills. Parents – and coaches – can encourage young athletes in their continued development by supporting their participation in a variety of activities.
Investment Years: As kids get older, organized sports become increasingly competitive. It’s really the high school years when it is better to specialize and when off-season training becomes important. Rather than spending time on sport-specific skills, off-season programs that develop strength and conditioning such as speed, agility and power can offer tremendous benefit. And, it’s important to work on development throughout the year – limiting activities to just a few months at a time won’t offer the same benefits.
For those looking for additional support, UW Health’s Sports Performance Program offers programs that are tailored to the different developmental stages. For younger kids, the core program Sport Foundations develops locomotion – skipping, jumping, etc. that moves into playing with different sport balls. For those in the specializing range, Developmental Speed Strength can help with higher skill movements. Then in the investment years, the Performance Speed Strength and other preseason specialty programs help teen athletes prepare for their season. Programs are available year-round, including summer programming.