Every coach and athlete knows the importance of warm-ups. Ok, maybe it isn’t as important in t-ball or soccer at the age where the “athletes” spend more time picking flowers than kicking the ball. However, once sports become truly competitive, preparing athletes to perform their best and preventing injuries start to become paramount. There is no better way to reduce the likelihood of injury before a practice, workout, or game than a proper warm-up. The method on how we warm-up, though, varies greatly. Static and dynamic stretching, jogging, plyometrics, calisthenics and breathing exercises are among the myriad of choices to choose from to warm up an athlete for competition.
Warm-ups are as old as exercise itself. People can intuitively figure out that after sitting for an hour, spending a few minutes warming up will help them perform a physical task better. That goes for anything related to demonstrating strength, speed, or power.
I played baseball through college. I don’t think there’s a physical activity out there that doesn’t require a greater warm-up than preparing to pitch in a game. You simply can’t go from being cold to throwing as hard as you can. Even younger kids can’t do that. Light throwing before hard-throwing, always. It is pretty painful to throw too hard too soon.
Athletes Don’t Enjoy Warm-Ups
The problem is athletes typically don’t enjoy the warm-up process. They enjoy competition, not jogging, stretching, butt kicks, and lunges. That feels too much like offseason and workouts. The same warm-ups can be incredibly monotonous, boring, and are often too intense and tiring throughout a long season. Coaches will often adopt the mindset of pushing the athletes hard in practice warm-ups for extra conditioning and then take it easy on the warm-ups before games. This sounds like a good way to develop well-conditioned athletes, but it can often be dangerous and increase the likelihood of injury. That’s another topic for another day. Today, we’re talking about alternative ways to warm-up a team of athletes to get the most out of them for competition. A great way to accomplish this is through side games.
The Case for Side Games
Side games are proven to be a fantastic way to enhance the performance out of athletes in a variety of sports. Side games are typically more time-efficient, more fun for the athletes, and can be a great way to build team camaraderie, which are extremely beneficial for competition. In addition, the movements used inside games are sport-specific. Sport-specific exercises are an overused buzz term in the training industry. But, smaller versions of the actual game you are about to play? Can’t get more sport-specific than that. This will theoretically help the athletes dial in their coordination to hit a ball, make a basket, or apply game speed at the start of the competition.
A 2019 study showcased the possible added benefit of side games after a warm-up. They measured a variety of performance metrics. What they found was the athletes were able to consistently jump higher, despite exhibiting the same heart rates, rates of perceived exertion, and amount of time spent compared to a traditional warm-up. In other words, they were able to get a performance enhancement from side games over traditional warm-ups, despite the same amount of time and effort.
Baseketball Side Games
Another study in 2021 from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that basketball side games could be a way to exercise with high intensity, while the athletes perceive it at a lower intensity. In other words, the athletes thought its exercise was easier than it was. I’m not saying small side games are like steroids, but it’s kind of like steroids.
As a farmer myself, I can throw my hat in the ring and say I believe it works well. As I said, I played baseball in college. I would argue baseball has the most brutal schedule in all of school sports. We always scheduled about 60 games a year, from the start of February through May and June if we went deep into the playoffs. That’s a crazy amount of warming up to do, especially given that half the season is in the brutal cold of winter.
Baseball should be a fall sport. It’s the PERFECT time to play. Throwing and hitting baseballs when it’s snowing is just plain wrong.
I remember some games where we had a little downtime prior to starting. We would often break out into side games like Pepper and different bunting games. Naturally being competitive, it was often the most exciting parts of our day. There was no pressure, just plain fun. It broke the monotony of playing 3 games in 24 hours and got us more fired up than our traditional warm-ups ever did.
Side Games For Different Sports
Of course, side games are going to look different for each sport. Some sports like baseball, basketball, and soccer are easy to break out into side games. Cross country, sorry, I don’t know what to tell you. Tag?
I would caution all coaches not to overstep here. Let the athletes decide what they want to do. No matter how close the coach to player’s relationship is, the athletes will appreciate control over their warm-up. Games are more fun knowing the coach isn’t breathing down their neck, with expectations of success and proper execution. Let the athletes have their fun, and I’d bet you’ll be pleased with the results more often than not. Not to mention it can be a great way to calm some pregame anxiety. I would also recommend saving the side games to before games only, and only every now and then. Part of the fun is the athletes don’t get to do it very often, and can be a refreshing change of pace.
Why Every Soccer Player and Coach Should Utilize Small-Sided Games