In February 2018, I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to train the 14- and 15-year-old girls volleyball teams of the Chicago Elite Volleyball Club. These girls have been identified as probable Division I prospects. Club director Joel Anderson has built a national powerhouse, and Chicago Elite sends numerous players to top colleges and universities each year. Basically, these girls are developed into great players on a great team within a great program.
At the end of May, the girls did their performance testing, and each player added at least 2 inches to her vertical jump. It should not be surprising that talented, motivated high school athletes jumped higher after progressing through a structured strength and conditioning program. What’s more surprising is that they added inches to their verticals with zero jump training in their program. By design, we did not jump once. Why?
It’s been my experience that most athletes are good at moving fast. By the nature of their sport(s), they have been trained to accelerate and move their bodies from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. Chicago Elite is a year-round commitment. They jump at practice; they jump at tournaments. They don’t need to jump more—they need to jump better. Any exercise or drill in the speed/power category plays to their strengths. But we don’t want to focus on strengths, we want to focus on weaknesses.
When the players first came to On Your Mark Coaching and Training, for many of them, it was their first gym experience. It can be intimidating. To create familiarity, we kept the same “pre-game warm-up” for each session. While going through light agility, dynamic stretching, mini-band glute activation, rotator cuff strengthening, SPARQ ladder work and superband-resisted partner sprints, one reality became crystal clear: These kids had no clue where their limbs were going or what their limbs were doing. Coordination was off, balance was off, proprioception was off. These kids were great on the court—when they could play fast—but struggled with body control when asked to slow down. It was hard for their brains to send a message to specific limbs at specific times, which makes sense, since they’d never practiced it before.
On one of our first days, I had them do a Single-Arm Dumbbell Floor Press, but it was way too hard. The girls were not strong in this way. Sports like football, hockey, wrestling and even basketball have a physicality where a base level of strength is achieved simply by having to push other people around. Volleyball is not that kind of game, so I needed to make serious programming changes. Their foundations were weak, and adding external loads to a weak foundation is a bad idea. So, what should we do?
Focus on strengthening weaknesses; focus on strengthening the foundation; focus on stability.
We spent the majority of our program working on body control. Instead of dumbbells, barbells and kettlebells, we focused on bodyweight movements. We emphasized joint stacking, drilled unilateral balance and strength, added anti-rotation for core connection. We demonstrated how valgus knees—extremely common in high school girls—lead to ACL blowouts. These concepts are not sexy, but they are a necessary and often overlooked portion of many training programs. By emphasizing controlled deceleration and moving with purpose, we hope to save them from preventable injuries and keep them on the court.
Alternatively, what would happen if I loaded these girls with barbells and asked them to squat? If they squat poorly without weight, they will squat poorly with weight. Or what if their knees collapsed while doing 20-inch Box Jumps? Repeated impact on misaligned joints is a recipe for disaster. Major imbalances deserve immediate attention, and I am doing them a disservice if I implement flash before function. Sometimes, taking a step back is what’s needed. There’s a reason we all learn basic math before algebra, geometry and calculus.
All training programs must be adjusted to the ability of its participants. As the girls get stronger and show a better understanding of their bodies, we will progress to more loaded patterns and more complex circuits. But, for now, we will focus on strengthening the foundation. And as their recent testing results demonstrated, strengthening the foundation can lead to tangible improvements.
Those improvements helped the 15-year-old Chicago Elite team become National Champions at the recent AAU National Championships, while the 14-year -old team finished as National Runner-Ups.
Train smart. Train hard. Train safe.
Photo Credit: FatCamera/iStock