Achieving the top level of athleticism is the ultimate goal for any athlete looking to play at the next level.
In the end, this is going to be one of the main factors that catches a coach's eye from the moment they spot you on the field. In the first installation of this series, "What Do We Mean When We Say 'Athletic?,'" we dissected the various abilities that determine athleticism in today's sporting world.
Now for the fun part—how you can train to get the most out of your athletic potential.
At first, training to be athletic seems relatively simple. You need to run fast, jump high, be strong and move relatively well. If there's anything I've learned in my 30 years on this Earth, it's that nothing is as simple as it seems, and simple doesn't always mean easy. If you're going to reach the pinnacle of your athletic journey, then you are definitely going to have to put the work in; and in more ways than one.
The beginning steps to starting your athletic training program start with something that's all too often overlooked: an assessment. This means you have to go through a physical assessment to get a true baseline of your strengths and weaknesses, but, more importantly, you need to give yourself an honest assessment of your mental talent. Remember, the very first attribute that determines athleticism is mindset. Before you embark on this journey, you first have to be clear with yourself as to whether or not you're ready. Once we address the mind, I'll move on to the physical aspects I believe one must train to become athletic.
The Athletic Mindset
Training your mental abilities is a bit different than training a physical ability, but there is one big commonality that needs to occur in both—consistency. I'm not going to give you a set training protocol for increasing your "mental talent," but I am going to leave you with some key quotes and guidance on what it takes mentally to become the most athletic version of yourself.
I'm not sure who originally said this, but I came across a tweet from coach Jon Beck that went something like this:
Bad players don't take much seriously. Good players take practice and games seriously. Great players take warm-up, nutrition, skill work, weight room, conditioning, stretching, film, practice and games seriously.
The key here is that great athletes dedicate themselves fully to everything that they do. No matter how small a piece of the puzzle may seem, they it give their all. If there is one easy way I can break down how to develop "mental talent," it's the 3 D's: dedication, discipline and determination.
Dedicate yourself 100 percent to whatever you do. It doesn't matter if you're watching game film, going through a warm-up or getting in some intense speed work. When you're engaged in the activity, it should be with absolute full dedication to that moment.
The way I look at discipline is the ability for one to never waiver from their path no matter what obstacles, temptations or distractions get put in their way. There are always going to be distractions that occur outside of training no matter what stage of athletics you are in. Over the last seven years, I've had the opportunity to work with hundreds of athletes. The ones who go on to play at the highest level are the ones who don't succumb to the distractions and are disciplined enough to stick to the plan. That means you will absolutely have to make sacrifices. It could be time with friends, junk food, or that vacation you've been looking forward to…with great sacrifice comes great reward. Theodore Roosevelt said it best: "With great victory, comes great sacrifice"
Determination means being relentless in your pursuit of your athletic goals. As I said earlier, nothing is going to be easy, so you have to be determined enough to persevere and overcome setbacks. The journey is going to be long, and you're going to get knocked down over and over again. Just keep getting back up. You may know the famous story of how Michael Jordan got cut from his middle school basketball team. He had the determination to keep playing and the discipline to practice every single day so he could make the team next year. The rest is history.
Now that you know the mindset necessary to be your most athletic self, let's cover the physical work you'll have to put in to make it happen.
Train for Speed by Running Fast
The old saying goes, "if you want to be faster, you have to run fast."
It's a simple yet amazingly accurate piece of advice. To become a faster athlete, you have to train for speed. Too many athletes say that they want to increase their speed but never actually take the time to work on it.
Now, I'm not saying you have to do sprints every day of the week, but if you truly want to become a faster athlete, you have to consistently dedicate time to speed training. It doesn't have to be overcomplicated, either, so save the sandbags, parachutes and bungee cords for another day. Pick out two days during the week and implement some dedicated speed work to your routine. If you're strapped for time, you can even do it on the same day as your leg workouts (yes, you should be training legs more than once during the week).
Start with a good dynamic warm-up to get the blood flowing and your body ready to work. Here is the dynamic warm-up that we use with our athletes at O.B. Training & Sports Performance:
One you've gotten your body ready to move, it's time to get into the serious speed work. Our athletes start their speed sessions working on technique first then transition into acceleration drills before finishing the session with their top-end speed in mind. In the simplest terms, the distance you're sprinting will get progressively longer throughout the session.
Below is an example of two different speed sessions for our elite athlete group:
The Tuesday session is heavy on technique, and the Thursday session is focused more on simply running fast. You will notice that the total volume of sprinting is rather low. Remember that the goal during a speed session is building speed, not eliciting exhaustion. You want to have adequate rest between every sprint so you can repeat maximal effort. An easy rule of thumb is 10 seconds of rest for every 10 yards sprinted, with resisted sprints and overspeed drills requiring more rest.
Train for Functional Strength
When you're training for "Functional Strength," you want to be able to exhibit adequate levels of strength in all planes of movement. Gone are the days of doing single body part splits for your training schedule.
Instead, think about training different movement patterns and movement capabilities. You want to leave no rock unturned when it comes to training in this manner. A solid functional training program will consist of movements hitting all planes of movement (frontal, saggital and transverse) as well as give you a good mix of unilateral and bilateral movements. Essentially, you want to prepare your body to handle whatever a competition scenario can throw at you. Chances are, it's not going to be doing four variations of Bench Press in one event with 2-3 minutes of rest and water fountain chats in between.
Here is a simple template for how we put together some of our athlete strength training sessions at O.B. Training & Sports Performance:
- B1 - Hinge Movement
- B2 - Hip Corrective
- B3 - Core Stability
- C1 - Unilateral Vertical Press
- C2 - T-Spine Mobility Corrective
- C3 - Unilateral Hamstring Dominant
Breaking movements down into categories like I've shown above allows you to pick the best exercises for your own capabilities and regress or progress within the same movement focus. It also puts the emphasis on "grooving" a movement pattern vs. just training a specific body part. When it comes to being an athlete, you don't just use isolated body parts, you perform movement patterns over and over again throughout a competition. The more you've practiced and honed your technique/strength in each pattern, the better you'll be able to perform.
Train for Power
Sports are explosive. Plain and simple.
To be the most athletic individual on the field, you need to be able to combine your speed and strength into power. If you're training speed consistently (you know now that you should be) then you will also be training your lower body in the process. When you're in the weight room, you need train for power.
One of the most accessible forms of training for power development is to jump. Box Jumps, Broad Jumps, Vertical Jumps, Single-Leg Jumps, Depth Jumps, Squat Jumps, etc., are all great ways to increase your lower-body power output. I like Box Jumps, even though they've gotten a bad rap lately with everyone trying to get Instagram famous from jumping on the biggest box or stack of weights they can find.
When performed properly, however, Box Jumps can be great for power development. Their elevated landing surface takes away a lot of the wear and tear on the knees that can happen with jumping. Getting the most out of jump training all comes down to jumping with maximal effort and landing in an athletic position. The jump is just like a sprint in that it's only as effective as the effort you put into it. That means every jump should be a 100 percent all-out effort to get as high as you can (but not so high your form goes out the window).
Then there's the landing. While most people give little thought to how they land, your landing mechanics are incredibly important. You want to land in a solid position on the box and only increase the height of the box as long as you can maintain that. So no more landing on the box with your knees caved in and butt almost touching the box. Land in a solid position and then step or climb down from the box rather than jump off it (jumping off defeats the whole idea of less wear and tear on the knees from a hard landing.)
When programming jumps, you want to stick with lower reps and lower volume overall. When it comes to training power it's not muscular fatigue that you need to worry about, it's neurological fatigue. Explosive movements are extremely taxing on the central nervous system so you want to be sure not to overdo it.
In addition to jump training, Medicine Ball Throws are another excellent way to develop power. Medicine Ball Throws can be used as a great way to develop upper-body and rotation power. In the last decade, Eric Cressey has made these extremely popular with his baseball athletes, and if you know anything about Eric's training, you'll know that it works. The goal with Med Ball Throws is to move the ball as fast as possible, which means don't go grabbing the heaviest ball you can find. Typically, we perform med ball throws at O.B. Training & Sports Performance with balls ranging from 4-10 pounds, depending on the athlete's abilities.
Just like I talked about with jump training, med ball training is done with an all-out effort 100 percent of the time. These movements can be programmed in a similar manner to jumps, utilizing low repetition and overall low volume.
Outside of jumping training and med ball throws, Olympic weightlifting movements are one my favorite ways to develop serious power. You'll find that Olympic weightlifters are by far some of the most powerful athletes on this planet. Not only can they move extreme amounts of weight from the floor to overhead, but they do it insanely fast. It's like taking jump training and adding a heavy barbell in your hands, and then subsequently catching that barbell and controlling it.
The only problem with the Olympic lifts is that they are very technical and there is a steep learning curve to become proficient in them. This is why for our athletes at O.B. Training & Sports Performance, we stick to the Hang Clean or Power Clean with a barbell. For snatches, we go with dumbbell or kettle bell variations.
When programming the Olympic lifts, we always start with technique work (you can never practice too much) and then keep the overall volume low. I highly recommend keeping the load low as well (65-70% ) until technical proficiency is reached. The lower load also allows us to put more of an emphasis on speed.
Train for Flexibility/Mobility
To be the most athletic version of yourself, you have to be able to move well. This is going to require a portion of your training to be dedicated to working on flexibility and mobility. The easiest way I've found to implement this is to build it right into the training program itself versus just saying, "I'm going to stretch after I train today." When we treat our mobility and flexibility work as an afterthought, odds are it won't happen consistently. But when we program it into the workout itself, it cannot be avoided. There are three times throughout the workout that mobility and flexibility training will be programmed into the session: pre-workout, mid-workout and post-workout.
Pre-workout is a great time to work on your flexibility and mobility in a dynamic fashion. I don't prefer to use static stretching before exercise, as research has found this can actually cause a decrease in strength and power output.
Before a lifting session, the first focus is to foam roll any tight areas that may restrict movement and get the body ready to perform a dynamic warm-up. I posted above the "Dynamic" stretching routine that we take our athletes through before a speed session, and bits and pieces of that can be used for a regular lifting session, as well. Here is a glimpse into some of the mobility-specific work that we will also use with our athletes before a session:
The goal here is to focus on controlled movements through the full range of motion. As I said before, not all of these movements need to be completed before every workout, but I just wanted to give a full snapshot of what we do for our athletes on speed days.
Mobility work can also be performed during the workout. Throughout the workout, there will be "corrective" exercises that are built in as a form of rest between exercises. These exercises are often focused on increasing mobility, and in some cases flexibility. This helps provide a productive rest period for our athletes instead of having them sit around and do nothing. It also guarantees that the mobility work gets done and is not forgotten.
Finally, post-workout is another opportunity to hit some areas that may have tightened up or deserve some extra attention. Foam rolling is especially effective in releasing tension in the legs and hips that may have developed throughout training. The final piece of flexibility and mobility work is going to be hitting some static stretching. Now that the muscles are warmed up and more pliable, this is the time to work on lengthening them.
Consistently implementing flexibility and mobility training before, during and after your workout is a surefire way to increase these abilities over time. The key here, just like any other training, is consistency.
You're Only as Good as Your Recovery
The final piece to becoming the most athletic version of yourself is to have the ability to recover from a variety of stressors. As mentioned in Part 1, recovery should be multi-faceted, meaning that the athlete is capable of recovering adequately from a variety of stimuli.
To recap, here are the three different types of recovery for sport or training that Zalessky identified in his 1979 work:
- On-going recovery, which takes place during the activity
- Rapid recovery, which occurs immediately after exercise and focuses on removal of metabolic waste and replenishment of depleted depleted energy sources
- Delayed recovery, which is the long term phase of recovery that allows an athlete to surpass previous training levels
In short, the first step in developing all of these different recovery types is to effectively train the different energy systems of the body each is associated with. By nature of training the key athletic abilities that were outlined above you will accomplish that. The second step, however, is more related to what occurs outside of the training room/field and more so what happens in the kitchen and home of the athlete. Specifically, we're talking nutrition, hydration, sleep, stress and supplementation.
For our athletes at O.B. Training, we keep things as simple as possible when it comes to nutrition. Here are five rules that we give them for proper nutrition to get the biggest bang for their buck.
- Eat whole foods first.
- Eat lots of green vegetables.
- Have protein at each meal.
- Drink your bodyweight in ounces of water.
- Supplements are just that—supplements, not replacements.
We also recommend that they get at least 7-plus hours of sleep each night and have healthy ways to mitigate the stress of training and being a student. Two of our go-to methods for stress reduction are journaling and meditation. The truth is that to optimally recover, you have to be firing on all cylinders. Details matter.
To become the most athletic version of yourself, you need to train every aspect I mentioned here. Playing at the highest level isn't just about being strong or fast, it's about paying attention to the details and being able to fully develop every aspect of athleticism. The good thing is that you can attack most of these abilities in a single training session.
Download my free "Power Athlete" 3-week program to get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to training for ultimate athleticism.
Photo Credit: kieferpix/iStock, monkeybusinessimages/iStock, Aksonov/iStock, RyanJLane/iStock
- What Do We Mean When We Say 'Athletic?'
- 3 Powerful Phrases to Remodel Your Athletic Mindset
- Why Your Hip Flexors Are Key to Your Athletic Performance