Youth sports are now big business. That may sound crazy, but it’s true. Every year parents spend exorbitantly to give their children as much opportunity as possible, or at least to keep up with everyone else. Once common, three-sport high school athletes are a rare-to-extinct breed in this world of year-round seasons, skills coaches, showcases, and strength and conditioning gurus. Even with a growing industry built on exploitation, many youth athletes still wonder how to navigate this world. In particular, how to best choose a sports performance trainer?
Strength and conditioning, like most fields, is full of good and bad apples. Consumers must be aware of incompetent posers spouting nonsensical, baseless training philosophies who fumble through gimmicky methods that they do not understand.
This sounds harsh, but parents must prudently approach trainer selection. YouTube makes it easier than ever to throw together several flashy exercises in ways that do more harm than good. Social media allows anyone to gain a larger audience and create a loyal following thrilled to have their ego stroked by trainers who post about them constantly. Select organizations and parents are, in effect, paying for a babysitter who gets the kids moving.
Trainers who know only the “cool” exercises, who don’t understand the fundamental principles of strength and conditioning will not make athletes better in the long run, and they could actually make them worse. Almost everything makes youth athletes stronger, faster, and better conditioned in the short-term. This is the beauty of training young athletes with low training age: timing and genetics are on your side. As they progress past baseline competencies, it becomes essential to account for other training variables and to program towards specific outcomes.
While this is not a piece about training science or periodization, parents must understand that more training is not necessarily better for adaptation. Incompatible, poorly timed, or poorly executed training methods can negate good work and reinforce patterns that make injury and overuse likely. There is a difference between training and working out. Beach Body may be great for fat loss in your 30’s, but it’s a terrible high school athletic development program.
Training Principles Over Workout Methods
“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is no a shortage of really good strength and conditioning coaches, but many are confused about how to find them and how to know the difference between good and bad. As a parent, this can feel overwhelming. How can you make a well-informed decision about who should train your child without immersing yourself in studies of bio-energetics, physiology, and training principles?
When looking for a qualified strength and conditioning coach, look for a few certifications. I am partial to the CSCS and the CSCCa certifications. Both do a phenomenal job preparing trainers to train for athletic performance. Great additions that include practical application, not just book study, are the RKC, SFG, and USAW certifications. Unfortunately, trainers with numerous certifications might have slipped through the cracks and fail actually coach in the manner they were taught. Likewise, there are a million other routes to develop tremendous sport-performance coaching ability. A trainer can intern under a master like Mike Boyle, Mike Robertson, Eric Cressey, Exos, or any of the other tremendous training facilities. There are also exceptionally good trainers with a NASM, ACE, ISSA, or other certification. Certification is a good starting point, but not the end all be all.
Find a Chef, Not a Cook
I would insist on some sort of credential other than participation in college athletics or even in “the league.” In my experience, former athletes are the most common trainers and the least qualified. I do not necessarily blame these men and women. I understand why they think that they are trainers. They know how to do the exercises and have been through all the workouts. However, following a chef’s commands or recipe does not make you a chef. Likely, you would be lost if the chef were removed. Chefs understand cooking principles and all possible variables and combinations. These former athletes are not chefs. They are dangerous because they know only ingredients, but have no cookbook, no recipe. They triple the sugar, cut the flour in half, and forget the yeast.
Simplifying the Process for Parents
I’ve created the following questionnaire to score trainers on how qualified they are to train your son or daughter. If insulted by your insistence on these questions, the trainer might not be a good fit. You are looking to hire, so approach this decision as an interview. Some of these questions may not seem applicable to your situation, but they are still essential to determine the trainer’s competency and ethics. I have included possible answers. Do not let the candidate see these. Rather, make an informed decision as to which answer his or her response most reflects.
The Definitive Guide to Selecting a Sports Performance Trainer
a. Good Response: 3 Points
b. OK Response: 1 Point
c. Possible Deal-Breaker Response: 0 Points
- My son/daughter trains at school with his/her team a few days a week. How will that impact your training in regards to frequency, duration, intensity, etc? Do you need to know what nights he/she practices and plays games?
- Good: Any response that mentions the need to account for all training stressors and that communicates a need to understand the school team’s workouts. He or she should mention the need to communicate with the coaches.
- OK: He/she makes it clear that this is important and that he/she will be certain to always communicate with your son/daughter about planning.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: Any nonchalance about other training.
- His/her sport demands speed. How can he/she become faster?
- Good: Any response that mentions strength relative to body weight or “relative strength.” Any response that talks about sprinting and jumping (but not as conditioning). Any response that talks about getting stronger. Any response that concedes that while speed can be trained, genetics are a limiting factor.
- OK: He/she vaguely mentions strength and power, and/or running sprints and jumping.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: If he/she mostly discusses conditioning. Speed must be trained at max output with full recovery. Anyone who hears the word speed and thinks conditioning is not qualified to train your son or daughter. Also sleds, parachutes, and box jumps are often gimmicks. He/she should know that they must be reserved for short distances and lower reps at max output.
- What would the first session with you look like?
- Good: Focuses discussion on evaluation, baseline, teaching, etc.
- OK: Vaguely mentions assessment.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: “Exhausting! He/she will hurt all over!” While soreness is likely, particularly at first, an emphasis on exhaustion is a very bad sign.
- How soon will you have him/her lifting heavy and maxing?
- Good: A response that recognizes that your son/daughter needs to demonstrate safe movement patterns over a few sessions with low to medium weights. If your child is younger than 15, it may be completely unnecessary to lift heavy. If the trainer doesn’t believe it important for your son/daughter at this junction that may be a very wise decision, just as it could be true that heavy lifting would be very beneficial.
- OK: Vague, but references a need to assess.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: Anything extreme. From “it will be the first thing we do” to “athletes should never lift heavy.” Demonizing strength training, regardless of sport, could be a very bad sign.
- How much rest would he/she have between sets? Say, between sets of three squats.
- Good: Two or more minutes. Exceptions might include mention of cluster training, supersets, etc.
- OK: Vague, but mentions a need for rest between sets
- Possible Deal-Breaker: Less than 90 seconds. If he/she talks about “sport specific” time intervals and “functional training” here, they likely don’t understand basic strength training, the foundation of speed and power. “Sport-specific” is another buzz word that often indicates substituting gimmicks for an understanding of training principles.
- (Follow up to above question) What would you have him/her do during that rest time?
- Good: Any mention of breathing exercise, mobility exercises, a small number of jumps, or activation exercises.
- OK: Nothing. While I don’t love the idea of paying for a lot of downtime, it is better to rest between sets than to rush sets and ruin progress.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: Any reference to conditioning.
- I saw (make up a famous sports athlete) doing really cool ladder drills. What do you think about ladder training for footwork?
- Good: Any response that recognizes ladder drills fit in the warm-up and as early coordination training, but don’t have much benefit long-term. “Footwork” is a buzz word that often means very little. Another acceptable response might be: “I’m not a big believer in ladder drills”
- OK: Vague response that acknowledges the use of ladder drills, but does not make them out to be any sort of “holy grail”.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: Insistently proclaims how great his/her program is for footwork. Goes into great detail about all the ladder drills he/she knows and how much of his/her program is taken from professionals. It is very easy to find videos of professionals working out. Copying their program is a recipe for disaster.
- I’ve been taking him/her to CrossFit and doing lots of box jumps so he/she should be really powerful already, right?
- Good: Any response that notes the difference between conditioning and power. A good trainer will probably mention how unsafe it can be to do box jumps for conditioning and will probably mention needing to account for any future CrossFit sessions.
- OK: A respectful inquiry as to whether you plan to keep taking him/her to CrossFit workouts.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: Enthusiastic support for high-rep box jumps and a promise to continue them in your son/daughter’s future training.
- What are your suggestions about nutrition for him/her? (Nutritional demands will vary greatly depending on goals and current background. However, a few things are fairly constant and a few responses are major red flags.)
- Good: Any remark that humbly notes the limitations of a strength coach’s expertise, while recommending a balanced and moderate approach that features lean meats with fruits and vegetables. Beans, nuts, and whole grains are also probably good suggestions. He/she should not mention dieting or starting with a ton of supplements, although suggesting whey protein is fine. He/she does not mention counting calories or purchasing expensive eating programs. Advice focuses on long-term habits rather than quick fixes.
- OK: He/she notes the importance of nutrition but recommends speaking to someone more qualified.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: He/she pushes counting calories and pretends to have an idea of exactly how many your son/daughter needs each day. Promotion of numerous supplements is also a red flag, particularly if they are all from the same company.
- Should I worry about recovery or overtraining?
- Good: He/she discusses the importance of eating a balanced diet, sleeping eight or more hours a night, avoiding overtraining, and having balance and relaxation in their lives. Add a bonus point if he/she brings up recovery practices like stretching or meditation. Add another bonus point if he/she mentions the challenges of overspecialization and playing the same sport year-round.
- OK: A vague yes.
- Possible Deal-Breaker: Anything along the lines of “Nah, these kids are resilient. When I was their age I’d run a few miles in P.E., then go lift after school, and then play a varsity basketball game.” While I agree that it is possible to thrive in fatigue and to reach exceptional levels of stamina, advice like this ignores the principles of progression and adaptation.
Add up all the points.
- 20 – 30 Points: Consider hiring as long as you also got a good feel for his /her ethics and ability to connect with your son or daughter.
- 10 – 19 Points: Approach with extreme caution. Perhaps he or she is great but struggles to communicate or understand the questions well. A simple plan can be brutally effective, but I’d eliminate this candidate if there were more than one responses that graded as “Possible Deal-Breaker”.
- 9 or Fewer Points: Why are you still standing there. Don’t walk. Run!