According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, nearly 4.5 million boys and slightly more than 3 million girls participated in high school athletics during the 2011/2012 academic year (21). The number of athletes participating decreases after high school as, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, approximately 444,000 athletes participate in collegiate athletic programs across the nation (20). Prospective college athletes train much differently than athletes did 20 years ago. Emphasis on sport-specific training has led to high school courses specializing in development of speed, strength, power, and flexibility (4,19). In a recent study by Duehring et al. (10) results showed a majority of high school strength and conditioning programs include plyometrics, Olympic lifting, and periodization techniques. Furthermore, many of these programs also included speed and agility exercises as well as information regarding proper nutrition/hydration (10). Personal training of high school athletes has become a big business as well. A simple Google search reveals thousands of specialty training camps and personal training businesses marketed toward high school athletes, all of which have the intent of helping athletes transition from high school to college sports. Additionally, it seems that this type of business venture is making its way into younger children as some personal trainers claim parents are willing to specialize a gifted child at earlier ages (30). Given that traditional physical education has changed so drastically and involvement in specialty training outside of school has increased, are athletes actually receiving appropriate training, both mentally and physically, in preparation for Division-I athletics?
The transition from high school to college is difficult. College freshman have the highest rate of dropout of any class/year in school as approximately 50% of college freshman enroll in their sophomore year (2). Barefoot (2) states that the high first to second year dropout rates to be due to both academic (e.g., not feeling prepared for college) and nonacademic (e.g., level of maturity or lack of belongingness) reasons.
College freshman athletes also struggle with the transition from high school to college. Emotional and psychological factors such as academics, relationships with peers, high training intensity/performance expectations, and being away from home all put added stress on college freshman athletes (14). Although some athletes will cope with this transition positively through new, healthy friendships, and fun/humor (14), other athletes will engage in risky behaviors such as alcohol consumption, smoking, tobacco use, and disordered eating behaviors (9,25).
Physically, college freshman athletes also have to adapt. Schaal et al. (27) found differences between high school and collegiate volleyball players, wherein collegiate volleyball players were taller and heavier and possessed greater strength, power, agility, and anaerobic fitness than high school volleyball players. The same has been found true of male athletes with older athletes at higher levels of competition registering higher Wingate and vertical jump scores than younger athletes at lower levels of competition (18). Therefore, college freshman athletes are not only dealing with the emotional and psychological factors of the transition from high school to college, these athletes are also trying to gain the physical attributes older teammates possess.
Limited research exists regarding which components should comprise high school strength and conditioning programs. Anecdotally, the authors have observed that some prospective college athletes may not receive adequate preparation for collegiate sport training and competition because of a lack of properly designed and progressed strength and conditioning programs in high school. Therefore, the purpose of this study was 2-fold. First, the researchers sought to examine the impressions of Division I strength and conditioning coaches (SCC) regarding the mental and physical preparation of incoming freshman athletes. Second, the researchers assessed the principal manner by which Division I SCC believe the preparation of incoming freshman athletes for intercollegiate training/competition might be improved. Recommendations can then be made, wherein high school strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers might be better able to construct an appropriate strength and conditioning program.
Experimental Approach to the Problem
A survey was used to assess the perceptions of Division I SCC regarding the mental and physical preparation of incoming freshman athletes in addition to how these SCC believe preparation of these athletes during the high school years could be improved. The first 5 questions of the survey gathered the demographic and background data of the SCC, and the last 5 questions examined the SCC's beliefs regarding incoming freshman athletes' preparation for participation in Division I athletics. The survey can be found in Figure 1.
Before contacting any Division I SCC, this study was approved by the University's Institutional Review Board. The survey was initially developed and piloted with 18 SCC. Based on the responses, the survey was refined and sent out to an additional 177 Division I SCC within the United States; the names and contact information (i.e., phone number, e-mail address) of which the researchers collected through various institutions' athletic websites. All SCC contacted were informed that participation in the survey was voluntary and that responses were anonymous after which informed consent was obtained.
The survey was initially developed and piloted with 18 SCC, 16 of whom reported their name and affiliation. Pilot data were received from the Athletic Coast Conference (2), Big Sky Conference, Big Ten (3), Mountain West Conference, Pac-12 (2), Southeastern Conference (5), Western Athletic Conference, and the West Coast Conference. According to the 2012/2013 Capital One Cup Standings, which rank the best men's and women's athletic departments based on final placing in National Collegiate Athletic Association championships and official coaches' polls, of the 16 programs in the pilot study, 3 schools had athletic programs nationally ranked in the top 5 with a total of 6 and 9 schools nationally ranked in the top 15 and 25, respectively (5). The survey was refined based on these 18 responses and uploaded to a Qualtrics Survey Site (Qualtrics Inc., Provo, UT, USA).
A nationwide web search was conducted to identify Division I SCC. Inclusion criteria were Division I Directors, Head, and Assistant coaches of strength and conditioning of a varsity level sports team. Contact information for the 195 Division I SCC was loaded into a Microsoft Excel Spreadsheet (Microsoft Inc., Redmond, WA, USA) database.
The institutional review board approved informed consent, a letter of introduction, and the survey was uploaded to a Qualtrics Survey Site. In May 2013, a link to the survey was e-mailed to the 177 identified SCC not included in the pilot study. Follow-up e-mail requests were sent in July and August 2013. The survey was rendered inactive in September 2013, and responses were downloaded.
Questions 1–5 were analyzed descriptively using Microsoft Excel. Responses to questions 6–10, which were qualitative in nature, were collated and analyzed for major and minor themes. To conduct proper thematic analysis, the major and minor themes drawn from the responses were reviewed by the research team to come to a consensus regarding observed themes (8). The common major and minor themes among the researchers were then used to construct the results of the survey. These themes were used to shed light on the weaknesses the SCC perceive incoming freshman college athletes to possess and provide insight regarding how high school athletes can be better prepared for collegiate athletics.
Fifty-seven of the 195 (29%) coaches contacted with the survey responded. Data suggest response rates from online surveys to be lower than mailed, telephone, or face-to-face surveys (13). Fricker and Schonlau (13) found online surveys to vary in response rates from 8 to 42% suggesting the current study's response rate is adequate. Table 1 provides descriptive data about those who responded to the survey. The majority of respondents were male (86%), held a master's degree (72%), had been coaching between 10 and 20 years (40%), and held the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) (70%). More than 73% of respondents had more than 10 years' experience. Other certifications held by 10% or more of the respondents were USA Weightlifting (USAW), Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, and functional movement screening (FMS).
Table 2 shows the percentages of each major and minor theme regarding areas that SCC believe incoming college freshman athletes need to work on. The highest percentage seen in the data was 36.8%. Thus, the 50th percentile was 18.4%. Any theme seen more than 18.4% of the time was considered a major theme, whereas themes seen less than 18.4% of the time were considered minor. Major themes regarding what SCC believe college freshman athletes lack physically and mentally were uniform. Physically, SCC perceived college freshman athletes to have inadequate strength in the core and lower extremities and lack foundational technique in the Olympic lifts. Additionally, SSC stated freshman athletes lack the flexibility/mobility and work capacity to complete the higher intensity workouts college athletes engage in. Mentally, Division I SCC believe freshman athletes lack the mental toughness to engage in college sport training and insufficient knowledge of proper nutrition and recovery. Regarding minor themes in reference to the physical and mental inadequacies incoming freshman athletes possess running and jumping form training, and knowledge of periodization were stated as areas in need of improvement.
Strength and conditioning coaches stated the inadequacies freshman college athletes possess can be corrected by focused instruction on Olympic lifting technique, engaging in more multijoint and core exercises, learning proper sprinting and agility form, performing plyometric exercises, and by implementing flexibility and mobility exercises as part of the training regimen. Table 3 shows that 41 (72%) of the coaches participating in the survey believe the inadequacies, and subsequent corrections of these inadequacies do not vary based on the gender of the athlete. Of the 16 (28%) individuals, stating gender does influence the inadequacies and corrections of these inadequacies, the most common reasons for the differences are listed in Table 3 as well.
To better prepare college freshman athletes, SCC believe hiring high school coaches and personal trainers who concentrate on teaching proper form, developing the posterior chain, increasing athlete work capacity, instruction in appropriate nutrition/recovery, and increasing athletes' core strength and overall flexibility is vital. Furthermore, Division I SCC believe the employment of certified strength and conditioning coaches/trainers at the high school level will better prepare incoming college freshmen for the rigors of athletic conditioning. Table 4 presents the number of Division I SCC who believe high school strength and conditioning coaches should be certified, whereas Table 5 presents the frequency of the most common certifications the surveyed SCC recommend as the most useful for a high school strength and conditioning coaches. It should be noted that questions regarding certification of high school strength and conditioning coaches were only asked of the 39 SCC contacted with the refined survey but were not posed to the 18 SCC completing the pilot survey. Therefore, Tables 4 and 5 reflect 39 SCC responses. Almost all Division I SCC believed high school strength and conditioning coaches should be certified (97%), and a majority (72%) of these SCC stated obtaining the CSCS certification to be most applicable to coaching at the high school level.
Based on the results of this survey, incoming college freshman athletes are not adequately prepared for the rigors of intercollegiate athletics. Acknowledging the occasional gifted or better prepared athlete who earns a position as a freshman, according to the coaches polled here, this seems to be the exception. Therefore, recommendations for high school strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers regarding how to best train high school athletes for intercollegiate training/competition need to be presented. These recommendations need to be congruent with training theory and the talent development of adolescent athletes to produce physically and mentally competent college freshman athletes and to reduce injury potential.
For over 2 decades, strength and conditioning professionals have stated the need for adolescent athletes to engage in training regimens which are well-rounded in design (i.e., incorporating strength, endurance, and flexibility exercise) (28). Moreover, training theory posits increases in performance come as a result of proper manipulation of training volume, intensity, and duration while also allowing the body time for adequate recovery and adaptation (1). Furthermore, Baechle and Earle (1) state the importance of conducting a needs analysis of the sport and the athlete(s) engaged in said sport. The needs analysis allows the strength and conditioning professional to design a training regimen around the physiological, biomechanical, and psychological requirements of the sport/athlete while adapting the program to any limitations of the athlete (1). A needs analysis of adolescent athletes would find that significant differences in physiological development exist because of growth and maturation occurring during this period.
Important to the proper training of any prospective college athlete is to ensure the strength and conditioning program is properly periodized and progressed. Periodization refers to a structured manner of manipulating the volume, specificity, and intensity of training to elicit the most beneficial physiological outcome for the athlete (3). High school strength and conditioning coaches must build a macrocycle (i.e., typically a year-long training plan, but may be up to 4 years for a high school athlete), which allows the athlete to peak at important times during the season (1,3).
Regarding the construction of a strength program, a high school strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer needs to first construct a mesocycle (i.e., short-term training plan lasting a couple of months), which consists of an endurance-based set and repetition intensity/volumes (i.e., 12–15 repetitions at 50–75% of 1 repetition maximum [1RM]) (1). Baechle and Earle (1) state subsequent mesocycles need to build on the base provided by the endurance phase with proper strength (i.e., 6–8 repetitions at 80–90% of 1RM) and power (i.e., 2–5 repetitions at 87–95% of 1RM) phases. Demonstrated competency in general strength movements is required before teaching progressions for complex, isolation, and sport-specific exercises are incorporated. Special conditioning exercises such as plyometrics should take place in accordance to the athlete's progression in his or her strength training program. For instance, an athlete should successfully bench press 1.0 times their body weight before engaging in upper body plyometric exercises and should squat 1.5 times their body weight before using lower-body plyometrics (1). By adhering to principles of progression when developing a strength and conditioning program, high school strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers can assure athlete safety and maximize adaptations.
During puberty, athletes of both genders can demonstrate varying levels of biological maturation (i.e., the degree to which pubescent changes have taken place) despite having the same chronological age (1). Differences in the level of biological maturity results in variable results in the physiological adaptations seen as a result of sport training (1,12). In a review of athlete development Ford et al. (12) state that development of aerobic and anaerobic capacity is dependent on the maturation of the muscular, anatomical, neurological, metabolic, and hormonal maturation of the adolescent athlete. Data show that the greatest development in aerobic capacity is between the ages of 10–16 in men and 7–13 in women (32) and may be most affected by body size, an increase in neuromuscular efficiency, and more effective transport of blood to working muscles as the adolescent ages (12). Regarding anaerobic, development, speed, strength, and power are also affected by biological maturation (1). The preceding anaerobic variables are largely dependent on the hormonal changes related to puberty, such as increases in testosterone, which lead to greater changes in muscular cross-sectional area which aid in speed and power production (12,32). These anaerobic changes are most pronounced during the ages of 13–16 years in men and 11–14 years in women (32). Thus, not only is the progression of exercise complexity and intensity important, but these should be adjusted for the athletes' development (differences in maturation may suggest why some of the SCC surveyed stated women progressed quicker in their collegiate training program than the men as some men may not as biologically mature when presenting to campus (12,32)).
Although adolescent athletes are capable of experiencing physiological adaptations as a result of sport training, some considerations are worth noting. Rapid periods of growth can induce weakening of fast growing bones, muscle imbalances of the flexors and extensors, decreased flexibility in the muscles and tendons, and reductions in coordination (1). For example, repetitive stress or injury caused by improper training can damage the epiphyseal plate during adolescents' peak growing period and might also harm growth cartilage vital to proper bone development (1). The Division I SCC surveyed within this study stated muscular imbalances and flexibility issues, among other limitations, to be prevalent among incoming college freshman athletes. Therefore, it seems as though the limitations which may develop during an adolescent athlete's rapid period of growth are not being adequately addressed by their training regimens and persist into early adulthood; thus, intercollegiate sport competition.
Knowledge of how growth-related factors may affect the training needs of the adolescent is important. To demonstrate that coaches possess the knowledge to counteract these limitations, Division I SCC suggest all high school strength and conditioning coaches obtain certifications within the field. Division I SSC also state that the CSCS and USAW certifications to be most applicable to employment in the strength and conditioning field. A certification such as the CSCS requires the examinee to be in his or her senior year of college or already hold a bachelor's degree of which would be in an exercise science-related field (22). This education combined with the rigorous examination methods of the National Strength and Conditioning Association should yield competent high school strength and conditioning coaches capable of constructing an appropriate workout regimen around the limitations induced by rapid periods of growth in adolescents. Further, the CSCS and USAW provide strength and conditioning coaches the skills and training to engage athletes in the proper sport-specific training regimens, incorporating ancillary knowledge such as nutrition, which will provide additional information and enhance performance outcomes (23,31).
Currently, a paucity of literature exists regarding high school strength and conditioning program structure of which a qualified high school strength and conditioning coach might engage athletes in (26). However, Christou et al. (7) found 16 weeks of resistance training in adolescent soccer players to increase upper- and lower-body strength in addition to performance measures such as vertical jump height and running speed. Furthermore, research suggests adolescent athletes experience performance benefits from lower- and upper-body plyometric training (11). Given the survey results, Division I SCC believe incoming college freshman athletes possess inadequate lower-body strength and power, providing evidence supporting the development of strength and plyometric programs is needed. Given the lack of research regarding high school strength and conditioning programs, a coach with a CSCS or USAW certification is more likely to possess the knowledge necessary to construct proper strength and power training protocols, in addition to flexibility/mobility exercises, to enhance sport performance and adequately prepare prospective college athletes for the physical requirements of intercollegiate athletics. Moreover, certified high school strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers are also better equipped to construct training programs with the athletes' safety in mind as the National Athletic Trainers' Association maintains individuals training athletes without proper certifications are putting athlete health at a dangerous, sometimes fatal, risk (6).
Finally, the Division I SCC surveyed claim mental toughness is missing in many of the college freshman athletes they train. Gordon and Gucciardi (15) define mental toughness as an athlete's ability to appropriately navigate the momentum swings present in many sport competitions while maintaining the correct amount of focus and drive in addition to properly managing emotions. Given the greater pressure to perform as well as the increased pace and intensity of collegiate sport training/competition developing the mental capacity (i.e., mental toughness) to endure the “ups” and “downs” of training and competition is vital for prospective college athletes.
Properly constructed strength and conditioning programs for adolescent athletes, such as the strength and plyometric training previously mentioned, should develop perseverance and confidence by exposing athletes to adversity, setting and working toward goals, the pressure of high expectations, and “teach discipline, courage, and tenacity” (Stone, p.2) (29). In addition, some mental training programs do exist for adolescent athletes. In a series of studies, Gucciardi et al. (16,17) examined the efficacy of 2 different psychological skills training protocols on the enhancement of mental toughness in adolescent Australian footballers with an average age of approximately 14 years. The psychological training geared toward bettering mental toughness did so through 7 group psychological training sessions, wherein athletes completed activities regarding skills such as work ethic, self-belief, resilience, emotional intelligence, sport intelligence, and physical toughness. The mental toughness group had significantly better resilience than either the basic psychological training or control groups (16) after the intervention. Additionally, the mental toughness group has significantly better indices of psychological flow when compared with the control group (16) at the conclusion of the study. The aforementioned results suggest that high school strength and conditioning coaches might consider implementing some psychological training with the objective to increase mental toughness for training and competition. This training would not only aid in better performance outcomes for the athlete while in high school, but also will give the athlete the tools necessary to adapt to the rigorous training of intercollegiate athletics.
Based on the inadequacies, Division I SCC perceive the majority of incoming college freshman athletes to harbor, a couple of practical recommendations can be made. First, high school strength and conditioning coaches need to consider obtaining certifications within the field of strength and conditioning (i.e., CSCS and USAW). Certification within these organizations' strict guidelines means the coach is qualified to construct and implement safe sport training regimens which take into account the varying biological maturity levels of adolescent athletes. Moreover, the employment of certified strength and conditioning professionals at the high school level will allow for appropriately designed and progressed sport training of high school athletes in preparation for the intensity of intercollegiate athletic training and competition. Therefore, it is necessary for high school administrators to objectively evaluate the strength and conditioning qualifications of potential high school strength and conditioning coaches and assure proper certification in the field. Parents also need to realize the importance hiring only appropriately certified strength and conditioning professionals to train their sons and daughters. Failure to employ certified individuals with knowledge of proper strength and conditioning program construction not only puts the athlete's health at risk but also puts prospective college athletes at a disadvantage when beginning collegiate sport training and competition. Recently the National Strength and Conditioning Association in collaboration with the National Federation of State High School Associations joined forces to advocate for more certification among high school strength and conditioning coaches with a strength and conditioning coach education program (24). This program shows promise as it will provide high school strength and conditioning coaches/trainers evidence-based information on how to properly train athletes in a strength and conditioning setting. Simply put, just because a potential strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer played collegiate sports does not provide the education and knowledge to design and properly progress a strength and conditioning program for high school athletes.
Second, the results of the survey suggest several key areas for improvement exist for incoming college freshman athletes. Certified high school strength and conditioning coaches/trainers need to focus on teaching proper technique in the basic multijoint movements and Olympic lifts, engaging athletes in plyometric exercises to increase lower-body power as well as sprinting and agility form drills to better movement economy, and ensure the training regimen also has a mobility/flexibility component. In addition to the physical preparation of prospective college athletes, high school strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers should also consider mental training as well. As suggested by Division I SCC, it is important for high school athletes to be taught the mental toughness needed to train at the college level in addition to being educated regarding proper nutrition and recovery principles. In this manner, incoming college freshman athletes will be better equipped to handle the rigors of college sports translating into better overall sport performance both individually and institutionally.
The authors would like to thank Kaithlin Reckards for her assistance with the pilot study and the coaches who took time out of their busy schedules to provide valuable input.
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Keywords:Copyright © 2014 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.
athlete development; adolescents; coaching