Identifying and developing junior elite athletes

M. J. Holmes, Member UK National Event Coaching staff

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Identifying and developing junior elite athletes

M. J. Holmes, Member UK National Event Coaching staff

A lecture (the Dunky Wright Memorial Lecture) delivered to the XXI Scotish International Conference. Since reprinted in Athletics Weekly and IAAF/New Studies In Athletics.

In sofar as Steve Smith (2.38 indoors/2.37 outdoors) has progressed from a promising youngster into an Olympic medallist under our partnership of some nine years, there should be something in the course of that journey which is relevant to the theme of our conference.

At our club base in Liverpool a system and a culture has evolved which has resulted in something of a production line of high jumpers - with five 'home grown' athletes on 2.05m and higher in 1996. So there has to be some sort of transition process in place.

No doubt there is more than one way of skinning a cat - all I can relate is the modus operandi of this particular cat-skinner!

High jump is a strange event in many ways - some of these features we will need to explore or at least touch on in due course. One notable feature is the age at which jumpers can come into the classification of 'elite'. (Table 1)

Gymboss Timers

TABLE 1--TALENT LEVEL FOR SUCCESS

MALE

AGE 16

2.10+

MALE

AGE 18

2.20+

FEMALE

AGE 18

1.87/1.88+

I am sure many of you will remember when the Scottish senior record was broken by a certain individual in the English Schools Championships, some 12 or 13 years ago? It also happened to be the British senior record! That was Geoff Parsons.

Did not a Scots lad of 15 become the youngest ever athlete in the GB senior team? That was Ross Hepburn.

This is all in contrast to some of our other events. Take shot for example ... In my experience the peak age for that event is 33!

We cannot, therefore, share our respective difficulties or have a totally common approach to the topic of the conference, due to the fundamental differences in such matters as skill acquisition and varying dependency on acquired strength. To highlight the point, I indicate my view of the standards that our young people must reach, as a minimum, if they are going to make their mark at world level.

These are not far-fetched, we currently have half a dozen people in the UK who fall into that category. Seven high jumpers reached the BAF qualification standard for the '96 World Juniors.

Another surprising factor is that most of them have come through to that stage without any really intensive training behind them - in a couple of cases no real structured training at all. So, the identification of junior elite athletes is not a factor ... they just pop up naturally. They still have to be progressed from this heady start, but there will be no late developers in high jump.

I am aware that we all cover many different disciplines and it is important in the context of this conference to avoid getting into the minutiae of high jump training and preparation. To the extent that we are going to cover some specific high jump topics, I do so with the hope that they will demonstrate a way of thinking; a basis of operating.

It is important that we question our events, their components and their demands. Develop some principles to live by.

When considering the development of the younger athlete, I have to have in mind the programme which I expect the individual will follow as an elite senior. To do otherwise would create the danger of embarking on a journey without knowing the nature of the final destination.

Anyway, there are no certainly no surprises in this list of the key components involved in high jump preparation, junior or senior (Table 2).

TABLE 2—THE COMPONENTS OF SUCCESS

All training must be for a purpose and be on valid principles.

It is no good if you do not know why you do things and are left wondering whether what you do will work.

ALWAYS DO THINGS FOR A REASON.

I personally need to validate what I do - and I do not see why this has to be a complicated business. The points here could be described as simplistic, but I believe all that is needed to formulate a training programme to achieve 2.40m is here.

There is a saying that "there is nothing new under the sun" and I am sure that most of you will be aware of these rules and principles (Table 3)

TABLE 3—RULES TO BE COACHED BY

 

But it is a bit like baking a cake - everyone has access to the same ingredients but not everyone can bake a great cake. Let's take a closer look at a couple of these:

As the training load goes in, the performance level drops. When the load comes off the reverse happens to a level above the original starting point. As far as I am concerned, this phenomenon must be exploited to the full. At the macro level, say the winter training block, the process starts with a reduction in the intensity and volume of training, which signals the start of the Adaptation or, as I prefer to call it, the Taper Period. The extent of the reduction necessary varies tremendously from event to event, but the optimum taper down is particularly dramatic in the case of high jump, in my experience.

The compensation principle in the training programme

It is worth examining the compensation principle in closer detail. Training intensity and the duration of both training and recovery periods will determine whether the desirable 'staircase' effect is achieved.

There is little or no guidance available as to the optimal training levels nor the recovery activities which will deliver the required result. Or if there is, I don't know where to find it. To be fair it is not possible to generalize on this issue. Conditioning history and the age and development of the athlete are among a host of factors to be taken into account.

For me this is an area where the science o coaching tends to give way to the skill of coaching. Judgment as to when you can turn the screw and when to pull back.

The 'staircase' effect

This is a schematic representation (Figure 3) of the processes involved when you get things to go right or, indeed, how and why they go wrong.

This not only sets the guidelines for the mature experienced athlete but, I believe, gives a clue as to how to manipulate a training regime to suit the developing athlete.

Fitness vs fatigue

Taken in conjunction with the principles illustrated above, I think I can program for the developing athlete with some confidence that I will be on the right track.

Essentially, this says to me that it is not the nature of training of the elite athlete which will cause difficulties for the youngster, but the length of time over which it is applied and the amount of rest which is applied thereafter. OK, there are individual loadings which will need to be moderated - you would not want to give a weighted jacket to a 17-year-old and some single leg work can (and should) be converted to double footed, but in most respects the programme can be the same.

That is a real bonus as far as I am concerned. It means I can have a wide ability range and athletes in various stages of development in the same group, doing fundamentally the same individual elements of training. That is not to say that I have got it right every time, I have had a few cases of overuse strain in the quadriceps, but thankfully no major injuries yet.

If we are not to look towards the specific training requirements of the event, we cannot go much further without defining the target. You cannot take the right road to anywhere without knowing the destination. No matter what your event, it can do no harm to reflect back on the fundamentals from time to time.

Question: What is the destination in the case of high jump?

Answer: VERTICAL VELOCITY AT TAKE-OFF!

If we are concerned with speed in this event - it is the speed generated in that brief, single leg, dynamic, reactive, explosive moment. Surprisingly, this does not seem to be a problem for the more able of our youngsters - and even those without a particularly demanding training regime behind them.

Whatever training I might be doing, I always ask how it is going to contribute to vertical velocity at take-off (and that means I must not run away from the answer if I do not like it!).

Anyone who embarks on a training regime without addressing these questions (Table 4) cannot be sure whether what they are doing is right.

TABLE 4—QUESTION TIME

It is probably not our remit to cover many of these today, and we have actually looked at some of them already.

In terms of training for running speed, there is surely no high jumper who does not naturally possess enough speed to jump high - even I can get up enough steam!

What happens when we strength train? Basically our ability to jump disappears! But we must have the max/gross strength to stop the leg collapsing when planting for take-off.

How do we resolve this dilemma? Essentially the right programming will sort this problem out for us.

What is the role of fitness and stamina? We need to go back to consider vertical velocity at take-off to answer that ... fitness contribution? ... NONE! You can be unfit and jump high.

I actually eliminated fitness from my 95/96 training package and everyone in my squad did well enough on that, but I found that the ability to jump high over a long period was affected, so fitness went back in for 96/97. 1 have no 'rules' to prove that, just bitter experience!

When to jump in training? Now this is a big question ...Too many coaches feel that they are not fulfilling their destiny if they do not regularly coach the act of high jump. While it is fair to say that a hurdler needs to hurdle, say, twice a week, a high jumper who knows how to high jump is not going to forget how to and the four to five weeks of taper is the time to re-introduce high jump technique and this will be sufficient to bring all the timing back. To sum up, we know training ruins jumping, so why jump when you are training?

How long does it take to eliminate the effects of a heavy leg session? I believe there are papers on this, but I found out the hard way - nine days appears to be the answer and this provides me with another golden rule to programme by, as we will see shortly.

When can we implement an elite programme? Certainly from age 17 onwards ... up to then jumping technique must be the priority.

Get the programming wrong and you have got no chance (Table 5, 6).

TABLE 5—PROGRAMMING ISSUES

TABLE 6—HIGH JUMP STANDS ALONE

FR0M ALL THIS WE CAN SEE THAT, IN MANY WAYS, HJ STANDS ALONE FROM OTHER T&F EVENTS. SO, IT MUST HAVE ITS OWN RULES. IF YOU TRAIN FOR THE HJ AS YOU WOULD FOR OTHER EVENTS, ONE OR THE OTHER IS GOING TO BE WRONG!

l start working out the structure of the weekly programme by determining that there should be two rest days. I would rather double up sessions on one day than lose a rest day.

If two weights sessions are accepted per week as sufficient, then that leaves three days to play with (Table 7).

TABLE 7—THE WEEKLY PROGRAMME (MICRO CYCLE)

THE TRAINING DIET

PLYOMETRICS

3 SESSIONS

CONDITIONING

3 SESSIONS

STRENGTH

2 SESSIONS

TECHNIQUE

0 SESSIONS

RECOVERY

2 DAYS

THE TRAINING WEEK

MONDAY

PLYOS AND CONDITIONING

TUESDAY

STRENGTH

WEDNESDAY

PLYOS AND CONDITIONING

THURSDAY

REST

FRIDAY

PLYOS AND CONDITIONING

SATURDAY

STRENGTH

SUNDAY

REST

If the conditioning and the plyometric sessions can be combined - both being three each per week - it all slots in well. Conditioning and plyometrics can, I find, be put comfortably together on a split routine basis. Above that there is no obvious layout for the week or the insertion of the rest days - a block of three sessions and a block of two sessions is unavoidable. The make-up of the main thrice weekly session has to be broken up on a split routine basis.

After November we will often start with some fast running work in the hope that there is some carry-over between the short, quick foot contact in the sprinting action and that which we are so desperate to cultivate in the high jump arena!

The plyometrics and conditioning elements then alternate to break up the onslaught and offer some rest to the muscle groups. There are, of course, basic rules that have been established in respect of plyometrics (Table 8, 9).

TABLE 8--PLYOMETRICS (LAWS OF THE GAME)

TABLE 9--INTRODUCING STRENGTH TRAINING---HAZARDS!

The rate of the stretch/shortening cycle is critical to our event and helps to explain why many high jumpers are not impressive when performing static jumps such as the vertical jump and standing long jump - but off a few strides can create much greater forces. Look for quality rebounding to acquire the necessary responses.

Originally, plyometrics referred to depth jumping involving a 'rebound'. Obviously this closely mimics the high jump as both have an eccentric contraction followed by a concentric contraction, and our plyometric sessions in the specific phase should replicate this pattern (Table 10). So this is one way of being more specific. Another is to concentrate on single leg work, which can also expose weaknesses hidden by double footed rebounding.

TABLE 10--PLYOMETRICS MENU—EXERCISE OPTIONS

Always remember that plyometric work is also intended to rehearse neuromuscuIar responses and not just work the muscles. The point to make is that the same exercises from the plyometric menu can be used to achieve different objectives.

Certainly there should be a progression over the training block and into the competition period and the content of the bounding sessions and their execution will alter dramatically even using the same exercises.

In many respects there appears to be nothing more than common-sense in initiating a strength programme, but that is said from the perspective of someone who has been personally following a strength training regime for 30 years and continues to do so (Table 11).

TABLE 11--INTRODUCING STRENGTH TRAINING

I take for granted the instruction necessary to coach lifts such as the squat, clean and snatch. If a 60kg female aspires to repetition squat with 140kg, as Debbie Marti does, it will only be achieved (and safely) with fastidious attention to the detail of technique.

I have taken a 17-year-old female (again 60kg body weight) from novice to 100kg squats, for reps, in seven months, but if you are not confident in this area, you must delegate this work to others.

Sooner, rather than later, our youngsters should be feeling as at home in the weights room as they do on the run-up, or on the high jump fan. This is one of the best contributions we as coaches can make to our athletes.

Initially; despite our best efforts and with the best will in the world, the weights are just not going to be heavy enough to make any real strength gains, especially as their natural leg strength is already quite high through several years of training for athletics but they will get there.

Eventually you hope that they will be squatting over 200kg for reps like Smith but that brings its own problems - and that takes us into advance scheduling ... perhaps another paper sometime ...It is no surprise to me that Jonathan Edwards' weights instruction relies on a hammer coach, Smith's on a shot coach and this year our top junior female high jumper has benefited from input from a discus coach!

Table 12 shows my particular weights exercise menu and you will notice the absence of the classic power exercises of cleans and snatch.

TABLE 12--WEIGHTS PACKAGE—TWO SESSIONS PER WEEK

QUADS MENU

OTHER MUSCLE GROUPS

Despite the fact that Jonathan Edwards has based his recent successes around these - it has taken him 10 relatively unproductive years acquiring the skill and confidence necessary to app y the loadings that will produce the requisite strength training returns. I have tried to develop a package which will provide a shortcut yet deliver the same results. We have established the importance of eccentric contraction in high jump, but it is not easy to find ways to work on this in the weights room.

Summary

  1. Have a clear view of what your elite program is or is going to be 
  2. If possible, develop a squad which the promising youngster can feed into 
  3. Get them up to speed—elite high jump is not a long term process 
  4. Train hard, but rest long 
  5. Know the system: the selectors, the selection criteria and process, national coaches, event coaches, team managers

And that is where I came in !


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