Command Performance

Sports performance training offers fitness facilities some room for improvement

By Margaret Ahrweiler

On a cold Friday night in January, the 30-screen megaplex movie theater complex in Warrenville, Ill., is hopping, filled with teens out to see the latest flicks, munch candy and troll for members of the opposite sex. But just across the road, a dozen girls ranging in age from 13 to 15 have forsaken this popular hangout for an alternate spot. Red-faced and sweaty, they're hard at work passing each other medicine balls, ripping through a series of sprints and maneuvering through hurdles—sideways—at Velocity Sports Performance.

These members of West Suburban Volleyball Club, a competitive club team, are not alone in forsaking junk food for jump work. They're part of one of the fastest-growing areas of the fitness industry: sports performance training. Once the sole province of professional, collegiate and Olympic-caliber athletes, performance training is growing to embrace athletes of all ages and abilities—and making an impact on the fitness industry as a whole. Performance training embraces workouts that focus on movement skills, body mechanics, agility and injury prevention.

In its purest form, sports performance training is all about, well, sports and performance, says Todd Durkin, owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego and Trainer of the Year for both ACE and IDEA, two fitness professional organizations.

"As science improves and the fitness field evolves, we now have so many things at our fingertips we can do to help take us to the next level, be it obtaining college scholarships, professional contracts, making the high-school varsity team or taking their game to the next level, people are interested in maximizing their potential," he says.

So what's the difference between performance training and run-of-the-(tread)mill fitness work?

There are several key distinctions. First, performance training uses a scientific background—studies in exercise physiology or kinesiology—to identify the optimal functioning of the human body's muscular and skeletal systems and devise work to help people reach that optimal level. This is most commonly achieved through a series of rapid-fire exercises that depend more on the body and specific muscle placement and movements rather than machines and repetitive motions.

In a traditional fitness setting, people commonly might perform 30 to 40 minutes of work on cardio machines, augmented by 10 to 15 minutes of exercises or weight training, doing single-purpose movements with a vaguely defined goal of keeping fit or burning calories. With sports performance training, "it's about multitasking," Durkin says.

"You're training for movement coordination, increased core strength, balance and functionality," he says. "You're teaching people the best way to use their bodies."

Performance training focuses on multiple muscle movements rather than singling out one specific muscle.

"You have 700 different muscles in your body, and they're designed to work together, not one at a time," notes Britton Kelley, regional fitness director for Gold's Gym and president of Trainer's Performance in Smithtown, N.Y.

With that concept of functionality in mind, performance training also concentrates more on using body weight rather than free weights or circuit training machines to build strength.

And while much of performance training's emphasis falls on young athletes, adults are turning to this type of fitness work as well after burning out on traditional cardio/weight work.

"People are realizing, 'Wow, this has no purpose,' after they've gone nowhere on their treadmill for so long or counted to 15 reps forever," Kelley says. Instead, performance training focuses on the functional, he says, making your body move better no matter what you do.

Performance training also represents a dramatic shift in fitness philosophy when it comes to people's athletic abilities. Traditionally, people have labored under the notion that athleticism, and skill at a sport, was a natural, genetically ingrained ability. Now, performance trainers know otherwise. Research, data and study after study on athletic performance show that with proper training, athletes can improve important factors like speed, response time and jumping. Velocity's promotional materials state it succinctly: "Great athletes are made, not born."

Its program was created by co-founder Loren Seagrave, an internationally recognized speed coach whose clients have included sprinters such as Donovan Bailey, Gwen Torrance, and several National Football League teams including the Atlanta Falcons and the Jacksonville Jaguars. Seagrave broke ground in his philosophy that speed is a skill that can be taught and improved upon and that training—or often retraining—muscles and neural responses in certain ways will increase performance.

This doesn't necessarily mean that every boy has the potential to become Peyton Manning or every girl Jennie Finch, performance pros are quick to concur. There's an outer limit to what every person can accomplish, and that varies, say the pros. But they all possess the means to improve.

"Every person has the potential to achieve their own level of greatness," Durkin explains.

"A lot of people aren't born with athletic skill, but athletic skill is a very small part of the pyramid," says Kelley, who is developing sports performance programs in three Gold's Gyms in the Long Island area, bringing a 10,000-square-foot Parisi Speed School to the facilities.

Feeding the frenzy?

Is this taking the oft-criticized youth sports machine to a whole new level of competition, with those who can afford performance training leaving behind those who can't?

Not really, says David Walmsley, CEO of Velocity Sports Performance in Alpharetta, Ga.

"Our market isn't just kids who are A-level athletes who are going on to college scholarships," he says. "It's all kids who participate in sports, from first-stringers to third-stringers."

Many facilities tout their work with professional athletes, including those from the National Football League, but youth sports, is their "bread and butter," Durkin notes.

While training NFL athletes can give a facility a cachet of glamour, he says that working with young athletes who are not necessarily gifted with natural talent can be most rewarding for everyone involved.

"With a pro athlete I can refine their technique, get specific and in-depth about one or two things, but with a young athlete it's much more comprehensive," he says.

In youth sports, Durkin says, the fastest kids are often the best athletes and the ones who play the most, but frequently, the kids who lag were never taught how to run. Working with those kids gives trainers the greatest satisfaction because the results can be so huge, he adds.

In fact, performance training offers less-than-stellar youth athletes a chance to even the playing field, explains Tony Soika, owner of Sports Performance Advancement in Appleton, Wis. He frequently sees young athletes whose only goal is to make their varsity team, not necessarily as a starter. It's these kids who benefit most, he says: the ones whose drive may outweigh their abilities before they begin performance training.

"We're working on quality-of-life issues here," Walmsley says. The kids who gain the biggest boost through performance training often see benefits in other parts of their lives as their self-confidence and self-image grows. (Walmsley tells of one parent conveying with wonder that his son's handwriting even improved.) "We're not trying to create hypercompetitive athletic machines," he says.

In fact, Velocity and facilities like it spend a great deal of time trying to undo the damage wrought by that environment. Many gyms see boys coming in with arm injuries and other problems from overtraining as pitchers. Coaches work to develop the rest of their muscles to better support the mechanics needed for pitching.

With an emphasis on just one sport earlier in life, kids aren't getting the cross-training they once received by playing many different sports. Clete McLeod, assistant sports performance director at the Warrenville Velocity, recalls that as a child, he played baseball and basketball, among others, which made him a better football player.

McLeod also acknowledged that without the explosion of competitive youth sports, Velocity "probably wouldn't be here," but adds that sports performance facilities are in a position to do greater good, to teach children how their bodies work in an age where 49 of 50 states don't require daily physical education in schools.

"Before we're sports performance coaches we're physical educators," he says.

Youth Will Be Served—And Adults Too

Performance training currently caters primarily to a youth market. And it's no wonder. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the under-18 group is the second fastest growing market in the fitness industry. In 2004, gyms counted 4.6 million kids as members, up from only 2 million in 1993.

And while most fitness clubs have grown their youth business through their adult clients, the reverse is true at performance facilities: Gym owners are reaching adults through their young clients to get the maximum use out of their facilities.

"You've got great coaches all sitting here in a pretty empty gym from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.," says Clete McLeod of Velocity Sports Performance in Warrenville, Ill. "Why not have adults?"

Many parents see the workouts their sons and daughters receive and want to try something similar. McLeod also has seen a number of parents who played sports in their youth and want to return to that type of training.

"You're treated like an athlete here, regardless of your age, and a lot of moms and dads appreciate that," he adds. At this point, adults make up only about 5 percent of the Warrenville Velocity, but McLeod expects that figure to grow as the parent effect continues to take hold.

At Sports Performance Advancement in Appleton, Wis., owner Tony Soika says he trains primarily youths as well but also works with adult "occupational athletes," people shipping out for the military who want to hit the ground running for basic training, or police and fire professionals.

Sweat equity

The quest for a competitive edge doesn't hurt business, however. West Suburban Volleyball Director Patty Schiewe said the volleyball club first considered adding performance training when she realized that colleges were scouting players as young as freshmen in high school.

"Expectations are higher and higher, and we want to help our girls in every way we can," she says.

The extra conditioning work gives the athletes the opportunity to increase their vertical and lateral speeds, something that college programs track. In her club's first year with Velocity, Schiewe says, the program has exceeded her expectations, with the younger girls in particular showing improvement faster than she anticipated. As a result, her coaches can spend more time in other areas besides conditioning, such as how to read opponents' courts.

Performance pros also work to undo the effects of single-muscle training, which is favored by some coaches and practiced by young athletes, who may not know any better, working out without supervision on selectorized machines, Soika says. Quadriceps and hamstrings are antagonistic muscles, he offers as an example. If you create strong quads but weak hamstrings, you create an imbalance that can trigger improper mechanics and even injury.

We're working on
quality-of-life issues here; we're not
trying to create hypercompetitive
athletic machines.

David Walmsley
CEO of Velocity Sports Performance in Alpharetta, Ga.


In fact, one of performance training's strongest selling points is its emphasis on what pros call "prehabilitation," or injury prevention.

This is particularly important with young female athletes, says Kelley, noting that girls are four to five times as likely to suffer a significant injury, especially to a knee or ankle, as boys.

By teaching proper movement, explaining the physics and mechanics of a seemingly simple motion like jumping, and strengthening all the muscles needed when playing, performance trainers can cut injuries significantly. For sports like volleyball where jumping plays a big role, Kelley teaches athletes not only how to jump, but how to land, where deceleration factors into the process.

He also questions traditional team sports training methods like lengthy runs for many sports, including tennis or football.

"Why do you need to run three miles?" he asks. "You're not even training the right muscles. You should be teaching these kids how to cut properly."

"It's pretty alarming" that most of the young athletes coming to his gym don't really understand how their bodies work and how the "firing patterns" should occur for key movements, McLeod says. As a result, his programs start off at a slower pace, with a lot of repetition, to get proper movement ingrained into athletes' muscle memories before they progress to improving speed or agility.

Emphasis on injury prevention also helped sell Schiewe on sports performance training, having seen a distressing number of girls in her sport with torn anterior cruciate ligaments or mangled ankles.

That philosophy of injury prevention extends beyond athletics, Walmsley notes. People whose daily routines incorporate strenuous movement also benefit from performance training, to prevent injury: chasing and toting around toddlers, for example, requires more complex movement skills and core muscle strength than many sports.

Education is key

The ability to teach injury prevention effectively stems from another strong selling point of performance training—the education levels of its practitioners. Most performance facility operators, and many of its coaches, hold advanced degrees in sports science fields. (Durkin, for example, holds a master's degree in exercise and nutritional science with an emphasis in biomechanics and sports medicine from San Diego State University; Soika holds a master's degree in human performance from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.)

In comparison, personal trainers run the gamut from a complete lack of certification to varying levels of accreditation from a confusing array of organizations. And while performance training proponents are quick to note the existence of effective, educated personal trainers, they say there's no replacement for a background in exercise sciences.

"In a health-club setting, it's still very common to have personal trainers who don't have college degrees," Soika says. "Here, on the other hand, to even be an intern you have to have a four-year degree."

Professionals with a greater understanding of body mechanics can tailor a performance program not just to one sport's goals but to each participant's body type and quirks as well. Trainers drive home the point repeatedly: Every body is different. Young athletes, in particular, may be progressing through puberty at different rates, so their limb lengths and body structures may vary dramatically.

When teaching proper movement, trainers must take body particulars into account: When teaching squats, for example, you can't tell a girl whose toes naturally point inward to turn them out.

"My toes may go one way, and your toes may go another, but you can't fight that," he says. "You work with it."

Similarly, he notes, a 5-foot, 10-inch, 160-pound outside hitter on a volleyball team may need "radically different" training methods and conditioning work than her 6-foot, 2-inch, 135-pound middle teammate.

"One size does not fit all," he cautions.

Tools of the Trade

Unlike traditional fitness centers, sports performance facilities don't require rows of expensive machines. At Velocity Sports Performance facilities, franchisees' biggest expense is not the equipment but the flooring: professional-level synthetic turf for football and soccer training, a 60-yard track for sprint and speed work, netted areas for baseball and softball batting and pitching, and multipurpose sport flooring for everything else.

Surfaces aside, most centers eschew treadmills and weight machines for an array of lower budget gadgets—medicine balls, agility ladders and a wide array of exercise bands. Many centers display signs spoofing routine cardio work. One gym's unofficial logo: "Don't train like a hamster. Train like an athlete."

The biggest tool is the athlete's own body, notes Britton Kelley, regional fitness director for Gold's Gym and president of Trainer's Performance in Smithtown, N.Y. He adds that his training area for most clients has been cut to about a five-foot-square area around the athlete.

However, the culture of high-level sports feeds off the ability to measure the most miniscule variations in performance, and the tools to do so are getting cooler every year. One popular—albeit pricey—piece of equipment looks like a hybrid combination of a plasma television, Golden Tee golf game and Dance Dance Revolution. In reality, this virtual reality-type mechanism runs athletes through games and drills to measure performance, function and movement.

Among the things it can analyze are reaction time—how quickly an athlete perceives, interprets and develops the muscle force; power—think blocking or checking ability; and speed—not only forward but left, right and backward. Kelley uses the system and praises its accuracy and wow factor and its ability to help athletes discover their weak points. For example, he discovered that one client was 80 percent less efficient on the left side than the right.

While it's not vital to own such a tool because of its expense, Kelley notes, but it can be a welcome addition to a facility that can afford it—one more weapon in the arsenal of training methods and information flow on performance.

Fitness industry follows?

In some ways, performance training has taken off as a corollary of the growth of personal training. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), personal training has grown from 4 million clients in 1999 to 6.2 million clients in 2004.

Performance training also represents one way the fitness industry is responding to the needs of its clients, says IHRSA's Brooke Correia.

"It's niche marketing on the part of the industry," she says. "People respond to fitness so differently, and people are coming at exercise from so many ways, this is just one way they can succeed."

In turn, the fitness industry is beginning to take cues from performance training.

"This is carrying over to the fitness industry as a whole," Durkin says. "The way we train our normal, everyday population might not be quite the same—you won't see everyone jumping onto a 30-inch box—but people everywhere can certainly train with better movement in mind."

More progressive-minded trainers have begun boning up on body mechanics and exercise physiology, using performance training standards and tactics to preach a gospel of maximizing physical capabilities, Durkin adds. The popularity of core training traces back to sports performance guidelines, he adds.

Finally, the fitness industry will embrace performance training more thanks to its appeal to goal-oriented adults in more solitary athletic pursuits, such as golf and triathlon training, note performance pros. Many facilities, including Sports Performance Advantage in Appleton and the Velocity centers, offer golf-specific programs and triathlon groups.

At What Cost?

While its benefits are obvious, one drawback of performance training is its cost.

For example, at Sports Performance Advancement in Appleton, Wis., training programs run in six-week cycles, with the cost averaging about $250 per cycle, with an average of about $20 per session. Owner Tony Soika acknowledges that he'd like to reach more kids who may not have the means to pay for performance programs but does his part to make his programs affordable, offering discounts for good grades, repeat customers, families with several kids in his programs and gift certificates for referrals.

Britton Kelley, regional fitness director for Gold's Gym and president of Trainer's Performance in Smithtown, N.Y., agrees.

"The problem is only the kids with money are getting the training," he says.

"We do cut off a big part of the market at this point."

He hopes to continue working with schools and coaches to make sure kids have access to high-quality performance training even if they can't afford a private gym.

Some Velocity Sports Performance gyms are branching out to offer their programs through local park districts, which can subsidize part of the cost, and are offering scholarships for local athletes who could not afford the service otherwise.

Coaching the coaches

Ironically, the hardest sell for performance training for young athletes has not been parents or adults but coaches. Coaches, often a control-oriented lot, can become set in their ways and unwilling to let someone else call the shots with conditioning—stuck in the "old school ways," according to Durkin. Fortunately, a new generation of coaches is coming to realize that traditional training programs are out the window, he says, and want to help their athletes train for movement and train the whole body.

Still, old attitudes die hard, Soika adds. A former strength and conditioning coach for NCAA Division I programs, he opines that many people still think the strength coach is "the guy who watches the weight room and does CPR when someone keels over."

People are realizing, ‘Wow, this has
no purpose,’ after they've gone
nowhere on their treadmill for so long
or counted to 15 reps forever.

Britton Kelley,
regional fitness director for Gold's Gym and
president of Trainer's Performance in Smithtown, N.Y.

With team training a financial boon for performance gyms, as well as an easy way to advance the cause, converting coaches' attitudes is key, but word of mouth—and success—sells the program, Soika says.

"When we were just getting started we did find one high-school coach who believed in our methods," he says. "He told us, `I know what I'm good at and I know what you're good at.' After training with us, his team went from a 2-7 record to winning their conference. That little bit of success was contagious."

Many performance trainers, including Kelley and Durkin, are helping teach the teachers by holding seminars for coaches on the importance of performance training—the techniques for proper movement, injury prevention and safe, effective ways to improve their athletes' skills.

West Suburban's Schiewe, for one, has taken that idea to heart. One of the coaches for her older girls' teams has been training at Velocity alongside the athletes to learn as much as possible about the techniques and programs and plans to pass it along to other coaches as well.

"If I can put my girls in better hands, I've got to give them that opportunity," she says.

And those better hands can help more than elite athletes bent on scholarship opportunities. From pro-level athletes prepping for the NFL to kids who would never have had a chance to make the team to adults who just want to tackle a new sport, performance training offers something for everyone. The benefits—greater movement, better coordination, improved balance, a sense of accomplishment—transcend sport. After all, in the game of life, performance is everything.

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