Most athletes know the feeling of returning to their sports after taking time off. Sometimes it’s another spoiled millionaire holding out for more money; other times it’s coming off injury; and now we’re about to see what it looks like to come back from pandemic-related restrictions.
It wasn’t so long ago that locker rooms had ashtrays, professional athletes held regular jobs in the offseason, and Olympic athletes were berated for missing work to compete at the Olympic games. When I started as a strength coach, professional hockey players would often use camp to get in shape, if not the first five games of the season. Today’s players don’t get out of shape – that is, until COVID-19 entered the picture.
Many professional athletes have home workout facilities and can train all day long, but it’s just not the same as reporting to spring training and the like. If only I had a nickel for every football player at camp who lamented, “I’m in great shape, but not ‘football’ shape.” Pitchers have to throw, swimmers have to swim, and hockey players need to skate. You can work hard in the offseason and develop great cardiorespiratory endurance, muscle endurance, speed, and power and still be ill-equipped for the specific demands of a sport or activity.
Skaters have the apparent benefit of rollerblades, slide boards, synthetic ice, and skating treadmills. These things look a lot like conventional skating and even feel like skating to most people. The joint angles and muscle recruitment would seem to be the same, but there are subtle nuanced differences that matter to a finely tuned athlete, if not a dabbler. They’re close but not the same. And if a hockey player were to only do these things that mimic skating without any of the real McCoy, they’d pay the price at camp. Because Sweden has been the only country with available ice time, it’s a notable advantage, and I’m predicting superior play from the Swedish players, at least out of the gates.
As we all get re-released out into the wild, we’ll be dusting off those tennis racquets and golf clubs. While most recreational weekend warriors get rusty and out of sport-specific shape every year, this year has put us behind the eight-ball more than usual. The point of preseason training is to improve our body’s capabilities, but more importantly to prepare our bodies for the upcoming season by subjecting them to some of the stresses that they will have to contend with while engaged in their respective sport. To ready our bodies, we have to expose them to similar forces and probable conditions.
The most important thing to improve in a given sport, sport skill, or exercise is to do that actual movement or exercise. I know this seems remarkably obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times people ask me, “What can I do to get my bench up?” If you want to improve your bench, you need to do bench presses; if you want a heavier slapshot, you need to shoot buckets of pucks. People tend to search for secret exercises and silver bullets when the real answer is right in front of them and usually what they’re trying to avoid.
There are plenty of assistance exercises that should be considered and employed to help improve an exercise or athletic performance, but to use these without actually doing any of the very thing that you’re trying to enhance makes no sense.
It would behoove golfers to do some core strengthening, especially trunk rotation, which is an important element of a golf swing. Medicine-ball side throws, resistance-band oblique twists, and diagonal chops all fit the bill and can very well translate to impact power on the golf course. But if you were to only do this and neglect the golf piece of the puzzle, your golf swing would be junk, and delicate uncalloused hands would get torn to shreds on your first round back. This is why golfers go to the driving range as the season approaches: to get their golf swing muscles going, toughen up their hands, and all else.
It’s the same thing with preseason batting practice, pitchers getting their throwing reps in, and hockey players doing skill sessions on the ice. It’s not meant to be a replacement for live pitching, throwing off the mound, or getting in “game shape.” But it does prepare the body in a general sense for what’s about to come.
Another important piece of the puzzle during the preseason is injury prevention. Every sport has its own corresponding set of injuries and injury sites: swimmers with their shoulders, hockey players with their hip flexors, basketball players and their ankles etc. A certain amount of time should be devoted to reducing the risk of these kinds of projected injuries.
Golfers are known for their back problems in part because a lifetime of swinging to the same side causes some asymmetry. One of the nice things about those gym-setting, trunk-rotation exercises is that working both sides offers a small contribution to balancing out that asymmetry. It’s not a bad idea to even take some swings to your non-hitting side. You’ll never balance out the disproportionate number from years of one-sided golfing, but rotating and transferring weight to your opposite side is a step in the right direction.
The unexpected offseason caused by COVID-19 probably prevented the typical preseason rituals, but hopefully, it afforded some the opportunity to work on those things that are always on the to-do list but are neglected during business as usual times.
My advice is typically to always work on the skill-intensive parts of your sport and to supplement that with the appropriate assistance exercises, general athletic development, and injury prevention. With the first part off the table, doing what’s second best may not be optimal but it’s still good. We can enhance our athletic ability and be in great shape and bring a lot to the table upon our return. We just may be a little behind schedule in highly specialized regard.
We can all do our best to grab whatever’s available to us at any given time. When someone has a broken ankle, their bench tends to go up quite a bit.
The rollerblading, treadmill workouts, and bodyweight squats may not be ideal, but they do serve as good placeholders. Hard work and physical exertion can help a return to play even when they don’t truly mimic athletic skills. Time off frequently stokes that fire in the belly that drives athletic performance. Involuntary time off also allows our bodies to heal when they wouldn’t otherwise get the oft-needed break to do so. The glass may feel half empty, but it’s not without its silver linings.
— Certified strength and conditioning coach Norman Meltzer, the owner/operator of MW Strength and Conditioning in New Bedford, was known during his competitive weight-lifting career as “the Muscless Wonder” for his lean, mean physique lacking in the traditional bulk associated with strength training. Meltzer’s experience and knowledge has helped pro, college and high school athletes and teams and even regular people improve their strength and performance.
Schvitz’n with Norm
By Norm Meltzer