VBT for the Youth Athlete: Too Soon?

Velocity Based Training (VBT) has been an extremely valuable tool for coaches and athletes alike as it pertains to performance improvement, fatigue management, and intentional action. Now, if you are familiar with VBT as a coach and have implemented with success in your programming endeavours, I need not delve deep into the scientific intricacies of exercise selection, prescription, strength qualities (via force/velocity relationship) and speed/power variables; if you aren’t familiar with VBT then I highly recommend this article on the subject

The goal of this blog is for you, as a coach, to understand how VBT may be a valuable asset to you in the realm of youth athlete development. VBT is yet another tool in your toolbox to reinforce growth and development with the youth athlete in mind.

I have had the opportunity this summer to incorporate the PUSH Band into my strength and conditioning programming for a group of elite youth hockey athletes between 15-18 years old. Using the PUSH Band, I have come across valuable data that has not only reinforced the most successful (as defined by our own terms) offseason that I have had to date, but provided insight into the value that such a device can bring to athletes in the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) Model.

In accordance with Athletics Canada, our governing body has defined the LTAD model as, “a framework for an optimal training, competition and recovery schedule for each stage of athletic development.” The goal of LTAD is to touch upon multiple qualities of skill development based on level, build healthy and positive relationships with sport, as well as to provide the foundation for long-term success in sport and physical development. 

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When it comes to youth athlete development I firmly believe in there being fundamental priorities. These are, in no particular order:

  1. Effective skill acquisition and robust traits of athleticism; early sport specialization is not the answer.
  2. Mastery of the fundamentals of strength training (push, pull, squat, lunge, hinge, carry) in various planes of movement (frontal, sagittal, transverse).    
  3. Deceleration/effective body mechanics: You must effectively learn to properly absorb forces first in order to ideally generate and produce force. “Crawl, before you walk, before you run” as they say. 
  4. Movement quality: joint mobility/stability in various planes across all angles of the strength curve.    
  5. Intricacies of COMMUNICATION.    
  6. Being a good person; sounds simple, right?  
  7. Recovery strategies to facilitate more meaningful adaptations.

You may be wondering, “has Vince gone off track now? Where is he going with this?”. Well, not necessarily. Look at the points above carefully. Now, I believe that coaching, can accomplish all of these priorities. BUT, how does this relate to VBT?

The PUSH device, and all of the data that I have been able to collect, have assisted not only myself, but my athletes (most importantly) to greater understand WHY they are training the way that they are! This is, in my belief, what successful coaching is about. How can you be an effective translator of knowledge to educate your athletes on not only your WHY, but reinforce theirs through their programming?

Let’s take a look at a few helpful tips for coaches:

 

Fatigue Monitoring

Kids will be kids. We have to understand that in their modern lifestyles, children and adolescents have arguably more on their plate now than ever. You are welcome to agree or disagree, but it is worth considering the myriad of stressors that pressure an elite youth athlete. Adding to the problem is the ‘disconnect’ brought forth by the misuse and abuse of social media and cell phones.

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With all of this going on in a youth athletes’ head, do they understand the importance of recovery first and foremost? Are we educating our athletes on effective recovery (in all facets)? If we cannot get our athletes to shut off their minds in an over-stimulating/de-sensitizing world, how can we truly get the most out of them in a time that matters the most (ie. Offseason) to develop them? Not only athletically, but as 1) people and 2) students.

The PUSH Band has provided me the opportunity to monitor fatigue via the reactive strength index (RSI) and Squat Jump (hands fixed). Additionally, as each day is an assessment, when an athlete walks in the door you can assess the following ‘cues’ through your observations:

  1. Ask how they are feeling. If you have earned his or her trust you will get an accurate description of how they are really feeling. 
  2. STOP - LOOK - LISTEN. Assess body language and how they speak to others when they get in; observe.
  3. Get a solid warm-up in, get him or her moving and transition to performance testing.
  4. Get athletes to take resting heart rate upon waking. Any significant variation (+/- 5) from average may indicate fatigue to some level. In many anecdotal cases, when an athlete has a higher than normal heart rate 10 beats the chances are that he or she are either fighting some semblance of illness or has had a bad night(s) of rest.

I assess via the PUSH band weekly for all athletes, and it has allowed me to further reinforce my decision-making processes when the four points above are all consistent. The PUSH performance tests add yet another compartment to a multi-faceted (albeit cost-effective and simple) model of fatigue assessment.

 

Communication & Consistency

I find youth athletes, more so than older athletes, appreciate and value the communication and feedback that comes from inter- and intra-set performance data. With the opportunity for instant analysis and feedback your athletes have the opportunity to reflect on their performance, direct their next set by asking questions, and understand the value of consistency in effort.

Now, as coaches, one term that matters (perhaps most) in performance is consistency. This term is thrown around ad nauseum in our field, but is easily adopted and vigorously reinforced while using the PUSH Band. I learned from a mentor of mine, Sam Walls (Former Director of Strength and Conditioning - Ryerson University), that a large part of our role is to relentlessly pursue the tenets of care, consistency, and championing in both ourselves and those whom we serve.

Below, I have provided one photo example of an athlete’s bench press performance at 5 repetitions. Regardless of velocities observed (which were carefully administered/prescribed in programming), I want to highlight the consistency in performance:

Illustration demonstrates mean velocity consistencies in bench press performance across 1 set (left) and subsequent setperformance after 1) communication delivered via cueing 2) reflection on athlete regarding his performance 3) assessment of data on-screen for athlete.

Illustration demonstrates mean velocity consistencies in bench press performance across 1 set (left) and subsequent setperformance after 1) communication delivered via cueing 2) reflection on athlete regarding his performance 3) assessment of data on-screen for athlete.

You can see that in the second set completed (on the right), after communication of consistency, intent, and reflection (via assessment on screen of performance), athlete was successfully able to complete desired reps in a more consistent matter at a meaningful mean velocity prescription prescribed. Not that it will ever be perfectly consistent across the board due to a number of factors, both intrinsic and extrinsic that may alter set performance, but so long as we know that our athletes are performing their set with intent and maintaining form throughout, we are in a valuable position of accuracy in load prescription and our efforts.

In the interest of numbers, my goal is to ensure that the mean velocity value in repetition efforts is between ~0.65-0.70 m/s as we are in a phase of strength-speed development. The goal of this illustration is to communicate the value of consistency and effort as it pertains to their set performance.

 

Intent - Arguably the Most Important To Take Care Of

Pertaining to intent, VBT will give you an opportunity to quantify (to an extent) the maximal ‘drive’ that an athlete is putting into their work. Your athlete can certainly tell you a lot themselves, but you may come across conversations in which an athlete will say that they “gave it all they had”, but the data will not lie. VBT is a tool that will help you and your athlete assess if they did perform their lift with the intent that is necessary to elicit positive adaptations at the velocity (area under the curve) that you have prescribed.

What is most important to understand in the realm of VBT is that, if an athlete (no matter the level) is not performing their exercises with maximal intent, your goals of attaining a high quality of results that are accurate to your findings will not be as meaningful. We need to ensure that we are communicating intentional action to our athletes in order to positively affect the outcomes that seek to develop in them.

Intent is the engine that drives the car in VBT. WIth meaningful acceleration on an implement, no matter the prescription, an athlete is learning and embracing the fundamentals of sport performance and making the most out of their respective set(s).

We must teach youth athletes to put meaningful intention into all that they do, whether it be in sport, the classroom, or life, in order to thrive. The more consistent exposure to meaningful intentional actions, the better the opportunity that we can have in transferring these behaviours to all facets of their lifestyle; we are fostering the leaders of tomorrow, plain and simple.

 

Competition - Culture

Successful cultures can thrive off of a little competition. Ask any Strength Coach about culture. Athletes thrive in high performance cultures, and fostering some (safe) in-house competition will help to build camaraderie, bonding, and purpose.

The PUSH Band allows you to get a few athletes on board on an exercise and monitor performance in real-time, or following to assess. Personally, I love to apply this for a group as part of the pre-session nervous system-accentuated component using explosive med ball throw varieties. 

Touching on the last part about intent, if you aim to drive this home, get a group into a competitive environment with a more neurally demanding task (jump, throw, sprint), and that can be enough to drive athletes intrinsically to put as much effort (safely) into their performances.

Successful, selfless cultures are what we need to build in the high performance youth training environment. Once moreover, The PUSH Band is yet another tool to emphasize what a solid culture can bring to the table to those whom you serve.

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Velocity Drop-Offs - Measurement of Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness

Reading Dan Baker’s ‘An Essential Guide to VBT’ (thank you PUSH), one lesson really intrigued me, and this was in relation to velocity drop-offs.

This offseason, thanks to a personal conversation with Dr. Jim Lavalle, I have prioritized solid recovery (BEAST mode and LEAST mode) strategies as they pertain to chronic cortisol elevations, especially those observed in high performance athletes. I feel that it is critical to educate our youth on the importance of managing fatigue and coping with stress. As described above, I believe that kids do not understand how to shut their brains off.

How does this help when an athlete is trying to learn a new task on the ice? How about going into a heavy set of more than one repetition, trying to be a consistent performer? Balancing multiple courses at school, aiming for academic success? There is much to consider in this realm that can help an athlete far beyond their sport. This is where LEAST mode comes in, incorporating a less is more approach to training. Assess the minimal effective dose necessary to better manage stress in the gym, recover better, and perform ideally.

VBT has allowed me to incorporate velocity cut-offs to ensure that:

  1. Athletes are performing with QUALITY and repetitions are consistently at the velocities prescribed.
  2. Athletes are recovering into subsequent sessions.

Remember as the offseason nears its end for some, and while others practiced throughout the entire offseason: youth athletes are playing their sport A LOT. To hone in on successful skill and task development of their sport, I firmly believe that the brain can only handle so much at a time. My job is to get kids in and out, move better, feel better, and become strong/explosive in a few tasks. Be relentless in the pursuit of mastery in the basics.

Below is an example of what I have been incorporating for the last two training phases with my athletes. To describe, I strive to keep set performances at a maximum of 25% drop-off in velocity, with repetition ‘maxes’ to be closer to an RPE of 9-9.5.

Why? I have found tremendous success with this approach in consistency, recovery, and subsequent performances. I want to get my athletes stronger and moving better, but as repetition maxes near lower rep ranges, I look for a meaningful velocity on the final rep so as to not take away from the accelerative component of their performances.

I do not want my athletes training slow, plain and simple. In my opinion, regarding the joint stress, CNS stress, and mechanical loading that ensues from absolute maximum effort loading in low rep ranges (3-1 RMs) the costs far outweigh the benefits, especially for youth athletes. Remember, these youth have a lot more going on in their lives than just training.

As Anatoliy Bondarchuk has described, “maximal strength is important. This is only true up to a certain point, a point at which training maximal strength begins to make the athlete slower, over-developing the slow-twitch fibers and detracting from speed training.”

In illustration 2: Differences in performances between Box Back Squat Performances (1 week apart). Consistency was achieved in performance on both occasions, meaningful final repetition velocity achieved at personal best load so as to attain RPE of 9-9.5. Sets in this exercise we dropped following, as velocity cut-off reached the threshold  that I had set.

In illustration 2: Differences in performances between Box Back Squat Performances (1 week apart). Consistency was achieved in performance on both occasions, meaningful final repetition velocity achieved at personal best load so as to attain RPE of 9-9.5. Sets in this exercise we dropped following, as velocity cut-off reached the threshold  that I had set.

Now, to add to this illustration, the last 2 phases of incorporating this method has brought forth the following:

  1. All athletes are moving better (quality)   
  2. DOMS is not prevalent in subsequent sessions  
  3. Athletes are getting measurable stronger and faster at heavier loads 
  4. Athletes feel great in their sport and in all facets of performance*** 
  5. Athletes are never burned out

All things aside, take #4 very seriously. We are here to ensure that our athletes feel great and perform better. This is what takes precedence in their Offseason.

 

Conclusion

While I understand that it did not go heavy into the science in this one, the goal (and my hope) is that you are able to take something practical away about how you may implement VBT into your training of youth athlete populations with confidence. Remember, the youth need our help as coaches and leaders more than ever. Understand the intricacies of youth athlete development, and look at their growth in a big picture. There is no need to rush their training. These athletes require years of fostering growth and development in all facets of their lifestyle, and look to it as a blessing that you have the opportunity to coach them.

We are all here to support one another in the coaching community.

Thank you,
Vince Lucente

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Vince Lucente is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Elite Training Systems in Whitby, Canada and the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). In 7 years in the Industry, Vince has prioritised his focus on youth athlete development (12-22 years old) in various High Performance Sport Organizations in Ontario, Canada Instagram: coachvincesc