Friday, June 21, 2013


I work with collegiate age athletes for most of the year, but in the summer I have the good fortune to run a summer long training camp where I work with local kids ages 13-18. I love this opportunity because it keeps me connected with the younger athletes and challenges me in different ways than the collegiate athletes. It also keeps me exposed to the broad spectrum of athletic development, and while there are similarities, there are great differences.

I think playing tag scares performance coaches. It does me. The fear is probably two-fold; scary in that some organizational control has been given up, and scary that it carries a greater risk of an injury. Yet paradoxically, there is a plea for young athletes to engage in multiple sports. Just like it might be considered risky for a college level football player to engage in a bit of pick-up basketball in the off-season. I mean, he is on a scholarship!

But the problem is that as much as we (performance 'experts') would like to think so, a strictly organized, specifically structured "long term athletic development" plan hasn't or isn't likely to produce the greats we see in high level sport, alone. I've seen and used some of the agility teaching progressions out there, yet my frustration grows when these more or less controlled movements are rarely seen in true athletic settings. So, what does improve an athletes agility? Or broader yet, what really improves athleticism (in terms of coordinating all the different movements and qualities into one flowing orchestration)? What synthesizes great athletic movement?

It's also probable that too much controlled training does little for reducing the potential for injury. In sports medicine and strength and conditioning, we all feel more comfortable with the controlled environment within training, but is this always good?

Hormesis - at some point athletes have to be exposed.

That's also why practicing and playing sport is part of the injury reduction plan - the perception, cognition, and decision making is part of the exposure necessary. Additionally though, games of tag give athletes another competitive sport (multi-sport athlete), specifically for those that are involved in just one sport at the time... at least for me working under rules and restrictions regarding using certain implements in training. Of course, if an athlete is practicing their sport year round, this becomes an entirely different case, and often the tag games idea is mostly out the window.

A simple game such as tag does things that I can't as a coach. The whole point of tag is evading as quickly as possible with whatever creative move a person can utilize. It creates an environment more like that of team sport. Applying reactive agility in training is becoming more prevalent among coaches thinking, and the cumulative step is to create as much chaos while allowing for creativity in movement strategies. A simple game of tag also provides instant feedback for the athlete as to their success or failures of choosing a particular move strategy (did I 'tag', or  get 'tagged'). While simply performing a reaction drill such as a coach pointing out directional cues doesn't provide the same feedback for achievement of success (unless some sort of timing system is creatively utilized).

Playing area dimensions can be adjusted for specific stimuli, such as a larger or longer space for longer sprint chases. The number of those that are 'it' can be modified to create more or less chaos. At the very least, setting up the playing space and picking the 'its' keeps me feeling "in charge" as the coach.

Tag is simple but a very interesting and dynamical possibility. One that I think holds more potential possibilities than people realize. At least for court or field team sport athletes who rely on great change of direction skills. It's just a matter of being comfortable giving up some control.

I find it hard to explain in words, but I've seen athletes who appear as "slugs" turn into "ninjas" and "whirling dervishes" as soon as they are being chased in a game of tag. What's with that?! What does that mean in regards to the other aspects of my training?! Not to mention the level of engagement that occurs. Athletes really start paying attention. Maybe the cause is the engagement? The quick movements and speeds are impressive. Should I allow this manifestation to occur, or return to my authoritorial dictation of what, when, and how they move?

It's like the polarizing dichotomy that I hear of between using a game-based or skill-based approach in physical education curriculum. Should there be opposition? Train to play, or play to train? I like a nice blend of both. And unfortunately, the game playing is mostly relinquished from the neighborhoods anymore because kids are in lock down in daycares, or by the pull of technology.

For me, tag provides a nice boost in morale and overall intensity, while providing "rapid whole body movements with  a change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus" (Sheppard and Young, 2006.)... with the feedback. Not to mention that it usually causes athletes to smile (genuinely). And this lowers RPE from what I've assessed, and read.

Now, don't go using tag in your training just because I thought it holds some possibilities. I know my athletes, and I deal in my own risks, and I might also be dreaming in Wonderland.


1 comment:

Josh Leeger said...

This is one of the reasons I love those old videos of the Polish weightlifting team training. They warm up by running up some snowy hills, doing some jumps, tumbling, etc. They practice some gymnastics-type stuff. After training they play soccer or basketball...or both?!!!

Part of the problem with a lot of these debates is that the people engaging in them are and have been in their field for too long. They can't really see what they're doing. They don't have any outside view. And, of course, any "outsider" who suggests something has no legitimacy...because they're an outsider!

All of this debate and struggle over periodization, programming, pre-habilitation, etc., is an extension of a cultural obsession with "The One Right (and therefore Best) Way."

It's actually an obsession bordering on addiction. The good thing about this addiction is that it drives investigation. The bad thing is that the people who have this addiction can't see anything else...they're foaming at the mouth looking for their next hit.

How advanced are we, for instance, over Bill Bowerman's running training from the 1950's? Or the Polish Weightlifting Team's training in the same era?

I'm not going to do the research to back this statement up, but I'd guess that performance in either sport hasn't changed that much since then, and the majority of "advances" in either sport (of which there are probably very few) come more from advances in drug (doping) administration and concealing practices than they do from training practices.

And I encourage you to start having all your teams play tag on a regular basis!!!! Somebody's got to take the risk to prove (or disprove) your point, Aaron!!