Strength and conditioning for all sports — beyond performance
Jamaica's Reggae Boyz go through their paces during a training session at Stadium East field on Monday in preparation for Tuesday's Concacaf Nation's League game against Haiti at the National Stadium. (Photo: Joseph Wellington)

Another school year begins, bringing with it the return of intensive sports training and competitions for students across the island. This comes on the heels of our Jamaican track and field athletes' successes in the ever-popular World Championships, plus the recent second-time history-making success of our Reggae Girlz in the Women's World Cup.

Now is therefore a fitting time to continue the discussion of the role(s) of strength-and-conditioning (S&C) in all sports, and not just for the popular ones such as track and field.

As I outlined in my previous article dated June 24, 2023, S&C or "gym work" — exercise training using weights and other forms of resistance — has been scientifically proven to improve sports performance. S&C also links with physiotherapy and sports medicine as a key part of full rehabilitation for return-to-sport after a sporting injury. All our national professional and most high school track and field athletes engage in some form of S&C. The performance benefits of S&C are also known amongst contact/collision sports like rugby, football (which Americans call "soccer") and "American football", and S&C is widely practised amongst these sports internationally.

In Jamaica however, S&C generally seems to be less practised amongst "less popular" sports such as hockey, volleyball, netball, basketball, and even the aquatic sports including swimming and water polo, despite the known benefits of S&C for athletes in these sports as well.

These relatively less-supported sports have little or no emphasis on progressive weight-training, ie, S&C as part of their programmes. Indeed, there is an unfortunate trend for gym weight-training facilities in schools at the secondary and some tertiary level to be essentially reserved strictly for track and field athletes. Athletes of other sports are thus sometimes "relegated" to lighter weights, or even no weights as they may not be given any access to use the main gym facilities.

On the other hand, some coaches of these "non-track-and-field" sports deliberately avoid strength-training programmes, preferring instead to give general "fitness" programmes that only use the athletes' own body weight for resistance. This may be because of a belief in some cases that weight-training will make athletes "bulky" and "slow" in their respective sport(s).

However, while there is no doubt a need to include some body weight resistance training and conditioning in the overall physical development of athletes, there is also the need to include some "external" weight training to develop the resilience needed in the athlete's body. This helps the athlete to withstand the significant and repeated forces to be experienced during both training and competition for these sports.

During most sports, an athlete moves his/her own body weight — especially at rapid speed. However, their bodies are often exposed to forces that are even more than their body weight. For example, when an athlete jumps and lands on his/her feet — as from a basketball jump shot, volleyball spike, or a dismount in gymnastics, for example, they may absorb five times their actual body weight — or more — in impact force upon landing; if they land on only one leg, as during hurdles or even basketball dribbling, this effect is multiplied even more onto that single leg and its associated joints. Poor and/or repetitive landings without adequate strength to withstand the landings are some of the risk factors that can lead to injuries such as "knee tendonitis" aka "jumper's knee", which is common in, though not exclusive to, many sports that involve jumps and landings.

To absorb these significant forces, which athletes will encounter repeatedly over the course of training and competitions, strength must be developed beyond body weight resistance. This is even more true for the contact or collision sports such as football, rugby and "American football".

For this reason, current international best practice in sports science and sports medicine recommends weight training as a key component of S&C for all sports, in addition to body weight resistance training.

Apart from the known athletic performance-enhancing benefits, perhaps the main reason that S&C "should" be encouraged and emphasised for all sports is its benefits to an athlete's health, especially for full rehabilitation to return to sport after an injury, and for preventing or minimising the risk of injuries.

S&C also helps to reduce the risk of injuries by addressing "intrinsic risk factors" for injuries, ie factors that are "within" the athlete. These can include inadequate strength and power in "overused" muscles and tendons; muscular imbalances (for example, weak hamstrings relative to very strong quadriceps in a sprinter, which is a rather common occurrence); a current ongoing injury that has not been fully rehabilitated (too many of these abound, unfortunately); and to an extent, some biomechanical variations that may be innate ("natural"), or acquired, such as "knock knees", deformities from a previous bone fracture, or naturally hyperflexible (or "loose") joints.

A well-designed S&C programme can address these intrinsic injury risk factors to increase physical resilience in athletes, and therefore decrease the incidence and/or recurrence of sports injuries.

Noted orthopaedic surgeon Dr Kevin Jones, in a recent "Keeping Pace" continuing education virtual seminar put on by the Jamaica Association of Sports Medicine, emphasised that S&C is especially important for athletes who have "above-average" flexibility or "laxity" at their joints, especially those with the relatively rare genetic condition "Ehlers-Danlos syndrome" or "EDS". The extra-flexibility or laxity at joints can potentially have higher risk for injuries to the joints such as dislocations and/or joint pains. Adequate strength and muscle mass around the joints, which would come from well-designed S&C training, can help to decrease the risk of joint dislocations in these persons.

Therefore, for these key reasons S&C should be included and encouraged for all sports. Parents of young athletes should come to expect, and where necessary, to advocate for S&C for their athletes; and coaches and the relevant school administrators should find ways to facilitate S&C for all athletes at the various institutions at both the secondary and the tertiary levels.

One possible solution is to have S&C introduced into the high school curriculum. Richard James, a Jamaican S&C coach and director of sports performance at a New York-based high school, and a former Olympian, explains that at his school, S&C is mandatory for all athletes; and sessions are scheduled at different times of the day for them in different groups. This is in addition to their sports training and, of course, their academics. Even non-athlete students also get to participate in S&C training sessions, as non-athletes also reap benefits from S&C such as general physical fitness, increased physical activity, and even improved psychosocial well-being, independent of structured sports participation.

Perhaps a solution such as this could, and should, be considered for schools in Jamaica.

Given its protective and preventive role, in addition to its sport- and general health-enhancing benefits, Strength and conditioning should be given far more priority for all school-based sports than what currently obtains. Coaches and school administrators should work together to come up with solutions to have effective S&C provided for all their school-based athletes, potentially infusing S&C into the curricula and school timetables.

Should this become a reality, then parents and collegiate athletes can be comfortable knowing that effective measures are being taken by the various institutions, to reduce the risk of sporting injuries through the provision of good and safe S&C for all athletes, at all levels.

Dr Dialo-Rudolph B Brown is a sports physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist at The Mico University College, an executive member of the Jamaica Association of Sports Medicine and the medical committee of the National Powerlifting Association of Jamaica.

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