Saturation Vs. Deficiency: Fill your empty buckets

The concept of buckets can be so powerful when thinking about where to direct your coaching or training attention, and is such a strong metaphor that we decided it deserves its own article. 

Big shout out to the great Mike Boyle. He is one of the worlds leading strength coaches and thinkers and he was the originator of this concept. His work has been hugely influential to our philosophy over the years.

What are buckets?

Imagine each skill or competency that contributes to your overall athleticism as a bucket.

Whether you are a coach or an athlete, your goal is to fill the buckets as evenly as possible. A well rounded athletes should have an adequate amount of their weekly training spent addressing all the qualities needed to be great. 

Junior athletes in Australia generally have a major problem; they are ignoring many of their athletic buckets. This is hurting their long term development, and exposes them to greater injury risk than necessary. The real skill as a coach (or a self-directed athlete) is knowing which buckets are full, and which are empty.


The full buckets

If you play organised junior sport in Australia, I can almost guarantee that the following buckets are overflowing, and extra time spent on these traits is like trying to fill an already full bucket - a lot of water (training time) is ending up down the drain.

Game sense

Coaches tend to spend a bunch of time working on the Xs and Os, and who can blame them - that is really why so many people get into sports coaching to begin with. While you can always improve your game sense, it is likely there are other buckets that are empty which could have a greater impact on your performance. 

Aerobic fitness

This one is almost alway topped up. Between the multiple training sessions and games each week and school sport most junior athletes are at an excellent fitness level already, and pounding the pavement or running up sand dunes for a 1% increase is not a good use of time, and comes with risk that can be avoided. Durham wrote an article outlining our thinking on sports specific fitness if you want more details.

Plyometric load

Plyometrics sound very fancy, but really aren't; nearly everything in sport is in some way or other a 'plyometric' movement. Specific plyometric training was developed in Russia in the 1960s by track coach Yuri Verkhoshansky who was looking for an extra edge for his already insanely strong elite athletes. He found that by completing short sets of high intensity drills he could add marginal increases to power and performance. 

What has been lost since then is the two most important conclusions he drew from his experiments:

  1. Plyometrics had the greatest effect on athletes who were already insanely strong (squatting double body weight seemed to be the turning point)
  2. Plyometrics had the greatest impact when used sparingly, i.e. 1-2 times per week and just a few minutes spent on drills at a time (very minimal effective dose).

For the modern day junior athlete, we frequently see them breaking these rules. They play their sport almost every day, which actually equates to a bunch of plyometrics. This is a ton of ground reaction forces being absorbed by their muscles, tendons, and bones well before they are even strong enough to squat 1/10th of their body weight.

So the online vertical leap program loading kids with 5 weekly jumping and landing sessions? It is a short-cut to chronic joint injury for the pursuit of a couple of centimetres if you are lucky. There are better ways to increase vertical leap!

The empty buckets

Mobility and flexibility

These really are the broccoli of sport. Foam rolling and static stretching might seem dull, but there is a reason they form the cornerstone of our physical preparation philosophy. Without a doubt the improvement to durability and performance you can get from our warmup protocols is enormous. Without even addressing any other area of training, we have had basketball athletes massively increase their vertical leap in a couple of weeks, and track athletes record PBs in a matter of days. We think of it like being a Ferrari with the handbrake on - most athletes are trying to make the engine bigger but if you just simply remove the handbrake first you can access so much more athleticism without touching a weight or doing a single plyometric.

Movement skill

While constant games and training works wonders for athlete's game sense and sports specific skills, all too often the fundamental building blocks are neglected. Good athleticism becomes great athleticism when excellent game sense meets excellent movement skill. Improve body awareness and core control, and aim to maximise movement efficiency.

Fundamental is a good hip dominant medium depth squat pattern. This is the bedrock of a low, agile, and explosive athletic stance, a safe landing pattern, quick lateral movement, and a greater vertical leap. It is also important to drill great sprint mechanics, agility, and lateral power. If you have the game sense to read the play, but don't have the acceleration and efficiency to get there ahead of your opponent it is next to worthless.

Strength

Most often strength is the emptiest bucket. I think a lot of athletes (and parents) associate strength with getting massive muscles like a body builder, and lifting scary heavy weights. But true neuromuscular strength isn't like that, and is the underpinning trait of all other athletic traits. I always refer to a great quote from strength coach Kier Wenham-Flatt: "Making a weak athlete fitter only makes them weak for longer". Making a fit athlete stronger on the other hand is a game-changer.

In Australia our junior development programs are heavily biased toward skills, running capacity, and endurance. The absence of strength development has resulted in low durability athletes with scarily high rates of hamstring tears, grumpy knees, rolled ankles, ACL ruptures and sore lower backs etc. At the elite level the real determining factor for success is often how few injuries you get, and stronger muscles are generally more resilient to all types of injury, do a better job of absorbing energy, and protect joints from the wear and tear of landing and running.

"Durability is more important than ability" - Eric Cressey

Spending a small amount of time each week from a young age working on filling these empty buckets will pay massive dividends when you are looking to nominate for the draft or sign with a college.

You don't have to love the gym, or love rolling and stretching, but great athletes eat their broccoli, and make sure their buckets are equally full!