Minutes that Matter
By Greg Bach
Sarah Walls won’t grab a rebound, design a play or make a front office decision for the Washington Mystics this season.
But she plays a huge role in the team’s success.
She’s the Mystics’ strength and conditioning coach, helping keep some of the best athletes in the world on the court and away from those dreaded injuries, and she stresses the importance of volunteer coaches utilizing proper warm-ups to prepare their young athletes for activity.
And to cut down the risk of injury.
“The warm-up is crucial and it has to be more than just standing in a circle on the field or court and doing static stretching and then going right into the drills,” Walls says. “I spend gargantuan amounts of time looking very seriously at what we’re doing with regards to warm-up protocol with our practices. I take it extremely seriously because if I can do my job right for that first 20 minutes then they go into practice fully ready to go 100 percent without anybody still having to kind of stretch it out. We should be able to take care of all of that within our warm-up timeframe – and the same is going to be true for any level below that.”
Along with her work with the WNBA’s Mystics, Walls has more than 15 years of personal training experience. She founded SAPT Strength & Performance Training in Fairfax, Va., in 2007 which is a high-performance training club that specializes in helping to develop athletes of all ages and includes online training, as well.
We caught up with Walls to get her insights on what volunteer coaches should know about warm-ups and what parents need to know about overuse:
SK LIVE: How much time should volunteer coaches devote to warm-ups?
WALLS: For practices that are an hour I would give it 10 minutes and just be really very efficient with that time. With a 90-minute practice you can take your time and 12 to 15 minutes is going to be really adequate to get a lot of things done.
SK LIVE: Is it possible to make warming up fun for kids?
WALLS: I think it should be fun. You can run a warm-up a thousand different ways. You can be extremely structured and kind of quiet and very precise and I think there is a time and place for that, but for the younger kids that I work with I tend to try to keep it pretty fast-paced, so we will start with jogs and skips and things like that. I will kind of sandwich in the middle some of the more boring or technical stretches that we might do, like the dynamic stretches, and then we will end with an abdominal circuit which I think everybody kind of has been automatically trained to love that pain. Everybody kind of enjoys that because it’s tough and then we will kind of polish off the warm-up with some kind of plyometrics or high intensity sprints.
SK LIVE: How much energy should be expended during the warm-up period?
WALLS: You want to keep it active and take it from a place where they are at 10 percent level of effort all the way up in like 10 or 15 minutes at the end where they’re hitting some sprints and some change of direction drills at 90 to 100 percent of what those athletes are capable of doing. So that’s going to stretch them out, that’s going to get the blood flow going and give the athlete an opportunity to check mentally how they feel today, how their joints are feeling and if there is an issue it gives them an opportunity to identify that for the day.
SK LIVE: How much time do the Mystics devote to stretching and warming up?
WALLS: I get 20 minutes, which is a pretty significant chunk out of their practice time and I get that 20 minutes whether we are practicing for 30 minutes or we are practicing for 90 minutes. So there is a lot of time given to me for that and it is because it is taken so very seriously. You can see the effects between when we’re getting a good warm-up in where everybody is hitting it at a high level versus perhaps if they’re coming back from a road trip and aren’t fully engaged yet and that’s going to be a slower warm-up. And I can also tell you what I have observed with the (Washington) Wizards and it’s exactly the same, everybody is taking that timeframe very seriously because if you don’t people are getting hurt and there’s absolutely no reason for that.
SK LIVE: With burnout what should parents be on the lookout for?
WALLS: Under age 15 you’re going to be looking for a loss of enthusiasm, which is a big one. Complaints about aches and pains is not normal at all and that should really light up a response from the parent that we need to take a day off and know that it’s just for the kid’s health so that they can recover and come back stronger. If you start to ignore things like those aches and pains it can become detrimental because you may be starting on a path toward an actual overuse injury.
SK LIVE: What’s the message you would like parents to keep in mind?
WALLS: If you are observing anything with your child that seems to be off really take that seriously. Try to take a step back and just look at your child and who they are and think about them with their best interest in mind from a long-term perspective because there are things that we allow to happen to our kids when they are young that will affect them, so it’s not just about whether they make a varsity team or not. This is real stuff that can cause them real problems down the road as adults when they’re in their 30s and 40s and beyond. So if you think something is a little off take a step back and ask your child some questions.
SK LIVE: How do parents know when to draw the line and have their child take a break, or mix it up with a different sport?
WALLS: Parents are just trying to make sure they are providing the best opportunities for their child, but they don’t necessarily have any specialized knowledge about technical sports training and they’re going to have no idea what is too much. The coach for each team seems to be the most influential so if there is a situation of kids feeling pressure that they’re not going to make the team then whatever that coach says more times than not the kids and the parents just take completely and they’re not necessarily stepping back to really assess if it is really a good idea for my kid to pitch nine or 10 months out of the year – and the answer is no, it definitely is not a good idea. So, it becomes really tough to take a broader view of their kid’s development because they are so focused on being better at that sport. They think that they need to work on that sport more, like working on throwing mechanics over and over again to get it right, when in reality you need to be mixing in that intelligently with more general athletic development, strength training and injury prevention type training. That’s where if you go back 30 and 40 years that was when we all played a bunch of sports and so there was that natural cycling from one sort of movement pattern into another movement pattern, and that’s where you get athletes that tend to develop generally a little bit better in the long run and also stay quite a bit healthier.
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