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The science behind sports and performance training has advanced as professionals have worked to identify the best training strategies for developing their athletes. This includes the right amount of training load that will prepare athletes to meet their sport demands while limiting injury risk. The NCAA has set up training duration guidelines for coaches, stating they cannot train their college athletes for more than 20 hours per week. Many state high school activities associations (HSAA) have applied this same rule of limiting training duration to less than 20 hours per week.

The National Athletic Trainer’s Association (NATA) has stated that young athletes should not take part in organized sports activities for more hours per week than their age.1 For example, a 14-year-old should not participate in more than 14 hours per week of organized sport. This creates a discrepancy as HSAA applies NCAA training duration guidelines to high school coaches and their athletes who range from age 14-18. Additionally, a common oversight is identifying if high school coaches are following the recommended guidelines and how this affects their athletes.

At all levels, coaches and performance staff who have worked to integrate workload management into their training strategies have found their athletes better prepared to meet their sport demands while minimizing excessive fatigue, injury, and illness in their athletes. Training hard to prepare for competition is necessary, but how you get there is another matter. High school coaches have often integrated "hell-week” into their schedules due to the often short preseason allowed within high school sports. This leads to a sharp or abrupt increase in training loads which has been shown to increase injury risk, especially in younger players. This puts high school coaches and their athletes in a tough spot with a difficult question to answer. What training strategy should be used during high school tryouts and the preseason to prepare their athletes for competition?

We decided to find out the variation between Utah high school girls' soccer teams and their training loads during the first week of tryouts. We identified twenty-five competitive female club soccer players who played at the P1 and P2 levels at three different clubs. These girls were all playing year-round soccer at the top club level, indicating that “getting them in shape” may not be a priority at this time. We used the simple tool of tracking the internal load of these athletes. We took the product of the training duration in minutes and the intensity or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) on a scale from 1-10. We used this tool because a systematic review by Saw et al, identified this subjective self-reported measure as a stand-alone tool to reflect acute training loads. We did not combine it with perceptual well-being at this time, another tool that gauges how athletes are coping with the loads being placed upon them.

The daily training durations within these twenthy-five high schools ranged from 90-minutes to five hours of training per day. The total training hours for the tryout week ranged from 6 hours to 22.5 depending on the high school. This indicates that there are coaches training their athletes outside the NCAA, the HSAA, and the NATA's guidelines. The total internal load for each of the twenty-five athletes was also calculated during tryout week. The range of the total internal loads varied from 2300 to 7680 arbitrary units.

Tim Gabbett, a high-performance consultant with 25 years of experience working as an applied sport scientist, identified that players are 50-80% more likely to sustain a soft tissue injury within the training load range of 3000 to 5000 units during the preseason.2 According to Gabbett's research, this would indicate that many young athletes are being placed at high injury risk due to the high preseason training loads. Also, if an athlete sustains an injury in the preseason, they are at an increased risk to sustain an injury during the competitive season as well. We must ask the question, are the benefits of "hell-week" or training longer than recommended by the NATA's guidelines for youth, worth the risk?

Is there a better way?

The International Olympic Committee asked the question How much is too much? They established two consensus statements: 1) load in sports and risk of injury and 2) load in sports and risk of illness.3, 4 This is a good place to start when it comes to coaching education. With the large variation between the twenty-five girls' high school soccer teams tryout training loads, athletic directors and high school organizations may want to consider providing load management education for their coaches.

Three simple training load considerations:

  • Individualize training loads due to athletes' varied abilities and training history, especially for those athletes training year-round in one sport.
  • Focus on what you deem is most important, not everything, as developing resilient athletes takes time.
  • Don’t introduce sprint training at the front end of tryouts week.

If you are looking for a course to improve your understanding and the use of load management at the youth level, provides the online course “How to Monitor High-performing Athletes.”