Maximize Your Off-Season

Main Takeaways

  1. The off-season is an important time to heal any injuries and restore bilateral symmetry from muscle imbalances caused by competitive sport.

  1. Having a structured off-season away from a primary sport helps maintain long-term enthusiasm in that sport.

  1. The off-season is a critical time to set yourself up for the next season by correcting bad habits, improving movement patterns, developing muscle size and strength as well as aerobic conditioning and speed in ways you cannot while competing in your primary sport.

I hear it a lot in both sports I work with, lacrosse and rowing. “Ha, off-season? What off-season?” With club programs, camps, seemingly endless recruitment opportunities, and an increase in equipment availability, many athletes now play a single sport year-round. While there is a place for strategically-chosen off-season sport activities such as camps and clinics, the idea that athletes have to play their sport all year long in order to improve and get noticed by college coaches is not simply wrong, it’s actually detrimental to athletic development. 

“Off-season” means structured time away from an athlete’s primary sport. This can mean participation in a secondary sport or no participation in a structured sport, but this does NOT mean no activity at all.

The off-season is an important time to accomplish many goals that cannot be accomplished while competing in a primary sport. These goals are the key to long-term success in sport.

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[Photo: Emily Shiels]

Goal #1: Restore Bilateral Symmetry

One of the most important of those goals is healing of injuries and nagging pains and restoring bilateral symmetry. Bilateral symmetry means that the dominant and non-dominant sides of the body are symmetrical, or close to it. Athletes tend to develop the dominant side of their body disproportionately to their non-dominant side because sport typically relies heavier on dominant side activity. In sweep rowers, this most often manifests as a stronger outside arm and leg. Sweep rowers and scullers share a disproportionate level of strength in the “pulling” muscles of the back and arms compared to the “pushing” muscles of the chest, shoulders, and arms. While lacrosse players don’t suffer the same asymmetries as rowers, a right-handed player will likely exhibit a stronger left shoulder and left torso muscles from pulling through their shot. What lacrosse does have that rowing lacks is impact, and many lacrosse players have nagging ankle and knee pain as well as leg imbalances from running.

The off-season provides time to fix these asymmetries and make sure that they do not turn in to injuries. The human body was never designed for competitive sport that heavily favors one side of the body over another. Diligent care is required to maintain balance wherever possible. This is done by first taking time away from the primary sport. If the athlete continues their sport, they will simply be breaking even—any improvements in bilateral symmetry will be offset by the very activity that caused the asymmetry in the first place. The next step is weight-training and performing other activities that evenly stress both sides of the body.

For rowers, off-season weight-training works heavily the pressing muscles, shoulder external rotators, and muscles of the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes), to restore scapular function and correct the asymmetry caused by sweep rowing.

For lacrosse players, emphasis on the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and lower back), upper body muscles that are underutilized in the sport, and shoulder external rotators are critical to restore symmetry.

Read More: Needs Analysis for Rowing, Needs Analysis for Lacrosse, Exercise Selection for Athletes

Goal #2: Maintain Long-Term Enthusiasm

Participation in other sports or unstructured activity helps avoid burnout from playing a single sport year-round. For every Tiger Woods story of the 4-year old who dedicated his young life to sport and became great, there are hundreds of other young boys and girls who spend a few years completely dedicated to their sport only to give up on it when burnout sets in.

Furthermore, you will become a better lacrosse player by playing other sports. The concepts of team, mental toughness, and even some skills and elements of strategy are present in other sports and can be equally developed and then carried over back to a primary sport. In soccer, for instance, you learn how to play with space, run hard, and play body position. Come back to the lacrosse field and you will move faster, see the field differently, and have better defensive positioning than someone who doesn’t have that experience. Basketball is similar, with an opposite demand on playing with space. In football, you learn what team strategy and communication truly means. Very few things will ever be harder or more demanding of mental and physical toughness than a season spent wrestling.

In rowing, playing another sport allows you to PLAY. I can personally attest to the mental pressure that rowing exerts on its participants. A 2-3 month break in the summer or fall to mentally rest from the pressure of a 2k time and enjoy a different way of working with teammates will rejuvenate you for the season to come and a fresh assault on your rowing goals. Even something like cycling will still benefit your rowing while exposing you to a different physical and mental stimulus.

Goal #3: Prepare for Success in the Next Season

The off-season provides time and energy to make improvements that are not possible to make during a competitive sport season. The graph below shows the kind of progress that can be expected of an athlete who plays a single sport year-round versus an athlete who has an off-season of at least 2-3 months.

This difference is due to the time and energy required to make substantial change in motor pattern, muscle size, muscle strength, aerobic base, speed, and other factors. There are simply not enough hours in the day to improve all of these critical factors while also practicing and playing a competitive sport.

An in-season strength program is typically a maintenance program. It is lower in volume, often lower in intensity, and lower in frequency, to accommodate for the extra time and energy for practice and games. An athlete could train hard 3-4 times a week in the weight-room in the off-season, but this number typically drops to 1-2 hard days while training for competitive sport. How much running or cross-training is the athlete able to do in-season vs. off-season? The off-season also allows for time to practice basic technique in sport and correct any bad habits. Wall ball, shooting drills, footwork drills, and weight-training technique are all much easier to make measurable improvements on when you have the time and energy to dedicate to it.

It is vital for long-term success for athletes to make measurable improvements in muscle size, strength, speed, conditioning, and technique to stay competitive with their peers. This can only be done through maximizing the off-season training and taking at least some time away from their primary sport.

Read More: 12-Week Conditioning Program for Lacrosse

“But Coach, What About Recruiting?”

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Working weaknesses in the off-season with Carl Smith [Photo: Emily Shiels]

There is a place for a few strategically chosen primary sport activities in the off-season, particularly for the serious athlete who intends to move to the next level of sport. However, college coaches don’t care that you played lacrosse year-round, or played for this club or that club. All they care about is that you are good enough for their team. If you are good enough and fit what they want for their team and school, they will take you regardless of how many hours you’ve played your sport. Just ask Westminster Lacrosse Coach Mason Goodhand or University of Virginia Lacrosse Coach Dom Starsia for more confirmation. Playing other sports makes you a better athlete. College coaches WANT multi-sport athletes. These true athletes are the ones whose capabilities go beyond just the immediate system, playbook, or current team role they are filling. Playing other sports says, “hey coach, I know how to figure things out because I’ve challenged myself to learn something new.”

As I said, there certainly is a place for a few off-season camps or clinics that are selectively chosen to achieve your goals. However, the current playing schedule of many athletes FAR exceeds what is necessary to achieve those goals, and that is what is damaging to long-term potential and performance. Put your off-season to work for you by focusing on technique, weaknesses, and getting better as an athlete.

A great example of this is WWU rower Carl Smith. Carl was all-in on Western rowing, was a team captain and club president, worked hard in the off-season to improve his mobility and strengthen his weaknesses, participated in three strategically chosen National rowing camps in his junior and senior years, made the squad after his senior year, and represented the USA at the World University Games in 2015. His times in 2015 were faster than they were in 2012, 2013, and 2014. This is the recipe for long-term athletic success.

If you’re a rower and want to learn how to maximize YOUR off-season, my e-book “Rowing Stronger: Strength Training to Maximize Rowing Performance” walks you through exactly how. It is the only full-length strength training manual specifically for rowing and is available now published by Rowperfect UK.

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