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The athlete of the future

Athletics and athletes are evolving and players are getting bigger, faster and stronger

Posted: August 1, 2009 9:42 p.m.
Updated: August 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Athlete of the future

 
It seems that athletes have grown a lot over the years.

In the three major American professional sports leagues – the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball – there is little question that the athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than they have ever been.

Given the results from draft combines, the same could be said of college athletes.

“The athletes today are phenomenal,” says University of Massachusetts assistant men’s basketball coach Vance Walberg. “The best thing they do is their size and strength.”

Physical gifts come into play when athletes are trying to reach college.

Everything from their speed to their skills is tested in the evaluation process.

“I think the most significant change is that kids today are more physically prepared to make that leap to the next level,” says Jeremy Crabtree, national recruiting coordinator and co-founder of Rivals.com. “That’s the thing that we’ve noticed the most.”

Over the next decade or two, it only makes sense that athletes will grow even more, and become more gifted physically and mentally.

There are more opportunities than ever to play sports at a young age. There are more opportunities for private training.

But that begs a question. Is it the athletes that are growing so much?

Or is it just athletics?

The training

The numbers in amateur baseball don’t lie.

According to Little League Baseball’s official Web site, the first Little League World Series in 1947 had 11 teams. Today, there are 11 separate World Series.

In the first year of Little League, there was one league with 30 teams. As of 2007, there were 7,030 leagues with 2,227,505 teams around the world, and those numbers include softball.

As if the opportunities weren’t enough, young players are also enlisting the help of specialists.

“It seems like most of these kids are also getting however many hours a week of specialized instruction,” says Canyon head baseball coach Adam Schulhofer, who has coached at the high school level for 14 years.  “I think these kids are developing quicker and have a better idea about the game sooner.”

It isn’t just baseball.

The Amateur Athletic Union, which is well-known for its basketball programs among others, claims on its Web site to have more than 500,000 participants.

The American Youth Soccer Association claims more than 650,000 players.

According to the site of Pop Warner football, more than 300,000 boys and girls are playing on about 5,000 teams across the United States.

Once they get older, some of those players hire personal trainers and set their sights on college and the NFL.

“The athletes want to be the best they can be,” says Hart head football coach Mike Herrington. “Money’s not an object for some people and they want that little bit of edge. In the Santa Clarita Valley, the competitiveness of all sports are at the highest level.”

In 20 seasons as the head coach at Hart High School, Herrington has won 15 league titles and six CIF championships.

“The athletes over the past 10 years, they’re trained harder than ever,” he says. “They’re hiring personal trainers, doing speed training. No one used to have speed coaches or things like that.”

In addition to the individualized training, more and more athletes are beginning to focus on one sport instead of playing multiple sports.

According to Crabtree, it’s not uncommon for football players to either stop playing other sports in high school or narrow their focus.

“Scholarships are in limited number,” he says. “Kids are going to do everything they can to maximize that scholarship. That can mean skipping summer camps to work out with their team. There’s a number of different things out there that they weren’t doing (before).”

Those opportunities arguably have helped athletes grow at every level of competition.

Schulhofer isn’t sure where it will lead.

“In another 20 years, who knows what new opportunities will have popped up from playing more at a younger age?” he says. “It’s like a 12-year-old travel team playing with the competitiveness of a high school varsity team. Who knows where it will be?”
   
The equipment

Today’s athlete wants to maximize his or her performance.

So sporting goods companies are maximizing their equipment.

The two major American equipment suppliers, Nike and Adidas, are constantly battling to produce the latest cutting-edge apparel that will trim a couple seconds off an athlete’s time or tip the game in their favor.

“Equipment gets more secure and more expensive,” Herrington says. “It changes just like it did from the 1960s, 1970s and up to now.”

Recent Nike innovations include Aerographics, a new brand of apparel for track and field athletes and the United States’ men’s basketball team.

The Aerographics technology is basically an engineered mesh that removes a substantial amount of the yarn in uniforms, resulting in a lighter garment.

“We wanted to cut out anything unnecessary and get down to the lightweight essence of what you need to perform,” says Nike innovation designer Kirk Meyer on the Web site Nikemedia.com.

The company began producing the Nike Swift line of track apparel in advance of the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Since then, Nike has been refining the apparel, a process that includes testing more than 200 fabrics and developing a special wind tunnel called the Nike Aeromatrix, according to Nikemedia.com.

Nike’s recent footwear technology includes Lunarlite and Flywire, designed to produce lighter shoes that don’t sacrifice the stability of the runner.

Adidas is making similar products to streamline athletic performance, and it currently owns two major licensing deals.

Adidas signed an 11-year deal in 2006 to produce NBA merchandise, and the company also has the NFL rights thanks to its 2005 purchase of Reebok, which signed a 10-year deal with the NFL in 2002.

The market for athletic apparel is clearly there.

According to Fortune Magazine, Nike sold $19.65 billion worth of merchandise in the 2008 fiscal year and turned a $1.86 billion profit. The company itself is valued at $20.10 billion.

Adidas, meanwhile, sold $15.04 billion worth of merchandise and is valued at $5.66 billion.

The demands of professional sports, combined with the wealth of amateur leagues around the world, no doubt accounts for those figures.

“It’s good that it grows,” Herrington says. “The only bad thing is the expense, because some kids are going to want to have every little thing. Everyone sees what’s on television, and with budget cuts from the school it might not happen.”
   
The athlete

Today, athletes have more benefits than ever before.

The opportunities to play and train are there.

The equipment is there. The attention is there.

But the question remains: How much are athletes growing?

Football seems like the ideal sport to frame the argument, given its inclination toward times and measurements.

Herrington says the athletes themselves haven’t changed that much at the high school level.

“I don’t know if there’s that much difference,” he says. “The stuff they’re talking about is just for the pros. For years, we’ve had good athletes at all positions. We’ve had top athletes over the years and we’ll continue to have top athletes over the years.”

Herrington doesn’t foresee great changes in the next decade or so, either.

Crabtree doesn’t agree.

“I think we’re going to continue to see an increase in overall speed and athleticism, especially at the skill positions,” he says. “They’re going to be more refined physically. It would not shock me to see more kids run a 4.4 (second) 40-yard dash.”

Whereas football provides an athletic measuring stick through its drills, baseball is a more skill-oriented game.

Therefore, Schulhofer believes it’s the skill sets that will change more than anything.

“I would say the biggest thing is the hitting,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I think kids had a tougher time hitting the ball to the opposite field. Pitchers are learning how to throw a changeup sooner and being taught proper mechanics sooner.”

Another possibility for the improved play looms large: performance-enhancing drugs.

According to Baseball-almanac.com, Major League Baseball has had 26 players suspended for performance-enhancing drugs since 2005.

The National Football League has suspended numerous players for violating the league’s substance abuse policy the past few years.

The depth of the penetration is unknown in high school sports, but Schulhofer is certainly mindful of PEDs.

“I think it’s a huge deal,” he says. “It’s a little scary to think that it might make its way into high school sports, if it hasn’t already.
“I’d like to think that the numbers that are being put up have more to do with an athlete’s ability and his work ethic than taking performance-enhancing drugs.”

Perhaps PEDs cut right to the heart of the issue.

It isn’t so much that evolution is boosting the performance of athletes. They just want more.

There are more PEDs because there’s more demand for them.

There’s more demand for them because there are more people who want to make a living as an athlete.

There are more people who want to do that because there are more opportunities to play.

There are more opportunities because there are more young kids interested in playing.

Today, athletes have more benefits than ever before.

And as long as the stakes include college scholarships and professional careers, those benefits will continue to grow.

Right along with the athletes’ abilities.

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