Ask the Expert: Darren Drake (Athletic Performance Academy)

Darren has been a professional coach since 2000 and specialises in youth fitness and Tennis. He is the director of the Athletic Performance Academy (APA) which amongst other things has been providing Strength & Conditioning coaching to Gosling Tennis International High Performance Centre since 2005. In that time he has had the pleasure to work with some of the best junior tennis players in the world including players who have gone on to play at the professional level.  He currently works with 3 of the top 6 highest ranked British men in Tennis and have worked with 2 Top 50 Tennis players.

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1)What has led you into youth sport?

I started as a football coach and transitioned into the S&C side of things a few years later, once I graduated from my sports science degree, and had completed my gym instructor qualification.  My best friend at University was the Head Coach at a Tennis Academy and he asked me to do some fitness sessions for his kids.   My big break in a High Performance Tennis Academy came through a chance meeting with a Tennis S&C coach at the very first UKSCA conference in 2005.  At that time I didn’t have much experience but the lesson there is to start networking.  The coach was impressed I was at the conference and a little later I was working for him! This is my 14th year there! 

I set up Athletic Performance Academy (APA) in 2010 as I was getting enquiries from people who wanted me to help them in their local clubs.  I was finding that people were more closed to the idea of someone else doing it unless it was me.  I felt I needed to create a brand with a training system that I could get results from with several coaches.  If I did then I was sure that people would start to buy into the brand and the method, and not just me!  I’ve been proven to be right about that.  People aren’t necessarily asking after me so much as they are asking about APA which was the goal.  I can now share my message more widely then I could ever by trading my time for dollars on a one to one basis!

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

I wouldn’t say there was one key training principle, coach or book that springs to mind but at the same time I can’t think of anyone more influential than Istvan Balyi for his pioneering work on Long term Athlete Development (LTAD) and ‘windows of opportunity.’

This research opened the door for others like Rhodri Lloyd to step through and his new concepts about the true trainability of certain qualities like strength.  I’m a big champion of resistance training and getting started early.  I believe that technical competence drives progression not biological maturation.  Being frank, I know why parents have the idea that we need to start doing weights at 16yrs, and it’s a cocktail of perpetuated myths and a little bit of facts. 

Ajax FC are widely regarded as having one of the best Talent ID systems in youth football in the 1990s and brought through the likes of Bergkamp, Overmars, Kluivert, Van der Sar, Blind, Frank de Boer, Rijkaard.  Even they were saying to just focus on body coordination until the mid phase of the growth spurt and not introduce speed, endurance or strength training until around 13-14yrs. This was because they felt the physically more mature body is better able to get the most out of that kind of training.  So there is some truth to that! If you add on to that the myths about the dangers of weight training for stunting your growth and damaging growth plates you really can’t be surprised or frustrated that it is still the collective will of parents to minimise its use with their child until after physical maturation.

But I don’t share that view and I’m passionate about starting early with technical mastery of basic resistance training exercises from as young as 5-6 yrs old- I have no problem progressively adding load provided technique and tempo are maintained.  If you think that athletes at the elite level are going to be needing to overcome multiple times their bodyweight in their sport on a daily basis they need to be pretty strong to be able to cope with that. You need to start building that strength foundation early.

 3) What is your particular area of interest?

I have two principle areas: Motor learning, and force production and how each of these topics are related to bring about increases in sports performance.  I don’t believe you can have one without the other.  Now of course strength training alone isn’t going to make you a professional sportsman or woman – if it did every strength coach would be a professional athlete.

But at the same time- just working on motor skills (read that as sport skills and getting really good at your sport) is not enough either.  Not every sport is the same so some will have a need to ‘specialise’ sooner but nevertheless this training needs to be supported by a sound S&C programme.

I’m really fascinated by the symbiotic nature of them both.  I know Frans Bosch’s work has received notoriety which speaks partly to a grey area of ‘robustness’ training methods designed to bridge the gap between pure force production training in the gym and pure sports skill practice on the field.  These sorts of topics which can be related to other big buzz topics such as sport specificity and functionality of exercises gets my attention.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?

There are a lot of myths perpetuated in the youth sports world about the dangers of trying to develop force in the weights room- ie lifting weights is dangerous.  Yet running around playing sport with the associated forces that I know are involved is seen as perfectly fine!  We need better education on what the forces are that the body is actually experiencing during sport.  In the pursuit of sport specificity we are over zealous in trying to repeatedly chase velocity without any understanding of how that velocity was created, and the role that force plays in that.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

Related to the theme above- you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe!  I also like to say ‘Don’t play sport to get fit, get fit to play sport.’

Both of these quotes speaks to the need to have patience, play the long game and not skip any steps to building a great athlete.  I often relate my messages to the academic school system as I think parents and coaches can relate to that.  Apart from the 1% of prodigies who do their GCSEs at 8yrs old, most of us need to spend several years building our general knowledge before we start to specialise in a chosen subject area and career path.  It should be the same with athletic development.  Stop looking for the instant gratification, the next big sexy programme or training methods to develop speed and power- get your head down and do the basics!

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?

It’s a cliche that children are not mini adults- I think most coaches nowadays are more in tune with that and don’t try to impose adult models on children.  Having said that I still believe that children should earn the right to progress to higher intensity forms of training.  I believe in a ‘minimal effective dose’ approach to progressive overload.  I believe strongly in the SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demands).  However, in youth athletes and those athletes of any age with a low training age, if I can improve ‘specific qualities’ such as speed with more general qualities of a lower intensity/stress on the body- I’d rather start with that and keep doing it for as long as it is improving sports performance.  So don’t play your ace cards too early! Keep them for later when you need them.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

It’s not a quick read but I really recommend:

Understanding Motor Development: Infants, Children, Adolescents, Adults (Int’l Ed)

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

I have a blog on my website with over 200 blogs- on various topics related to strength & conditioning.

www.athleticperformanceacademy.co.uk

I also have an Instagram account @apacoachdaz

In the coming months I will be creating something special for parents and coaches as it relates to my Areas of Interest, so I’ll let Rob know when it’s ready!

A big thankyou to Darren for sharing his time and insights with us!
Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.

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