Athletes get back on the field again through strength and speed program
One thing that has become clear over the last month in Minnesota is that getting back into sports is going to be a process.
Governor Tim Walz continues to gradually turn up the dial in allowing youth and adult sports to take place. Games and activities of low-risk sports started on June 10, and the Minnesota Department of Health said that it is hopeful if COVID-19 health measures continue in the current direction that medium-risk activities could begin by the end of June.
Athletes in sports offered through the state high school league are starting to wade into the waters. That’s why the start of Alexandria’s strength and speed program for athletes in grades 9-12 next year was a fun step in the process for players and coaches last week.
“I think us realizing that everything is getting phased and it is a process makes us take our opportunity very seriously to follow COVID restrictions, to make sure our program is run with intention to keep people safe,” Alexandria’s Meghan Orgeman said from Alexandria Area High School on June 12. “We are the first program that got opened up at our high school, and we don’t take that for granted. We don’t want that taken away.”
Orgeman, the girls track and field coach at AAHS, and Mike Empting, the boys track and field and football coach, are helping to run Alexandria’s strength and speed program. Athletes in the program will train Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from June 10 through Aug. 7.
“It’s super fun. We can get outside instead of staying indoors,” Alexandria’s Augie Gulbranson, a sophomore next year, said. “School work is done, so now we can just get outside and hang out, work out and be with friends.”
All of the training is taking place with proper social distancing. Athletes work spaced out in pods of nine people or less under the direction of one coach at each station.
The wide-open athletic complex at AAHS allows for kids to easily space out. One pod at a time can be in the weight room indoors where equipment is cleaned between each use. Most of the work is done outside where athletes went through speed drills last Friday, in addition to having an outdoor weight-room station at their disposal.
“Given the circumstances this spring with kids not in anything organized, hopefully it’s going to help them appreciate this a little more,” Empting said. “I think it’s important to get our kids back and reconnected with one another, reconnected with the adults in their life who had coached them. Then get them back to moving again.”
Good to be back
For many athletes, strength and speed programs or summer sessions for a specific sport they are in are the first organized activities they have had for months.
“I’ve been doing a little bit of weight lifting at my house, trying to utilize what I have,” soon-to-be-sophomore Lauren Maras said. “It’s a lot different going from what I was, taking a step back and now trying to come back. I’ve been trying to do whatever I can to stay in shape.”
Maras, who plays hockey for the Cardinals, was happy to be back around other athletes in an organized environment that offers some competition. Almost 170 students in grades 9-12 have signed up for the speed and strength program. That’s close to the max capacity of 180 that coaches can work with in one-hour training sessions that are spread out with different groups working out from 7 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
“I just want to push myself every day and try to become the best hockey player and person I can be,” Maras said. “That’s mentally and physically. With all the coaches and everything going on over here, I think that’s going to be possible.”
Building a better athlete
Both Maras and Gulbranson said they feel safe and comfortable with the safety measures the school has in place for the program.
Their focus is on doing what they can to be physically ready for their next sports season.
Gulbranson plays football and baseball for Alexandria, and the strength and speed program is designed to make him better in both sports. Nothing coaches are doing with the athletes in this summer program is sport specific.
“It’s taking them through a progression,” Empting said. “Teaching deceleration, teaching landing mechanics, things like that, so we’re really working toward injury prevention and developing that athlete over time. Not trying to get it all in one summer, one school year. It’s not about making kids a better football player or better basketball player, track star. It’s a better athlete.”
That long-term approach to training is something that starts early in the athlete’s career for those who take part. Scott Scholl of Heartland Orthopedic Specialists is the athletic trainer for Alexandria Area High School, but he also works with many younger athletes through the PEAK Performance program. That uses age-appropriate training designed to help an athlete develop, prevent injury and have them ready for the high school program as freshmen, where training methods change specific to that age level.
“As a track coach or a football coach, Scott is constantly saying, ‘I’m seeing these types of things. I’m seeing a lot of shin splints with your track athletes. Incorporate this into your practice,’” Orgeman said. “Same with knee-injury prevention with athletes in our weight room. ‘If you could work on landing in this area, it would help our athletes.’ That communication between the athletic trainer and strength coach I think is one of our biggest assets.”
It’s part of the process of making them the best player they can be by their junior and senior years. This year, it’s a big part of the process of getting kids back onto fields and courts again in the coming weeks and months if things keep moving forward at their current pace.
“We are ecstatic to have kids back in our facilities,” Orgeman said. “We have talked a lot with our coaches and our kids about just getting activity in again. Some kids have not been active for months. So our first focus in week one is getting them used to activity, making sure they are self regulating so they don’t get hurt, and then ultimately we want to get them ready for fall sports if they have a season.”