Sports camps have become a summertime rite for most young athletes looking to improve their skills and help their respective teams experience the sweet taste of victory.
That's why Wayne Ollison Jr., Kyle Braham, Dillon Fedak and Kevin Pawlukovich were among the youths who recently attended the Competitive EDGE Sports Performance program's team camps in The Summit Fitness Center in Wheatfield. While they may play different sports, the foursome each did a 10-day tour with the same objective: to gain an edge on the competition by attempting to turn their weaknesses into strengths.
But what these teens discovered is that on-court and on-ice improvement doesn't just come from practicing shooting or body-checking techniques. It also comes from working the ligaments and muscles they use all the time while playing their respective sports.
The boys received their first introduction to sport-specific training techniques with the Competitive EDGE Sports Performance Camp, a program founded by longtime Niagara Falls High School athletic trainer Tony Surace, with help from Henry Luczak. The program is modeled after the Advantage Sports Performance Program in Rochester.
The rookies' bell work consisted of "weird" exercises that included duck walking -- squatting and walking at the same time -- and side-to-side shuffles in between the rungs of a rope ladder laid flat on the floor and lunges. They also received their first introductions to plyometrics and core training -- workout exercises meant to help athletes become stronger, faster and more explosive by increasing strength and flexibility of muscles in legs, abductor area and abs.
"There were some things you had to think to do because they were tricky, but then you realize just how the exercises were supposed to help you," said the 14-year-old Braham, a freshman at Niagara-Wheatfield who will be among the many trying out for the school club's junior varsity hockey team. "It was pretty good. After a while it got easy, and I just did it."
>Medical Center tie
The Competitive EDGE Sports Performance is run in conjunction with the Sports Medicine Department at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, and although the summer team portion of the 4-month-old program is over, individual workout sessions are available. The program's purpose is to help athletes develop training regimens so that they can improve speed, agility and core strength while also working to prevent injuries. Athletes can have training programs specialized for their sport of choice. They also can have programs designed to help them improve a specific area of their game.
Athletes are tested in various drills before beginning the program. A regimen is designed for the individual based on test scores and workout objectives.
For example, a hockey player can work toward becoming a more explosive skater by engaging in a workout designed to improve flexibility and core strength. Core areas include the abs, torso, abductor muscles and glutes.
A basketball player who wants to improve footwork in an attempt to become better defensively will have a workout that includes core work as well as speed and agility side-to-side drills. The exercises help a player become quicker, a better leaper and develop a stronger base so that he/she doesn't get pushed around while jockeying for position on the floor.
So just how vital is this type of training in maximizing ability? College and professional athletes have been using regimens incorporating these methods for years in an attempt to not only gain an edge against those with similar talents but also reduce the risk of suffering nagging injuries like muscle strains or ankle sprains.
>A better chance
Exposing younger athletes to sport-specific training does not mean they'll earn the rare Division I athletic scholarship or even rarer million-dollar contract. But the training will help them improve their speed and develop better coordination and technique while doing the actions needed to play their sport at a high level. If anything, the training will give them a better chance of competing for junior varsity and varsity scholastic playing opportunities.
"A lot of coaches in the area, they do traditional strength and condition," Surace said. "They'll have students go into the weight room and start lifting, but they won't receive the proper instruction on how to do the proper exercises, how to progress on their own and how to develop the skills of their sport needed, such as core strength, speed, agility and flexibility. We make those skills specific to their sport.
"A lot of kids play their sport eight to 10 months out of the year, but they have to work on other components of their sport. If they can learn the proper technique, they can go home and continue some of the exercises."
Surace has tried to gear the program to children ages 12 and up. The younger kids don't do as much strength work because they're still developing, he said.
Pawlukovich, a 16-year-old junior defenseman for the Niagara Falls High School club varsity hockey team, attended the camp to improve his conditioning and foot speed. His workout program consisted of jumping, running and stretching exercises. He said he has noticed a difference in his game already, noting that he's more balanced on his skates, which has enabled him to become quicker. He began his travel-league season with the Niagara University Jr. Purple Eagles a couple of weeks ago.
>Parochial to public
Fedak is making the transition from athlete at a small Catholic school to public high school. The 13-year-old freshman at Niagara-Wheatfield and his parents discussed the idea of his attending such a camp as a way of giving him a better chance of competing for athletic opportunities within the school district, especially since youths in grades seven and up in public school are eligible for scholastic sports. Fedak attended the hockey team camp to prepare for junior varsity tryouts but has already experienced the benefits of the camp by successfully trying out for Niagara-Wheatfield's junior varsity soccer team.
Ollison, a 5-foot-11 point guard, hopes his camp experience helps him make the jump from Niagara Falls junior varsity basketball team to the varsity squad. The sophomore started for the Wolverines' junior varsity team last year, averaging 6 points and 6 assists per game. He attended the camp to work on his conditioning and speed. Speed and strength are among the many obstacles a player faces in trying to make the jump from junior varsity to varsity level scholastic competition.
At first, he said, he didn't feel any quicker or in better shape after doing the exercises. But he realized the reward for his work after camp while playing summer ball with the Niagara Police Athletic League Chiefs. When called upon, he was able to play the entire game without any rest, which wasn't the case before the camp.
In the past, his off-season work consisted of a steady diet of pickup basketball. While that has its benefits, he now realizes just how much fun off-court training can be and most importantly understands just how important it is to continue doing the work he learned in this camp on his own.
And ultimately, that's the only way the athletes who participated in the program will continue to see improvement in their games.
"That's the key," Surace said.
Another round of team camps will resume in the fall, including the additions of a golf camp and anterior cruciate ligament injury prevention in females program. For more information, call 215-0723 or e-mail Competitive.Edge@nfmmc.org.