Make it Cool: Fred Eaves on Technology & Training the Multi-Sport Athlete

No doubt about it—Battleground Academy is a unique place. Not only can the Tennessee-based institution trace its roots to the late nineteenth century, not only does the K-12 school employ an award-winning, full-time strength and conditioning coach (NSCA 2015 High School Strength Coach of the Year Fred Eaves), but in this age of club teams, travel ball, and early specialization, the athletic program at Battleground Academy instead focuses on developing multi-sport athletes.

“We’re a relatively small school, which creates the need for the multi-sport athlete,” Eaves says. “We’ve got about 326 kids in our upper school, and through all three divisions—which would be our lower school, our middle school, and our upper school—we’re around 755. My position’s unique because I actually design our curriculum from kindergarten through the twelfth grade—it’s kinda cool, because I get to have a touch on a kid from the time they’re five years old and coming into our lower school program, all the way up until the time they graduate.”

By The Numbers (And Beyond)

In a 2013 ESPN/University of Florida survey of 1,250 high-level athletes (i.e., travel, club, select) between the ages of 10 and 18, nearly 40 percent reported specializing in a single sport. At Battleground Academy (BGA), on the other hand, Eaves estimates that 80-85% of his kids play multiple sports, with that small percentage of single-sport athletes largely concentrated where there’s also the strongest club influence: boys & girls soccer and volleyball. Competing in Tennessee’s Division 2, Single A (a private school division), BGA’s teams regularly win titles in their district and often challenge other programs at the state and regional level.

“We’ve been very successful,” Eaves says. “Over the last four-to-five years we’ve won the state championships in boys and girls soccer, been runner-up in both of those, we were state football runner-up two years ago, won the state basketball championship and went to the final four last year, baseball final four, individual champions in track and field… we’re doing pretty well in athletics overall.”

That success owes largely to high-caliber coaching at the team level and the type of reputation which inspires driven athletes to enroll. Another contributing factor is that unique, K-12 curriculum created by Coach Eaves, where he’s able to make mobility exercises, block strength work, and general physical conditioning part of the entire student body’s regular school week. Ultimately, it’s less a written curriculum than an entire culture, a philosophy geared toward long-term athletic development (LTAD) and the foundation built by learning to play a range of sports.

“We as a school promote (multi-sport participation) and celebrate that and the great thing is, that’s one of the reasons we have the program we have during the day, because we don’t want kids to feel like ‘I should be at training – I shouldn’t be out having fun playing basketball.’ So if we have everyone training during the school day and everyone’s on a program there, that way they don’t have that sense of ‘oh no, I’m getting behind for soccer.’ And we promote the fact that they’re doing something else that’s going to keep them healthy. I’ve got a relatively good amount of statistics at this point in my time here—my three-sport athletes are the least injured of any of our athletes, and we haven’t had a catastrophic injury with any of our three-sport kids. From there to our two-sport kids, it just goes down the line—when we have overuse-pattern injuries, it is the kid who’s just playing club soccer year-round, or the one kid who decided to play baseball year-round and gets a labrum tear.”

Year-Round vs. Year-Round

From a coaching standpoint, one clear benefit of specialization is limiting a player’s awkward, off-season dropoff: the soccer striker who grows 4-inches after the New Year and returns the next fall dribbling and trapping like a baby deer, or the third-baseman who was tearing the cover off the ball in summer tournaments who comes back the following March and needs six weeks to shake the rust off her swing. While there is an immediate upside to keeping players in a steady-state of tactical and technical skill acquisition, Eaves also sees a downside.

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“Yes they’re very skilled, but they’re under-powered,” he says of the average one-sport athlete. “Or, there are all sorts of other things you could get into that are holding them back from reaching their potential. A great example—the last two years in boy’s soccer, we competed for the state championship or were in the semi-finals. And, we had a football player who had either never played soccer, or at best hadn’t played since around the sixth grade. He’s just a really good athlete. A football player, and he’d done track before, and he decided he wanted to play soccer his senior year. Well, I mean, we’re a pretty good soccer program in a good soccer area—and he starts on our soccer team. His level of athleticism was so much higher that he’s surpassing kids who’ve been playing soccer their whole life. But, they don’t train the way he does in the weight room, they haven’t done multiple things like he does, they haven’t been able to enhance their movement qualities, or learn how to solve different athletic problems and react to different things. They’ve just not been exposed to as much and I think it really limits their potential long-term. It’s a small base for a pyramid that you’re building when you start to specialize early on.”

While most of the athletes at BGA don’t play that single year-round sport, they do train and compete year-round. Part of Eaves job, then, is facilitating the transition from sport-to-sport: making sure the second baseman retains enough aerobic endurance to shift from the softball diamond to the soccer pitch, making sure his low post possesses the explosive strength to switch from the basketball court back to his role on the gridiron as an outside linebacker.“Where do we need to bring a property up for them to be the most to be successful in whatever it is they’re doing at that time? We try to be conscious of where they’re at, where they’re going, and keep them in a lot of general patterns as the year goes on,” Eaves says. “From all of our kids playing so many different sports, we have a pretty good conditioning base. So they’ve got pretty good general fitness going into all this. We keep everything very general—we want them exposed to a lot of different movement patterns, we want them exposed to a lot of different planes of motion, we want them exposed to a lot, because they’re always competing in a lot of different things. One thing that we do that some people find unique is we do a lot of opposite patterns in-season—simply for cross-training, and to give them some relief from what they’re doing already.”

“Where do we need to bring a property up for them to be the most to be successful in whatever it is they’re doing at that time? We try to be conscious of where they’re at, where they’re going, and keep them in a lot of general patterns as the year goes on,” Eaves says. “From all of our kids playing so many different sports, we have a pretty good conditioning base. So they’ve got pretty good general fitness going into all this. We keep everything very general—we want them exposed to a lot of different movement patterns, we want them exposed to a lot of different planes of motion, we want them exposed to a lot, because they’re always competing in a lot of different things. One thing that we do that some people find unique is we do a lot of opposite patterns in-season—simply for cross-training, and to give them some relief from what they’re doing already.”

To provide that relief, Eaves performs a ‘needs-assessment’ on his athletes and exercises his own creativity in the weight room (such as programming lateral movement activities for in-season track athletes, simply to prevent them from doing linear speed work on top of their regular linear speed work). Also, in order to assess the combined physiological cost of his training sessions, a full practice and game schedule, and the unpredictable reality of life as a teenager, Eaves uses Omegawave Coach as part of a well-organized monitoring program that factors in sleep, nutrition, and training load.

“We try to keep our Omegawave on our guys who are under the most stress throughout the year,” he says. “So along with the monitoring things we do and the surveys we conduct, we use that. It’s really, really enhanced what we do. Especially transitioning between seasons—taking a look and seeing where a player’s at. I’ve been able to have conversations with coaches—I can’t tell them what to do at practice, I’m not gonna lie and say I have that kind of power—but I can say, hey, Coach, dang, this guy’s been a ‘one’ for four or five days in a row and his baseline’s not even remotely like that—there’s something wrong with this cat. We need to do some different stuff. We need to get into some recovery, do some cardiac output with him, do whatever we need to do.”

Where Buy-In Meets Cool

Despite its relatively small enrollment, BGA still has too many competitive athletes for Eaves to monitor them all on his Omegawave Coach. But, characteristic of the program, Eaves has found a way to turn scarcity into an asset in his long-range plan. Rather than trying to cajole his high schoolers to buy-in and comply with a technology-based monitoring program, by using Omegawave with a select group of highly-driven athletes, Eaves also sets a benchmark: that’s now the level that others in the program want to reach.

“The kids really think it’s cool, it’s amazing, they just love it—when you get to be a kid that’s on Omegawave, that’s a big deal around here at BGA,” Eaves says. “It’s a technology that a lot of people don’t get to use, so they feel very fortunate and blessed to get to do that—they think it’s cool. And, you know, they read an article about the Eagles or anyone else using it and they get to use the same thing, and they think it’s a cool thing so they put a lot of attention into making sure they get those readings in. They also think it’s cool we can have those follow-up conversations. You know, hey, why is this? It’s not a prying-type of conversation with the kid, it’s a concern. Hey, what’s going on with you, how do you feel? It’s been very, very valuable in that sense.”

Those numbers-based, follow-up conversations have helped Eaves with specific medical concerns (including one player with a week of low Omegawave scores who turned out to be suffering from walking pneumonia and another who had to return from a bout of food poisoning), as well as providing him hard data to back up his recommendations about proper nutrition, hydration, and lifestyle habits (“Hey, dude, you sleep three hours and look—you come in and you’re a ‘two’”). Like many coaches, when Eaves first integrated Omegawave into his program, he used it primarily for recovery-based applications. Having had the time to gather more data and get a better sense of his players’ baselines and norms, now, instead of using Omegawave purely as an indicator of when to back down, Eaves also uses Omegawave as a tool to push his athletes even harder.

“We may come in and these guys are ready to rock,” Eaves says. “It can make me adjust where maybe it’s a Tuesday and in my planning we were going to have a lighter session due to certain factors, with a heavier session planned on Thursday. Well, I may be able to totally flip that off of where they’re at and raise that intensity.”

That athlete-centered approach is fundamental to BGA’s player-development model. Convincing teenagers to preference long-term goals over instant gratification is never an easy task, but Eaves makes personal communication a priority and understands how to reach his kids.“I think it’s all about how you deliver the information,” he says. “You explain what we’re trying to do with this in the beginning, you help them understand that this is for their benefit, and we’re trying to do what’s best for them. And, with everything in high school, man, you’ve got to make it cool. Don’t let anyone get it twisted—I don’t care where you’re at, high school’s all about being cool.”

“I think it’s all about how you deliver the information,” he says. “You explain what we’re trying to do with this in the beginning, you help them understand that this is for their benefit, and we’re trying to do what’s best for them. And, with everything in high school, man, you’ve got to make it cool. Don’t let anyone get it twisted—I don’t care where you’re at, high school’s all about being cool.”