What’s the Importance of a Warm-Up?

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Last week, I wrote a blog about killing “Sacred Zombie Cowsor in other words, challenging conventional wisdom as it relates to sports. This blog will address the warm-up and the role it plays in activities.

For the most part, I speak in basketball jargon, but the ideas in the blog can be easily transferred to any other sport or activity.

Coaches are always in search of new activities that will allow them to improve their teams athletic performance. I believe that the warm-up, is without a doubt, the most important part of any activity.

With that being said, what is the most appropriate way to warm-up before a game? before a practice session? before a skills workout? before a strength session?

For years, it has been readily accepted to do a light jog for a few minutes, followed by some stretching (mostly static) and then this is followed by lay-up lines. In recent times, teams have replaced the light jogging with more dynamic movement, but again, this is right before the lay-up lines come in.

So, is this approach beneficial? Does it prepare your athletes for the activity that follows? Is there a different or more effective way to warm-up?

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Your warm-up is the first thing that the players do. This immediately sets the tone for the rest of the session. Baring that in mind, do you not want to include or introduce a warm-up routine that is more productive to your practices, games, strength or skill sessions?

Let’s review by first looking at what the purpose and the benefits of a warm-up are in your sessions.

The main purpose of your warm-up is to get your players engaged and physically, mentally and emotionally ready to take part in the activity. A good warm-up will allow your athletes to be able to give their best maximum performance.

The warm-up comes in a couple of different phases

  1. Pulse Raiser

The pulse raiser does the following:

  • increases blood flow to the working muscles in the body, which will aid in reducing muscle stiffness and thus help prevent injuries
  • increase muscle temperature ( a warmed muscle contracts forcefully and relaxes quicker, which allows speed and strength to be enhanced)
  • allows the blood vessels to dilate which reduces resistance to blood flow and reduces the stress on the heart.
  • increases blood temperature, which allows oxygen to unbind from haemoglobin a lot quicker, hence becoming more readily available to working muscles.

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2. Dynamic Stretching

The second phase of the warm-up allows the body to prepare its muscles and joints in a manner that is more specific than static stretching. The workout, practice or strength session is going to consist of dynamic movements, so this phase allows the body to get accustomed to it.

A lot of teams and players still perform static stretching after the initial pulse raiser. This is counter intuitive as it allows the body to cool down which undoes the benefits from the initial phase.

As your body will be going through a series of dynamic movements in the game, practice or workout that is about to follow, it makes more sense to conduct a series of dynamic stretches. Static stretching holds the muscles in a lengthened position over a prolonged period, which loses the elasticity of the muscle hence losing its explosiveness.

Dynamic stretching allows the athletes to keep moving, which means that they will maintain the benefits from the pulse raiser in addition to holding a stretch for 1-3 seconds, which lengthens and shortens the muscles. This allows the elasticity and explosiveness of the muscles to remain.

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3. Sports Specific

The final phase of the warm-up is to conduct sports specific movements in a manner that will replicate the game. The purpose behind this is to emphasise the actions as it will happen in the following activity.

In games and practices, you will be taking a lot of shots, so it makes sense to include this in your sports specific phase of your warm-up. This helps reinforce the muscle memory required during the game.

The issue I have here is that most teams use this part to do two line lay-ups, something that really isn’t all that useful (I’ll explain that in a later blog). Most teams have different playing styles, so to me, it would make more sense to tailor this part to your specific team (more down below).

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The above three phases of the warm-up really address the physiological and physical side of things, but a huge component of the game is the mental side.

Bobby Knight, a former NCAA Division 1 coach once said, “the mental is to the physical as four is to one!”

I believe that the “mental” that he was talking about can be split down into mental and emotional. The mental (as defined by me) part of the warm-up should be used to tune the players into the activity that is following.

If it’s a game, then the players and the team should be focusing, (guided by the coaches) on the things that they’ll be doing. A pick and roll team should ideally look to get shots up from pick and roll situations. A team that is about to play a zone defense, should look to get shots up from their offense in relation to attacking zones.

Again, too many times, teams warm up with the traditional two line lay-ups or three man weave, two on one back. Occasionally teams will also do the four corners passing drill, which realistically doesn’t help your team prepare for the game mentally or even get them the right type of shots ahead of the game.

This is the mental side of the teams preparation, but the other side is, which is also quite critical is the emotional side. For years, coaches have referred to this as the mental side and have called it mental toughness. I don’t disagree with the term, but I don’t think people quite understand this yet, so let’s break it down.

The ability to get into the “zone” or tune out distractions is referred to as mental toughness, but a huge part of getting mentally tough is controlling your emotions.

To put this into context, I want you to think back to a game that you played. A game where everything was going right for you. You were making your shots, playing excellent defense and even cleaning up the boards. Everything was going right. On a scale of 1 – 10, you were playing at an 8 or above.

Stop and think about your emotional state during that game. Were you calm and relaxed or were you hyped? Were you excited because it was a championship final and the gym was packed and your friends and parents were in the crowds?

Or did you find it difficult to get hyped as it was just a pre-season game and there was no one in the crowds and your friends didn’t show up?

On a scale of 1 – 10, how would you rate your level of emotional arousal? 10 being you bouncing off the walls hyped up.

Now, think about the next five games you played and assess your level of performance. Did you play at a similar level to that stand out game of yours or did your performance dip and you played at a standard below of what you were capable of?

I’m willing to place a wager on the fact that you did not perform at a similar level to your best game. Assuming you didn’t play at the same standard, ask yourself why?

Did you forget the technical skills in that time-span? Did you forget how to shoot the ball? dribble? or set screens? Did you forget how to play within your teams systems? Or did you not physically prepare for the game?

I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d say your emotional state wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Perhaps, there was a crowd there at the game and you got nervous, so you started worrying. Perhaps, there wasn’t a crowd there and you couldn’t muster up the motivation required. Maybe, you had a fight before you left the house, or received some bad news or it could be any number of reasons. Coaches have always called this a lack of mental toughness, and whilst they are right, it is important to understand that your emotions affect your mental state.

During the warm-ups, coaches must prepare their players emotionally to be able to play the game, which in turn allows them to focus on the mental aspects and only then do the physical and physiological elements allow the players to be at their best.

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Now, that sounds like a lot of work, and truth be told, it is. When you as a coach, understand your team, and what makes them tick, you’re in a better position to tailor your warm-up to suit them.

With that being said, I employ different warm-ups with my teams. A pre-practice warm-up will be different from a pre-game warm-up which would also be different from a warm-up for our strength session. Having good assistant coaches make this process so much easier.

During pre-practice, we take between 20 – 25 minutes to conduct our warm-ups, and usually treat this as a mini workout, complete with a strength & conditioning aspect to it. As the season progresses, this warm-up will become shorter and the elements of strength & conditioning decreases.

Our pre-game warm-ups are usually shorter, depending on the team that I am coaching. Unless, it’s the national cup, most youth teams only have 15 minutes to warm-up in the Dublin leagues. So, with this in mind, our pre-game warm-up removes all elements of strength & conditioning and includes more sports specific situations.

As part of our teams identity, tough defense and attacking the basket are pre-requisites; therefore, our warm-up incorporates both of those elements in them.

This changes as the season goes on; so our pre-game warm-up at the start of the season will be different from the one that we’ll use mid-season, which will also change towards the end of the season. I’m not talking about making drastic changes, but I do like to introduce new things and tweak others.

Of course, the question that arises now is, “what about allowing your players to develop routines?

I like having a routine. Pre-game routines, free-throw routines etc. It allows the players to relax and get into their groove. However, the problem there is that, unless it engages them mentally, then it is useless. because the game is not played without being engaged mentally.

This is my main problem with two line lay-ups. Players mindlessly dribble the ball and shoot lay-ups and will make most of them, but the players aren’t engaged mentally and are just going through the motions. This doesn’t do them any good, and come game time they tend to miss those same lay-ups.

By tweaking a drill or addressing a situation, you allow players to prepare physically, mentally and emotionally during the warm-up and this will be more effective than just a regular warm-up which allows players to mindlessly go through the motions.

After I published my blog last week, challenging conventional thinkingI attended a pre-season friendly between an NCAA Div 1 team, Duquesne Dukes and Mens Premier League side, Templeogue. I have got to say, the Dukes warm-up was one of the best that I had ever seen, in terms that it was carefully thought out and planned. Every aspect of their warm-up was intentional, from the pulse raiser to sports specific elements. Key concepts that would be employed in the game were used with the players all engaged from start to finish.

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Duquesne had the advantage of having several coaches and each one had responsibilities, even during the warm-up, with the strength coach conducting the dynamic stretches and the skills coaches running the sports specific parts and the assistant coaches oversaw the entire warm-up. But, even if you don’t have that many people on your staff, with a bit of thinking and some extra work, you too can still improve your warm-up and take advantage of it.

If you’re interested in a sample of what our warm-ups look like or want to know what Duquesne did in their warm-ups, e-mail me and I’ll send you a copy of it.

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