60 Minutes did a piece on Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps the other night. It was an interesting program. I enjoy learning about high level athletes, and the interview gave some great insights into the challenges that many high level competitors deal with, on a psychological and a physical level. For any who has ever fantasized about being a professional athlete, it's important to understand the tremendous sacrifices required to get there. Tanstaafl.
There was one thing in the program that did annoy and baffle the hell out me, however. Among the clips of Phelps training, there was a shot of him hitting focus mitts. I am at a complete loss as to why he would be doing.
I've written about this before, but the trend hasn't stopped, so I'm going to say it again.
Focus Mitts are not a GPP tool!
(Short summary for our viewers at home: GPP stands for General Physical Preparedness, a term used in athletic training to refer to training designed to prepare the body for physical activity, but not a specific sport. It is contrasted with Specific Physical Preparedness, or SPP, which is sport-specific training.)
Focus mitts are tools designed to help develop a specific skill, namely the skill of hitting people. Both the act of holding them, and the act of hitting them, requires training and skill. And while any idiot can try using them (any idiot can do anything they want, largely), that doesn't mean it's a good, or even worthwhile idea.
Seriously...what does an Olympic swimmer need to hit focus mitts for? There is nothing in his sport that even remotely resembles the skills developed through mitt work. If Phelps is throwing punches at the Olympics, something has gone seriously wrong. The only possible reason for him to be doing mitt work is because someone decided it was "hard" or "a good workout."
To borrow a phrase from Pavel and Dan John--any idiot can make a hard workout. Dan John likes to use the example of doing 10,000 jumping jacks. That'd be pretty hard. It'd also be pretty pointless, more than likely (unless you're trying to set a jumping jack record, or something).
If there's a study out there that shows that mitt work is somehow superior for developing VO2 Max, or that it activates certain muscles in a way that is critical to swimming more effectively, I will eat my words. But I doubt that exists. What I think is more likely is that one of Phelp's trainers decided to add in the work because it's cool, "fun", and because everyone seems to think they're a fucking fighter these days.
Here's a very simple way to determine if you're a fighter. If you get in a ring or cage on a regular basis, you are a fighter. If people pay you, your a pro. If you make no money, you're an amateur. If you don't, you are not a fighter. Done.
Do you need to be a fighter to benefit from mitt work? No. But you should be doing some kind of striking martial art training if you're using mitts. Because otherwise, honestly, what's the point? You're practicing shitty mechanics, setting yourself up for injury (and your idiot trainer up for injury as well, if he can't hold pads correctly), and not developing a single bit of skill. Hitting mitts won't teach you how to fight. Mitt work is a small part of a complete training regimen.
Hitting mitts when you don't train makes as much sense as buying a football tackling dummy and spending time tackling it when you don't play football. Or practicing your slap-shot when you don't play hockey. It's a waste of time.
I am offering a plea to any trainer reading this--before you decide to have your clients start hitting mitts, please consider
a) if you have any idea what the hell you're doing
b) if there's any good reason for your clients to be doing this
If the answer to both those questions is "no", find a different exercise. There are plenty of ways to make people tired that don't require you co-opting a specialized training tool because it makes you feel cool.