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Going for your own personal gold

Bud Light Huntington Beach Open
Kerri Walsh will be in the spotlight as the women's beach volleyball team competes in Athens.Matthew Stockman / Getty Images file
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While watching the Olympics this month, weekend warriors might be newly inspired to take their game to a higher level. Of course, coaches and trainers can go a long way toward helping with this goal. But you don't have to be a Mia Hamm or Michael Phelps to afford them or reap the benefits.

There's a growing number of exercise specialists available to help recreational athletes hone their skills as well, industry sources say. A nationwide survey of nearly 300 fitness facilities released earlier this year by the IDEA Health and Fitness Association, for instance, found that 57 percent offered some type of sports-specific training in 2003, up from 47 percent in 1999.

From improving a tennis swing to boosting speed on the baseball field, trainers are available for one-on-one sessions aimed at refining sports-specific skills and tailoring a fitness program to optimize performance. Some clubs also have group sports clinics, and gyms like Crunch offer classes such as Gridiron Workout and Hoops that are geared toward recreational athletes hoping to kick their game up a notch.

At the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York City, club members can receive individualized training or participate in classes for sports ranging from basketball, boxing and volleyball to swimming, rock climbing and ice hockey. Classes generally include drills aimed at improving certain skills used in the sport, such as footwork, shooting, passing, speed, agility or hand-eye coordination, followed by some game time, says fitness director Brian Katz. For people opting for personalized attention, trainers sit down with the individuals to discuss their current fitness and performance levels and what they're hoping to achieve; then they outline a plan for getting there.

Participants can get as little or as much training as they desire, and some programs are quite extensive. Karen Merrill, a personal trainer and triathlete in Kailua, Hawaii, until recently ran a 12-week camp at Gold's Gym in Lake Ridge, Va., for people hoping to complete their first triathlon. They received coaching in areas like their swim strokes and cycling technique and underwent a rigorous training program of swimming, cycling, running, weight training and flexibility exercises.

Better performance, fewer injuries
Merrill, a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, says she isn't surprised by the growing interest in sports-specific training.

"It helps people get the most out of their sport," she says.

And sports participation is a fun way for people to stay active, notes Katz. "It takes the boredom and repetitiveness out of just getting in shape," he says. Many people thrive on the competition and simply want to perform at their best.

Besides boosting performance, good training can also help reduce injuries, something many active baby boomers are prone to, experts say. A qualified trainer can spot a person's weaknesses, work to improve those areas and hopefully avoid injuries.

One of the most important areas for many recreational athletes to work on is rotation, says Justin Price, an IDEA spokesperson and personal trainer at The Biomechanics, a training facility in San Diego.

More often than not, routine daily movements — particularly for someone who sits at a desk all day — are limited and generally don't involve much twisting or turning like sports do, he says. So someone who is out of shape and goes out to play a pick-up game of basketball, or even golf, can be in for a world of hurt from injured tendons and ligaments.

"They have to realize that they just can't suddenly get back on the court," he says. "The main thing is gradual, gradual progress."

A great way to safely incorporate rotation activities is through swimming, which can work both the shoulder and hip joints with little stress, Price says. For the hard-core couch potato, a good place to start is simply by walking, which also gets a range of joints moving. Tai chi and Pilates are other good choices, he says. Even housework and gardening get the body bending and rotating.

Pick a pro
If you're looking for someone to coach your game, do your homework first.

"Some personal trainers are like chameleons — they're experts in everything," says Walter Thompson, a professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.

It's important to find someone with experience in your sport, Thompson says.

Look for solid credentials. Requirements for personal training certification vary widely, with those from the ACSM and the National Strength and Conditioning Association being the most rigorous.

Also consider a coach affiliated with a sports club or recreational league in your area, he says.

And for the couch potatoes hoping to run like Maurice Greene or pitch like Lisa Fernandez, Thompson has a word of caution: be realistic.

"When people are inspired by elite athletes they think they can perform like elite athletes," he says.

And maybe they will some day — but you have to start slowly and build up.

Costs for sports-specific training vary but club members can often take classes for no additional costs. People seeking individualized training can expect to pay what they would for typical personal training sessions, anywhere from $60 to $80 an hour and up.

But keep in mind that a few sessions with a trainer may be all you need to get your program on the right track, says Price.

"No one can afford to personal train for 20 years, five times a week," he says. "Go in with the goal of being educated."