In a world that embraces athletes like Tiger Woods starting golf at the young age of 2, we all feel a sense of urgency to give our kids the best opportunity for high level athletic success. Conversely, we have been exposed to nightmares like the “robo QB” Todd Marinovich whom had a psychological meltdown along with other typical youth star athletes that don’t even play high school sports due to overuse injuries, etc. The dilemma is clear but what to do with your young athlete is not. Parents are faced with tough questions on whether to specialize or hold kids out completely, train hard or do nothing until the body is developed. This article will empower you with information to make better decisions and hopefully benefit your athlete for the long run.
Scientific research plainly tells us that young athletes can improve and be positively effected short/long term with the appropriate training. This same research clearly shows us that the wrong type of training or focus can be an extreme detriment to long term athletic and most importantly psychological development. For the sake of this article lets break kids up into two basic groups; youth (ages 2-11) and adolescence (12-19). This break gives us a good starting point but I must tell you that within this break there is many variables and the most notable being male/female. We could split these groups into several sub categories but for the point of this blog we will focus on the fundamental difference in training approach to the two different groups being youth and adolescence.
Youth(2-11) athletes have a unique opportunity to lay a great foundation for their athletic career and lifelong mindset. Data supports the fact that youth athletes do NOT naturally or gradually improve athletically with age. They improve in a non linear fashion due to growth and the maturation process. So, it is possible to be the fast kid and then become the slow kid, eventually becoming the fast kid once again. This phenomenon is due to a stressed central nervous system and the unbalanced development of the musculoskeletal system. During this youth stage the only thing that can have an actual training result for performance can be contributed to nervous system development and cerebral maturation. This means that the best thing to do with this type of athlete is develop correct movement patterns, athletic motor skills, and inter/intramuscular coordination. Inter-muscluar coordination is the ability to use different muscles together harmoniously for greater coordination. Intramuscular is the coordination of the small fibers within a muscle working to full function with the proprioceptors.
Within this youth stage is a window of opportunity to train the brain and nervous system for goals in which to grow the body. Simply put, you are programming a machine that will reveal itself later in life(post-puberty). After making that point, usually the first thing that comes to parents heads is strength training. A youth athlete can become stronger through training because of inter/intramuscular coordination but NOT because of changes at a muscle-fiber level. So, you can’t actually control getting a youth functionally “bigger and stronger” with a training effect, no matter what any salesman tells you. This desired effect is only possible by unnaturally increasing hormone levels or waiting until puberty when it is in fact trainable. You can, however, damage them mentally and physically forever through the wrong type of endurance and/or strength training at a young age. You can positively doappropriate strength training for mobility and coordination with youth athletes. In this instance, mobility is strength through a full range of motion. Also, the right type of agility prescription can serve as a viable tool for strength development at this age. Locomotion is another great way to allow the central nervous system to develop for athletic purposes due to the unpredictability and controlled tempo by the athlete. Movement through all planes of motion gives youth athletes an immediate advantage and trains the nervous system for a more athletic development target. At APEC we employ a vector system ensuring that athletes can lunge, leap, jump, skip, hop, and sprint in 8 different directions. This way we can positively cover 3D movement and allow each athlete to learn to use their body in as many ways as possible.
Available literature suggest that between the ages of 5-11 an athlete can gain up to 75% of their static flexibility, that is a morphological change! This means that an athlete could reach a level of flexibility before puberty that others late in life could never reach, regardless of dedication and proper practice. If you question this I would encourage you to visit any credible gymnastic coach- athletes get less pliable after puberty, not more. Some of you may fail to recognize the significance of this much flexibility opportunity as it pertains to athletic performance. One example is linear speed. The most simple way to look at speed development is improving stride length or stride frequency. Most athletes lack the lumbo-pelvic-hip flexibility required to separate their femurs enough to make a dent in their stride length. If you can improve this by up to 75% by age 11 and only 25% after that, you are making a serious investment into your future athleticism by taking the time to do what is appropriate and what can be optimized for the youth athlete. FACT: Your athlete will not come close to their speed potential later in life if they do not develop flexibility during this important development period. That doesn’t mean they could not be fast, it simply means they could have been faster.
Endurance training does NOT need to be a focus of development during the youth stage. Young athletes need to develop their musculoskeletal system to the point that they can sufficiently tolerate the repetitive impact forces experienced in long aerobic activity. Do NOT put your youth in cross country type training. Endurance should be gained through accumulative affect of being an active kid every day. If this is ignored and endurance is a primary focus during youth the athlete with be extremely limited when it come to the expression of power and will most certainly have joint and bone issues as soon as in the adolescence stage. Many of these issue are all but irreversible without years of medical attention, not to mention your athlete is guaranteed to be limited in any and every major power sport such as; football, baseball/softball, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball, etc. In a valid argument, you may point to any tribe on the globe about the running culture and I will tell you that these are genetic freaks made from a physiological response which gave them superhuman endurance qualities to fight disease. In any of these specific examples, you don’t see a lot of the tribal athletes crossing over to any other sport(aside from endurance) and in most cases they are in poor health relatively early in life.
Youth athletes need loose regiments, different types of competition, and consistent coordination training. We feel they need a curriculum that feels more like mini games and challenges than a workout program. Example; Can you do this 3 times? Hop the shape of your favorite animal, etc. Rubber-band resistance training and body weight movement competency are appropriate. Light weight strength training may be okay to implement with certain qualified professionals but is altogether unnecessary.
As far as activities the best options for youth are individual endeavors such as; swimming, gymnastics (with experienced coaches), karate, track and field, appropriate youth targeted training programs, or music lessons (any kind). Very limited skill work in their best a variety of team sports is appropriate, however, playing team sports on an actual team is not your best option for short/long term development. I would place golf and tennis in the team sport category in this particular circumstance. Golf and tennis are great to start with lessons but a schedule of consistent playing and competition, in my opinion, is a very bad idea. Kids this age need to see tangible self improvements and team sports can really distort that to them at this age. I am not in favor of participation trophies and I think when a kid begins to play team sports they need to be able to win and lose with everything that comes with it psychologically. With the data shown the best time to introduce the most team sports is in the adolescence period of development.
It is imperative that “strength and conditioning” is not simply viewed as an add-on to the overall development but instead seen as essential and definitive way to track and progress your athlete’s short/long term development. SHAMELESS PROMOTION ALERT: We are excited to unveil our 5-7 year old program this Christmas that is loaded with things that can actually help kids instead of babysit them. This is not something we are throwing together, it is coming from need and a long time evaluation of what to do. This did NOT come from a weekend certification.
Adolescence programming creates unique challenges and in my opinion is the hardest athlete to train. Within this group you have 4 basic types: Pre-puberty, Peak Height Velocity(shooting up), Peak Weight Velocity(filling out), Post-puberty. All of these stages are very different and very complex. Let me be clear on something: During this growth spurt athletes’ nervous system maturation, adaptation in muscle mass, body composition, and other structural parameters change dramatically leading to an unparalleled jump in performance of speed, strength, endurance, and power. This fact supports the thing you already know- its not a level playing field until every athlete is fully developed. It is virtually impossible to tell who is good from who is mature until late in high school. If your athlete is dominating, you should look for ways they can improve. If you athlete is struggling mightily, you/they should be encouraged by the fact that their body is still developing. Mindset is SO important during this stage of development. The most damaged athletes are the ones with early success in my opinion because they gain a false sense of having arrived. Moving forward I want to break down each of these four stages and give you insight into the issues and challenges of each.
The pre-puberty athlete is an older version of the youth athlete. The only advantage may be their training age which refers to how many years of targeted training they have successfully performed. Training age is an important and overlooked measurable because it allows an athlete to perfect movement skills thus giving an opportunity to perform on a high enough level to compete with more mature kids of their own age. So basically all the best things for youth athletes still apply here although they may be able to adhere to the same demands as the more physically mature kids their own age through advancement earned in training age. Limit team sports IF you feel it will be a negative experience and do not feel the need to keep up with other kids or adults.
The peak height velocity athlete is sprouting up at an unprecedented rate. This phenomenon leads to awkward movements and sometimes what looks like a real step back to parents. Pain is possible during this stage of development simply because bones are longer than the supporting tissues are ready to support. Conversely, other bones are short in relation to the proximal and distal bone segments which can also cause severe pain. The only way to minimize this pain is to train the central nervous system effectively though the youth stage so the body is less likely to give the pain stimulus. Even so, growing pain is going to happen as a part of this exciting but frustrating stage.
Post PHV athletes enter peak weight velocity. This period is characterized by natural body mass increases due to a result of the surge in sex hormone concentrations. No matter your level of nutritional excellence, their will be some odd weight shifting during PWV. Parents should not let kids use this as an excuse to vary from sound nutrition principles. Boys increase in testosterone and girls increased sensitivity to insulin, combined with insulin-like growth factor and growth hormone make this an ideal time to introduce hypertrophy training to increase muscle size. Although muscle size will not naturally “pop” like body building the athletes will be able to increase in strength more consistently and more obviously after PHV and PHW.
Post-puberty athletes are only limited by their movement competency and lack of appropriate development in the earlier stages of development. If a post-puberty athlete has no training age then they still need to start their athletic development in the way that the youth do. The only difference is they may progress at a very advanced rate. One thing is certain, physical maturity does not mean advanced training or sport. Every athlete must master the basics in order to get benefits from advanced training or sport. Respective to the training model, the complexity, volume, intensity or frequency of training should NEVER be increased at the expense of technical competency. Post pubescent athletes need strength training to hit their potential in all things, even speed development.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Everything listed below is appropriate for all ages of the youth-adolescence spectrum.
Basic athletic motor skill competencies:
*Acceleration, deceleration, reacceleration
*Throwing, catching, grasping
*Jumping, landing, rebounding mechanics
*Anti-rotation and core Bracing
*Upper body Pulling (vertical/ horizontal)
*Upper Body pushing (Vertical/ horizontal)
*Lower body bilateral (concentric/eccentric)
*Lower body unilateral (concentric/eccentric)
*Isometric and stability training
If your athlete has no training age or experience, start them off with 30 minutes of play time where they have to continue to play with needed breaks only for the entire time. Stay at this for 2 weeks and then increase play time to 45 minutes, then 60 minutes, then 90. After 90 minutes go to 2 days a week at 45 minutes and continue to build from there. My advice is to not take a youth past 2 days of formal “training program” with up to 2 days of sport type activity(max 3). Adolescence at the highest level can gradually work up to 6 days of activity at up to 5 hours total in a a day with no more than 2.5 hours per session.
Due to the complex growth and maturation of young athletes professionals should be required to appreciate and understand pediatric exercise science. These athletes are not little men and women. Even with the two classifications of youth and adolescence there is much to consider while looking at the short and long term. If we as parents and coaches do not make the effort to understand than we will cost our young athletes despite the efforts of their own.
This blog was influenced by two of the best in the industry in Kye Heck CSCS CAFS and Tony Bush CSCS.
Below is a list of doctors, scientist, and trainers that had direct input through conversations, research and other literature. This Blog would not have supported evidence based facts without the people listed below.