By: Craig Acker, MS,CSCS,NASE,ACE,USATF,CSCCa,USAW
Sports Performance Specialist
Training young athletes raises a common concern: What should you do? How do you properly train young athletes for sports performance? Young athletes are not “small” adult athletes. That is where much of the confusion lies. Many trainers and coaches across the country are utilizing specific programs designed for elite, world-class athletes and applying those for youth training. In doing so, they are compromising the future potential of the young athlete. Such programs will result in disrupting the developmental processes of the body and thus risking injury, not to mention creating mental and emotional burnout down the road.
Regardless of training methodology some critics say do not train children before puberty, as it will hinder their growth system. Others say let their specific sport condition and train them. Then as they get older you can start to train them more specifically for strength, speed, and agility. Neither of these opinions are accurate… So where do we go from here? What do we do?
In designing the best program for a young athlete, the biological age of the athlete must be determined. Biological age is the level of physical, mental, and emotional maturity of the athletes and it is the most important factor in designing the overall training for the younger athletes. Most of the time coaches and trainers use programming that is designed for older, more mature athletes, or they may strictly rely on each athletes “chronological” age. Chronological age is simply calendar age, which is not very revealing of the level of each athlete. Therefore, when designing programs for young athletes we need to conclude that they are not fully developed physically, mentally, or emotionally. Thus, we need to start with foundational principles of athletic movement and continually build upon them.
Young athletes can safely train as long as the training is structured properly. How the training structure is designed determines effectiveness and safety. How much, how hard and the way the training is performed IS VITAL. Why? It’s very important to understand that there are sensitive time periods (‘windows of opportunity’) for certain physical qualities of the young athlete’s body. Meaning time periods in which it’s OK or not OK to start training a particular quality, or times when one quality is more prone than others to improvement through physical training. The most important time period of motor development is between the ages of 8-12. This is the critical chronological ‘window’ for all athletic development potential to be set in place. Keep in mind that if a young athlete misses training within that ‘window’ that doesn’t mean they won’t improve, it simply means they won’t be able to reach your true potential.
Our youth physical developmental program here at SPECTRUM is designed to mainly focus on the establishment and improvement of an athlete’s gross motor skills: mobility (flexibility), posture, balance, position strengthening, and coordination (movement sequencing) to establish better overall athleticism. We will also introduce basic sprint mechanics drills like how to hop, skip, and accelerate/decelerate correctly as well as present agility/change of direction drills.
Other intangible goals and points of emphasis at SPECTRUM include verbal positive reinforcement, a high energy/fun/positive environment with a lot of activity, and raising youth athlete’s intellectual capacity to understand the drills/exercises names and proper techniques. Establishing these points as the foundation to a young athlete’s training will make success gradual and continual.
At SPECTRUM, a young individual will become more confident with their physical skills which will likely unlock their potential to attain the next level – whether in school, training, or their sport!