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 do appropriate 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 not necessary for proper development.
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. We are offer "lead off", a 5-7 year old program that is loaded with a curriculum that can actually help kids. This is not something we are threw together, it is coming from need and a long time evaluation of what to do. This did NOT come from a weekend certification.