WARNING: Children are not “little” adults. Strategies for developing young athletes — for life.

In my previous company, Discover Movement, I spent a lot of time with my fellow trench mate and amazing coach Tommi Paavola discussing the topic of youth sports and conditioning young athletes. I have found myself coming full circle as my oldest daughter has become active with sports and now I’m on the “parent” side of this topic, rather than a coach. Much of what Tommi and I discussed about how to properly train kids is still very much relevant today as the pressures of youth sports and youth conditioning (and parenting) have not lessened.

The Problem

Youth sports are bigger than ever. Only a few years ago, the youth sports were estimated to be a $7B industry. Obviously there are many layers that come with all the services/costs related to having our children be involved in sports. With all this growth and popularity, there also come challenges that have changed the “model” as it compared to when I was participating in sports (many moons ago). The common three sport athlete has now been replaced by a young and highly specialized athlete. The historical three sport athlete has a natural “cross-training” effect that took place as they changed sports every season. Today’s specialized athletes spends 12 months out of the year playing the same sport and many times playing on multiple teams during the same season.  This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers that introduced us to the “10,000-Hour Rule” and that anyone can achieve high levels of success or expert status by practicing something the correct way, repeatedly over and over again. However, as it pertains to youth sports, I believe that there are a few consequences that cannot be overlooked.

Regardless of the age of our client, we MUST always take long term development into account as this is what will truly make someone successful. To that end, Tommi Paavola asked a very relevant question, “Are you ready to do this for the good of the child…or is it too important to win today at the expense of tomorrow?” We have seen this time and time again with early specialization. The pressures to make a specific team are very real. Many cannot make the team IF the DON’T play for 12 months out of the year as the level of play is at such a high level. This results in a roster that becomes much more competitive and caters to those with the highest competitive advantage. Those families with the means seek out the help of specialty coaches that work on sport specific skills Not to mention, all the specialty coaches that work on their sport specific skills (pitching coaches, soccer skill coaches, skating coaches, conditioning coaches, etc.) to ensure that their athlete(s) are given the best possible chances of making that team.  All these variables foster a culture within youth sports that is predicated on winning at any cost and very often everyone loses sight of the bigger picture of sports and the effect that it has on our lives (and our children’s). We have witnessed the “burnout” that comes with such a high volume of work as well as the breakdown (mental and physical) as a result of all the pressure that comes with competing – – or trying to compete at a high level.

Just like training adults, there are plenty of options out there for where to bring your young athlete. However, not all are created equal. My goal of this article is to shed some light on the challenges (some of which we have little control over) with youth sports and to provide some information from the perspective of a conditioning coach, as well as a parent. Let’s explore this topic further and look into what components should be included in your youth athlete’s conditioning program. Let us begin with what is currently being done with this demographic.

Current model

In quest for developing an athlete, everyone has the goal of developing speed, agility, quickness, strength, endurance, power, and this list is endless. I’ve seen way too many young athletes as young as 10-12 years of age put on various machines, spin bikes and pieces of cardiovascular equipment. In addition, their exercise programs are nothing more than diluted versions of adult programs by splitting up their body-parts by doing exercises for their chest, back, biceps, triceps, quads, etc. You get the picture.

kid1               kid2               kid3

Others get involved is high intensity and high volume training programs that have them participating in strength and metabolic circuits that we have seen done by older athletes or adults. I’ve also been around some parents that are looking for their kids/athletes get “beat up” or “whipped into shape” by having them do exactly what they do at the gym. While I do believe in some “tough love” and teaching some mental toughness, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.

kid4                    kid5

Goals of Youth Training

In his book, Children and Sports Training, author Jozef Drabik stresses the importance of developing coordination in young athletes, especially during their “skill hungry” years of 7-14 years of age. Drabik states that during specific developmental periods of life that young athletes are “spongy” and can absorb many skills during this time, of course, assuming they are being exposed to the “right” training stimulus. He goes further to say “Full motor potential cannot be realized. Mastery of sports technique is impossible without good movement coordination.”

Let’s start with how coordination is defined. Simply put, it’s “the ability to use different parts of the body together smoothly and efficiently.”  This can be visualized when we see an expert perform in their sport. Watching the likes of Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders or Derek Jeter do what they do with the greatest of ease, wowing their spectators as we comment at how effortless they can make the most complex skills look.

Breaking coordination down further, here are the factors that contribute towards being well coordinated.

  1. Balance – a state of equilibrium. Can be both static and dynamic.
  2. Rhythm – movement taking place within a specific unit of time.
  3. Spatial Orientation – sensing where one’s body is in space or what position it is in.
  4. Reactiveness (sight/sound) – our ability to respond to a specific stimulus.
  5. Sequencing Movements – putting together multiple joint motions at the same time. Preferably, multidimensional movement, at different speeds and under control.
  6. Movement Efficiency – being able to perform movement with minimal effort.

Putting it all together

In order for any your program to be effective, it needs to be fun and engaging. Life is way too complicated and serious now-a-days. Putting our kids in a high pressure/high stress environment does little to promote growth and learning. It ends up being quite the contrary as their results are limited and their long term development ends up paying the ultimate price. Creating an environment that balances success and challenge while still nurturing the athlete’s developing body will be the key for anyone working with this population…whether the child is an athlete or not. From an exercise program standpoint, the goal is to have the young athlete NOT perform single joint, neurologically “boring” and unnatural movement patterns. Rather, look to have them perform tasks that will resemble sport (or life) by having them squat, jump, hop, lunge, pivot, leap, reach and swing. If you get a mental picture of kids playing on a playground, then you are heading in the right direction. In fact, all of these tasks can be optimally trained by setting up obstacle courses with some strategic movement goals for each task.

Here are the components that we highly recommend towards the rationale for any youth athlete programming. This will pertain to whether your athlete goes on to play college sports or they end up being a lifetime “mover.” After all, once an athlete, always an athlete.

  1. Big Picture – What is in the best interest of the athlete? We have to juggle their physical, mental and emotional needs. In addition, we have to educate the parents and guide them into our rationale for our program design so they can begin to understand and break the cycle of “feeding” into some of the challenges that youth sports are going through.
  2. Get some help with their friends – Semi-private training is hotter than ever and it isn’t going anywhere. This format also happens to work REALLY well with this population. It helps set an environment of teamwork, camaraderie and fun that often times is difficult to replicate in private sessions.
  3. Clean up poor movement – As I’ve said before, increasing one’s movement literacy will improve the overall “language” of movement. Being sure that the athlete can load and unload in all 3 planes under various speeds and in different environments is the ultimate goal. There is a perfect saying that sums it up, “You can’t make chicken soup out of chicken poop!”
  4. All about the nerves – We need to be reminded that the central nervous system controls all human movement, voluntary and involuntary. Being able to have a highly trained nervous system that is keenly aware of it’s environment with the ability to react correctly for a specific task is something that we all should aspire to possess.
  5. Less is more – Some is good, more is not better. Better is better! Volume is determined by how much work is done (sets x reps). Then taking into account what their frequency and intensity will be will paint the picture of success if you get it right. Managing everything that the athlete does (including practices, team workouts, skills coaches, school work, extracurricular activities, life, etc.) requires us to be master jugglers.
  6. Keep it fun – At the end of the day, if the athlete isn’t having fun then it won’t work. Just because there are elements of coaching and educating, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be fun and inspiring. Being able to connect with the athlete will enable us to produce far better short term and long term success with them. And if we get a chance to get through to them, hopefully we can influence them for the rest of their lives….long after they “hang up the cleats.”

Train hard but train smart!



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