By Matt McManus
One of the challenges of coaching and programming in the private sector, as opposed to high school, college, or professional, is the array of different populations we work with. While many of the general goals from group to group are similar (improve strength, conditioning, body composition), the way we go about attaining these improvements varies. Youth athletes present a unique challenge for a couple reasons. First, they’re still growing. This means we must be cognizant of the amount of overload and high-impact demands we place upon them. Second, they’re a blank slate. By focusing on mastery of basic exercises and movements we can see huge improvements in a short period of time simply because the imposed demand is new to the body.
What is the benefit of starting a performance program at a young age?
One of the most harmful things for a young athlete’s development is specializing in a sport too soon. When an individual practices the same movement over and over again (throwing a baseball or swinging a golf club, for example), imbalances are bound to develop. Playing different sports throughout the year exposes athletes to a wide variety of demands and stimuli. Imbalances are avoided because rather than doing the same repetitive movements every day, year round, athletes must acclimate and adapt to the natural differences in movements, metabolic demands, and specific skills that exist between sports.
Similar to playing multiple sports throughout the year, a structured speed, agility, and conditioning program can help by introducing the necessary variety into an athlete’s training. Linear speed work, change of direction, footwork, jumping, landing, conditioning, mobility work, and various basic bodyweight strength movements play a crucial role in the long term development and health of youth athletes by enhancing their general physical preparedness.
Additionally, the neurological adaptations that occur in youth athletes as a result of early training are invaluable. The faster certain motor skills are introduced and mastered, the more effectively they can be trained and improved down the road. Internationally, many great weightlifters start training as early as eight years old. This gives them a huge head start over their American counterparts (part of the reason American weightlifting has enjoyed little success recently on the international stage). By learning, practicing, and perfecting the basic techniques with light weights early on, these movements become ingrained and second nature. Down the road, this means these athletes can progress to more advanced training methodologies sooner and have a larger window to reach their potential. The same concept applies to other movements, such as sprinting, jumping, and cutting. The earlier an athlete receives proper coaching and masters these essential techniques the farther ahead they will be athletically, making it easier for them to execute any particular sport skill.
What Does a Youth Program Look Like?
Our youth programs at Axis are driven by four main goals:
Teach proper sprinting and cutting mechanics- Technique improvements occur much faster than physiological improvements, meaning instilling proper running mechanics early on is the easiest and fastest way to improve speed on the field. Simple technical changes, such as improving arm action, increasing knee drive, and landing on the ball of the foot can pay huge dividends relatively quickly.
Teach basic bodyweight movements- It is imperative that athletes master their own body weight before progressing to strength movements with external resistance. By mastering movements such as a squat, lunge, hip hinge, and push up early on young athletes can progress to dumbbell or barbell versions of these exercises seamlessly when the time comes. This gives them a distinct advantage over other athletes, who must spend time learning these movements later on, at a time when they could be gaining strength and power.
Improve total body mobility and flexibility- Mobility issues at the hips, ankles, and shoulders can frequently impede learning of some of the basic movements mentioned in point number two. By improving total body mobility and flexibility we not only facilitate the acquisition of these important motor skills, but also help prevent against injuries, as poor flexibility is a huge risk factor for many injuries, including ACLs.
Improve general conditioning and fitness- Aside from specific sport skills, one of the best ways to improve in any sport is to improve conditioning. Simply being in better overall shape than your opposition will allow an athlete to execute their specific sport skills to a higher degree deeper into a competition.
In addition to the immediate benefits that can be had from improving conditioning and fitness, early training can also set kids up for a healthier adult life. Studies have shown that during childhood fat mass can be gained through an increase in both the number of fat cells (hyperplasia) or an increase in the size of those cells (hypertrophy). After adolescence, however, the number of fat cells remains constant and fat is only gained through hypertrophy of existing cells. By staying active early in life and avoiding a surge in the number of fat cells kids can therefore limit the likelihood of obesity later on.
Training youth athletes is a unique undertaking that requires patience, planning, and coaching. Together, the four criteria above not only improve sport performance acutely, but also help prevent injuries, instill good habits, and promote lifelong health.