In this article you will not find references to scientific studies arguing for or against using strength training as a means to developing youth athletes. To be honest, it is beyond my scope of expertise and in the year 2018 everyone’s opinion seems to be the correct one. Instead, I am going to write what I believe to be three key factors that go into successfully developing youth athletes; whether the intention is purely for general health or to make them better at their sport.
The number one attribute that any good program needs to have, is simplicity. I try to instill this methodology with athletes even as they grow older; simple always wins. But, this idea of keeping training simple has two key reasons behind it: 1) kids, even the most gifted ones, are not perfect movers. 2) early sport specific training is unnecessary (more on this notion later). In general, athletes will typically have some sort of movement issues, but kids are growing and still learning how to perform basic functions like walking, running, squatting and pushing. So, would it make sense to have children perform highly technical movements under heavy loads? Probably not. That is not to say, however, that you cannot begin introducing the more technical movements (i.e., olympic lifts) and hone in on their techniques at submaximal weights. I have my youth athletes perform all of the classic olympic lifts, just never much more than an empty training bar and almost never in a conditioning piece. Keeping the exercise selection simple will help to ensure that your athletes have a firm grasp on basic movements and will allow you to attain more quality out of their training sessions. In my programs, I usually have my athletes perform the early progressions of a movement rather than the movement at its highest complexity (goblet squat -> front squat -> back squat). The rationale here is that I can keep the loading under control, but still elicit the desired movement pattern from the athlete. Additionally, if the athlete is unable to demonstrate a proper air squat or goblet squat, as a coach I need to modify what they are doing anyways.
The main hurdle I come across when training young athletes, is that they are on social media or YouTube and are constantly exposed to what professional athletes are doing. Naturally, that is what they want to be doing or it’s what their parents think their kids should be doing. This is the second key factor in successfully developing younger athletes; general physical preparedness (GPP). My goal when a new athlete comes in is to make them as well-rounded as possible. Sport specific training is unnecessary at the youth level. GPP can be thought of as all around fitness (strength, speed, endurance, coordination). Can you think of a sport that doesn’t require any of those attributes? Me either. It does not matter if they play lacrosse, basketball or football, youth athletes need to master the fundamentals of movement before diving into highly specialized drills. If I have an athlete who struggles to perform a walking lunge (coordination and strength), do I think they should be performing speed/agility work? Most likely not, but if there is any being done refer back to the notion of keeping things simple and use the most simple progression.
The last, and most important factor, is that the program needs to be fun. Think back to your childhood and how short your attention span was. Even now, as an adult, my attention span is limited. Most kids are the same way. It simply does not matter if you have the best program known to mankind or if you have the best eye at spotting movement flaws, if the kids do not enjoy it then it will not work. While trying to keep a program fun, it does not mean that you need to sacrifice the quality of what you’re trying to accomplish. I think of programming for youth athletes as being sneaky. I never really want them to know that what they’re doing is hard work, but I need them to work hard all the same. Here is your chance to let your creative side run wild. For me, I tend to use challenges or bets in lieu of ‘games’. This is not to say games are inherently bad, it just has never been my style to implement them into a program. However, I do like to challenge the athletes and will often make silly bets to elicit a higher intensity or better quality of movement. As an example, I have lost a bet and had to wear a wig for an entire class. I loved every second of it (even though the wig was rather itchy). Why? I knew what it represented. I lost a bet as a result of one of my athletes out performing a challenge I set for them. Isn’t that part of what we are trying to accomplish as coaches? This is just another tool you can implement to keep the athletes engaged and motivated to work hard whilst keeping the quality of training high.
There is always more than one way to do something and athlete development (youth or adult) is never a one size fits all mold. No matter what your style is or what you’re coaching them for, I believe these three attributes will make your program that much better. Remember to keep things simple, they are kids and need to learn how to perform basic functions properly. They are not professional athletes (yet). Youth athletes will get more out of a program whose focus is on GPP rather than fancy (unnecessary) speed or agility drills. Lastly, make it fun. This is your chance to let your creativity shine and will help keep your athletes engaged and wanting to keep coming back to train. #justtrynastayfit
Post Script- If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org)