To narrow the focus of this article, when referring to "youth" training, I will be referring to our 5th grade and under group program. There are exceptions with certain athletes due to chronological age not necessarily matching up with biological age for youth who may mature slower or faster at the latter end of this age group but for the most part think 5th grade and under.
In America today, we have an enormous problem of early specialization in sport and an improving but yet still ignorant view on the importance of performance training for youth and how it plays a massive roll in their safety and development in sport. I find it incredibly interesting that a parent would allow their 5 year old to play tackle football with a helmet that their neck isn't even strong enough to hold upright, encourage them to smash into another kid as hard as possible but then cringe at the idea of their son doing resistance training. "I'm going to wait until he hits puberty." Be my guest but you are putting him at serious risk during competition and lowering the ceiling on his long-term athletic development. Allow me to explain.
At the local high school this week, I watched 10 minutes of a youth lacrosse game. Not sure the ages but no older than junior high. At one point, the ball was at one end of the field for 5 full minutes. 80 yards away at the other end were 6 kids, 3 pairs of 2 standing around. 3 kids were apparently "guarding" the other 3 kids. This is the issue with early specialization. Those kids are developing zero of the skills necessary to be successful at lacrosse, are probably not having fun, and are getting very little exercise. These 6 are only trumped by the other 10 standing on the sideline that never play and will probably quit the sport at 8 years old only to be a built 6'4" at 16 years old.
What needs to be happening is less focus on organized sport and more focus on general physical preparedness. Building a base of skills: running, jumping, throwing, catching, accelerating, decelerating, strength, coordination etc. Not only will this limit injuries but it will develop all the skills needed to be successful in whatever sport they may choose in the future. If I want to be good at golf I'm not just going to play a round of golf everyday. I'm going to practice every different type of shot imaginable and when I'm on the course, whatever shot is necessary I will have the skill set to execute it. The same is true with power sports. If you give him a kid that is great at all the aforementioned skills at a young age, he will be able to apply those skills to a given sport and be successful. Broaden the base of skills, raise the athletes ceiling.
Our youth programming has 4 major categories that we hit everyday that we feel are most important for this age group.
1. Sprint / speed
When talking about speed, I'm referring to not only linear or straight ahead speed but lateral speed as well. A major emphasis is placed on proper mechanics, a difficult task with youth athletes. It is extremely difficult to get a kid who lacks the strength to maintain proper posture or produce enough force to accelerate at the correct angle to improve his or her running form. Coaching cues need to be simple, consistent, and repeated often. We place a large focus on arm position. Most youth have a big problem with flailing their arms during running. Especially when changing direction. A coaching cue as simple as "keep your arms tight" is easily applied by a young athlete. It will do wonders for keeping them under control when changing direction and also improving their straight ahead mechanics. If you try to tell a 7 year old drive his knees, fully extend the leg, and get a forward lean, it will never happen. Not only does he lack the strength and body awareness to make anyone of those happen but the coaching is way over his head. Keep it simple, vary the starting stances, add in many different changes of direction, and make small adjustments over time.
The largest difference in our youth jump programming as compared to our older athletes would be the added volume and also the emphasis on decelerating. Learning to decelerate or absorb forces is essential for injury prevention. For that reason, our youth athletes do considerably more repeat jumps. This forces them to jump, absorb the impact, and jump again. If I were to have them do a single jump onto a box, they are essentially landing at zero velocity and puts almost no emphasis on absorbing the force created. Be sure to vary the jumps daily making changes to the direction, height, number of jumps, adding visual cues, etc. Once again, broadening that base of movement skills.
Strength training is a broad term when used with this age group. We do not use many of our typical movements for our strength period. The main thing to remember with this age group is no direct loading of the spine. We avoid any barbells on their back and also any overhead pressing type movements. We incorporate a variety of different exercises: bodyweight squats, lunges, medicine ball throws, push-ups, tug of war, kettlebell deadlifts, medicine ball carries, planks, bird dogs, etc. One exercise that I feel is a must with our youngsters is sled pushing / dragging / pulling. The sled creates no eccentric load meaning the weight is not pushing back against you. This allows us to go much heavier than traditional exercises because the athlete is bearing zero load. Parents are often hesitant when it comes to resistance training with their youngsters. Remember, as long as loads are appropriate and the spine is not overloaded, muscle pull is the fundamental stimulus for thickening bone and promoting growth not stunting it.
Coordination as Dr. Jozef Drabik states is difficult to define but recognizing its absence is easy. I believe this may be the most important thing to do with our young athletes. We all have seen the high school senior that no matter how hard he tries or how much he practices he still can't catch or trips over his own feet. The problem is that he has missed the boat to develop those skills. They are extremely sensitive at a young age but as you get older the opportunity to develop them has been lost. We focus mainly on rhythm, balance, and hand-eye coordination. Rhythm could be using the speed ladder for a variety of footwork drills or setting up cones for hopscotch type drills. Balance could be as simple as standing on one leg for a period of time or balancing on one leg while bending over to pick up a ball. For hand-eye coordination, we do a ton of different catching drills with a variety of different shapes and sizes.
I can't stress enough the importance of getting your young athletes started as soon as they can take direction and be coached. If they are old enough to play an organized sport, they are certainly old enough to spend some time developing the skills to keep them safe and also successful at their given sport in the future. Remember, long-term development is the main focus. As a parent of an aspiring athlete, you should be prepared to have him or her on a consistent training program for the remainder of his/her athletic career.
1. Drabik, Józef. Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit, and Happy. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Pub., 1996. Print.
2. Lloyd, Rhodri S. Strength and Conditioning for Young Athletes: Science and Application. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.