The world of youth athletics has become increasingly more competitive. Specialization is starting younger and younger and teens are getting involved in strength and conditioning programs early to gain a competitive edge. This is a positive thing as it develops a solid work ethic, sense of self confidence, and competence in the many disciplines of a sport but there needs to be special attention paid to the youth population regarding program design. This post outlines what should be some of the most prominent goals of a strength program for youths.
1. Movement Quality is Paramount
There cannot be enough attention paid to developing proper movement mechanics early on in an athlete's career. Teaching movements like the squat, the hip hinge, single leg movements, pulling variations, trunk stabilization exercises, lateral movements, and rotational movements will make up the bulk of demand placed on the athlete in their given sport.
Learning how to perform these patterns under picture perfect control will set a young athlete up to develop to their potential as well as minimize risk of injury.
In many popularized training programs for kids one of the biggest selling features is "speed and agility" training. While gaining speed and quickness is advantageous the ability to properly slow the body down and stabilize the major joints of the body should always be taught FIRST.
Too many injuries in sport are categorized as "non-contact injuries". This means the athlete tears a muscle, tendon, or ligament simply because speed or change of direction was out of control and an injury occurs.
Sports tend to be highly repetitive and an athlete will replicate certain movements thousands of times a week leading to the over development of some muscles while others will struggle to keep up. It is important for the strength and conditioning coach to recognize this and spend time training the opposing muscles as well as the supporting muscles of the ones dominant in a given sport. This will ensure that proper alignment, joint integrity, and the ability to slow down and stabilize a joint correctly remains intact.
3. Keeping Sessions Short But Focused
I see it all too many times. Training sessions go on for 90minutes or more and we as coaches tend to fall victim to the more is better mentality. When I work with a young athlete I keep the session no more than 40minutes and there are a couple reasons for this.
First kids don't possess the attention spans that we as adults do. After a period of about 30-40minutes I begin to notice the focus of my young athletes start to fade and any other work beyond that point will only have diminishing returns. Keeping sessions short and focused with only a couple of primary objectives gives you the best chance for the instruction to stick. Once those objectives have been met get them out of there to go hang with friends, do some homework, and continue being a kid.
Second is you are probably working with someone who is seeing you after a full day of school, a practice, and potentially a previous training session from earlier in the day. It is likely they are tired and dragging them through another hour of training can overdo it. Again, keep it short and to the point working on the things that need to stay sharp and effecient, then get them outta there to enjoy some down time.
4. Communiction is KEY
This is the final point but it is a biggie. Let's face it kids are smart.... like really smart and should be treated this way. It is important for a strength coach to communicate with a young athlete to see how they like the exercises, if they are understanding the purpose of them, and also if there is anything they want to do more or less of.
Just because a person is young doesn't mean their feedback doesn't count. My experience has been that the more you keep a young person engaged the more they enjoy the program and the more effort they will put into it.
An article coach Mike Boyle once wrote stated that young athletes are NOT small adults. This innocent but immensly valuable piece of advice has greatly impacted my work with young athletes. Keep things fun, simple, to the point, and always stay in good communication with your athletes so they know their input genuinly matters. This is how you lay the foundation for a lasting love of exercise which is ultimately the best result. Good Luck!