Training youth isn’t merely “miniature-izing” adult programs.
Prior to puberty, youngsters’ physiology, psychology, and a host of other factors are significantly different than adults. As a matter of fact, the training effect of a program could be drastically different between a 10- year old and a 14-year-old.
These differences are well documented in the literature, however, practical program strategies to account for these differences are not. In this article, I will be highlighting some of the unique physiological and neurological aspects of pre-pubescent athletes, and how to program for success.
Supercharging the Sensory System
As humans, our sensory system is the underlying mechanism that enables us to accurately take in input from the outside world and apply an action based on that input. We are constantly adjusting our motor output based on what we see, feel, hear, and otherwise observe.
This system begins developing in the womb and experiences a drastic opportunity for further development during a child’s early years. Notice the word “opportunity.” Hours of active play while interacting with a variety of both indoor and outdoor environments was once the stimulus for tremendous development of a variety of athletic senses.
Unfortunately, the amount of time children engage in active play has been drastically decreased over the past 20 years. The result is an observed decrease in the development of the wide variety of sensory capability needed to develop overall athleticism. Additionally, behavior disorders such as ADD, ADHD, and aggression have witnessed an uptick, possibly due to widespread inactivity in youth.
What can we do?
Many of the critical periods for development of the sensory skills take place during the years prior to puberty. As the neural system develops, matures, and myelinates, it is critical that youngsters develop a relationship between perception and action.
Understanding the various sensory or “perceptual motor” skills and how they develop can broaden our impact with children. Check out a list of nine of the most prominent perceptual motor skills HERE. Creating warm-ups and activities that highlight sight, sound, balance, body awareness, directional awareness, and other sensory skills can help fine-tune this foundational skill-set of athleticism.
Additionally, provide opportunities for kids to make their own games, activities, rules, or even movement interpretations. For example, call out three nonsense words, and have the kids immediately create movements for each, and tie them together in a movement sequence. This can help “internalize” their sense of coordination and movement awareness.
These activities may not be directly related to perfecting game tactics or movement technique. They can serve merely to challenge different aspects of the sensory system in a fun, engaging environment. Make it a goal to integrate at least 1-2 perceptual-motor focused activities into training each day. Below are some group and individual examples.
Auditory Warm-Up Using Partner Cross Sound Tag
Movement variable warm up using Guided Discover
Switch tag with visual cues
Developing Speed and Strength
Prior to puberty, kids have limited anaerobic capacity. They often display a higher proportion of Type I muscle fibers and they preferentially use fat as fuel. Lack of anabolic hormone interferes with an ability to increase muscle cross sectional area, which is generally associated with gains in strength. As one can see, children’s hormonal physiology doesn’t necessarily favor the development of speed and strength prior to puberty.
However, a child’s neuromuscular system is highly plastic and adaptable. It’s like a sponge for exploring, acquiring, and fine-tuning new skills. Improvements in speed and strength prior to puberty stem from improved neuromuscular coordination as opposed to structural or hormonal physiology. In order to improve coordination, practice makes perfect.
Considering this, our primary goal prior to puberty should be to help create quality movement patterns and basic biological capacity (GPP anyone?). Puberty, then, supercharges this well- made machine. Unfortunately, many well-intending coaches lose track of this when working with young athletes. In a race to justify our work to parents and coaches, our assessment protocols often have more to do with maximal numbers than movement assessment.
When considering the long- term impact of training a young athlete, an assessment of movement quality should be an integral aspect of a program. Maximal numbers should be assessed, but developing quality motor patterns should be paramount.
What can we do?
Begin with a simple checklist of 2-3 criteria for each movement, and progress to a more involved checklist as a child develops. This helps both the athlete and the coach learn to become aware of the critical aspects of movement.
Take the squat pattern for example. While there are numerous criteria that make up a proper squat, initially, merely bending the knees and lowering the hips to move under a barrier helps lay a foundation for the movement. These two criteria may represent a “level 1” category of assessment. This may progress to a checklist involving spotting, use of an Olympic bar, proper depth, and even benchmark load criteria by “level 5”.
During the introduction of skills during the early years, it’s important to limit the coachable criteria and allow kids to explore the movement for themselves. Again, skills are much more ingrained and adaptable when they are internalized. For example, skipping is an important movement for developing sprint technique. Allowing, and even prompting, kids to skip with different body orientations (arms/legs wide and narrow, on heels, on tip toes, high knees, low knees) lets them form a context for effective movement. They feel the difference between wide, flaying arms and narrow, driving arms. They feel the propulsion of proper vs. improper movement of the knees and hips.
Creating obstacle courses that prompt children to move over, under, around, and through various barriers can offer a fun, natural environment to explore the different ways the body can move. These “play” based approaches are also an opportunity for a high volume of practice with the basic precepts of a movement.
As a youngster progresses, create criteria that allow them to “earn” use of certain equipment or activities. If they want to push the prowler, they have to demonstrate the criteria for a perfect skip. If they want to “use weights” they have to display passing criteria for the bodyweight versions of certain exercises.
The more children learn, practice, and truly feel the most efficient ways to move, the more opportunities they have to improve speed and strength before puberty and beyond.
Pre-pubescent youngsters’ physiology favors the use of aerobic pathways (using fat) vs. anaerobic pathways (using glycogen) for providing the energy for performance. Children have limited intramuscular glycogen stores and observe higher levels of intramuscular triglycerides. Even their metabolic enzyme ratio favors the use of fat as fuel.
What does this mean in regards to improving aerobic and anaerobic capacity through targeted conditioning?
Due to the fact that most energy for movement is derived from aerobic pathways, pre-pubescent children observe far lower lactic acid accumulation than pubescent age children. This suggests that children are able to recover quicker between bouts of exercise. Additionally, children are able to regenerate phosphocreatine faster than adults during rest. Lower sympathetic nervous system activity during high-intensity exercise (compared to adults) also contributes to faster recovery times for pre-pubescent children.
On the other hand, during high intensity exercise, children are not able to re-synthesize ATP as fast as adults. Due to this, they fatigue relatively quickly. Keeping high intensity bouts of exercise short and purposeful can optimize the positive training effect with children.
What can we do?
Prior to puberty, it makes very little sense to cater conditioning programs to the demands of a specific sport. Repeated 40-yard sprints can reinforce running mechanics, but won’t necessarily alter physiology to favor anaerobic power output for a specific sport. The early years of development represent a critical period for the development of a wide array of general, lifelong physical skills.
Consider creating conditioning circuits that focus on different aspects of athletic skill. Incorporate the highlighted movement skills of the day, in addition to others. Allow children the capacity to focus on proper execution by keeping work times relatively short (around 15 seconds). Keep them engaged by keeping rest times relatively low as well (try a 1:1 work/rest ratio).
Whenever possible, reinforce the proper development of skills and monitor for excessive fatigue. The greatest contributor to improving athletic performance prior to puberty is found in improved neuromuscular coordination. When conditioning creates fatigue over function, it loses effectiveness.
Gamifying conditioning can improve performance and increase engagement. Relay races, competitions, and other games provide an opportunity for the development of different movement skills in a fun format.
A well-run, targeted training program shouldn’t require extended daily training time for “conditioning”. When a coach creates an opportunity and expectation for engagement within a training program, conditioning is merely an aspect of training with more tightly observed work to rest ratios.
Use these tips to maximize your lifelong impact with young athletes!
Brett Klika is a youth performance expert and regular contributor to the IYCA. He is the creator of the SPIDERfit Kids youth training program and has run successful youth fitness programs all over the country. Brett is an international speaker whose passion for youth fitness has helped thousands of people learn how to create exceptional training experiences for young athletes.