Chris Scarborough is a professional Strength & Conditioning Coach who specializes in Young Athlete Development. His information is top-notch and reflects his unprecedented knowledge of this topic.
BG: What’s your background in youth sports and athletics? Have you trained a lot of young athletes?
CS: As a young athlete myself many years ago, I was always interested in the conditioning aspect of sport. In 1995 I became licensed as a Physical Therapy Assistant in the State of Alabama and took a job in an outpatient therapy clinic that had a lot of patients that were young athletes. I saw first hand common injuries that young athletes suffer — many of which could have been prevented by proper conditioning. By the way, I am not saying that the athletes were “out of shape”, I am saying that the athletes were often injured because of poor techniques or habits. For example, football players, basketball players, and volleyball players would come in with knee or ankle injuries that were a result of poor running, jumping or landing technique. Baseball players, tennis players and golfers often came in with elbow and shoulder injuries due to poor swing technique or overuse of the arms and not enough of the trunk.
In 1997, I became certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and began working with athletes on performance enhancement. As a result of working with hundreds of athletes in several settings, I realized that there was far more to Strength and Conditioning than getting an athlete into “game shape”.
BG: There are a lot of coaches, parents and even trainers who treat young athletes as if they were ‘little adults’. What I mean by that is they will take the training routine of a superstar athlete and use it as a guide when working with youngsters. Why, if at all, should we warn against that kind of training?
CS: The reason young athletes follow the training programs of their sports heroes are obvious. After all, if Barry Bonds followed this routine and he hit 73 home runs in a season then it should do the same for the young athlete–right? NO!!
First of all, the young athlete has a growing body and is prone to overuse injury in the muscles and tendons, stress fractures in the growth plates, and muscle imbalance injuries that a more mature athlete would be less prone to getting.
Also, the large majority of world class athletes have developed a broad base of athleticism and strength prior to specializing their training in one sport. Tudor Bompa and yourself have written a great deal on the topic. Specializing in a particular sport too soon is far more likely to lead to 1) burnout from playing and training for the sport 2) early skill development in the sport, but the skill level potential is never fully realized due to a very narrow athletic ability base and 3) increased likelihood of injury.
Finally, the conditioning needs of the pro athlete have been very carefully assessed by the team Strength and Conditioning coach. Even if the young athlete has the same needs, the conditioning program would still be different.
A young athlete should develop a broad base of athleticism by doing activities that require them to run, jump, catch, throw, swim, climb, etc. By playing several sports and various other physical activities the young athlete develops all the abilities including strength, speed, agility, stability, balance, endurance, coordination and power.
BG: The age old debate is ‘How old should an athlete be before they begin lifting weights’. What’s your view on that controversial topic?
CS: Let me preface my answer by saying that I am referring to weight training as lifting with barbells, dumbbells and weight machines. Body weight exercises can be classified as weight training, but I am not including them in my definition of weight training.
While it is safe for a young athlete to begin a strength training program with weights at an early age, I do not think that it is necessarily optimal for their development. I know many kids who would be considered strong in the weight room, but can’t handle their own body weight in certain activities.
For example, one 17 year old I know can bench press 300 pounds, but can’t hold his body straight while doing a push up. His hips sway toward the ground indicating he has chest, shoulder, and arm strength that far exceeds what his hip and abdominal muscles can stabilize. He also can’t do a single proper pull up, so his pushing movement overpowers his pulling strength. Unfortunately this is fairly common. It is not weight training that is going to get him hurt, it is improper weight training that is going to get him hurt.
Also, he will be far more likely to get hurt on the field of play, not actually in the weight room. I think that weight training can begin for most females around the age of 12 to 14 and age 14 to 15 for males — even then it should be balanced, supervised training. Up to that point, good technique can be taught at any age doing other activities than weight training. I do not think that an athlete has to do much weight training to get good strength development. For example, push ups, pull ups, stability ball exercises and medicine ball exercises can all be performed with minimal equipment. They require use of the same techniques as in the weight room, and develop entire groups of muscles or movements at a time, rather than isolated strength training. The strength can actually be used on the court or field when the child plays the sport. These activities can be started at a very early age.
You may hear some people say that squats and dead lifts are bad for your back and knees — that is not true. It is squats and deadlifts performed improperly that causes injury. My son started squatting before he could even stand. Everything that he picks up is a deadlift (from the floor). I have never seen a child age 3 or under perform an improper squat or dead lift. That does not mean that I think that kids should be lifting heavy weights that way, but I do think that the movements should be trained using the equipment stated above. Train a child for the long-term — not just for the season.
BG: Using your ideals, could you define ‘functional conditioning’ for us?
CS: Functional conditioning refers to conditioning a young athlete for life, sport, and health. As mentioned earlier, if an athlete plays baseball, he should learn how to rotate his trunk properly, develop good hip, leg and trunk strength through movement patterns used in every day life. He could perform lunges and squats but not necessarily with heavy weights. An example that I use is a medicine ball back toss in which a young athlete squats down with a medicine ball that weighs between 2 and 6 pounds (depending on age and strength of the athlete), and tosses the ball backward. It is then measured for distance. Arm strength should be developed through climbing, performing pull ups, push ups, hand stands, throwing a medicine ball (although they should not throw a medicine ball like a baseball). I love climbing on monkey bars and rope climbing for young kids, as well as wheelbarrow races with a partner. They can perform movements that are used in their sport, but must develop all other movement patterns as well.
In other words, they should do a little of everything — in good form and yet enjoy themselves with a lot of play activities that train the entire body.
BG: If you were training a healthy ten-year-old athlete, what would a session with you look like? Length? Exercises?
CS: I work with a lot of athletes in this age category on a grass field with the following equipment: cones, agility ladder, medicine balls that weigh 2 to 6 pounds, and a measuring tape. I have one-hour sessions, three days per week. The sessions include a warm-up, flexibility, speed, agility, acceleration, and power exercises. I always perform the warm up followed by flexibility exercises then get into speed and acceleration technique work. You are not going to keep a 10 year old very happy only doing drills, so I follow up with a game type activity that puts the techniques into practice.
Usually I will do agility ladder drills and jumping drills after speed and agility, however, kids love the agility ladder, so it is like a game just performing the drills. Sometimes I will have the kids do an obstacle course that involves acceleration, speed, and agility. By changing things up, I keep the kids interested, but I will continue to coach them as the drills are done so each kid knows how they can improve.
I usually finish with power drills — medicine ball throws or some other activity that involves the upper body. I like to get the kids pushing, pulling, and twisting. The focus is on the speed and technique components of power, rather than the strength component (lifting heavy objects).
BG: Is there a particular criteria or path that you follow when developing young athletes over a long period of time? For example, at what age is it best to develop flexibility? Power? Coordination?
CS: I think that all of them can be, and should be developed throughout childhood. At very early ages (under the age of 6) this is done almost completely through play. I accept kids as young as six into my programs, but my programs for kids that are that young have less coaching and more play. Once a kid gets to about age 9 I begin to coach them a little more, although there is still a lot of play and competitive type games that emphasize the abilities I coach.
As mentioned previously, flexibility can be a problem, especially for boys in the middle of a growth spurt. They need to spend time stretching starting at about age 9 (although it varies). I think that the speed part of the power equation can be practiced early on (my six year olds train for power). However, technique is of major importance at the early ages. The kids often don’t realize that better technique improves power performance as much as it decreases injury risk. It also will help them have good lifting technique when they begin a weight training program later on. Improved flexibility can also improve power output in certain situations. The point is that all abilities are so interrelated, you cannot train one without also affecting another.
BG: Should athletes specialize in a particular sport at a young age or participate in a number of different sports? Why?
CS: At a young age, it is better to participate in a lot of different activities, as long as the young athlete performs a large variety of movements like running, jumping, throwing, catching, pulling, climbing, tumbling. etc. It does not mean that they have to compete in a different sport all year. They may get more development playing at the playground or playing in the back yard. It is best for a young athlete not to specialize. This way he or she gets broad athletic development, does not get burned out on a sport too quickly, is less likely to get injured and, the best part, performs better in their sport of choice once they do specialize at a later age.
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