Athletic Development For Youth
Training for speed and agility is essential for those serious about excelling in competitive sports. 2x All-American football player Dan Fichter knows what it takes.
BG: What’s your background in youth sports and athletics? Have you trained a lot of young athletes?
DF: My Athletic development background is very simple. It was fueled by my love for sports. All sports! When I was done playing football in the Arena Football League, I decided to make it a goal to learn from the best around. I have tried so many different programs in the fitness industry, I have seen it all. I went to the best to search for the answers! Dr. Mel Siff has helped my understanding of how the human body operates and how to think outside the box. From there, my experiences have included many conversations with Dr. Peter Weyand who is the leading authority on human movement and how it related to running energetics. Coach Ken Jalkowski who knows the process of marrying the science and coaching helped me translate some of Peter’s very complex theories on what limits how fast humans can run. John Davies has also been an instrumental part of my growth as a coach and an expert in the field of strength and conditioning. In this business you have to be learning all the time. Listen to new ideas, and then as the Late Dr. Mel Siff taught me "prove all things"
I have coached a lot of different levels of kids in many different sports. Wrestling, football, Track, Martial arts, plus I have been a physical focused on human growth and development, motor skill development, as well as some interesting research in the lab focusing on the biomechanics of short sprints. So, I guess you can say I have a pretty decent background dealing with the kids and how they move. At this point in my career as a performance coach, the majority of athletes that I consult with on a personal basis are older. (Pro athletes, College level, and elite high school athletes) However, I feel it is paramount for kids to have the proper training and instruction as they pursue their sports interests.
I run many Speed and Agility camps for kids ages 11- 18. As a matter of fact, I will be joining forces with a business called AthleticFX whose main goal is to work with younger athletes on developing the proper movement tool box so they can develop and transition to higher level skill training as they get older. As I have stated on many occasions, when I train older athletes, I can tell they lack certain fundamental movement and coordination skills. They should have received this type of training a long time ago. I do tons of remedial work that I don’t think I would have to do if kids progressed the right way in training when they were younger.
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?
DF: This is a huge mistake, and can only hurt a child, and maybe damage their chances to grow and experience tons of things that kids should normally experience. Children don’t play today. We are dealing with a huge population of unfit kids. The result of this is a population of obese kids with back problems that will continue to spiral out of control. We have to get kids moving! (That is the PE teacher in me speaking) Get your kids into a sound youth program with people who know what they are talking about. Don’t follow what you read in a magazine. One size doesn’t fit all!
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?
DF: Well, in my opinion it is not very controversial when you explain what is happening from a biomechanical stand point. When "experts" talk about maximal weight training it is extremely misleading to think that kids will not benefit from a solid strength program, or for that matter will subject them selves to injury if they lift too heavy. People have to understand that the complexity of movements has to do more with each individual kid rather than a perceived age number per say.
I have done extensive research into the Soviets young athletes training methods, and what I have found is that most kids in Russia have a solid foundation. They all are required at some point in their youth to take gymnastics. It is rare in the US to find this happening. They learn at a young age how to manipulate their body weight and move correctly. This helps down the road. I believe when kids are young there is a neurological window of opportunity in which many different motor skills can be taught. Building balance coordination and body awareness is important.
As far as weight training is concerned lets do some basic physics. Let’s take for instance the squat. When we compare this to the ordinary act of running, one exerts at least 3-5 times ones body weight on their joints for numerous strides when running. If one squats their body weight off of 2 legs (so that the weight is divided evenly) , it does not take a genius to realize that the average kid who runs around places far more loading on their joints than the kid who squats two days a week. I watch kids run every day! They jump off their skate boards from various heights, they run into walls, they wrestle hard. Are we saying that weight training is more dangerous than that? Does a kid exert maximal effort when he wrestles his buddy? He sure does! Should we ban kid’s from playing and or wrestling? I have never heard a doctor say to a kid, stop running or it will prematurely close the epiphysial growth plates, but yet they will say that about weight training. It blows my mind!
Or, have you ever heard a Doctor say that long duration running may be worse because of the higher incidence of dehydration or heat stroke in young kids? Nope, they don’t read that research. Long distance running should be more of a concern than weight training. Dr. Michael Yessis is probably the leading expert in this field of study. I suggest people read his research. Proper planning and implementation of strength training is vital. Remember no longer than 45 minutes in the weight room. Technique is paramount, load should be based on the development of the athlete, and proper supervision has to be in place. With that said, I find no hard pressed evidence that all kids shouldn’t weight lift.
BG: Using your ideals, could you define "functional conditioning" for us?
DF: Functional strength refers to exercises that match the precise neuromuscular trail that is displayed in the given sport. You want the same type of muscular contraction and range of motion that will be called upon in work-related skill or daily movement patterns. The topic is completely blown out of proportion and over marketed by most fitness professionals. When we talk about sports specific training we all know that means the sports practice itself! Any thing that works in training is functional. We have taken a little too much of the PT’s world of rehab and brought it into performance training. I am not a big fan of that. For injuries yes! For performance training NO! Enough said there.
BG: If you were training a healthy ten-year-old athlete, what would a session with you look like? Length? Exercises?
DF: Movement, movement and more movement that emphasizes coordination, rhythm and timing. I would have these drills disguised as games and fun activities. Once a kid realizes he is learning something, they tend to lose interest. Keep it fun! Can they skip? Can they move through space efficiently? These are all concerns you need to look at when designing a program. Training like any well run business needs to be efficient and well balanced. Can’t have long drawn out sessions with kids. Trick the kids into exercises with games!
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?
DF: I have read into this a little bit, but I am more for a balanced program that that does not function in isolation. I am not going to just work on flexibility with a kid because the best age to develop it is 8-12 years old. I will tell you why. Because range of motion without strength puts you in danger of getting hurt. I believe in a holistic approach in moderation. Like I said, each kid will be ready for different intensity levels depending on maturity and current level of physical conditioning. The window is open; we just have to take advantage of it. Let’s run, jump, throw and do things kids use to do that video games have replaced. The other day a kid said to me, "Hey coach I am a pretty good golfer, I shot 76 on play station." I laughed, but that is what is going on. Kids don’t want to move. I think it is great what you do! That is why I am bringing in this other business; because I know it all starts with the proper implementation at a younger level.
BG: Should athletes specialize in a particular sport at a young age or participate in a number of different sports? Why?
DF: Don’t specialize; just play every sport you possibly can. Who knows? I coach track and some of my best guys got cut from the baseball team. They are D-1 stars now. If these kids only played baseball and thought that was their sport, they would be out of luck. Instead, they are going to school for free right now! Another kid was soccer, soccer, soccer. I got him to come out for Track his junior year, now he loves it, and will probably scholarship in track now! Get involved. Don’t lock in the same movement patterns because you only want to play one sport. This can be a developmental nightmare for you when you get older.