Imagine spending years learning how to drive a race car, then, nearly overnight, someone changes the dimensions, transmission, and engine power in that car. In order to get back into racing condition, it’s going to take some time learning how to use the new equipment. This is very similar to the scenario many young athletes find themselves in as they experience rapid growth at the onset of puberty.
As most young athletes begin the transition into puberty sometime between the 6th-8th grade, they will undoubtedly experience limitations in mobility, stability, and coordination that result from the rapid growth of their limbs and an increase in body mass.
This “peak height velocity” usually happens between age 12 and 14 for most young athletes, girls peaking before boys. As bones grow rabidly, proprioceptors in the muscles, joints, and tendons have to recalibrate. During this recalibration period, coaches often witness previously mobile, fluid athletes become stiff and slightly awkward. They may experience difficulty and pain during activities that never bothered them before.
To minimize frustration and keep these young athletes progressing, it’s important for coaches to look at training progression differently as their athletes are adjusting to their “new” bodies.
This doesn’t suggest a complete overhaul of a young athlete’s training progress. It may merely mean assessing where limitations exist and integrating some pro-active strategies into warm- ups, specific skill work, and even general conditioning in order to minimize pain and frustration while maximizing progress.
When working with athletes at the onset of puberty, I have found three easy-to-integrate strategies to be effective in overcoming many of the limitations introduced by the pubertal “growth spurt”.
Strategy #1: Go Primal
Primal, fundamental movements like crawling, climbing, skipping, carrying, and others are often the first to be introduced to children because they are highly effective in “wiring” the proprioceptive system to accommodate effective mobility, strength, and overall coordination.
For athletes in the throes of their pubescent growth spurt, these movements can help maintain or even reestablish this proprioceptive wiring. Ingrate more crawls, pushes, pulls, carries, get-ups, step-over/under, etc. as part of a general or specific warm up. Better yet, utilize these movements in your core programming as conditioning or skill work.
Strategy #2: Highlight Isometric Work
Isometric training is one of the most under-utilized forms of training for both children and adults. By removing complex variables like joint velocity and limb precision, isometric training allows for the basic levels of mobility, stability, and strength to be established. This can be just what that doctor ordered for young athletes growing into their new pubescent bodies.
Isometric hangs, wall pushes, squat and lunge holds, and other movements are great program additions either during warm- ups, skill work, or during other strategic times during training for growing athletes. I have found that by directly preceding a movement like the squat or lunge with a static version (i.e. hold a lunge position for 10 seconds then do 5 controlled cadence repetitions), these athletes can do the movement with fewer limitations.
In addition to static work, controlling the cadence of a movement can help coaches identify where the most common range of motion limitations exist and address them appropriately. A simple example would be the coach prompting the “down” and “up” of a bodyweight squat or lunge.
It’s important to note the goal of isometrics and controlled cadence isn’t just “making it burn” and creating painful fatigue. Monitor your athlete’s ability to execute an isometric or controlled cadence movement effectively without excessive fatigue. If an athlete has experienced rapid growth in limb length or body mass, even static versions of an exercise may prove to be too challenging from a mobility or strength standpoint. In this case, don’t’ be afraid to integrate movement regressions that decrease the impact of body mass. For example, the athlete can hold onto a suspended band while holding a lunge position.
Example of Band Assisted Work (Split Squat)
Strategy #3 Movement Transitions
New limb length, body mass, and a change in force production can make a growing athlete appear awkward when they move. This is highlighted when transitioning from one movement pattern or pathway to another. For example, an athlete does a linear movement like a sprint, then must decelerate, re-orient, and execute a lateral shuffle.
Taking this into account, it’s important to not only double down on reinforcing the body mechanics associated with acceleration, deceleration, and direction change, but facilitate activities that require a transition from one movement to another.
Spending more training time with tactical (sport-related) movement transitions like linear to lateral, forward to backward, etc. in addition to more generalized transitions like crawling or jumping to running and similar movement patterns will pay dividends in re-establishing smoother, more efficient movement for athletes at the onset of puberty. Integrate multi-movement transition circuits into conditioning activities, even if they aren’t specific to the tactical needs of a specific sport.
Movement Transition “Obstacle Course”
When working with athletes at the peak of their growth velocity, keep these strategies in your tool- box. Similar to extremely young children, these athletes are re-learning how to navigate their new developmental hardware. Integrating the basics listed above is not a “step back” in training progression. It can actually become a powerful step forward in ensuring your young athletes have the mobility, stability, and coordination they need as the progress through puberty and beyond.
Brett Klika is a youth performance expert and a regular contributor to the IYCA who is passionate about coaching young athletes. 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.
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