Training young athletes… It seems that everybody dabbles in this market
Whether the fitness or sport training professional is a Physical Therapist by trade, Personal Trainer to the average adult clientele or Strength Coach to elite sporting stars, when stating their bios and areas or expertise, it seems that the sentence always ends with ‘I am Training Young Athletes, too‘.
And why not, right?
Training young athletes is the fastest growing niche within the entire fitness industry.
It’s worth over $4 billion a year in the United States alone and more than 1 million children, youths and teens hired a Personal Trainer in 2007 – a large number for the purpose of enhancing sport performance.
But that term, ‘enhancing sport performance’ is something that doesn’t really belong in the vernacular of the youth sports training world. At least not in the way we currently use it.
At the risk of sounding acrimonious, let me ask you this question.
How much do you really know about human growth, development and the necessary components of training clients in the pediatric and formative years?
I ask because if I were to start providing hands-on therapy to my clients, render a diagnosis every time I saw an injured athlete or apply what I know to be true about working with pediatric populations to a group of geriatric clients, I would be considered unprofessional and exercising authority well outside my scope of knowledge. And rightfully so.
But why then are young athletes as a demographic group so open to any Trainer or Therapist who decides they want to start taking on this level of client? Performance training for the young athlete is simply not the same as performance training for mature athletes.
For one, training age plays a significant role in determining what sort of exercise stimulus you would program for a given athlete. As does sensitive periods of neurological development and an understanding of the unique overtraining considerations that can be present in the lives of most teenagers.
In fact, performance training as it relates to young athletes should be considered a SECONDARY feature in terms of our goals with respect to programming and session execution.
Secondary because increasing strength, vertical power or speed should and will come as the result of appropriately designed and developmentally-sound skill enhancement work. The concept is simple and the metaphor plain –
Consider the development of a young athlete the same as you would ascending through the progressive ‘grades’ of a contemporary academic system.
You couldn’t pass Grade 2 in six weeks. You couldn’t understand Grade 12 Calculus unless you went through the very basic curriculum of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division found in elementary school.
Everything is progressive and skill enhancing. General knowledge is amassed, progressed and then built on over time.
When intellectually and chronologically appropriate, a young student will begin to immerse themselves in a specific subject matter and initiate the process of specialization.
But this specialization in advanced study cannot take place without the progressive knowledge enhancement and skill acquisition gained along the way.
Now simply put, apply that to the complexity of training young athletes. Speed is a skill. Strength is a skill.
Power generation and absorption are skills. And these skills cannot be gleaned or developed in 6-week programs. It is our earnest pursuit of the training session ‘symptoms’ that are causing the blinders to be up full tilt here.
And what are those symptoms?
Sweating like a thirsty mule by the end of a training session
So tired they can barely walk home
So sore the next day they can’t hardly move
Feelings of nausea and light-headedness
These are the symptoms we covet. In fact, we base our pride and effectiveness as coaches on being able to create symptoms like these. In their absence, the training session is considered ‘too easy’ and ‘not worth the time’.
How wrong we are.
I will be the first one to tell you that I like a good hard training session. I like to sweat and certainly feel ‘better’ about my own training day efforts when I ‘feel’ as though I accomplished something.
But then, I’m not a teenager in the formative time of life, either. The human organism that we call a ‘teenager’ faces unique challenges that must be factored into the programming and coaching equation.
They tend not to eat well.
They don’t sleep much.
They are riddled with stress about school, academic standing and their futures.
They are under the care of sporting coaches who, more often than not, run and condition these kids into the ground at the daily practice.
They end up playing 4 soccer matches every weekend in the summer to accommodate a youth sporting culture that has gone collectively mad.
Throw those realities together and add to the mix that you’re talking about an organism that is still in development from a structural and neural perspective and you’ve got the recipe for absolute disaster from an overtraining, injury and lack of appropriate skill acquisition standpoint.
And then of course, they come to you 3 times a week for 6 weeks for ritualistic floggings in the name of ‘performance enhancement’.
Let me be blunt about this next point –
We need to stop breaking our arms and patting ourselves on the back claiming to have increased ‘Juniors’ vertical jump in ‘Only 6 Weeks’ Adolescent athletes are in such a prime phase of growth and development that biomotor improvements occur quite naturally.
Mother Nature has seen to that.
Testosterone output is high, muscle density and growth is taking place and neural plasticity, although starting to close, has established a base level of coordination that enables proper summation of forces. Teenagers get faster, stronger and more powerful all by themselves.
Our job with this demographic is to help prevent injuries, aid in the development of proper skill execution related to power, force and speed production and add to the training age and knowledge-base of the organism in front of us.
It’s not about making them sweat, vomit, tired or sore now. It’s about making them better over time – just like in school.
Remember this –
ANY Trainer can make an athlete tired.
But not EVERY Trainer knows how to make them better.
Words to live by- and maybe worth a glance in the mirror.
Great article. I think as a society, we are putting so much pressure on our children to perform that we forget they are growing, maturing and really just need assistance in achieving their goals. I work with youth all the time and the biggest comment I get from parents is work them so hard they remember it for days. I think to myself, do you want to be worked so hard that you remember it for the next couple of days? I have really learned that teaching form, function and really looking at each individual’s ability are so important and give us a clue as to what needs to be done with the teenager.
I am really looking forward to completing this new certification and learning more about training youth!!!
Good points Brian, it is true that most trainers will take on youth clients nowadays. However, I definitely see it to be true that most of them simply apply the same prescriptions as they do with adult clients.
Well done Brian! Every coach (regardless of level), whether new or well seasoned, should read this! Thanks for enlightening the world about our youth.
Very well put, Brian. As a four sport coach at the high school level, I see these kids every day and it’s true. They don’t eat right, they don’t sleep, they have incredible accademic loads,not to mention a job, clubs and sports. Teaching them form and function is what they need more than an adult perscription routine or just running them into they ground so they can’t stand the next day.
A good coach leads from the front.
I never ran as a child or took part in any organised team games.
I studied Latin verbs, while other kids kicked a ball around the school yard.
I left school at the start of my final year (dropped out with depression)
At 23 I was already overweight and drinking too much.
Then by chance, I entered a Cross-country event in the Reserve Defence Forces.
I found myself in 3rd position being challenged by a guy who I never dreamed to finish in front of, as he trained for rugby. I kept going to win that 3rd place.
I could not walk straight my legs were so stiff and sore the next day.
But it was the introduction to 20 years as a club athlete, and later when I joined the Irish Army, they trained me as a PTI.
However, due to a psychiatric condition, I was medically discharged with pension, but I was stressed out.
Because I believe now that I was oversedated on medication, I gave up running and went up to 16 stone.
I joined a gym for a number of years, and I lost but put back only half a stone.
Then unbelievably the medication (Melerill) was withdrawn due to coronary concerns (a nice word for killing people)
I found a new drive and a new energy.
Thought still overweight I joined my local athletic club in order to coach.
I did not know it at the time, but it was another great step in my recovery.
I gradually started jogging, after some months running and then at 56 years of age I started learning to sprint.
I wanted to do this to coach the juveniles, and there is no better way to learn anything than to study it (Latif Thomas), and then go out and put it into practice.
But now instead of effort, I concentrate on Rhythmic Steady Pace, and relaxation.
My mission is to teach juveniles to do the same.
I have watched children “training” from 8 or 9 up, and all they have learned is “Faster, more Effort”
My task is to purge that heresy.