The Early Youth Specialization Debate


Youth Specialization Interview

Juan Carlos is the director and CEO of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton Florida. His training methodologies have been successfully applied to the full spectrum of the population; youth, geriatrics, rehabilitation and elite athletes. He has authored numerous articles, books and videos, on various topics involving optimum physical performance.




BG: What’s your background in youth sports and athletics? Have you trained a lot of young athletes?


JC: I’ve been a competitive athlete for over 3 decades. I started with little league when I was 7 and I’ll compete in the USA Judo Nationals (Masters Division) at 43. I competed in all of the major combative sports – from boxing to judo.
We at the Institute of Human Performance train hundreds of young athletes ranging from middle school to college every very. We also train some of the top pros.


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?


JC: I have had to save more kids from overzealous coaches and parents than anything else. Coaches and parents often want to live vicariously through their children, pushing them into sports and intensity levels they don’t want or not ready for – that is ALWAYS sad and disastrous.


Kids learn by discovery – this means things have to be fun and not so organized. The intensity and volume a young body can take is certainly different than what a mature body can take. Therefore, we develop a love for movement and the sport – the “athlete” naturally follows that development. Parent and coaches often want to develop great players and a love for winning and forget about athleticism and the love for training. That is like putting the horse before the carriage.


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?


JC: Is not the weights that is the problem – it is the intensity. Nobody would have a problem letting a 2 year old play with a 2kg medicine ball (my son is 30 lbs at 14 months a regularly plays with his 2kg ball – lifting it, rolling it, etc.) – yet this baby will lift 12- 15% of body weight – is that not Weight training? You bet!


What about a push- up – most women can’t do 1 – why” It’s too much weight! Is a push- up for a woman any different than for a kid – NO!


So, all exercises are weight training!! Light dumbbells are very safe for all ages – IFFFFFF – the child’s curiosity, desire and willingness to participate is there.


Now, if you are talking about a fear about touching iron (and want to call that lifting weights – then that is a psychotic issue – I’m the expert in that:):)!


BG: Using your ideals, could you define ‘functional conditioning’ for us?


JC: Functional training is decided by the goal – not the training. Functional training is training that has a specific function as a focus.


Bodybuilding is functional for hypertrophy, movement training is functional to enhance movement skills.
If you do hypertrophy training, will your movement improve – YES! Can you don many movements that don’t isolate muscles that will give you hypertrophy – YES!


Which training will have the greatest carryover to its intended goal? Hypertrophy for muscle size – movement training for movement skills.


Function is a spectrum – and therefore – functional training is also a spectrum.


BG: If you were training a healthy ten- year- old athlete, what would a session with you look like? Length? Exercises?


JC: About 45- 60 minutes


5 minutes – to explain the session
15- 20 minutes – biomotor drills using a whole bunch of toys – (Agility ladders, cones, etc.)
15- 20 minutes – strength training – (body weight, med balls, stability ball, dumbbells, partner exercises, etc.)
10- 15 agility and conditioning games – (obstacle course rages, tag, etc.) 5 minute – affirmations and cool down stretches
Mandatory water breaks every 10- minutes if we are outside in the heat – and every 20 if we are inside in the AC.


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?


JC: There is no way to separate strength from flexibility from power from agility. It is your focus that changes – but all variables are addressed to some degree by mere transfer of training. For example – As you run (speed) you get stronger legs (strength and power), as you get stronger legs you can change directions faster (agility).


However – in general terms…


  1. Develop a love for movement and training (new born- middle school). NEVER PUNISH WITH EXERCISE!!!! Movement and training is a privilege. How can an athlete learn this if you use training (e.g. running) as a punishment? If you need to discipline, don’t let them participate.
  2. Flexibility and agility is best addressed during the younger years – that save you training time on the back side. I like to have my training include tons of agility and flexibility (does not necessarily mean static flexibility) from 8- 13.
  3. From 14 on I look to begin increasing the intensity of the training and take advantage of the hormonal environment to add on some muscle – hypertrophy and strength work and increase at this stage. The athlete normally explodes physically at about 14- 17 – especially the boys.
  4. As strength and stability increase – more extensive power training can be attempted – usually 16- 18 – depending on the degree of physiological and mental development of the athlete.


BG: Should athletes specialize in a particular sport at a young age or participate in a number of different sports? Why?


JC: At a young age (4- 13), the more sports the better! These are the years where athleticism is developed. The player is refined after the ingredients for play (athleticism) are in place – at about 14- 20yers. Then, the elite athlete peaks in their 20’s – depending on the sport and specific athlete.



Complete AThlete Development



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7 Responses

  1. Heath says:

    Two great minds of the industry. Thanks for the great post!

  2. derek says:

    I always like listening to what JC Santana has to say…very dynamic and straightforward with his answers. I also think that some parents fail to realize that their kid(s) ate always in development. So, pushing a kid to do everything and to be something the kid does not want to be impedes sound development. There is a thin line between development and structure.

  3. Dr. Kwame M. Brown says:

    Nice, JC! It’s good to see you on here, and great as always to see this subject brought to the consciousness. Certainly I agree with most of what you say here.

    But I would like to speak on a contradiction here. I hear people say things like “it should be lots of fun” and “we play games”. But then it always comes back to the statement that from 4 years of age on, they should be playing lots of sports.

    To parents and professionals inexperienced or non-versed in child development, statement contradictions like this are confusing, and this is how we end up with “sports” programs for toddlers.

    What I will say is this – organized sports should not happen until the child is in the middle elementary years, at the earliest.

    There must be a large share of time spent in free play, in nature play, and even in pretend play at a young age. These are critical years for the development of creativity, independence, and resilience. For all activities to be teacher led can be damaging (just as damaging as having no activities be teacher led).

    Then, just like you mention above – As the child grows older, there is more refining of movement and technique.

    But I just wanted to make a stronger clarification of the need for free play. So, this is where partnership and communication with parents is paramount as well – are they getting their free play at home? in day care? in school? If so, you can provide more teacher led play. If not, you may need to infuse more freedom and nature play in your program.

    It is all about being intuitive.

  4. Homer Thomas says:

    The article is excellent. i have been in youth sports for over 40 years, including 12 years of youth football and 40 years of track and field. Now, I am coaching the University of Chicago Track Club with 102 athletes from 5 – 18 years old. My strongest feeling in youth sports is that kids must have fun. When athletes are enjoying themselves, great acomplishments and success will follow. So I sometimes have to talk parents into putting less pressure and stress on the athletes(kids). The entire article is great. I will use the article (especially the “However- in general terms” as must reading for our parents and team members.

  5. Mesf Felleke says:

    Great Q & A. JC is superbly articulated and incredibly knowledgeable about youth fitness. I have read his past articles via NSCA and other outlets and he is always on the point. This is a topic I fight with community sports coaches and overzealous parents. While wining a game or two is important, it should never come at the expense of the proper and timely development of youth athletes.

    Keep posting such informative and great articles in the public media and hopefully it will make my job of convincing coaches and parents easier, in time.
    It is a fight but it is not a fight we can’t win.

    Thank you JC and Brian.

  6. Play is the work of a child. Therefore I try to make sure what we’re trying to impart on youngsters is blended into play. If kids like it, they’ll want to do it more. Too many parents see professional athletes’ successes (financial/athletic) and want that for their child. They fail to grasp that “athlete” is their JOB, 24/7. Another message missed is that many of our elite adults were not super talented as children. Athletics for kids should be like a stock portfolio. Most of us don’t have all our money tied up in one stock. We have many, which multiplies our potential for success.

  7. Jasiyah Bey says:

    Hey Brian Jaun Carlos Santana is the greatest inspiration for me when I first entered the fitness industry. I admire what you are doing for the youth, and I find another great inspiration in you, Thank You!

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