Performance Training for Young Athletes

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Some of the most frequently asked questions I get are associated with performance training for grade school and high school athletes. Most parents are looking for either a competitive edge for their young athlete, or for ways to prevent injury and boost confidence for sport. If these sound like things that will benefit your young athlete, then this article is for you.

Before we get into specifics, we need to define exactly what we’re talking about when we say “performance training.” Essentially, performance training (or strength and conditioning) consists of resistance training, movement skill training, metabolic conditioning, and injury prevention training for sport. Another way to look at it is fitness for sport. When you’re talking about a pre-pubescent or early adolescent athlete (younger than 9th or 10th grade, generally), training is not typically single-sport focused. At this early stage in athletic development, overall sport-oriented fitness is emphasized in the young athlete in order to lay a foundation of general fitness for sport, which will allow the athlete to progress into more complex, sport-specific training when they mature during the latter stages of high school.

Another consideration in young athlete development is the distinction between biological age (actual maturation and growth) and chronological (or calendar) age. Clearly, some young athletes are more developmentally mature than others (and some are less so). Maturation affects hormonal levels, coordination, training tolerance, and a whole host of other factors involved in athlete development. As such, it is inappropriate to place blanket age restrictions on certain activities for young athletes, as it is their biological age that should dictate the appropriateness of a given activity, not their chronological age.

The last component that must be considered prior to developing a training program for a young athlete is the time factor. The reality is that young athletes are BUSY: school, homework, sports (sometimes multiple sports in one season), and just plain-old being a kid make every young athlete’s schedule quite packed. So, the last (and probably most important) question is one of logistics – when do you find time get these workouts in? The good news is that with a properly developed and focused training program, you don’t need a lot of time — you just need to focus on the right things.

As with any athlete, when prioritizing a training program for a young athlete, the most time is allocated to the most important factors at that stage of development. Above all else, the goal of performance training for any athlete is to prevent injury, so the most fundamental aspects of the program must address just that. After the injury prevention aspect is addressed, then other fundamental motor patterns are developed in a movement skill setting, while basic resistance training technique is developed in the weight room. Finally, the metabolic (or energy) systems for the athlete’s sport(s) must be developed in a conditioning setting. Below is a more detailed discussion (in order of importance) of the four above-mentioned components of a comprehensive young athlete development program:

1) Injury Prevention Training: Most injuries in sport occur on deceleration (slowing down, trying to stop, landing from a jump, etc.). In fact, setting aside acute impact injuries, deceleration injuries are among the most common in all sport. As such, deceleration training must be a significant component of a young athlete’s training program. Proper athletic stance, correct slowing down and stopping technique, and proper landing mechanics are all critical skills that must be taught in a movement skill setting. Furthermore, the muscles that are involved in these motor skills must be trained in the weight room. Muscles like the hamstrings, upper back, and lower back act as the body’s breaking mechanisms; therefore, training them in the weight room is an important complement to developing the proper deceleration mechanics in the movement skill setting.

2) Movement Skill Training: Another term for movement skill training is Speed, Quickness, and Agility (or SQA) training. As these words suggest, this setting is designed to improve an athlete’s ability to accelerate to top speed quickly, maintain that speed, and change directions as efficiently as possible. As mentioned above, movement skill training must address deceleration mechanics first, with a great deal of the emphasis during this initial phase of training focused on starting and stopping in a good athletic position. After deceleration mechanics are honed, basic linear (straight-line) speed can be developed. Proper linear running mechanics (arm swing, body lean, leg action, ground contact) are emphasized when developing straight-line speed. Development of good linear mechanics allows the athlete to progress into lateral movement, and finally back-pedaling. After the separate movement skills are developed, they can be combined into agility drills that address change-of-direction and rapid acceleration.

Effective movement skill workouts are performed when the athlete is fresh (before a practice, or before any strength training or conditioning work). The biggest mistakes coaches and parents make are either trying to have an athlete develop movement skills in a fatigued state (after practice, for example) or not allowing enough time between reps of a drill (an appropriate work-to-rest ratio for an SQA drill is, minimally, 1 to 6; so, if a drill takes 10 seconds, the athlete needs to rest for 60 seconds). Developing these motor skills is DIFFERENT than conditioning, and since developing flawless technique is critical, the athlete must be relatively fresh and recovered from drill-to-drill. The old Vince Lombardi saying applies to movement skill training: “Practice doesn’t make Perfect, Perfect practice makes Perfect.” In other words, high quality movement is critical to developing the correct motor skills.

3) Strength Training: Before we get into the nuts and bolts of young athlete strength training, it is important to debunk a myth regarding pre-pubescent weight lifting. Zero clinical or scientific evidence suggests that weight lifting is UNSAFE for young athletes at any age. As long as the athlete is cognitively and emotionally mature enough to take instructions from a coach, he or she is ready to begin weight lifting (this is generally the point when they start playing sports competitively). The “safety myth” of pre-pubescent weight lifting comes primarily from misinterpreted emergency room data from the late 1970’s. The data showed growth plate fractures and other compressive tissue failures in young weight lifters, leading some to speculate that the pre-pubescent body wasn’t ready for strength training. Upon further exploration, however, it was discovered that these young weight lifters were doing very heavy and/or very high-velocity, spinal loaded lifts under uneducated supervision. Essentially, then, it was a great lack of common sense and basic exercise prescription guidelines that caused the injuries. Since then, numerous clinical trials have been conducted on athletes as young as 5 and 6 years old performing weight lifting. Findings from these studies have been very conclusive: not only is weight lifting for the pre-pubescent athlete safe, but it can help improve performance AND reduce the risk of sport-related injury.

With that said, progression is very important with young athletes when they begin strength training. Loads used are VERY light (the athlete’s body weight, broomsticks, or light dumbbells and weight plates). The emphasis is placed on technique and learning the proper form for each movement. As technique is mastered, more complex movements are integrated. As the athlete gets older (8th or 9th grade), resistance can be increased; and, as the athlete progresses into high school, more explosive (higher velocity) exercises are performed to better simulate the power (or strength-speed) demands of sport.

4) Metabolic Conditioning: This component is generally handled in some fashion by the athlete’s sport coach. This is the time when having a red face and heavy breathing is appropriate (to some extent). The term “metabolic” refers to the fuel system that is used in a sport. The human body has three primary fuel systems: an immediate energy system (ATP-PC system), a short-term energy system (anaerobic glycolysis), and a long-term energy system (aerobic or oxidative system). Most team sports utilize a combination of the immediate and short-term energy systems, with the long-term system being used for recovery. As such, the majority of conditioning volume should be allocated to conditioning the immediate and short-term systems, with the smallest amount of time allocated to the long-term system.

Drills to train the immediate energy system typically include explosive jumps (sets < 10 seconds) or short sprints (< 10 to 20 yards). Longer rest intervals (90-120 seconds) are necessary when conditioning this energy system. The short-term energy system can be conditioned by doing slightly longer drills (30-90 seconds), with relatively short rest intervals (about 30-90 seconds). Interval drills (like alternating sprinting and jogging) work well for conditioning the short-term energy system. The long-term energy system is best trained by doing longer continuous duration activity (like jogging) for 30 or more minutes. Caution should be exercised when conditioning this energy system, however, as too much time spent training in this fuel system can detract from an athlete’s ability to be fast and explosive.

Ultimately, the four components discussed above need to be implemented by a properly trained strength and conditioning professional, not a sport coach. The sport coach’s job is to address the technical and tactical aspects of the sport; the strength and conditioning professional’s job is to address the fitness component of sport. Try to integrate at least the first three components set forth above into your young athlete’s training program, a minimum of 1-2 days/week, year-round. If you do, I guarantee you’ll see the difference on the field of play.

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