Solving the Puzzle of Training Young Athletes

A famous and often cited quote in relation to training youth is that 'children are not mini adults'. Clearly the approach to physical preparation for children and adolescents should differ to what is employed with athletes competing at senior level. This is evident from biological, physiological and long term development perspectives. What is less clearly defined are the specifics of how our approach should differ, and how this will alter according to the respective phase of growth and maturation. In this post we will aim to shed some light on this topic.

Throughout my career I have had some involvement with the development pathways in the various sports I have been engaged with. My interest in this area has led me to return to the topic many times in the books, chapters and publications that I have written.

The opportunities afforded within this critical period to shape the young athlete are remarkable, due to the favourable interaction of training with natural growth and development that serves to augment adaptations. Within these critical development windows the young athlete is also highly responsive from a motor learning and neuromuscular skill development perspective. I would argue that such scope to profoundly impact the athlete's physical and athletic development never arises again in their career.

@@Arguably the necessity for structured physical preparation and athletic development programmes has also never been greater.@@

The early development of fundamental motor skills occurs by children interacting with their environment through active play. Essentially @@a youngster's movement skill playbook is developed from the exploratory process of  jumping on and off things, running around, negotiating obstacles, throwing objects and catching them@@. Recent trends among youth worldwide have seen a decline in active play; and this is evident in declining levels in children's mastery of fundamental movement skills (locomotion, jumping/landing, throwing/catching). There is also an indication that an increasing number are failing to meet the required threshold levels of physical activity to support normal growth and development.

Given that basic athletic movement skill development can no longer be assumed it is easy to make the case that @@age-appropriate youth training should essentially be viewed as a prerequisite for kids to participate in youth sports safely and competently@@. Moreover, regular exposure to physical preparation during the developmental years may also be key to ensure the young athlete attains their genetic potential.

Equally, @@the risks of getting it wrong are also greater when dealing with young athletes@@. The prevalence of various overuse injuries in youth sports and associated dangers of early specialisation are widely documented in the sports medicine literature. Clearly coaches and practitioners involved with youth sports must remain vigilant. It is critical when programming and delivering physical and athletic preparation to be highly aware of the stresses that young athletes are subject to, particularly in critical phases in their growth and maturation.

Long term athlete development perspectives also point to the need for the structure of sessions and objectives of physical and athletic preparation to shift as the young athlete develops. Using the example of track and field athletics, a renowned authority in the sport named Frank Dick describes a progression to guide session design and outcomes for each stage of the pathway to senior level competition.

Recognising the importance of first enthusing children in the sport and helping to ignite the long term passion required to keep them involved, the objective in the initial stages is 'Excite to Participate'. 

Similarly the next stage, 'Participate to Practice' identifies that kids in essence just want to get involved and have a go at the different activities. This should therefore be the emphasis in the early stages, rather than a focus on formal instruction and heavily structured sessions.

As the athlete matures and progresses the next stage described is 'Practice to Prepare'. This is the first time the young athlete is exposed to structured training and practice. Equally, the emphasis is motor learning and developing capability, rather than volume or intensity.

At the appropriate time, the focus will then shift to 'Prepare to Perform'. As the label suggests, at this stage the athlete will be challenged to a greater extent in their physical preparation. In the case of strength training, this will involve appropriate progression of load and exercise prescription. Nevertheless, the focus should remain on sound movement; the objective therefore is that the athlete's fundamental movement capabilities are robust under load. In doing so, capacity will increase, along with various strength qualities.

But how do we delineate between each respective stage? The major criticism of popular long term athlete development models is due to the rigid and narrow demarcations in relation to training suitability recommendations according to chronological age. There are two glaring issues with this.

Firstly, chronological age is not a good indicator as it fails to account for early versus late maturers; young athletes of the same chronological age can vary widely with respect to where they are on their individual growth curve.

Secondly, the data does not support the narrow chronological age 'windows' of trainability that are often presented in long term athlete development models. Whilst the mechanisms for training effects and adaptations that take place will vary according to age and stage of maturation, a particular form of training (for instance interval training) can still be successfully applied at these different phases.

Biological age estimates offer a more appropriate means to compare and group individuals. In recognition of this, in recent years there has been a shift to 'bio-banded' junior competitions in different sports (notably soccer) employing biological age groups rather than chronological age. Individual growth curves vary, but the reference point employed (peak height velocity) is able to account for this. Peak height velocity refers to the steepest point on the individual's growth curve (also known as adolescent growth spurt). Peak height velocity literally means the greatest rate of change in height in a calendar year. Biological age is therefore expressed in relation to this reference point on the growth curve - i.e. PHV plus or minus years.

A 'bio-banded' training approach employs three broad tiers: Pre-PHV (all ages up to 0.5 years prior to estimated age at peak height velocity); PHV (minus 0.5 years to 1.5-2 years post estimated age at PHV); and Post PHV (minimum 1.5 years post estimated age at PHV).

Regression equations exist that allow indirect estimation of age at PHV for males and females, respectively. These equations require only four items of information that can be easily gathered from the athlete: date of birth; standing height; seated height; and body mass. These values can be input to derive estimated age at peak height velocity. Serial measurements can be used to refine these estimates.

Whilst we can make a strong case for youth training programmes, it is nevertheless critical that the focus for such programmes remains global physical and athletic development, as opposed to specialised training for a particular sport. The perils of early sport specialisation have been highlighted from a number of perspectives - one being that participating in a single sport from an early age may in fact be detrimental to overall athletic development.

Taking a longer term perspective the benefits of sampling a number of sports during the developmental years are increasingly recognised. @@A good analogy for the developing athlete is 'buffet not binge'@@ - i.e. exposure to a wide and diverse array of sports is likely to develop a broader and deeper athletic playbook in the long run.

In the same way, it is vital that young athletes receive a varied and balanced 'diet' of training items and are exposed to a variety of activities that challenge them in different ways.

An overarching objective should be to develop adaptable athletes, who are capable of applying their physical capabilities and athletic skills to a variety of challenges - including other sports. Importantly this will also provide the option of switching to a different playing position or another sport at a later stage.

So practically what does this mean for how we approach physical preparation and athletic development at each phase? In the second part of this post we will explore how the approach to different tenets of training shifts as the young athlete advances through each of the major stages in their development.

A useful framework with respect to athletic development is the concept of 'affordances for action'. The central tenet here is that the athlete perceives their environment and any objects or other players in a way that is scaled to their own body and limbs. By extension, what available actions are 'afforded' by the environment is perceived in relation to their own perceived capacities and capabilities. 

As mentioned previous the process of exploration and interaction with the environment is critical to the early development of motor skills. For young athletes in the 'Pre-PHV' phase of their development, sessions will often be designed to allow them to actively explore different movement solutions as they negotiate different movement challenges and obstacles. Such a discovery-based learning approach that often involves active play working within certain constraints is therefore the focus at this stage. A key outcome during this phase is developing 'movement dexterity'. Gymnastics provides a great tool here. Regular exposure to a variety of floor-based gymnastics working in different planes and axes of movement helps the young athlete develop awareness of dynamic position of their body and limbs in relation to the ground and in three-dimensional space during different activities. 

That said, there will be a motor learning emphasis when introducing strength training movements, and this will necessarily involve instruction on fundamental movements (squat, lunge, step up etc) to give the young athlete clarity on what 'shapes' they are aiming for. For the most part, strength training only involves light implements. Appropriate use of implements facilitates learning and acquiring the 'feel' of the movement; however the athletes own body mass remains the major resistance that they overcome during training during this stage.

The critical PHV phase (minus 0.5 year to plus 1.5-2 years post estimated age at PHV) marks the introduction of more structured physical preparation. There is a neuromuscular training emphasis, particularly during strength training. As such, proper form and movement quality is the critical outcome or key performance indicator during sessions, rather than intensity or volume. Coaching delivery must be highly responsive during this period as neuromuscular function can fluctuate markedly, even day-to-day, particularly during periods of accelerated growth. This necessitates a high coach-to-athlete ratio during sessions to provide the level of individual attention required.

Similarly, the objective during athletic development sessions (jump/plyometrics, speed sessions, gymnastics sessions) is essentially to allow the young athlete to relearn, refine, recalibrate movements as they grow and their limbs and torso dimensions change. Returning to the concept of affordances, the athlete's interactions with their training environment during this phase can be viewed as a continuous process of exploring their changing capabilities and broadening their understanding of the movement strategies and task solutions available to them.

When the young athlete makes the transition to Post PHV (at least 1.5 year post estimated age at PHV) the focus switches to building capacity in order to continue to develop capability. Practically what this means is that sessions in this phase will subject the athlete to progressively greater challenge. For instance, progressive overload becomes a greater feature during strength training sessions, albeit the key performance indicator will be that technique and movement quality remains robust under load. Similarly, the intensity and neuromuscular challenge will be progressed during athletic development sessions. A progressively less constrained approach therefore allows the young athlete to explore and express their developing power and speed capabilities.

Finally, the other major objective of youth training is to develop robust athletes. Our aim is to @@build athletes who are physically robust and possess the athleticism to safeguard against injury@@. In turn, the 'anatomical adaptation' (strengthening of skeletal structures, connective tissues) and greater strength reserve developed will also allow them to recover more quickly when injuries do occur. 

It is here that sport specificity does need to be accounted for. That is, we need to be aware of the characteristic stresses and risks of particular injuries the young athlete is exposed to in their sport(s); and ensure that appropriate counter-measures are implemented in their physical preparation.

So there it is, not only are children not mini adults, youth training programmes also need to adapt their approach to physical preparation and athletic development in a way that is appropriate to where the young athlete presently sits on their individual growth curve. In practical terms, there are straightforward indirect means to assess biological age and stage of maturation. This post has also presented some practical guidelines on how the approach to each tenet of training will change as the young athlete advances through each stage in their development. Training youth sports athletes clearly poses some unique challenges; however the rewards can be extraordinary.

For more in-depth content on this topic see the books section of the website.