Training for the Young Athlete
Time and time again I see young athletes training or being coached as if they were “mini adults”, which eventually results in frustration, stress or even injury; sidelining them for a period of time. The physiological makeup of children and adolescents is markedly different from that of mature adults; thus a training plan or program should reflect these differences.
Preadolescents for instance have a prime window of opportunity for complex motor learning and basic movement mechanics which in turn enhances kinesthetic awareness, proprioception, coordination, and overall athleticism. A training program that utilizes this window of opportunity not only sets the groundwork for greater fluidity in movement, but also could have a positive influence in reducing the chance of injury in the future.
Sport specific training is gaining in popularity because it promises to increase ones skill set, strength, and overall conditioning, which mimics the young players chosen sport. The short-sightedness in this thinking is that it creates a one dimensional athlete, creating muscle imbalances, asymmetries, and predisposing one for overuse injuries. One of the most important recommendations on youth training is that during all stages of development, the young athlete should perform a wide range of sports and training activities in order to facilitate overall athletic development. It is advised that sport specialization should not occur until the athlete enters into late adolescence.
Strengthening muscles and connective tissues with age appropriate strength training programs prepares the body for the forces it is capable of withstanding and helps make the young player more resistant to soft tissue injuries. In adolescents, because of rapid gains in body mass, it is particularly important to strengthen these connective tissues. In young female athletes, lower body motor programming and strength development should be an area of emphasis in order to reduce the prevalence of injury.
When training young athletes one must consider the athleticism pyramid, which consists of three layers, mobility and stability, functional movement, and functional skill. A program that progresses an athlete from the base up of the pyramid to the top, will ensure proper fundamental mobility, stability and postural balances.
There is no point in trying to impose sport specific training on young athletes whose bodies have not developed the proper coordination and proper movement patterns to undergo this type of conditioning. Fundamentally the primary emphasis for young athletes should be on balanced physical development and building a foundation of athleticism to be utilized later when the shift to specialized sports preparation occurs.