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Are all fitness trainers built the same?

By: Brian J. Grasso

As the youth sports training industry grows and more professional conditioning coaches begin working with younger athletes, the undeniable reality is that the quality of this section of the athletic training world is becoming watered-down. That is not intended to be an insult or negative comment towards the truly well educated and passionate professionals, in fact, to any conditioning coach or trainer who engages in work with younger athletes, I should be serving as a beacon of sorts, calling out the ‘gurus’ and ‘experts’ who apply little more than adult-based prescription and program design to kids. There are several wonderful youth conditioning coaches to be sure, but the trick to any young athlete, soccer coach or parent is how to find them.

One of the issues that I feel needs to be addressed is the lack of preparation that goes into producing an athletic development or training program. As is often the case, the first session between the coach and athlete is simply a ‘jumping in with both feet’ kind of endeavor. The training program is either a group of exercises that the coach has a preference for, or a replica of a program that the coach has employed in the past. As I have outlined in previous articles, the concepts of multilateral development indicate that various measures of athletic diversification pertain to young athletes as a whole. Sporting interests and associated training programs can be largely determined for the majority of young athletes based on factors such as chronological and biological age, emotional maturity and past sporting experience. Even the specific exercises associated with a young athlete’s development program can be the same or similar across the board, but exercise volume, intensity and subsequent progressions or regressions are determined exclusively by the individual young athlete.

Push-ups, for example, have long been determined to be a quality exercise for young athletes. Kids either love or hate to bring home stories about their physical education teacher and his or her daily ritual of handing out gross numbers of push-ups, typically, in the interest of developing better fitness in the youngsters. Push-ups have always been considered a wonderful and functional upper body activity; while that is true, push-ups can also serve to improve core strength or, unfortunately in many cases, lead to various spinal or pelvic dysfunctions. It is with this latter scenario that the need for assessments of young athletes prior to developing a training program is so blatantly obvious.

In a push-up position, the body can tell you many things about itself (this, by the way, holds true for nearly any bodily position). For example, if one or both feet are externally rotated (opposite of pigeon-toed) that can be a very strong indication of tightness through some of the major external rotator muscles in and around the hip (biceps femoris for example). If there is an extension or hyper-extension present through the lumbar spine (a ‘dip’ in the body at the lower back), that likely indicates a tightness through some of the major muscles on the front of the thigh (psoas specifically), a decreased ability of the gluteal muscles to contract properly, or even a decreased amount of neuromuscular control over the deep muscles towards to the front of the ‘ab’ area. It should be clear that while push-ups, or any other functional body weight exercise remain terrific strengthening activities, the individual physiology and structure of each young athlete will dictate whether or not the exercise has a positive application to them. It is only after an assessment that a functional and optimally useful training program can be developed.

Another example is the overhead squat (squat with feet shoulder width apart and arms straight up over head and out to a rough 45 degree angle). By watching a young athlete actively performing a few squats slowly, you can assess several areas of concern for potential dysfunction. Watch the feet for example. Do they either pronate (the arch of the foot caves down towards the ground) or supinate (the opposite)? If so, the indication is tightness along either the medial or lateral musculature of the lower leg. Does the athlete come off his or her heels and balance entirely on the toes during the squat? If so, you can conclude that the soleus (lower leg) muscle may be tight. Watch the knees. Do they either collapse inward or angle outward during the squat? Tightness along the medial or lateral musculature of the upper leg could be prevalent.

I hope that you have been able to see the concerns that these imbalances will have from both a developmental and athletic standpoint. If dysfunction resides within the pelvis of young athlete, for example, then any exercise is bound to exacerbate the situation. The body has a natural ability to compensate for dysfunction, but long-term athletic proficiency and injury avoidance with undoubtedly be compromised. Every time an exercise is performed through a dysfunctional movement pattern, the dysfunction becomes more pronounced and more difficult to correct. Make no mistake, however, if the dysfunction is not corrected, then performance will suffer. Better to take the time to PREVENT the dysfunction than to correct it once it has become a problem. Look at it in simple terms... If you can’t perform a squat motion properly, without holding or carrying any weight at all, why than would a trainer suggest that you perform the same squat with a significant load on your back.

The above ideas are not meant to serve as a diagnosis in anyway. Ultimately, a parent or coach is best served to take their young athlete to see a qualified SPORTS medicine professional in order to receive a full structural work-up. Having said that, the day to day care of these young athletes falls into the hands of the countless trainers and coaches throughout North America. By not understanding the principal of preventing dysfunction or by blindly prescribing exercises absently regardless of the individual nature of the athlete, you are contributing to the gross negligence that has and continues to plague this industry.

A word to parents and soccer coaches with regards to hiring a conditioning specialist...

Buyer beware.

Brian Grasso
President - Developing Athletics
Director of Athlete Development - Sports Academy Northwest

Brian Grasso and Developing Athletics are the world leaders at providing educational literature to coaches, parents and athletes on the concepts of functional conditioning and athletic development.

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