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I am looking for some good conditioning principles for my 8 and 10 year old sons. They are active all year until the summer and then when fall soccer starts they always have a difficult time getting back into playing shape.

Thanks - Doug

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Coaching Youth Fooball - Football Plays

Hi Doug,

Thanks for the post!

One of the primary things to remember when working with athletes under the age of 15 or 16, is that all of your conditioning and training efforts should be considered developmental in nature. At varying points along a chronological continuum, certain athletic abilities are more easily (or optimally) attained. If a young athlete misses this 'critical period', than that particular athletic trait may never be realized on an OPTIMAL level.

Flexibility, for example, is best developed between the ages of 7 - 11. The simple reason is that at around 12 years of age, kids start to incur major growth. During growth, the muscular system is placed under tremendous tension and therefore limiting to flexibility improvements.

I am going to post a two part article I wrote on the Developmental Continuum. Hopefully, it should answer most of your questions. If you have any furher concerns (i.e. If I DON'T answer all of your questions), just let me know.

Part One...

SPEED TRAINING AND YOUNG ATHLETES

You see the promotional material everywhere. From sporting-based magazines to television and radio commercials. SPEED TRAINING! Speed... an elusive commodity that all successful athletes require. But how should younger athletes develop it?

Right now, the sport training world in North America is literally exploding with new products, new fads and new ‘experts’. It is no secret, nor is it offensive to any true and qualified professional, that the fitness industry is loaded with inadequate and unqualified professionals. It seems, unfortunately, that now the sports training industry is following suit.

While that may seem like a strong message, the reality is that it’s true. What may be the most concerning fact to that reality however, is that many of these unqualified professionals are now becoming heavily involved in the largest sport-based market in existence... Young Athletes. There are literally hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent every year by youth sporting associations who hire ‘qualified specialists’ to help train their athletes.

The requisites to determine someone as qualified or unqualified are not what you may think, either. It has always been presumed that a University degree or even more so a Master’s degree would be deemed as automatic qualification; not necessarily true. Things such as practical knowledge, specific practical experience and even independent research can aid in categorizing someone as an ‘authority’. Having an impressive formal education should no longer be considered a slam dunk. The topic of qualification is a whole other article, but for the sake of making a point, would you want an Orthopedic surgeon performing your triple bypass? Me neither!

Getting back to the topic at hand, how should we attack speed training when working with younger teenaged athletes? The first issue to consider is growth.

A key element to consider when working with teenaged athletes is the degree of growth they are currently experiencing. A growth spurt occurs when bones elongate from the proximal and distal ends. Osteoblastic activity occurs which makes the bone both longer and eventually stronger. Needing attention during this however, is the impact bone growth has on the muscular system. Bone grows significantly faster than muscle. The implications of this are that during and shortly after a spurt, the entire muscular system is placed under a great deal of strain (which typically accounts for why adolescents incurring growth are often sore). Picture this from a practical perspective. Make a fist with both hands, but stick your first fingers out. Hook an elastic band around both your left and right outstretched fingers. Now slowly pull your hands apart from each other. What happened to the elastic? It got very stretched out and was placed under significant tone. That is exactly what happens to your muscles when bone grows. Elasticity is decreased while tone is increased.

Another issue plaguing adolescents during growth is awkward movement. This is a similar type of situation as the muscular tone issue; bone growth happens faster than the body’s ability to reorient itself to the new length. All of the habits we exhibit, from our thought patterns to the way we move, are housed as ‘facts’ in pathways cut into the brain. Once ingrained, these pathways are difficult to alter. Everyone has habitual ways of performing tasks. Brushing your teeth, as arbitrary as that sounds, is a perfect example. You likely have a ‘set’ way of brushing your teeth, whether that means you ALWAYS start on one side, or ALWAYS start with a particular brushing pattern, the fact is you have a ‘set’ method. Now, next time you brush your teeth, actively try to perform it a ‘different’ way. Start on the other side, uncap the tooth paste with your other hand; someway or another, just try something completely different. As you think about the ‘change’ you will most certainly be able to do it. In time however, when the challenge of this article is no longer on the front of your mind, you will start brushing your teeth again without giving it a second thought. The last thing you do before you crawl into bed, or the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning. Either way, it will return to being a mindless task. What will happen then? You will revert back to performing it the way you always have. Simply put, it is an ingrained pathway in your brain.

Now, when youngsters experience growth, their awkwardness can be explained simply by the fact that their bodies are now longer and more dense than their brains remember them to be. You try taping a six inch extension of wood to the end of each of your arms and see how much stuff you bang into! Kids going through growth are awkward for a reason: the Central Nervous System, which is responsible for all movement, no longer has a grasp of where the body is in relation to peripheral objects and to itself.

So, you have a growing athlete who is 14 years old. How many times have you seen or heard those ‘qualified’ professionals state that this is the age that young athletes should start training hard for speed, power and hypertrophy? Load up the weights (or better yet, put them on strength machines where they will be ‘safe’), start counting out the plyometric drills and let’s get this kid onto the high speed treadmill for some speed/anaerobic conditioning! High performance sports training, here we come!

Give me a break.

You have an awkward athlete who is lacking optimal coordination and possesses a severely toned (and likely restricted) muscular system. Adding speed, power and hypertrophy training right now could not only be less than optimal from a developmental perspective, but also potentially harmful. Having said that, walk into any ‘sport training’ facility right now and you will see young athletes pounding out set after set of sprints on the treadmill and rep after rep of jumping drills. Very often, you will also find that same ‘qualified’ trainer doing little more than offering encouragement and counting the number of ‘back and forth’ jumps an athlete did during a 30 second time frame.

While there are several factors and key points of programming for young athletes, one of the most overlooked is the technical aspects of both lifting and movement. An athlete who does not move well and efficiently is an inferior athlete. Yet rather than teach, correct, understand and discuss the science of efficient movement with young athletes, many ‘qualified’ experts opt instead to merely count repetitions. Why? Because showing an increase in the number of reps an athlete can perform is a tangible sign of improvement which can then be translated into marketing to both the parents of the athletes (sign your 14 year old up for ANOTHER 6 weeks of training) as well as to the market at large. ‘Before’ and ‘after’ scenarios are eaten up by our society and if the training facility can show folks that ‘junior’ will be able to run at 13 miles an hour on the treadmill rather than just 10, than they are going to get paying customers.

Lost in all of this is the long-term development of the athlete. What happens AFTER the six weeks are over? Are they better athletes, more in shape or merely more able to perform the particular drills that the facility takes them through?

In my next article, The Sport Training Continuum, I will discuss the type of training ventures that young athletes SHOULD be performing.

- Brian Grasso

www.DevelopingAthletics.com

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Brian,

Thanks for the informative response, lots of things to think about. I am looking forward to your post on training for young athletes.

Doug

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It's my pleasure, Doug!

Here is the second part... Again, if I fail to answer any of your questions, please post them...

In Part One of my ‘Early Teenaged Athletes’ article, I discussed the concern of inappropriate power, strength and hypertrophy training with pubescent athletes. One of the largest knocks I have with respect to second-rate trainers and facilities working with our younger athletes is their lack of knowledge in reference to the science of human development and, moreover, how that translates into incorrect programming.

Understanding the simple fact that ‘hard work’ does not necessarily equate to ‘smart training’ is of the upmost importance. Many sport training facilities and individual trainers pride themselves on providing excessively hard training sessions that leave the young athlete feeling exhausted at the end. Now, there is nothing wrong with working hard and I certainly have no objections to young athletes training to the point of fatigue; the problem however, is that more often than not, the ‘hard work’ is just that... hard work. Training sessions, as I have stated many times, need to be developed with the long term needs of the athlete squarely in focus. Six week training packages at three sessions per week (which is very typical for sport training facilities) address nothing more than short term fitness needs and NOT long term athletic needs. Remember, we want ALL of our young athletes to have long and successful athletic careers, with the eventual goal of becoming a functionally fit and healthy adult. There is NO short term solution for that.

Specifically speaking, in Part One of this series I discussed growth spurts and the interruptive nature they have on both motor control (which directly effects sport specific ability) as well as the muscular system as a whole. To recap, as the distal and proximal ends of a bone grow apart (during growth) the muscles acting on that bone are placed under extreme stress. Because bone grows faster than muscle, as the bone lengthens, the muscles are placed under significant tone. A toned muscle CANNOT be optimally strong or powerful considering that both strength and power require pliability at the muscular level to either exhibit or be improved optimally. That would automatically render strength training, power training and speed training as endeavors destined to meet with less than optimal results. Moreover and less than optimal results not-with-standing, there is also a real concern for injury at this point. Strength training, for example, increases the tone of a muscle. In growing athletes, the muscular system is already under significant tone. The dynamic needs of power and speed training also become problematic with growing athletes. A young athlete with a toned body and lacking coordination should NOT be performing endless repetitions of jumping or sprinting exercises.

Herein lies the difference between ‘HARD WORK’ and ‘SMART WORK’. Hard work occurs when trainers, typically not familiar with growth and development, take young athletes through fitness-based conditioning sessions aimed at improving the FITNESS of the athlete in a short period of time. These sessions often include machine-based strength training, plyometric drills, high speed treadmill sprint drills and basic ‘ab’ or ‘core’ work. Smart work involves developmental-based conditioning sessions aimed at improving the overall ATHLETICISM and DEVELOPMENTAL CONDITIONING of the athlete over a prolonged period of time. These sessions will often include bodyweight or technical elements of strength training, technical aspects of jump training, technical components and developmental drills associated with speed training as well as integrative strength work (designed to improve the synergistic and harmonious nature of the body working as a unit).

No one would expect a young student to pass grade four in six weeks. In fact, to become good in ANYTHING typically requires a concerted effort over several years. Why then, do we insist on training young athletes with HARD WORK over a short period of time?

Enough about what we SHOULDN’T be doing, let’s move on to what young pubescent athletes SHOULD be doing. Here are some easy guidelines -

(1) Static Flexibility: Young athletes, in my experience, do not stretch enough. Static stretching has come under a lot of fire recently having been labeled as ‘unnecessary’ - unfortunately, it seems that message has filtered its way down to our youngsters. While I would not argue with the fact that static styles of flexibility are not important (perhaps even limiting) to a pre-game routine, static flexibility as a whole cannot be ruled out as important... especially in this age category. Common sense should prevail within the body - if it is weak, strengthen it; if it is tight, stretch it. Pubescent athletes, as we have already mentioned, are typically under significant tone due to growth. Having said that, elongating these restricted muscles becomes key for both performance enhancement as well as injury prevention. A 10 - 20 minute routine of static flexibility should be apart of EVERY young athlete’s daily habit.

(2) Technical Aspects of Strength Training: This particular topic has a degree of opinion attached to it. Personally, I feel as though all athletes benefit from power-based lifting exercises (pushes, pulls, cleans etc.). Many professionals disregard power lifts as necessary; I, obviously, disagree. Irrespective of your opinion, the fact remains that all strength training exercises (at least USEFUL strength training exercises), have a degree of technique attached to them. Squats, for example, can be a VERY beneficial exercise or a VERY detrimental exercise depending entirely on your technical ability to perform them (technical ability in this case is considered in conjunction with the health and work ability of your anatomy). Having said that, how many trainers or sport training facilities take the time to critically teach the intricate techniques associated with performing strength and power exercises? That can be likened to the fourth grade teacher ‘glancing over’ the specifics of math for a couple of days and then expecting the students to understand and perform the intricate aspects of algebra later in their academic careers. Lifts must be taught to be performed optimally and without the risk of injury. Pubescent athletes are in a perfect time frame to be taught lifts; they are on tone due to growth so shouldn’t be handling too much load anyway and are typically a little less than optimally coordinated, therefore slowly re-learning basic movements will ease their transition back into solid coordination.

(3) Technical Aspects of Speed Training: The exact same argument resides in this aspect of training as it does in the above points. To be optimally fast and powerful, a young athlete must have good technical ability. Classically poor running technique (including a ‘bobbing’ head, eyes down, bent forward from the waist, ‘winging’ elbows) accounts for why many young athletes do not transition well from JV to Varsity athletics or high school to College athletics. Having said that, how many trainers and sport training facilities impart the technical elements of speed on to their young athletes? Unfortunately, in reference to my opening paragraph, we live in an age of six week training packages that call for reckless amounts of high speed treadmill work in order to ‘improve’ speed. When working with young athletes, make them understand the importance of good technique. Slow movements down and work on things at a decreased pace, eventually adding speed to movements until the athlete can exhibit high quality form at an increased pace.

Building a superior and injury-free athlete should be likened to developing as a good student. It takes a prolonged amount of time, requires the leaning and exhibiting of good habits and is built on a foundation in which skills and abilities are taught and perfected over time.

Six week training packages with sub-par instruction are not the answer.

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Brian,

If I am reading your post correctly you are saying that it is OK for younger kids 10-14 to lift weights??

Not that I doubt you but I always heard that for younger children since their bones were still softer that you could do a lot of damage.

So if it's ok to work on squats and cleans how much weight and how do you teach good form?

Doug

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Hi Doug,

Sorry it has taken me so long to get back to you... rough couple of weeks!

O.K...

The fact that kids shouldn't lift weights is an old myth. Kids play sports, jump, run, fall and do all kinds of activity-based exercise that places significantly more strain on their bodies than a simple external load would.

Remember, the ability of the body to perform or execute athletic based movements in grounded in the ability of the nervous system. If the nervous system is well-developed (via tons of athletic exposure) than the athletic ability will be high (although genetics plays a role here as well). The same holds true for strength training exercises... For the athlete to be able to perform the movements well and safely, a history of technical exposure is a positive.

Keep both volume and load low, but teaching a young athlete the concepts of HOW to perform strength and power training exercises from a technical perspective is one of the best things you could do for a young athlete.

How much weight to use is far to open a question to answer on a message board several variables play a role in that decision. I have always found that weighted bars (10 - 15 lbs.) work very well for instruction purposes, but that was not an endorsement.

Keep those questions coming!

- Brian

www.DevelopingAthletics.com

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