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Training Young Athletes

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Periodization & The Young Athlete

The concept of periodization as applied to young athletes, can be a confusing issue at best. Classically, periodization principals involve organizing an athlete’s training schedule over a prolonged period of time (typically a year) in order to have the athlete peak appropriately at a single competition or event. The confusion with youth athletics often lies in the contemporary realities facing young athletes and their families –

·Classic periodization involves a definitive ‘off season’ or, more appropriately, ‘transitional period’ (which often involves a brief cessation from physical activity or participation in a different physical activity). There are numerous incredibly uneducated sport coaches who require their young athletes to make a 12-month commitment to one particular sport, but at the same time, do not offer appropriate and progressive developmental conditioning stimulus within that 12-month period. Supplemental training and exposure to other sports not only improves an athlete’s ability from a universal perspective, but also reduces the risk of overuse injury.

·Many Trainers and Performance Coaches preach the term and concepts of ‘periodization’ to their young athletes, but yet do not fulfill the obligations of that preaching by prescribing progressive and developmentally sound exercise stimulus within the context of a given year’s training program. Rather, training sessions are taken one at a time, without any thought as to where that athlete needs to be 6, 12 or 18 months down the road. As long as the current training session is ‘hard’, it is deemed effective. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

·Many sport-training facilities offer packages of 6 – 8 weeks worth of training – how can young athletes gain true, developmentally sound improvements in a window of only 6 – 8 weeks?

An important aspect to consider with respect to this article is that I do not have a problem with the concept of periodization (in fact most sport coaches I know have never even heard of the terms undulating or conjugated… where is Alwyn Cosgrove to educate these people!!), but more specifically the difficulty modern life presents in pursuing it properly, and the inability of many coaches and trainers to implement it appropriately.

This latter point is an issue that I find particularly irksome. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal outlined that $4 BILLION were spent in the United States on personal training and coaching for youngsters in the year 2000. With this incredible outlay of money, how many trainers and coaches diligently followed developmentally-sound aspects of strength and conditioning by training young athletes effectively with a long-term approach to health, safety and eventual sporting success? This quote is taken directly from Joseph Drabik and his book, ‘Children & Sports Training’. It sums up the difference between good and great coaches –

“Designing a training program that is appropriate in both load volume and load intensity is the essence of good coaching. Studies have made the process more of a science, but it still has the quality of an art about it as well. Taking into account the young athlete’s stage of preparation, biological age and the needs of the particular sport and tailoring all this to the unique individual before you – these are the factors that make the difference between a good coach and a great one”.

Speaking of training loads (which refers to the physical efforts put forth by an athlete) herein is where we begin our discussion on periodization and kids. Training loads can be split into three (3) groups –

1.General Loads – Exercises here are very versatile in nature and serve the purpose of preparing the body for future, more specific and intense loads. In general, exercises in this category DO NOT reflect the techniques used in a particular sport.

2.Directed Loads – Considered to be a style of ‘special load’, these exercises involve the same muscle groups as ‘special loads’, yet the movements are different. For example, a high jumper would incorporate various kinds of ‘jumps’ into their training programs that weren’t the same type of jump used in a high jump event.

3.Special Loads – Exercises, which involve the same movements executed in competition with adherence to form and technical ability.

With regards to athletic development, General Loads should comprise the bulk of the training for young athletes, well into the teenage years. In fact, it is not until around the age of 16 – 17 that the percentage of General Loads and Special Loads becomes roughly equal within the context of a given training program. Right up until about 15 years old, roughly 60 – 65% of a training program should comprise General Loads (or basic, versatile exercises that will serve to improve the athlete from a global perspective).

Now… how does all this fit together??

I was reminded today of a young athlete I know who plays volleyball very competitively. For conditioning, his coaches make him and his teammates go through a four-hour training session once per week that involves little more than jumping exercises (including jump rope, knee tucks and various other plyometric activities). The purpose of these sessions are to increase the youngster’s vertical jump – after all, in volleyball a big vertical is important! This kind of diluted thinking, unfortunately, is not unique.

How would periodization apply? Start with the basics – an athlete needs to be stable before they gain strength, and strong before they gain power. By providing little more than jump training, you have effectively cut out the two first elements, on which the athlete is built. Here’s how it might look in a good plan:

·Assessment – Structural concerns are established and corrected via therapy and/or corrective exercise if need be.

·Movement Training – Can these athletes move with any degree of efficiency? Develop a movement-based warm-up that incorporates basic elements of global coordination, functional strength and dynamic flexibility.

·Strength Training – THE missing ingredient in most pediatric training programs for my money. Strength is the basis for speed, power, agility and even flexibility (no good to be ‘flexible’ if you lack sufficient strength to use it properly).

·Eccentric Training – Before you unload thousands of jumping drills on kids, you may want to check how they land! Poor landing habits increase the likelihood of injury and reduce potential power. Teach kids HOW to jump and land BEFORE you expect them to it in countless drills.

·Power Training – Go ahead… now they’re ready!

By the way, the athlete I was referring to above is 15. If we had a 6 – 10 year old, the concepts of periodization and long-term development change altogether… We’ll save that for a different article!

The bottom line is that periodization is great, but is often implemented incorrectly with kids. If the ‘big picture’ isn’t kept in consideration with young athletes, what you do with them today sincerely doesn’t matter.

-Brian Grasso

Developing Athletics

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