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Common Mistakes in Developing Young Athletes

When it comes to the understanding of various training methods utilized in the development of athletes across the globe, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to take notice that the majority of the research has been obtained from the study of elite level athletes. That's not by mistake. Elite level athletes are ideal research subjects because of their ability to produce more precise, more consistent movement and motor skills when compared to novice and intermediate level athletes.

This characteristic of inconsistency seen among novice and intermediate level athletes can be attributed to their more frequent fluctuations in developing motor skills such as neuromuscular coordination, muscle recruitment, and work capacity. Keeping that in mind, we can conclude that young athletes (ages 12-15 on average) should not be using the same training methods as elite athletes. Let's take a look at just a couple common mistakes when it comes to the training and development of young athletes.

1. Not Enough Focus on the Basics 

From a planning and organizational perspective, there are specific fundamental skills that must be addressed by the coach or trainer in their assessment of the young athlete to determine the athlete's level of 'readiness to train' or 'physical preparation'. Identifying the needs of the young athlete will determine what training method will develop the basics before more advanced, sport-specific training is initiated. The 'basics' can be considered as fundamental athletic attributes, which have been identified as:
  • Mobility
  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Kinesthetic sense (awareness of one's one body moving through space)
  • Rhythm
  • Relaxation
  • Timing

Young athletes are best served to spend the majority of their time working on developing the fundamentals of athleticism, as well as participating in many different sports. Doing so will help to raise what is known as "General Physical Preparation" or GPP. As GPP capability increases, so will the development of a multitude of sport skills.

This concept was a foundational component to the former Soviet Union's "Process of Attaining Sports Mastery" (PASM). Soviet sport scientists and coaches work together to determined that young athletes are ideally developed through participation in several sports up until their early to mid teenage years before specialization occurs. Participation in multiple sports allows for the development of a wide range of motor skills and athletic attributes. Coaches were responsible for identifying what attributes each athlete needed more time developing. This model allowed the Soviets to focus on developing young athletes in preparation for long-term success, not short-term results.

2. Misplaced Advanced Training Techniques 

Now that we have identified the development of fundamental athleticism and GPP to be of paramount importance, athletes and coaches should practice sound judgement when exploring advanced training methods. Too often advanced training is performed prematurely due to current trends that have been popularized on the internet, TV, or in magazines by 'experts' that misinform young athletes.

In regards to popular trends, one example is the widespread use of plyometric drills. The word 'plyometric' seems to provide some sort of lure to unknowing athletes, parents, and coaches that somehow plyometrics magically unlock the door to superior athleticism. The reality is, plyometrics, specifically high intensity plyos or shock training methods such as depth jumps, are the LAST form of training any young athlete should be performing. Compare this to commonly seen trends among 'speed and agility' coaches or programs, plyometric training is often performed from the onset of training. This is an example of misplaced and inappropriate training of athletes that can lead to unwanted outcomes, such as injury or forced adaptations that may hinder that athlete's long-term potential.

"[Children and youth should] avoid depth jumps and deep knee bends with heavy weights which can cause spinal column and knee joint injury." (3)

High intensity plyometrics place a great deal of stress on bone and connective tissue attachments. Contrary to conventional thought among parents and coaches, young athletes would be better served performing various forms of resistance training before plyometrics are considered. Resistance training is the optimal method for strengthening bone and connective tissue as well as muscle tissue in preparation for more stressful movements, such as plyometrics.

It is important to note that for athletes who participate in strength and power sports (football, hockey, basketball, baseball, rugby, track and field events), sport-specific movements performed during practice and competition contain enough of a reactive or 'plyometric' element that athletes would be better served developing other physical attributes, such as strength.

Why?

Plyometrics, like all power movements, are DEPENDENT on strength. A weak athlete who performs plyometrics without proper attention to strength training, only limits their power development potential and places themselves more at risk for injury. Athletes must first be strong before they can be powerful or explosive.

Athletic Development Considerations for Young Athletes:  

  • Encourage young athletes (up to 12-14 years of age) to participate in as many sports as possible.
  • Introduce general calisthenics, light medicine ball throws, and mobility drills well before loaded resistance training.
  • "The optimal period to begin [strength] training is 11 to 13 years for girls and 13 to 15 years for boys....the use of heavy weights in training should be avoided until adolescence; even then, one should continually monitor progress and recovery, and take precautions to protect bones, ligaments, and tendons." (3)
  • Emphasize the development of core stabilization and strength/motor control.
  • Stress the importance of quality of technique over quantity in the learning of new skills.
  • "Increase strength in sport-related movements to a level that permits sport technique acquisition without technical mistakes." (2)
  • Develop a system that creates a challenging and exciting training environment. Young athletes are not likely to commit to a sport or training program it they do not find it enjoyable.
  • Working with young and determined athletes is a rewarding experience. They deserve a knowledgable and experienced mentor, one who will keep a young athlete's development and safety in mind above all else. The training of young athletes requires a planning perspective by the coach. One must be focused on utilizing methods to build fundamental skills and ensure continual development. As skills are obtained, training becomes more specific to the athlete and their sport of participation.

Program design and organization accounts for the exercises used, the order of the exercises performed, the overall volume of training (sets, reps, load), etc. Program design becomes the defining factor of appropriate training. There is a science and an art to programming. Trainers, coaches, and/or programs that promote having your child lumped with a group of 8-20 kids, performing generally selected exercises will do a poor job of ensuring long-term athletic development because no one is taking into account if the work being done is appropriately targeted at an athlete's specific objectives. Commonly, these large group 'workouts' include forms of inappropriate training for young children, such as high-impact plyometrics, poorly coached/supervised resistance training exercises due to high number of athlete-to-coach ratio, arbitrarily selected number of reps or AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets in training resulting in fatigue and poor technical development, and high degrees of lactate training imposing unnecessary cardiovascular stress. Be informed and use this information to help you identify who is qualified to be working with your young athlete.

Sources: 

Verkhoshansky, Y.V.: Programming and Organization of Training. Sportivny Press: 1988.
Zatsiorsky, V.M.: Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics: 1995.
Hartmann, J. and Tunnemann, H.: Fitness and Strength Training for All Sports. Sports Book Publisher: 2001.xttext


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