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Training Young Athletes

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“Training Young Athletes is an Awesome Responsibility for Parents, PE teachers and High School Coaches Alike...Get it Wrong, and You Risk Damaging a Child’s Athletic Potential – Possibly for Life.”

How often have you heard it said “children are not miniature adults – so they shouldn’t be trained this way...”?

We all know this – and yet too often we still apply what are, in effect, scaled-down versions of adult training and conditioning programmes to our young athletes.

Part of the problem is this: it’s hard to find up-to-date, scientifically proven training resources for parents and coaches of young athletes.

That’s because the whole area of long-term athlete development is still a minefield of old-fashioned, out-of-date thinking.

Which is why I asked one of my long-term Peak Performance newsletter contributors to put his considerable experience in this area down on paper.

James Marshall has a skillset ideally suited to the task. He’s a great communicator – essential given that a lot of people who work with young athletes don’t have a formal training in sports science, so would benefit from a book that is jargon free – but not dumbed down! (I’m thinking here particularly of parents.)

James is also an experienced top-level athlete and coach. He knows first-hand what it is to train and compete with the very best – and how, in turn, to inspire and coach athletes. James trained in Karate at the Famous Marshall Street Dojo in London with top Japanese Sensei for 11 years. He also competed nationally and internationally, being on the Senior England squad for 3 of those years, before retiring in 2004 after the World Championships in Tokyo.

On the coaching front, James has worked with Great Britain Rugby League National and Regional age group camps, and with the England Rugby Union under-16s and Under -18s. He has also been working extensively with TASS athletes (the UK’s Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme) for the last 6 years.

And he is currently working with a group of athletes from a variety of sports who are preparing for London 2012 and the Paralympics.

So you can see why I’ve no hesitation in recommending James’ brand new workbook, Training Young Athletes, to every parent, school PE teacher and high school coach I know.

NB: over one-third of this book is devoted to a comprehensive collection of sample workouts – sports-specific exercises that you can take and adapt for use with your own young athletes, warm-up and cool-down routines, conditioning programmes, and more.

And because every one of them puts into practice the age-specific principles that are laid out in the rest of the book, you can be sure that you’re not asking a particular young athlete to train in a way that is inappropriate for his or current stage of development.

He even gives you several coaching session planner templates – a truly handy time saver for those who are short of time when facing a coaching session with the kids at the end of an already-busy day in the workplace.

The bottom line is this: James’ brand new work book is the most concise, practical and up-to-date resource I know that explains exactly how to work with young athletes – whatever their current stage of development or preferred sport. It’s even laid-out in a handy spiral-bound format—perfect for the school gymnasium or playing field environment.

Long-Term Athletic Development: understanding the ‘big picture’ so you get off to the right start

Children develop at different rates, with different physical abilities such as balance, strength and speed developing at different times.

Unfortunately, the school and club system puts children of similar chronological age in groups together, even though these youngsters may be at quite different biological ages. For example a 14-year-old boy could still be prepubescent or, biologically speaking, a man, and so the two should be trained differently (guess which child most coaches select as part of their teams to win at that age group!).

Also, girls generally mature earlier than boys so putting them in the same training group with the same exercises may not be appropriate either.

A lot of teachers and coaches talk about ‘natural talent’, and whilst it is true that there are certain individuals who are genetically different (nature), most of what can be called ‘talent’ is simple skill acquisition, rehearsal and lots of practice (ie nurture).

So in the first chapter of Training Young Athletes we look at some of the background behind how your child develops so that you understand the principles of training that should be applied at each stage of their development. We also show you exactly how to identify what stage of growth your child is at.

Then we take a closer look at the right way to go about long-term athletic development – the process of developing a child’s physical abilities over time. It is best linked to a child’s biological age rather than his or her chronological age. As the body grows and develops, it is trying to organise itself into an effective mechanism for movement, reproduction and survival. The body has certain windows of opportunity at different points of growth, which allow for better adaptation of physical characteristics. Here environmental influences can help the process, or hinder and confuse to some extent.

The physical characteristics are often called the 5 Ss: skill, strength, speed, suppleness and stamina. To some degree they can all be trained throughout the child’s development past the age of six, but care and attention has to be taken in how this is done.

Overdoing the wrong type of training at the wrong time can lead to injury at worst – or the inhibition of maximal levels of physical capabilities in the mature adult at best.

Ideally, each characteristic is better emphasised at different times and to different degrees. This allows safe and effective progression of the child’s fitness, and will allow them to build on each stage as they mature into an adult.

NB: not all the areas develop simultaneously; there is not a simple step-by-step progression in a pre-defined order (as any parent of two or more children will know by observing the differences between them). Instead, each characteristic will develop independently, sometimes concurrently, but mostly at different rates.

In Training Young Athletes we explain how to go about this the right way. We also identify the key indicator for trainability, where the child is growing at his or her fastest rate, and how you should use this in your performance assessment and training plans.

The chapter includes a handy table that identifies and explains the 6 individual growth phases, and which trainable attributes apply to each stage of growth.

We also discuss the pros and cons of early specialisation – a key issue is training young athletes about which there has been considerable debate. Should a child settle into a particular sport from an early age, or continue with a range of activities to ensure better all-round development.

Achieving Structural Integrity: how do you get the best all-round physical development?

Physical activity and sport requires the body to move fast, jump high and long, turn around rapidly in unpredicted fashions and to keep going when fatigued. Lots of these movements are asymmetrical in nature - think of a long jumper planting on the same foot at take-off, or a tennis serve, or a javelin thrower.

Now children naturally regulate themselves during play; they will sit down when tired, make up different movements and then try something different. The problem occurs when adults get involved and start asking the children to keep repeating the movements. Often young people are put through the motions without assessing whether their bodies are aligned to do this.

Repetition of these one-sided movements, especially during growth phases, can lead to the body adapting and developing abnormally.

An example of this is cricket fast-bowling, where the loads and demands on the body can lead to back, shoulder, neck and lower-limb injuries. While playing-time in matches is limited by regulations for young players, the good young cricketer may also play for an age-group up, and their local village side. This can lead to three or four matches a week in the summer. Couple that with winter nets training and the short-term drive to improve can lead to long-term damage.

What is called for is a broad range of activities from both a motor-skill development and also a physical development perspective.

The good news is that structured physical training can help develop the young athlete so that they rectify and prevent most potential problems. The balance between play, games and physical training and development is a crucial one. Too much play and things can get missed on the physical development side. Too much physical development and skills and decision-making get neglected. Too much games time leads to overtraining, poor skill development and injury risk.

So in the next section of Training Young Athletes we set out the core principle of structural integrity. The discussion kicks off by identifying then explaining the four principles of training – which are essential to enhancing future work.

Each young person will have different levels of ability within each category, and it is deciding which area that is most essential for the individual that is key. This also varies from body part to body part within the same athlete. However, experience teaches us that the same one or two pillars are either sound or problematic in each athlete.

Then we look at some sample exercises that can help you assess the structural integrity of your young athlete. Ideally, a joint physiotherapist/athletic development coach with screening would be present, but this is unlikely to happen with limited funding opportunities.

Instead, you can use these five structural assessment exercises to assess where your athletes are now, then look at the supporting exercises to help improve the areas that need work on. The five testing exercises can then also be performed as part of a training programme to help maintain the work you have done.

NB: it is useful to assess this every six months to ensure that you are not missing any key points. If any of your athletes are carrying an injury, or you suspect that they are, it is important to get medical advice before proceeding.

Our discussion includes full details of a structural integrity exercise plan – ten exercises in all, fully-explained for you. It concludes with an explanation of how best to integrate a flexibility programme into the training activity.

Movement Patterns and Motor Skill Development: how to get it right

Most people take movement patterns such as crawling, rolling, walking, running, jumping, skipping, throwing, catching and balancing for granted. These patterns form the foundation of all sporting skills to some degree or another. By training the basic movement patterns and enabling the young athlete to perform them faster, more often and without getting tired, the ability to improve skill levels is increased.

If the young athlete can’t do these things well, they may be slower at taking up a new skill, or not able to perform it to a high level.

Some young athletes excel early because they have been given a lot of sport-specific training. This is especially true in precision sports where the limited number of movement patterns involved mean that a high degree of specialisation can be developed. While this is good for junior competition in the short- term, the early acceleration of motor skills might lead to a subsequent plateau. Also, what happens if your child decides to change sports at 13 or 14, or starts a new school or moves house where there is no access to his specialised sport?

Depth and breadth of training at a younger age allows a higher peak to be reached in the long-term. The more a young athlete learns, the more able they are to learn new things.

It is generally assumed that it takes 10 years of practice or 10,000 hours to achieve an international standard of sporting achievement. There really are no shortcuts, but having the right training background at each stage of development will help the youth performer develop into an international at senior level.

So the third chapter of Training Young Athletes looks at how motor skills are developed, the basic movement patterns and how to enhance them. We then examine the critical issue of how best to structure practice so that skill development is accelerated and remains constant when you need it - competing in sport.

Again, what’s essential here is to focus on fundamentals. Physical fitness and sporting uptake in children is greatly affected by motor-skill competence. Acquiring competence in fundamental motor skills (FMS) such as throwing, kicking, and jumping in early childhood (two to five years of age) aids neuromotor development later in childhood. This then allows the development of more precise skills.

The development of ballistic (fast moving) FMS involves multi-segment movements - the coordination of different joints, limbs and muscles. This places an increased demand on the neuromuscular system to generate and transfer energy optimally through the kinetic link system (ie optimising control and coordination).

Throwing an object provides a good example. At first, your child may throw underhand or overhand, but will do this before they can stand. This involves an arm action using only the shoulder joint. The throwing then progresses to standing and throwing, possibly with some rotation of the waist, and also hand involvement. Next will be a step and throw - with the step being on the same side as the arm. Next will be an opposite leg step and throw, which is a really complicated movement requiring high levels of coordination. The final stage will be a run and throw with a plant leg (like a javelin thrower), which is very advanced.

The accumulation of the various joints involved means greater speeds and force can be achieved than just by using one joint alone. This has to be developed in stages, and teaching children advanced throwing methods at years 6-8 if they have not mastered the fundamentals will result in frustration and likely failure as the child (or teacher) gives up. Remember, we are trying to challenge the systems so that they have to learn and adapt, and the children improve as a result.

The question is, what can you do as a parent or coach to help with appropriate motor skill development? The good news is: rather a lot.

So in Training Young Athletes we set out a range of exercises and activities that you can do and encourage to help your child develop motor skills. Once they have developed their movement skills, they can develop different skills that allow them to coordinate movements.

NB: these motor skills are best developed at different times. So we set out for you which are the most appropriate ones at each stage of development.

Resistance Training: what role could this possibly have in training young athletes?

When asked about resistance training (RT) for children, most parents and even PE teachers would not allow children to lift weights before the age of 16. However, these same parents and teachers might allow or encourage the young athletes to turn up to training wearing various degrees of knee braces and ankle supports. However, RT has been shown to help prevent injuries in young people, while knee braces and ankle supports have not!

What we need to remember is that children play sport to get fit and active, but it is also the number-one cause of injuries in adolescents. Resistance training is still looked upon as dangerous for young people, but with the intensity and volume of sport participation not about to reduce, it may be necessary to change this way of thinking.

Going from the sofa to a sports pitch with no intermediate steps could lead to the breakdown of your child’s body.

Playing six matches a week of the same sport at age 12 is highly likely to lead to injury. This is quite common practice amongst young people, and is not frowned upon, yet lifting weights is seen as ‘bad’. Jumping, running, throwing, tackling, braking and turning are all helped by RT. In fact, trying to do these activities without RT could lead to injury.

As we discussed earlier, injury prevention is an important part of training the young athlete. A suitable RT programme will help prevent injuries, but also allow the young athlete to cope with the demands of training. Far from causing injuries, RT can help prevent injuries in young athletes, but parents and coaches may not be aware of this evidence.

The bottom line is this: as the young athlete develops, RT will help enhance their sporting performance – but only if done correctly and under supervision.

So in the next chapter of Training Young Athletes we highlight some of the modes of RT, the evidence to support it and suitable plans for pre and post-pubescent children. First we set out the cardinal principles of RT for children – what sorts of equipment should be used, which exercise routines are best, what are the right loads to be used with children of different ages and development, and what’s the best balance between exercise and rest?

You’ll find out what different approaches to take with 9-10 year-olds compared with those who are 2 to 3 years older. And you’ll learn how best to choose which exercises to use when putting together a training plan, then how to progress the training in such a way as get the maximum gains without exposing the young athletes to the danger of injury.

NB: the discussion includes a detailed examination of several sample session plans – each one specially designed around the needs of a particular age group of children.

I reckon this section alone is worth the price of the book – there’s so much misunderstanding out there about whether or not to do resistance training with kids – and how best to go about it, if you do!

Endurance Training: recognising the very different needs of young athletes

Endurance is an important component of almost every sport and so must be considered a high priority for every young athlete.

However, the physiology of young people is different from adults. Children are using energy to grow and develop; they have shorter attention spans, and get tired more easily. They need to develop their endurance accordingly. Imposing adult-style endurance programmes on young athletes is both ineffective and potentially harmful. Instead, a long-term approach should be taken over months and years that allow a safe and effective development to take place.

The ability to resist fatigue will allow the young athlete to concentrate more, develop greater skills, and to execute correct decisions at the key points in matches. Injuries often occur when the athlete is fatigued and either loses concentration or cannot maintain proper form when playing or training.

In this next section of Training Young Athletes we examine the different modes of developing endurance in young people as well as structuring sessions that are suitable for their development. The discussion centres on the three key stages in a child’s development where endurance is most appropriately trained.

Because endurance training is cumulative over long periods of time it’s critical to get the foundations and early practices right. So we place a lot of emphasis in this section on monitoring and assessment checks to ensure the young athletes are not being overworked.

Warm-ups, Cool-downs and Flexibility Training: essential, yet often-overlooked ingredients of long-term sporting success

At a young age children don’t really train - they play and participate. Perhaps warm-ups and cool-downs aren’t necessary until they get older and perform organised activities. They self-regulate how they stop and start movement.

However, when adults start to get involved and exercise lasts longer, should more preparation take place?

Think also from the child’s point of view. If they have been stuck in an exam hall, or driven to training for an hour, then they need to prepare mentally and physically for their sport. Similarly, if they are returning to class or driving home, how they stop their sport is also important. Throw into the mix the myths and misconceptions about stretching and flexibility development and it is no wonder that most young athletes are ill-prepared and confused about how to warm up, cool down and stretch.

So in Training Young Athletes we next examine the purpose and structure of warm-ups and cool-downs, and the need for flexibility training in young people. We kick off the section with a close look at the purposes and pitfalls of warm-ups. Because this is an area of sports training and conditioning that is often misunderstood. Then we look at how best to integrate warm-up principles into workouts in a way that doesn’t put young athletes off the activity that is to follow.

The discussion then switches to cool-downs, an essential first step towards post-session recovery. We identify the right ingredients for a cool-down session, and look at some activities you can use that are appropriate with young athletes, depending on their age.

We end off the section with a consideration of the importance of incorporating flexibility into daily routines. But how best to do it? In Training Young Athletes we give you the answers.

Coaching Young Athletes: founding principles of success

As we discussed earlier, young people are not miniature adults. Not only are their bodies different, but also their emotional, social and intellectual needs are different from adults.

Coaching them is a big responsibility.

There is a duty of care placed upon the coach by parents who have left their child in someone else’s hands. The parent who has started off by teaching their child to run, catch and pass may find it difficult to cut the apron strings when they are handing over responsibility to a new coach.

So no book on coaching young athletes would be complete without considering the unique challenges that young people face, and giving some guidelines for parents and coaches on how to support, develop and manage this process.

This section of Training Young Athletes examines the duty of care faced by sports coaches and PE teachers – and the way in which this responsibility evolves over time as the young athletes mature. It also identifies the specific ricks that you face as a coach of children – and what practical steps you can take to guard against problems arising.

The discussion then moves on to the challenges of being an appropriate role model, coping with issues around peer pressure, goal-setting for young athletes, and the development in them of appropriate levels of mental toughness and emotional maturity – all of them vital for competitive success in the short- and long-term.

Remember: the foundation you help your athletes lay down in these early years may well go on to shape their sporting success in the decades to come!

Sports Nutrition in Young Athletes: what you eat shapes how you compete

The body needs fuel for growth, repair, movement and for thinking power! Young people need more of it as they grow and develop and healthy eating is an important part of a young person’s athletic development. Unfortunately, they are often not the best people to manage their own diets!

A big assumption is often made that children sleep well and eat well. However, inadequate rest is more prevalent, so the smart coach and PE teacher should assume that any new young athlete who comes to them is sub-optimally hydrated and nourished, and doesn’t sleep well.

Having the energy for training and studying means that eating and drinking fluid throughout the day is essential. However, the logistics of organising a day’s food and drink, homework, training and playing kit means that shortcuts are often taken.

With young people, it is key to get the parents involved and it is a good idea to check their bedtimes, lunch boxes and water bottles. One problem is that extra classes often happen over lunchtime or after school and this could mean skipping a proper meal.

After all, no fitness programme will work properly unless the rest and recovery aspect of training is looked after.

There is a lot of information that parents, coaches and children have to deal with. The food supplementation and dieting industries are massive and spend a lot of time and money trying to get your attention. This can confuse and cost the parent who is busy trying to juggle lots of different things and do the best for their child.

So the next-to-last chapter of Training Young Athletes sets out the necessary fundamentals for constructing a healthy eating plan, providing guidelines for the parent and coach, as well as tips on what and when to eat and drink.

Logically we kick off with breakfast – the most important meal of the day! Then we discuss a range of important issues including hydration, the timing of meals, when snacking is a good thing, supplements, and the issue of puberty and the young female athlete.

Sports Nutrition in Young Athletes: what you eat shapes how you compete

“Work, rest and play” is a familiar term to an older generation. Nowadays it might be “work, work and more work”. Your body doesn’t get fitter during the training session. It gets fitter during the period between training sessions.

Recognising the need for physical, mental and emotional recovery from physical activity and the sporting environment is very important. It is very often overlooked because it appears to “passive” or it happens away from school and the Club. This is a grave error and could limit your child’s progress, potentially leading to illness and \ or injury.

It is very often a combination of poor diet and poor recovery that restricts the young athlete’s ability to match their peers in training over the long term.

Coaches and teachers see the young athlete in their session, which may be once or twice a week. They train them, work them hard and then see them a few days later. A massive assumption is made by thinking that the child will have recovered by the next session. The “sporty” kid will be asked to train and compete for several different sports, sometimes on the same day.

Young people recover relatively quickly from the right type of training, because they are quite good at self regulating the work rate and tempo of the session itself. The accumulation of work from several different sessions, plus fatigue from travel, school, lack of sleep and poor diet will mean that the child does not recover between sessions. 30% of team sport players in the 16 –20 year old age group suffer from staleness.

So the final chapter of Training Young Athletes investigates how much recovery is enough, how to enhance and accelerate the recovery process and how to measure its effectiveness. At a young age the athlete will not have one overall Coach monitoring this situation, so it is probably up to the Parent to take overall charge.

Our treatment of the issue kicks off with a discussion of the three types of recovery – and how best to optimise them. Then we look at how to go about planning the sporting week in such a way as to avoid fatigue in the first place.

After all prevention is better than cure!

This part of the discussion lists some particularly useful practical tips for coaches to use, and 3 relaxation strategies that young athletes can use at home.

The section wraps up with a particularly important, yet often overlooked issue, namely sleep. Without sleep, the body can not physically repair itself, or allow mental and emotional recovery. In fact, all the other recovery strategies could be regarded as stepping stones to allowing a good night’s sleep. So, practical to the very last page, the final section of Training Young Athletes sets out a number of useful sleep strategies for parents, coaches and children alike.

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