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Conditioning Young Athletes: Tired vs Trained

by Brett Klika

As another summer comes to a close, it’s time for many Fitness Quest 10 athletes to head back to their teams. They’ve spent the summer learning and practicing skills to make them better for their sport. They’ve mastered efficient movement, established effective strength and stability, and developed the appropriate energy systems to keep them injury free and performing at their best. Our coaches look forward to watching these youngsters perform throughout the school year. As these youngsters (and not-so-youngsters) leave our care however, I would be lying if I said we didn’t have our apprehensions about what they are heading into. We are completely confident that our athletes are armed with the necessary skills to excel at the physical demands placed on them by their sport. Our confidence waivers unfortunately, when we consider their adeptness in dealing with the physical demands placed on them by their coaches. It would seem that the demands of the game and the demands of the coach should naturally be in line, but unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.

I truly believe it is never a coach’s intention to purposefully hurt or ineffectively train an athlete. Additionally, I believe that coaches at every level train their athletes with what they believe are the best, most effective means based on the available information. In some of the ineffective and downright injurious programs I have seen, the culprit lies somewhere between lack of available quality information, and a resistance or inability to attain it. As you can see, I’m not pointing the finger at coach’s character flaws, more the lack of good information. It’s my career passion to be proactive to this conundrum, and make information more accessable and applicable. If coaches chose not to use the information, I point the finger at their character flaws.

When designing an athletic conditioning program, it’s important to remember that athletic success is a culmination of properly executed athletic skills. The better these skills are developed, the better the athlete will perform. These skills can be general, like running technique, deceleration, acceleration, jumping, hand-eye coordination, etc., or they can be specific to the sport, such as shooting in soccer, throwing in baseball, and blocking in football. Development of general skills lay a foundation for the development of specific skills. When working with youngsters, it is essential to develop these general skills. This is done through specific drills designed to improve the efficiency of athletic movement. Warm-up and conditioning periods during sports practice are ideal times to implement these drills. Unfortunately with many teams however, warm-ups are often spent sitting around in a circle, doing toe-touches. Conditioning times are spent doing gassers or “gauntlets” until the athletes puke or fall down. The criteria for inclusion of a drill has more to do with how hard it is, rather than how it will reinforce skills that are important to the game. I am sorry to be honest here, but based on my experience, youth football is the worst.

Youth football coaches are given an unprecedented amount of time to focus solely on conditioning their athletes. They are required to spend the first 2 weeks of their practices focusing on this aspect of the game. During the summer we work with many youth football athletes. We spend a majority of our time teaching them movement skill, in addition to overall conditioning. They leave us and show up to football conditioning to do twenty 40’s, 100’s of up downs, then stairs, then, well, whatever the coach can think of. Within a week, all skill work is gone, favoring, “just trudge through it” movement. Truth be told, our athletes are unprepared for this. Don’t get me wrong, conditioning should present a significant element of fatigue, but once fatigue has become such a factor that the athlete’s movement does not at least approximate the rate or pattern that is seen in a game, it is no longer worthwhile. In addition, the young athlete is practicing slow, poorly executed movement, at a high volume.

We have youngsters coming in telling us about hellish “gauntlets” their coach puts them through. We assess them to find out they can’t skip, do a proper push-up, bodyweight squat, or lunge. These are the fundamental movement patterns that establish the skill sets for speed, agility, strength, power, balance, flexibility, and coordination. I have to ask then, what’s the point of these “gauntlets”? “Mental toughness” is a cop-out answer. James Smith, the strength and conditioning coach for University of Pittsburg, makes a great point in a recent article I read. He suggests that merely doing what your coach says over and over again has little to do with mental toughness. Mental toughness manifests in what you do on your own, your recovery, your off-field activities, the life choices you make. This is the truly tough work. No one is there to make you do it. If you want to instill true “mental toughness” in youngsters, get them to bring their post-workout nutrition to practice, make them sign a contract not to eat fast food 5 days before a game, swear off soda for the season, or participate in a charity activity ( of their own design). When the game is on the line, true personal conviction is the mental toughness you want.

As I said before, I want to be pro-active, offer accessible information. My suggestion for coaches is to evaluate the skill needs for your athletes based on the developmental level of the team. Educate yourself as to basic drills for improving movement skills for athletes at this level. Great authors in regards to these skills are Todd Durkin, Brian Grasso, Martin Rooney, Vern Gambetta, Mike Boyle, Lee Taft, and Mark Verstigan, to name a few. In addition, I will be making many of our youth development drills available on Fitness Quest 10’s video gallery ( If you’re not comfortable implementing these yourself, hire a professional. Most athletic development professionals can work with a team a couple of times, and provide a program that will be effective. The cost for something like this is generally minimal when divided amongst a large team or an organization. This will pay dividends as your athletes develop skills that will improve their performance, and minimize injury.

Use your warm-up and conditioning time to giving these athletes what they need to take their game, and their life, to the next level.

Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting, or by using the contact form below: [easy-contact]

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