I have trained young athletes for the past seven years. It has been a great experience inspiring the youth of America and making them better all around. During my many interactions with various athletes and teams, there have been some common statements being made in regards to properly training young athletes. Some are sound and logical statements, while others are extremely false. I am here today to address some of the fallacies of training youth athletes.
1. Ladder drills are good for speed development
Growing up, some of my coaches would use ladder drills during practice. They told me doing these drills were helping me become faster. Well to my coaches of the past, sorry, but this is far from the case. It amazes me how many coaches to this day implement ladder drills to improve speed in their athletes. There are many benefits of using ladder drills, such as improving coordination, and rhythm and conditioning for younger athletes. However, increasing speed is not one of these benefits. The two main ways to improve speed in a young athlete are focusing on technique and force production. Coaches get so caught up in using bands, bungees or insert whatever “toy” you can think of, that they often times fail to work on the fundamentals of speed development. The message: make sure your kid/kids run with sound technique and they can produce force from the ground up.
2. Kids should not engage in strength training
Speaking of force production, this can be improved upon by getting stronger. You get stronger by strength training. Seems logical right? Well, if this is the case, then why are so many coaches and parents hesitant and apprehensive about having children engage in strength training? Part of the problem is the perception of strength training. When they hear “strength training” associated with young athletes, they envision children under the bar squatting or benching with a good amount of weight, and ultimately having their bones and tendons compromised because of the heavy load. Although heavy lifting is a form of strength training, strength training does not solely equate to heavy lifting. Kids need to be strong and this is accomplished through lifting weights. Strength training for young athletes should be the ability to properly execute a body weight squat and push up, hip hinge, pick a load off the ground (dead lift) and walk with a small load (loaded carry). Only after perfecting these movements with zero to little resistance should a young athlete be loaded. If you follow these guidelines, not only will athletes be strong but structurally they will be in good shape.
3. Static Stretching is appropriate for kids
Flexibility should be part of a child’s athletic development. However, it is important to know what type of stretching young athletes (preadolescence) should engage in. Static stretches should be avoided because excitation dominates over inhibition in a child’s nervous system. Basically, it’s difficult for children to relax and concentrate properly on feedback from their muscles for periods as long as static stretches require. Therefore, young athletes should engage in dynamic flexibility training which is defined as the ability to perform dynamic movements within a full range of motion in the joint. An example of this would be a lunge with an overhead reach.
4. Early Specialization is good for kids
The goal of every parent or coach is to have their child maximize their athletic potential. Increasing one’s athleticism enhances the probability of athletic success at an elite level. Take any professional sport and chances are, in most scenarios, the best players are also the best athletes. Whether a child is playing an individual or team sport, they should be exposed to various movement patterns and participate in multiple sports up until high school. Perhaps more importantly, having your child partake in multiple sports can avoid mental burnout which often is the reason why many kids quit sports as they approach their high school career. One more interesting note, strength coach Eric Cressey stated in his blog recently how early specialization potentially redirects good athletes away from sport in which they could be sensational. It’s great if a kid either likes one specific sport or is really proficient at one, but if your child also has another interest parents and coaches should not discourage that.
Training young athletes or any athlete for that matter should not be putting together random exercises, having fun and hope they magically get a child bigger, faster and stronger. Youth training definitely needs to be fun but within the framework of fun should be a program that takes into consideration biological and training age of an athlete, their specific needs and the developmental process a child goes through as they transition from early childhood to preadolescence to adolescence. Coaches and parents who take this into account will have a better chance to maximize the athletic potential of any young athlete.
Jeff King is the Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10 and Author of Pigskin Prep: The Definitive Youth Football Training Program. Jeff has a master’s degree in Kinesiology. He has worked with hundreds of middle school and high school athletes at all levels from various sports over the past seven years and is very passionate about youth development.