by Brett Klika
A high school coach of mine once said “In sports, speed cures all evils”. In other words, if you are fast, you’ll always do well, in almost any sport. Speed is one of the most significant factors that set athletes apart in any sport, at any level. A small number of people are born with speed. They inherit the proper muscle fiber type, limb lengths, and neuromuscular system from their parents.
If your young athlete is not one of the above people, there are many ways in which speed can be developed and learned. EVERYONE is able to get faster. In the last 20 years, there have been many findings in the scientific community in regards to speed improvement, particularly for youth. Below are some guidelines as to scientifically founded ways in which your youth athlete can get faster. As far as an ideal age to get started, youth should be as active as possible from the time they can walk and run, but at about age 8, the neuromuscular system begins to mature to the point at which children can develop specific, repeatable, accurate, physical skills. Of course, factors such as attention span and social maturity will also play a large role in a youth’s training program. As always, we recommend seeking the assistance of an experienced, credentialed professional in designing a program for your child.
Unfortunately, with the video game revolution, many youth are in poor shape. Many youngsters are overweight, have poor endurance, and poor general fitness. If your child is fairly inactive, or overweight, you can help make them faster by merely improving their physical health profile. By maintaining a reasonable weight (without significant caloric restriction, and maintaining a healthy, normal youth diet) and increasing the amount of physical activity they do per day, running, jogging, biking, etc will make them faster, and set up good habits for the rest of their life. One of the most basic ways for a youth athlete to improve speed is to improve their strength. Many children are slow because they are not able to create enough force to move their body weight effectively. Strength also affects other things such as power development, balance, stability, and flexibility! Utilizing body-weight based exercises involving all major muscle groups is a safe, effective approach. Contrary to previous beliefs, modern research has demonstrated that even traditional resistance training, utilizing external weight can be safe and beneficial to children. It is imperative, however, that the athlete follow a strict progression-based program, paying extreme attention to proper form and technique, monitored by an experienced, credentialed professional. Improper progression, technique, and program design can put the child, and anyone involved with a strength and conditioning program at a high risk for injury.
One of the most basic ways for a youth athlete to improve speed is to improve their strength. Many children are slow because they are not able to create enough force to move their body weight effectively. Strength also affects other things such as power development, balance, stability, and flexibility! Utilizing body-weight based exercises involving all major muscle groups is a safe, effective approach. Contrary to previous beliefs, modern research has demonstrated that even traditional resistance training, utilizing external weight can be safe and beneficial to children. It is imperative, however, that the athlete follow a strict progression-based program, paying extreme attention to proper form and technique, monitored by an experienced, credentialed professional. Improper progression, technique, and program design can put the child, and anyone involved with a strength and conditioning program at a high risk for injury.
The neuromuscular system’s ability to transmit signals from the brain to the involved muscles for speed activities is an essential skill. This can be improved utilizing drills that involve rapid, sequential movements such as the agility ladder, skipping, marching, jumping rope, ambidextrous upper-body activity, reaction drills, and gymnastic drills. Proper coordination will segway into proper running mechanics drills.
Running technique is an extremely significant factor in creating and maintaining speed in young athletes. Proper technique makes movement more efficient, allowing for the correct muscles to fire in the correct sequence. Begin with basic coordination drills as mentioned above, and progress towards drills that are closer to actual running mechanics. For help on speed mechanics, consult a reputable speed coach.
For any athlete, a joint’s ability to utilize it’s full, natural range of motion is very important in regards to generating fast, powerful movements. This ability also decreases the likelihood of injury. Youth often begin life with extreme flexibility, but as they grow, this flexibility often decreases due to a number of factors. Daily pre-training warm-up and post -training stretching aids in an athlete’s ability to maintain flexibility as they mature. In addition, participation in cross-training activities that involve large joint ranges of motion such as martial arts, dance, and gymnastics, yoga, and Pilates will help significantly improve flexibility and joint range of motion.
Progression, Program Design, and Consistency
None of us were born being able to walk, run and jump. It took quite a bit of time to develop the strength, coordination, balance, etc., to be able to perform these skills safely and efficiently. One must look at a speed and strength program for an athlete in much the same way.
Young athletes are not physically mature professional athletes. Their body cannot achieve the same complex movement patterns, volumes and intensities as older athletes without significant injury, or frustration. Different athletes neuromuscular systems mature at different rates as well, what might work with one young athlete, may not work with another. Have a professional who is experienced with working with young athletes sit down with you and your child to design a progressive program that is specific for the developmental level of your child. Remember, with young athletes, they must enjoy and believe in what they are doing. If they are not capable of putting focused, mental effort towards a program, it may not only be a waste of time, it may be dangerous as well.
The consistency in which you approach a training program is essential. Practicing speed and movement skills on a consistent (an absolute minimum of 2, maximum of 4 days per week) basis is the only way in which improvements in skill will be achieved. All of the above factors will help your young athlete get faster and stronger, while decreasing their likelihood of injury. Remember, youth want to have fun. Involve them in a program that is rewarding, engaging, and will help improve their self esteem. Above all, any program should help establish a positive view of fitness and exercise to last them throughout life.
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 FitnessQuest10.com, ToddDurkin.com or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]