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The Youth Development Program For Champions

By Brett Klika

For anyone who watched this year’s Kentucky Derby, the tragedy of the injury and resultant euthanization of “8 Belles” after a second place finish left us wondering “Could this have been prevented?”  I watch the sports and news stations interviewing prominent veterianarians and horse experts talking about how often these horses are not mature and developed enough to handle the demands of the sport.  The money involved, however, incentivizes trainers and owners alike to push their horses to win with little or no focus on safety or long-term health.  This process often ends in injury, and in horse racing, that usually means death.  I preface the following by saying I have never been on a horse, more less trained one to race.  With the epidemic of injuries we are seeing in youth sports however, I can’t help but observe some interesting parallels.

The pressure is high for young athletes to perform.  Success in athletics results in a host of accolades, college scholarships, pro contracts, endorsements, etc.  As more young athletes become involved in sports, the more competitive it is to “rise to the top”.  With the pressure to win growing, America as a youth sports community has developed a very dangerous “win right now” view of training young athletes.  This has resulted in an exponential growth in athletic injuries in both males and females.  Numerous theories exist as to why this is happening, particularly with females.  The true answer boils down to one fact.  In America we have a poor, nearly non-existent model of youth athletic development.  We are interested in training to “win right now”, regardless of age or developmental level.

The purpose of this article is not to say that winning is not important.  It is.  In high-level sports it is everything.  My goal with all of my athletes is to create champions.  Creation however, takes planning, time, patience, and a colossal dose of reality.  The reality of athletics states that most “sports stars” are born “sports stars”.  They received great genetics, and as long as they don’t get hurt, they will always be great.  For those that were not born elite, the components of athleticism are skills, not gifts.  Skills have to be learned, practiced, and progressed.  It is often a long term process.  Many parents and athletes, however, don’t like to accept this reality.  They know their twelve year old has a tournament in 6 weeks, and they need to play the best game of their life, or the world as they know it, will cease.  A training plan is created to stack as much mental, emotional, and physical stress on the youngster as possible in that short amount of time to get them to “be their best”.  Forget how physically adept they are before and after the tournament, they have to play the “game of their life” for some reason at the age of 12.

This flawed thought process is what is shaping our youth athletic performance model in personal training and coaching.  An expectation for high performance in a short amount of time in a competitive market has created more of a circus venue than a training methodology.  Trainers get as caught up in the mess as the parents and athletes.  After all, they need to make a living, and that is made by making parents and athletes happy.  They rush the kids into programs and methodologies that they are not ready for, because if they don’t, the trainer down the road will.   

Everyone needs to take a deep breath.  If college scholarships are the point of concern, I don’t care what team or club an athlete is on, or what high school their parents moved to the district so they could attend, you can’t even sign a college letter of intent until your junior year.  For most athletes, that’s at age 16 or 17.  So in reality, the aforementioned 12 year old has more like 4-5 years to perform at their best.  If they have been training properly all along, they started a development program at about age 7-8. By the time they are 16 or 17, they have learned and practiced the physical skills of athleticism on a regular basis.  They have improved and progressed in sync with their natural maturation process.  New skills have had the adequate time and amount of repetition to become part of their playing repertoire.  After all, research suggests a new skill takes well over 10,000 repetitions to become automatic.   

So what needs to happen?  We need to start thinking more long term about our young athletes.  In order to create champions when it counts, we need to shift our focus from winning and performance at a young age to teaching and development.  This translates to a higher level of performance with a lower rate of injury during their mature athletic career. The former Soviet Union, which had more Olympic success than nearly every other country in the world, did not let their young athletes compete until about age 14.  Starting around the age of 6, their focus was on skill and overall physical development.  They aimed to get their athletes coordinated, strong, and fundamentally sound.  In turn, upon reaching the appropriate age, these youngsters were able to compete at a much higher level than their Western counterparts who had much more “competitive” experience.  While this model worked great in communist Russia, I agree it wouldn’t thrive in our Capitalist system.  After all we do not institutionalize our athletic youth.  Their system does, however, provide valuable insight as to a safe and effective system for training youngsters.

Young athletes should start an organized development program at about age 7.  This is the age the neural system starts to improve efficiency and can retain new skills effectively.  Focus should be on coordination, general movement technique for speed and strength, basic fitness, and fun.  The criterion for advancement is quality of the execution of skills.  As the youngster approaches pre-adolescence, the volume and intensity of drills can increase appropriately.  Still, more time should be spent on developing general, overall physical preparedness rather than developing skills for a single sport.  As athletes enter and undergo puberty, their new and more adult-like neural, muscular, and physiological systems can now respond to higher level demands.  This is the age to introduce competition, load, and a focus on absolute performance.  Quality of execution of drills is still the primary criteria for advancement, but at this stage, the magnitude of their performance becomes of greater relevance.  Developing specific skills for the sport, and consequently “winning” becomes more significant.

By following the above system, the physical development program matches the youngsters’ natural maturation process.  Since the two systems are in tune, injuries are dramatically decreased and ultimate performance is increased.  One part of the system builds on the next.  This program, like any good education system, takes patience, diligence, and hard work.  There is no short-term fix.  You cannot do in six weeks what the body needs many years to develop. 

Let’s be the ones who make a difference, educating our young athletes to be happy, injury free champions for 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, or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]

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