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Kids' Sports Get Serious

by Tracy Morgan-Handzel on May 01, 2004

Exercise RX

A three-pronged approach to training young athletes.

Physical education (PE) may be waning in schools but sport participation among U.S. children and adolescents is on the rise. In 2001 SGMA International reported that more than 7 million high-school-age youth participated in at least one organized sport. The National Safe Kids Campaign estimates that nearly three-quarters of U.S. households with school-age children have at least one child participating in an organized sport. Sport experts agree that along with this increase in participation come two trends: early specialization and increased competition. And these trends are changing the face of youth sports and creating great opportunities for personal fitness trainers (PFTs).

Early Specialization, Increased Competition

Unlike the multisport athletes of generations past, many young athletes today participate in only one sport. Parents and coaches now widely believe that in order to achieve athletic success, young athletes must choose a single sport early and focus on it relentlessly. Kids don’t just play on recreational and school teams anymore, but practice and compete year-round on travel and club teams.

To compete at these levels, young athletes and their parents employ a variety of resources. Kids participate in sport-specific camps, get one-on-one coaching and hire personal trainers to assist them in their quest to become stronger, faster, better- conditioned athletes.

The PFT’s Role

Professional and collegiate athletes commonly hire personal trainers. The cutthroat nature of competitive sports at these levels makes sport performance variables such as speed, strength, power and quickness the difference between starting or sitting on the bench, and earning a lucrative contract or being cut. The value of an expert who can help athletes perform their best without injury is priceless.

Now even younger athletes are turning to trainers to improve their athletic performance in the hope of qualifying for a more competitive team, improving their ranking, earning a college scholarship or even increasing their chances of “going pro.” But in a field dominated by adult-related education and certification, even the most knowledgeable and experienced trainer may need assistance in training younger athletes. This article discusses a three-pronged approach to training young athletes to ensure their safety and help improve their athletic performance.

1. Incorporate Prehabilitation

It has been estimated that approximately one of three children incur an injury while participating in sport, and approximately 30 to 50 percent of those injuries are due to overuse (Dalton 1992). Overuse injuries such as tendonitis are more common today, whereas a decade ago acute injuries such as sprains were more common (DiFiori 1999). Athletes who experience overuse injuries lose 54 percent more training and/or playing time than those with acute injuries (DiFiori 1999).

Overuse injuries occur as a result of repetitive submaximal loading without adequate recovery or adaptation time (Difiori 1999; McGill 2002). Risk factors that contribute to overuse injuries in young athletes include developing bones, prior injury, inadequate rest/recovery and improper training methods. More training time and year-round play increase the risk for these injuries.

Increasing career longevity by decreasing injuries is one of the key objectives of training athletes at any age and level. Prehab is a common training practice that helps identify sport-specific injuries and incorporate strategies to prevent them. These strategies begin with strengthening the muscles, ligaments and tendons that surround a joint that may be prone to injury, and continue with improving joint stability, dynamic balance, specific movement patterns and core strength.

“Knee injuries are common in basketball,” says Todd Wright, strength and conditioning coach for the University of Texas men’s basketball team. “But prehab must be approached with the whole body in mind. Strengthen the muscles around the knee, then the ankle and hip. Attack the core and challenge balance to ensure that the knee is able to withstand a variety of forces from a variety of directions.” In his youth camps Wright incorporates many function-based movements, including a complex of lunges. Athletes perform lunges forward, backward and laterally while reaching both arms in a variety of directions. (See figures 1 and 2.)

Experts agree that, regardless of the injury, core training is an essential component of prehab programs. In Low Back Disorders, Stuart McGill, PhD, stresses the importance of not only strengthening the backs of young athletes but also improving spine stability and incorporating that into movements such as the squat and power clean. McGill stresses that stability cannot be achieved unless athletes learn to maintain a mild abdominal contraction throughout the given activity.

2. Introduce Athletic-Based Strength Training

Fitness-based strength training focuses on health benefits and changes in body composition; exercises are mostly isolative with hypertrophy as the main goal. Athletic-based strength training is a performance tool whose goal is not only increased muscular strength and power but improved neuromuscular efficiency and muscular coordination. To achieve those goals participants train movements that require the contribution of many muscle groups simultaneously or sequentially. These compound or functional-type exercises help improve the body's ability to rapidly develop force and to absorb force, as required in most sport situations.

Examples of exercises appropriate for athletic-based strength training programs include lunges, squats, ground-based presses and pulls, functional movements and Olympic lifts such as the power clean. The power clean is especially beneficial for athletes of any sport because it is an explosive total-body lift that helps develop lower-body power. It serves as the foundation of most collegiate and professional sport training programs. Appropriate functional movements for young athletes may challenge balance, demand core strength and/or be sport-specific in nature. (See “Functional Movements” below)

Regardless of the exercise, young athletes need to learn correct lifting technique before being challenged by external resistance, unstable surfaces or bilateral stability. Until puberty, coordination and balance are still developing and growth plates are not yet ossified. Performing an exercise incorrectly in a challenging environment only increases the risk of injury.

Approach weight training as an educational process in which mastery of technique is the goal. Then introduce challenges in small steps. Also, be sure to use appropriate equipment. Most strength training equipment is designed for the grip, limb length, torso height and strength of adults. Young athletes can more easily learn exercises and movements using equipment appropriate for their body size and evolving strength. Medicine balls, tubing, bands and broomsticks are easier for a young person to manipulate than adult-size training equipment.


3. Develop Athleticism Through Play

Remember when hide-and-seek, kickball and “keep away” were part of children’s everyday activities? Whether supervised by a PE teacher or unsupervised in the neighborhood, this type of play helped develop basic skills and abilities that served as the platform from which athleticism could be launched. Experts argue that as a result of specialization, young athletes are skipping this significant phase and have less of an athletic foundation on which to build. (Ramus 2002; McInally 2003).

A program that incorporates various playlike drills and activities that promote athletic development can be beneficial. These games and assorted drills can greatly improve speed, quickness, coordination, reaction and agility without requiring specialized sport skills. (See “Games Kids Can Play,” right.)

An Education Road Map

Young athletes are a growing market in need of capable training experts. To gain a more in-depth understanding of their needs and appropriate training methods, explore the following options.

Get Coaching Certification. The National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) offers a strength training certification geared toward athletic populations and provides many educational opportunities specific to youth athletes, as well as networking opportunities for coaches (

Learn Olympic Lifts. USA Weightlifting has an excellent course and certification specifically geared toward teaching young athletes Olympic lifts (

Specialize. Study human development and developmental physiology, especially as it relates to youth and exercise/sport participation.

Experience Youth Sports. Attend practices, games and matches in order to appreciate the demands placed on young athletes.

Develop Professional Relationships With Sport Coaches. Most coaches have a sophisticated level of knowledge of their sports. Tapping into that knowledge can be extremely helpful when developing performance programs for young athletes.

No matter what path you choose to take, training young athletes has many rewards. Not only is this a potentially lucrative market, but watching an athlete improve performance over time can be very fulfilling. In addition, the energy and spontaneity young people possess can make training them the most enjoyable part of your day.

Focus on individual, progressive improvements and be creative in your program execution so your athletes view training as a pressure-free process. This attitude will enable them to see the value of what you are teaching as they strive to become the best athletes they can be.



Burgener, M., Bielik, E., & Huegli, R. 1988. Teaching techniques #1: The power clean. NSCA Journal, 10 (6), 51-5.

Dalton, S.E. 1992. Overuse injuries in adolescent athletes. Sports Medicine, 13 (1), 58-70.

DiFiori, J.P. 1999. Overuse injuries in children and adolescents. Physician and Sportsmedicine, 27 (1). www retrieved March 23, 2004.

Faigenbaum, A. D., et al. 1996. Youth resistance training: Position statement paper and literature review. Strength and Conditioning, 18 (6), 62-75.

McGill, S. 2002. Low Back Disorders. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

McInally, P. 2003. Delay early specializtion in youth sports.; retrieved January 2004.

Ramus L. 2002. Early specialization affects skills. Detroit News,; retrieved January 2004.

Allen Shankman, G. 1985. The adolescent athlete: Special considerations in conditioning the young athlete. NSCA Journal, 7 (3), 52-3.

IDEA Personal Trainer, Volume 2005, Issue 5

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About the Author

Tracy Morgan-Handzel IDEA Author/Presenter

Tracy Morgan-Handzel, CSCS, has coached athletes of all levels for more than 10 years. Currently she is the executive director of Train for the Game in Atlanta, where she trains elite junior athletes....