Training Young Athletes: What You Need to Know
If you work with children and adolescents, you have probably fielded thousands of questions from parents regarding the safety and validity of organized physical training. As a fitness professional, it’s important that you provide parents of your child clients with accurate, up-to-date information based on extensive experience, research and professional correspondence. Here are two questions you are likely to get from parents and some factual, practical answers that you can easily communicate to them. The end result: you will help to engender and foster a lifetime of fitness, wellness and successful performance for your young clients.
Question #1: Proper Training Age
“At what age should my child start participating in an organized training program?”
Human muscle innervation is completed around 6–7 years of age (Grasso 2005). This implies that the brain has formed its neural connections to the muscular system and that optimization of these connections can begin. This makes it more possible to perform coordinated activities. By 10–12 years of age, reflexive motor patterns are conditioned and relatively permanent (Grasso 2005). These findings suggest that introducing proper motor skills between the age of muscle innervation and the age of permanent motor pattern formation may be advantageous (Drabik 1996).
Research has demonstrated that children as young as 5 have experienced benefits from organized programs, such as resistance training (Annesi et al. 2005). However, while the neuromuscular system may be ready to acquire skill at a young age, starting on an organized regimen requires an adequate level of mental, physical and emotional maturity (Ashmore 2003; Drabik 1996; Grasso 2005). Regardless of age, the child must be able to focus, follow directions, understand coaching cues and be physically proficient enough to accomplish movements in response to cues. The criteria for beginning a program, therefore, have more to do with these characteristics than with exact chronological age (Grasso 2005). A physically and mentally capable youngster benefits from a well-designed program that increases motor coordination, strength, aerobic capacity, flexibility, bone health and a variety of other physical traits (Faigenbaum et al. 2009). Additionally, the child develops exercise habits that will mold his lifestyle for years to come.
It is essential that an organized training program for a child be safe, developmentally appropriate and engaging; it must offer the child an all-round positive experience. Much of the hesitation that parents feel is due to tales of inexperienced, overzealous coaches who implement unsafe, poorly designed programs—particularly in resistance training. During the 1970s and 1980s, data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System suggested that resistance training was a dangerous activity for youth, given the numerous emergency-room reports of injuries from exercises and equipment. When the data were revisited, however, researchers concluded that nearly all of the injuries resulted from improper training techniques, excessive loading, lack of adult supervision or faulty equipment (Faigenbaum et al. 2009). Current research has not discovered any overt clinical injuries during properly designed and supervised resistance training at any age (Faigenbaum et al. 2009).
Children of any age can benefit from organized training as long as they have the physical, mental and emotional maturity to address the demands of an appropriate, well-designed program in a positive, engaging environment. Be willing to share your expertise and educational credentials with parents, to put their minds at ease.
Question #2: Training Type
“What type of training should a particular athlete do?”
Parents often want to improve a child’s physical characteristics as they apply to a particular sport. When you consider the wide array of physical capabilities—strength, balance, coordination, power, visual perception, etc.—that combine to create athleticism, sport-specific training for youth is a ridiculous notion. A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that young people who participated in a variety of sports and other activities prior to puberty were more consistent performers, had few injuries and had longer athletic careers (AAP 2001). Regardless of the sport a youngster chooses to play, he will need to be proficient in all of the capabilities mentioned above in order to advance his level of play and learn positive exercise habits that last a lifetime.
Parents often confuse sport skills and general preparation. Every sport has a specific set of tactical skills. In soccer, for example, you must be able to dribble, pass, trap the ball and shoot. These are specific skills related to the game of soccer. These skills, however, are made up of more general physical capabilities, such as strength, coordination, balance, mobility, etc., that aid in creating overall athleticism. Even this wide range of general physical capabilities can be broken down into primary physical attributes, such as rhythm, kinesthetic differentiation, body awareness, movement adequacy and others (Drabik 1996; Grasso 2005). If you focus your training primarily on a specific skill set, you ignore the important foundations of that skill set.
The less experienced a child is with physical movement, the wider the range of physical abilities you must address. As the child becomes proficient in basic abilities, you can introduce more specific skill sets. For example, a young or physically inexperienced client should begin with movements that require very general physical abilities. Good choices include exercises and games that require skipping, marching, hopping, grasping, crawling, climbing, rolling, catching, throwing and kicking (Drabik 1996; Grasso 2005). When the child can accomplish these tasks well, move on to more specific preparatory activities, such as running, resistance training exercises (beginning with body weight), sustained cardiovascular exercise and other related athletic drills.
For answers to other commonly asked questions about youth sports, plus a complete list of references, please see “Educate the Parent, Empower the Young Athlete” in the online IDEA Library or in the January 2011 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.
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