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-
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.
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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 (www.nsca-lift.org).
Learn Olympic Lifts. USA Weightlifting has an excellent course and certification specifically geared toward teaching young athletes Olympic lifts (www.usaweightlifting.com).
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.
Appropriate functional movements for young athletes may challenge balance, demand core strength and/or be sport-specific in nature.
Single-Leg Squat: Challenges balance, improves lower-body and core strength.
- The knee should not extend over the toes as the athlete flexes at the knee and hip and then returns to the starting position.
Rotational Squat: Improves coordination along with lower-body and core strength. Excellent for racket sports, lacrosse and golf. Introduce this exercise after the athlete has mastered the squat.
- Begin with both arms straight and extended upward, holding onto cable or tubing.
- At the beginning of squat, keep arms extended back and hips rotated
- Pull cable across the body and down as the squat is performed.
- Finish with arms extended at or below the waist.
Standing Row: Perform the traditional seated row while standing. Make this exercise more challenging by adding rotation.
- Begin in a semisquat position with one arm extended across the body and holding tubing or cable.
- While rising to the extended position, perform a rowing motion, pulling the tubing across the body.
- Do not allow the back to collapse.
Kevin Christopher, MS, of Train for the Game in Atlanta, trains elite youth tennis players and incorporates the following progression as part of his low-back prehab program. Christopher believes this progression allows athletes to first become conscious of muscle activation in the abdominals and low back, and then maintain that awareness through more functional movements. He prefers to challenge athletes by increasing repetitions rather than adding large external resistances.
Kneeling Opposites: Improves awareness of spinal stability and challenges back extensor muscles with little or no stress on the spine.
- Begin on “all fours” and maintain a mild abdominal contraction to stabilize the spine.
- Keep spine in neutral position, and extend right leg and left arm so they are level with the rest of the body.
- Hold for 1 to 3 seconds and alternate legs and arms; repeat 20 to 30 times with perfect form (the body should not collapse, twist to one side or rock back and forth).
Side Bridge: This movement creates awareness of the transverse abdominus and internal and external obliques.
- Lay on one side with knees bent and heels behind body, resting on elbow nearest the ground.
- Raise hips off the ground and maintain strong spinal alignment.
- Hold position for 8 seconds; repeat 10 to 20 times.
- Increase difficulty by holding the position with legs straight and/or by adding repetitions.
Overhead Sit-Up Throw: Coordinates use of all core muscles.
- Begin seated on ground, back straight and knees bent.
- Coach tosses ball overhead and athlete catches it, lowering her body to the ground sit-up style while keeping her arms overhead.
- Athlete sits up and throws the ball back to the coach.
- Keep movement fluid (no pauses).
- Begin with a tennis ball or a very light medicine ball and perform 20 to 30 repetitions. Increase repetitions first and then increase ball weight as necessary.
Forehand and Backhand Throws (not shown):
- Assume an athletic ready stance facing a wall.
- Holding a light medicine ball in both hands and with nearly straight arms, rotate to the right, bringing the ball in the movement.
- Uncoil the hips and throw the ball forcefully into the wall.
- Perform 20 to 30 repetitions on each side.
Tag, “keep away,” dodgeball and many other games are excellent for improving speed, agility, change of direction and conditioning in young athletes. Try incorporating different sports for variety; encourage your athletes to be creative and help you develop new games. Here are some additional ideas.
Ball Drops: Improve speed, quickness, reaction and eye-hand coordination.
- Athlete assumes “ready” stance.
- Trainer stands three to five steps in front of athlete, grasps a tennis ball in one hand and extends that arm.
- As trainer drops the ball, athlete bursts forward to catch it after one bounce.
- After each successful catch, trainer moves one step farther from athlete to increase challenge.
Random Agility Test: Improves speed and agility.
- Place four cones 4 yards apart in a square.
- Athlete assumes “ready” stance in the center of the square. Trainer stands at the top of the square facing the athlete, stopwatch in hand.
- Trainer points to one of four cones and starts the watch.
- Athlete runs to the cone, touches it and returns to center.
- Trainer immediately points to another cone; athlete runs to it, touches it and returns to center.
- Drill is repeated until athlete has returned from the fourth cone.
- Trainer stops watch and uses the time as a baseline for future drills.
- The distance of the cones or the number of cone touches can be altered to make this drill sport-specific.
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 .physsportsmed.com/issues/1999/01_99/difiori.htm 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. www.nfl.com/news/story/6234645; retrieved January 2004.
Ramus L. 2002. Early specialization affects skills. Detroit News, www.Detnews.com/2002/healthcolums/0206; retrieved January 2004.
Allen Shankman, G. 1985. The adolescent athlete: Special considerations in conditioning the young athlete. NSCA Journal, 7 (3), 52-3.
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