Identifying, Understanding and Training Youth Athletes
Sports conditioning coaches are in a good position to help younger athletes perform at their peak.
Who will be the next Tiger Woods, Mia
Hamm, Michael Jordan or Venus
Williams? Many parents believe that,
given the right amount of training,
coaching and perseverance, it could be
their child. There is a certain mystique
about talented athletes, whether they are
amateur Olympians or professionals,
because of their sports mastery and the
skills they display. It is not an easy path to
success, and few achieve this dream at the
A lot of parents hope their child will
receive an athletic scholarship, not just
to help finance expensive postsecondary
education, but also as a prestigious
feather-in-the-cap for both the proud
parents and the youth. While only a tiny
percentage of athletes advance to the
university varsity level or higher, the
other 99% will enjoy and stay in sports
for life if they can improve their skills
and have a positive experience.
Predicting success in sports is a challenge
at any age, because so many factors impact
long-term performance. When children
are young, it is very difficult to
determine whether they have the right
physical, psychological and sociological
make-up to be top-level athletes. Combine
this with the unknown outcomes
of growth and development through
puberty, and trying to accurately predict
athletes’ future performance levels can
be like playing the lottery.
With this in mind, we can attempt to
create a better experience for all involved—kids, parents, coaches, scouts
and recruiters—by doing what we can to
analyze and predict long-term sports success.
By quantifying the athletic talent
required for success, we can help parents
harness their enthusiasm, focus their
expenditures and spend more time enjoying the
childhood and youth sports experience. More than 50%
of North American children have their first experiences in
organized sport by age 8 or 9, and participation rates continue to
rise through the childhood years (Malina, Bouchard & Bar-Or
2004). Parents who understand the athletic attributes needed for
sports and who know where to source specialized coaching can allow
children to enjoy their athletic development as they follow tangible
steps to improve their sports abilities in measurable ways.
From a coaching perspective, understanding athletic ability
and potential gives greater vision in athlete selection and overall
team development. Coaches of young athletes may prioritize
training that improves athleticism as opposed to focusing on the
immediate desire to win. The goals should be to encourage
healthy activity for inactive kids, teach life skills, develop a long-
term enjoyment of sports and give naturally gifted athletes the
tools that will help them perform at an elite level.
Predicting athletic success is challenging. If a child excels at
a young age, there is no guarantee that this will carry into later
childhood or the teen years. Young athletes exist in a continuum
of ability from below-average to exceptional. While some of them
will excel, as many as 70% of children will not pursue sports past
their teenage years (Brown 2001).
Gone are the days of free play with neighborhood friends—they have been replaced with organized sports and scheduled activities
to support athletic success. Many athletes are specializing
in one sport at very early ages in hopes of a professional career,
encouraged by parents who may have specific dreams or plans
for their child. Kids who are streamlined into a single sport early
in life are robbed of more varied experiences critical to developing
overall athleticism. A lower athletic base ultimately limits
their sport-specific improvement potential and can lead to
burnout. The focus should be on helping young athletes develop
skills they will draw on at an older age when they are actually
ready to capitalize on sport specialization.
The development of athletic talent is a long-term process.
Through the athlete development cycle, an athlete progresses to
the highest level of his or her ability based on a well-designed
plan that allows for long-term improvements. Scientific research
has concluded that it takes a minimum of 10 years and 10,000
hours of training for a talented athlete to reach elite levels
(Ericsson & Charness 1994; Salmela et al. 1998). This translates
into more than 3 hours of training daily for 10 years (a commitment
that few can or will make). In sports circles, this is referred
to as the “10-year rule,” and in the preparation of Olympic athletes
it is supported by both the U.S. Olympic Committee (2202)
and Canadian Sport Centres (2006).
Over the past decade, the sports conditioning field has seen
considerable growth in science and practical training alike. In the
past, programs had focused on the development of sport-specific
skills, strategies and tactics, with most training coming from
coaches during regularly scheduled team practices. Sports
coaches simply mimicked the sport-specific movements in the
conditioning setting without paying much attention to injury
prevention, overuse syndrome or overall development. Then,
head coaches in some sports began enhancing the training by improving
physical traits rather than just replicating specific movement
patterns; for example, to improve sprinting ability, track
coaches focused on leg strength, power and speed through multijoint
lifts and plyometrics. Along with this trend came the use
of strength and conditioning coaches who devoted their role to
improving each athlete’s unique physicality.
Later, as the personal fitness trainer (PFT) field grew, specialty
education helped trainers working with athletes to differentiate
their skill sets. Today, there are certification
programs that designate PFTs as sports conditioning specialists
so they can address specific sport-related demands and
Athletes and coaches are constantly seeking an advantage over
the competition and searching for new tools (including the
intangible factors that can make the difference between winning
and losing) to help them achieve this edge. There is a constant
drive to go faster, jump higher and be stronger. The focus of
sports conditioning goes beyond training, marking the difference
between having a ripped, more fit body and eliciting peak
athletic performance from a smarter, more skilled body. This is
reflected in the sports conditioning workout curriculum and
To develop a great athlete, a sports conditioning specialist
must design an exercise program that considers many unpredictable
situations in which the athlete is forced to read and
react to events quickly. Reaction speed and efficiency often
determine an athlete’s success in beating a defender, preventing
a move from an offensive player or even avoiding objects (as in
skiing and snowboarding). Ultimately, the ability to read a situation,
react and skillfully maneuver the body could decide the
outcome of a game or sporting event. Success in sports is based
on the ability to move in multiple directions in a smooth and
coordinated manner. Winning each “small” challenge along the
way is what adds up to a final win.
Physical size seems to play a big part in children’s sports, as
greater size translates to more strength, longer levers, enhanced
speed and other sport-specific skill advantages. When describing
the physical attributes that contribute to success, we focus on
physical size, strength, power, strength/power endurance, speed,
quickness, agility, movement skills, deceleration, balance, reactivity,
aerobic power, anaerobic capacity, flexibility, coordination
and body awareness.
Each sport requires a different combination of these physical
characteristics for success. When designing sports conditioning
programs for young athletes, it is important to match the appropriate
skills with each sport’s requirements, while also evaluating
the strengths and weaknesses each athlete has in the above areas.
Coaches (and parents) can complete an anecdotal evaluation
of young athletes to develop a general physical-skills checklist.
Knowledge of growth and development trends can assist in this
process by determining what can be trained and improved at different
stages of maturity. Research published in 2005 by Balyi and
others discusses optimal windows of trainability based on age
and gender. All physical systems are trainable, but during the
phases of growth and development there are specific time frames
for females and males that should be areas of focus for sports
conditioning coaches. Generally, for children ages 5-10, the training
focus should be on flexibility, sports skills and speed. During
the peak height velocity years of youth (puberty), there is an opportunity
to make great improvements in aerobic capacity and
speed. Once puberty has progressed, the development of strength
should be the focus (ages 13—14 for females and 17—18 for males).
The Canadian Sport System integrates all athlete/sport development
programs based on the Long-Term Athlete Development
model (www.ltad.ca) developed by Istvan Balyi. This model provides
an excellent summary of valuable growth, maturation and
sport-related research—as well as practical considerations—that
all sports and conditioning coaches should understand. Trainers
can also refer to IDEA Fitness Journal to access growth- and mat-
uration-moderated youth training guidelines (Anderson & Twist
Development of the physical characteristics needed for sports
success can be accomplished through a variety of methods. For
example, an athlete can develop great balance and lateral quickness
from soccer and then apply those skills to basketball. For
focused, timely development, an athlete can work in a sports conditioning
training center under the supervision of a specialist
who can correct and perfect movement mechanics, which can
also reduce the incidence of injury on the playing field. Research
shows that athletic training and competition do not appear to
accelerate or decelerate the growth and maturity of young athletes
regarding height, body proportions or sexual maturation.
However, athletic training does have a significant impact on body
composition (decreased body fat), motor skills, aerobic power,
bone mineral content and skeletal muscle development, giving
athletes performance advantages and long-term health benefits
(Malina, Bouchard & Bar-Or 2004). Also, the earlier the athletes
establish neural and motor improvements, the sooner these
upgrades can be used to accelerate their progress.
Without proper sports conditioning, physical skills will disintegrate
under duress and fatigue—even in athletes with the
mental and emotional attributes and stamina to be the best in
critical competitions. In other words, athletes don’t rise to an
occasion—they sink to the level of their training; so the training
bar needs to be set high.
The training style for youth that we advocate at Twist
Conditioning has been packaged into three primary pillars of
sport movement: agility, quickness, multidirectional speed,
external reaction skills, coordination, acceleration and
sport strength: muscular, whole-body, multijoint strength;
muscular endurance; explosive power; power capacity; acidosis
tolerance; and recovery efficiency
sport balance: stability, kinesthetic awareness, proprioception,
neuromuscular pathways, transitional balance and internal
The primary fitness characteristics of aerobic endurance, flexibility
and body composition compose the general fitness base
from which all athletes build their sports conditioning. The
anaerobic energy systems, which drive all three pillars, are more
intimately tied to sports conditioning.
The Twist Sports Conditioning Paradigm (see Figure 1) shows
the discrete and interconnected variables of the three pillars of conditioning.
Trainers manipulate stimulus to stress specific systems
in order to challenge and grow each distinct ingredient within each
pillar. The entire training plan is athlete-centered and should be
based on the following considerations: age, gender, growth stage,
psychological development, physiological strengths and weaknesses,
specific sport requirements and experience. The magnitude
of this list shows the complexity of developing a safe and effective
training plan for children and youth.
Later-maturing youth are at a higher risk of being cut from
their sports as they navigate the advancement hierarchies, which
quickly narrow from community mass participation to a smaller
pool of elite players. As this narrowing occurs at younger and
younger ages, those kids who could—with time to mature and
train—become elite athletes, are more likely to be cut entirely
(Hutton & Narayanan 2006). These late bloomers need to receive
training resources to get the most out of their physiques so they
can stay competitive.
Sports conditioning is also important for early maturers so
they can take advantage of their physical maturation. Children
who succeed mainly because they have matured quickly are at
risk if they ride that edge and train less than their smaller peers,
as these are the same peers who will later catch up with and perhaps
even pass them in physical size. Early maturers must be challenged
in terms of athleticism, especially when they are not
challenged sportswise by smaller competitors.
There are profound differences between training an athlete
and providing a good fitness workout. Traditional fitness training
considers the development of the primary components of fitness—endurance, strength, flexibility and attempts to build
better-looking bodies from the outside. Though aerobic fitness,
muscular strength and joint mobility are important to sports success,
there are a few additional tools that athletes need. Sports
conditioning for athletes includes the secondary components of
fitness—multijoint strength, power, speed, quickness, agility,
movement skills, deceleration, balance, reactivity and anaerobic
capacity. This training approach helps all athletes enhance
their innate abilities. A program that is grounded in scientific research
and the development of athleticism is the key to success.
The schedule and design of a year-round youth sports conditioning
plan is called periodization, or conditioning in cycles,
where different physical components are developed at different
densities, intensities, frequencies, durations and loads. Based on
scientific principles and methodologies, periodization presents
the best time and the best method for conditioning each physical
Every sports coach uses the concept of periodization, but the
direct application varies by sport and performance level. There
is a distinct difference between periodization for a house-league
baseball player and periodization for an Olympic track athlete.
Coaches begin with a macrocycle (usually 1 year) and then break
the season into four phases—off-season, preseason, in-season
and postseason or championship. Within these phases there are
mesocycles, in which both the development and conditioning of
the athlete are structured to build up different attributes—all
with a focus on optimum performance at peak times of the year.
Each mesocycle is broken into microcycles, which have specific
training emphases and variables that contribute to the goals of
that particular mesocycle. The more elite the athlete or sports
program is, the more complex the plan needs to be. When designing
an athletic plan, the sports coach dictates the periodization
plan, and the conditioning coach develops workouts to
complement that plan.
Periodized conditioning optimizes results, prevents overtraining
and structures the routine so that the athlete peaks at
key times. The conditioning should be complementary to the
demands of practices and the game itself, with an eye to eliciting
peak performance in games while simultaneously planning for
the long term. Periodization requires understanding what variables
affect overtraining and injuries; how to enhance recovery
and regeneration; and how to recharge for the next game while
handling the volume of training that comes with sports participation.
Developing the right periodization formula for each
individual athlete (even in a team environment) is one of the
greatest coaching challenges.
Because of such challenges, trainer competence is essential for
anyone wanting to work on conditioning with young clients who
are progressing through critical growth years—any injury can be
a serious setback in terms of timely growth and maturation, as
well as lost games, practices and training time. Remember, youth
athletes are not “little” adults. They have very unique needs, and
sports conditioning coaches will make better decisions when they
have a well-rounded understanding of these needs.
We now know that long-term participation in a sport at the highest
level of an athlete’s potential requires coordinated movement,
full-body strength, balance and overall enhanced mechanics to
reduce the chance of injury and to improve performance. Sports
conditioning grooms young athletes to be better able to apply
their sport-specific skills.
Sports conditioning is considered one of the 10 top trends in
fitness as amateur and pro athletes, sports coaches, parents, weekend
warriors and adult recreationalists all demand this new training
style (American Council on Exercise 2006). Traditional fitness
training is great for helping people look good and achieve basic
fitness goals (weight loss, basic improvements in strength and
cardiovascular endurance, more mobility), but athletes of all levels
and abilities need a more sports-oriented training focus. Kids
handling multiple sports or facing early selection criteria must
get on the right track sooner rather than later.
For health clubs and related businesses aiming to add sports
conditioning to their revenue streams, hiring qualified coaches
that stand apart in their specialization is paramount. Just participating
in a gym environment is not sport-specific training.
Young athletes need unique exercises that feed into the skill
requirements of their sports. Further, coaching these athletes
takes more than memorizing and reproducing cool drills. Sports
conditioning specialists have a full understanding of the science,
training philosophy, exercise methodology, active coaching
process, error detection and athletic mechanics required to build
more talented athletes. Personal trainers are encouraged to read
relevant publications and attend conferences that can help them
work successfully within this culture. With this specialized
knowledge, conditioning coaches are in a powerful position to
impact young athletes in a positive and rewarding fashion.
Sports conditioning programming has become less about
mimicking sport-specific movement patterns and more about
enhancing the physical tools for athleticism. This is even more
crucial at younger ages. As a general rule, the younger the
player is, the more the program should have a general focus.
As a sports conditioning coach, you want your program to
build the physical tools that sports participation draws on;
provide immediate upgrades to the experience of playing
give athletes the physicality to excel at any new sports they
may pick up;
produce results so that improved sports competence keeps
athletes in the game; and
provide an experience that will secure a positive link between
working out and feeling good about sports.
What Separates the GoodFrom the Great?
In addition to good genetics, there are other physical and
mental attributes that “great” athletes have in common.
These include the following:
a vast understanding of their sport (both innate and
an intense work ethic
a killer instinct
exceptional read-and-react skills for anticipating their opponent(
standing strength that seems to exceed their weight room
a fluid body capable of advanced skill execution
a positive attitude
a competitive nature
Developing a sports conditioning program for young athletes
involves much more than exposing kids to fast-paced drills and
innovative equipment. To train this population safely, you must
carefully consider several issues. Start with the following steps:
Understand the growth and development characteristics of
children and youth and the variations between female and
Learn more about the specific requirements, skills, strategies
and tactics of the sport in question.
Investigate appropriate assessment tools for evaluating athletes’
individual abilities and deficiencies in movement skills, whole-body strength, balance and coordination; then use the results to
determine the proper initial training focus and subsequent training
Study appropriate training methodologies for developing efficient
sport movement skills (agility, quickness, speed, reactivity,
coordination, acceleration, deceleration); then search
for drills appropriate for the athletes (age, gender, growth),
making sure you know how to modify each drill as necessary.
Study appropriate training methodologies for developing
whole-body sport strength and power, including elements
of sport specificity and manipulation of emphasis on prime
movers, stabilizers and force reducers; then search for suitable
Study appropriate training methodologies for developing
sport balance (stability, proprioception, neuromuscular pathways);
then search for suitable exercises, understanding
how to quantify, prescribe and coach balance difficulty.
Work with a sports coach to develop a periodized plan
(macrocycle + mesocycles + microcycles) that supports sport
Create a weekly plan for each athlete (microcycle), addressing
how you will train sport movement + sport strength +
sport balance using a cyclical approach.
Develop each sports conditioning workout based on the big
picture: macrocycle, mesocycle, microcycle and sports coach
Implement your plan, adjusting it within and between workouts.
Peter Twist, MSc, founder of Twist Conditioning Inc., is an 11-year veteran
conditioning coach for the National Hockey League and currently
consults for several pro players and agents from a wide variety of sports.
An IDEA contributing editor, Twist has published more than 400 papers,
authored 10 books and created 18 DVDs on athletic development. Visit
him at www.sportconditioning.com.
Janice Hutton, MA, is the director of specialty markets in the education
division of Twist Conditioning Inc. She has co-authored eight new
internationally recognized home study programs and is working with the
Twist team to deliver live sports conditioning workshops in the USA,
Australia and the United Kingdom.