As kids approach the age and level where they are working with higher-level sport coaches, parents are faced with a number of decisions and as a result, a number of questions. One question that I am routinely asked is whether working with a strength and conditioning (S&C)/performance coach in addition to their sport coach is necessary? What are the benefits of working with a S&C/performance coach? What is the right age to begin resistance training? Will it stunt their growth? How do I improve my son’s/daughter’s quickness, agility, strength, stamina, etc.? These are all valid questions and unfortunately do not have a “black and white” answer. That said, let’s explore the science behind sports performance training for preadolescent and adolescent athletes, and discuss specific windows during physical development where certain skills such as agility, strength, speed, and stamina have the potential for accelerated growth.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s weight training in the youth population was viewed unfavorably. This was based on the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) who utilized data from various emergency room departments to make nationwide projections of the total number of injuries related to exercise and equipment (3). It was determined that this patient-reported information was misleading, as it concluded these injuries were the result of resistance training when in fact they were caused by inappropriate training techniques, excessive loading, poorly designed equipment, or lack of adult supervision.
There is a compelling body of research today that suggests resistance training is not only safe and effective for children and adolescents who follow age-appropriate training guidelines, but it also enhances performance and protects against injury. While it does carry some degree of inherent risk, it was found to be no greater than many other sports and recreational activities in which youth regularly participate (3). The common areas for concern include, but are not limited to, stunting of growth and soft tissue injuries. Let’s take a closer look at both. The growth plate is comprised of articular cartilage located at the end of long bones such as the femur, tibia, and humerus. The articular cartilage eventually develops into bone, however, unlike bone, cartilage is soft and more susceptible to damage. Ultimately, injury to the articular cartilage could potentially result in a disturbance of growth to that particular bone. Currently, however, there is no evidence to suggest resistance training negatively impacts growth plates. Finally, soft tissue injuries including muscle/tendon strains or ligament sprains are possible with any resistance training program or playing sports for that matter. However, these injuries are mitigated with direct supervision, age appropriate training, and proper programming. According to the position statement by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) on youth resistance training, the training of preadolescents and adolescents is widely supported by the medical community, fitness community, and sport organizations (3).
The benefits of working with a S&C/performance coach can have profound effects on motor and skill development as well as athleticism. According to the NSCA, benefits include improved muscular strength and power, cardiovascular endurance, improved motor skill performance, enhanced sports performance, improved psychosocial well-being, and promote exercise habits in youth and adolescents. Further, evidence suggests preseason conditioning programs reduce sports-related injuries in young athletes (4). While the literature recommends strength and conditioning programs, it is without question they must be implemented with a qualified coach who understands the requisite for “age-appropriate training.” The question parents are now faced with is when and how to implement this training. In order to answer these questions, we must understand the developmental process.
Initially developmental models were based on chronological age and did not consider biological or developmental stages. Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD), proposed by Istvan Balyi and Richard Way in 1995, incorporated empirical coaching observations and experiences, coaching science, and human growth, development, and maturation principles (2). To explain, children and adolescents are in a constant state of transformation. A preadolescent (age 2 to the onset of puberty 11.5-13.5 years old) athlete does not have the same motor coordination as an adolescent athlete (onset of puberty to 18 years old). As such, the focus for preadolescents should be activities developing the ABC’s: agility, balance, coordination and speed. These activities may include crawling, climbing, walking on a balance beam, playing tag, skiing, skating, skateboarding, swimming, and horseback riding. Adolescents, however, have the motor development to complete more complex tasks such as technical resistance training activities, sport specific skills, and lateral/linear speed development. Additionally, as our youth progress through various stages of growth, certain aspects of training may be emphasized in order to capitalize on what is referred to as a “training window” or “period of accelerated adaptation.” Scientific evidence confirms these sensitive periods when people can learn new tasks more efficiently and effectively than at other times (4). For example, developing stamina or endurance shows a period of accelerated adaptation between the ages of 8-16 because lung capacity increases with growth at this stage (1). Activities like long slow distance aerobic intervals and fartlek-type training are appropriate for increasing stamina, especially if the child plays sports that require a strong aerobic base. Flexibility is another aspect of performance that often gets overlooked and as a result can lead to limited range of motion. During the growth spurt, long bones are growing faster than the muscles/tendons attached to them. As a result, tension builds within the soft tissue resulting in soft tissue tightness. Adolescents should focus on static stretching just before the onset of the growth spurt in order to gain length in the soft tissue prior to the rapid bone growth. If this window of opportunity is lost, the child may experience lasting limitations in mobility that are challenging to improve later on. Further, the tension created at the musculotendinous junction as a result of rapid growth contributes to pathologies such as Osgood Schlatter disease and various tendinopathies. Focusing on increasing length in the soft tissue at this stage could potentially decrease these soft tissue pathologies from emerging. As one can see, with proper knowledge of these training windows and the stages of child development, a skilled performance coach will generate a program that is specific in content, intensity, volume, frequency, and periodization to optimize athletic potential and decrease injury potential.
The “when and how” to implement training with a S&C/performance coach is highlighted below in the seven stages of athletic development specifically for late specialization sports. These are sports which include track and field, soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, football, volleyball, and other team-based sports. Early specialization sports including diving, figure skating, gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, and table tennis require sport-specific specialization early on in training and therefore have fewer training stages. Each stage for late specialization sports is characterized by the skills that should be the emphasis of all coaches (sport and performance) during that particular phase of development.
Stage 1: Active Start (0-age 6)
During this stage, the objectives are to learn fundamental movements and link them together in play. From a neurological standpoint, the brain is growing rapidly which means learning new skills creates more brain cell connections. Therefore, expose the child to a variety of activities such as gymnastics, swimming, and climbing. Incorporate movement into games and songs. Let the child explore and play outside. Activities like tag, catching soft objects, balancing on one foot, and jumping ultimately develop good posture, coordination, build strong bones and muscle, and build positive self-esteem.
Stage 2: FUNdamentals (Males age 6-9 and Females age 6-8)
The focus here is to build overall motor skills, which are the foundation for future athletic movement. The ABC’s of athleticism – Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed should be implemented in ways that are fun. Sports like swimming, cycling, horseback riding, gymnastics, and soccer are a great way to develop agility, balance, and coordination. The first “window of accelerated adaptation,” hand and foot speed, is experienced at this stage. Activities like playing catch, throwing, hitting, running, and multi-sport programs are all excellent choices for optimizing speed during this period. Introduce children to many sports, as it exposes them to countless movements ultimately building an athletic base for whichever sport they choose in the future. Working with a S&C/performance coach during this period is not necessary as resistance training should be in the form of body-weight movements which they are ultimately performing during the activities listed above.
Stage 3: Learning to Train (Males age 9-12 and Females 8-11)
At this stage, coordination and fine motor control should be emphasized because of the “window of accelerated adaptation.” Children are developmentally ready to learn the sport-specific skills that are pertinent to athletic development. Don’t confuse this with specializing in one sport, as it is still too early to designate one sport for youth participating in late specialization sports. Endurance training and flexibility should also be highlighted at this time. While strength training should still be body-weight movements only, hopping and bounding exercises can also be added. A S&C/performance coach who is experienced with youth training may be an option at this point, as they will have knowledge in program design to implement games and circuits that are age appropriate. This stage concludes at the onset of puberty.
Stage 4: Training to Train (Males age 12-16 and Females 11-15)
The growth spurt, or onset of Peak Height Velocity (PHV), initiates the start of stage four and is a key developmental milestone. Peak Height Velocity (PHV) is essentially the time when a child experiences his/her fastest upward growth in stature. Peak Height Velocity coincides with the onset of puberty and occurs two years earlier in girls (approximately 11 years of age) than in boys (approximately 13 years of age) (7). This stage is variable for each child, as maturation levels may occur as early as 11 or as late as 16. Based on the influx of hormones, strength training and endurance training should be highlighted as these areas are considered “windows of accelerated adaptation.” Physiologically, girls and boys are quite responsive to resistance training. This is the stage when they begin to “building the engine.” S&C/performance coaches will make important gains at this point and should be incorporated into training routines. Coaches must be diligent with regard to form, frequency, duration, volume, exercise selection, load, and other training variables during this introductory phase to lifting. As such, resistance training may be implemented as long as the child has become proficient in bodyweight exercises and can demonstrate good technique while adding resistance.
Stage 5: Training to Compete (Males age 16-18 and Females 15-17)
During stage five athletes should not only be working with their sport coach, but also a S&C/performance specialist. Resistance training will progress to more complex, technical movements in order to optimize the engine. Sport specialization is appropriate at this stage, which includes learning how to compete as well as high-volume and high-intensity training. Year-round training is typical for this stage. For some, however, a less competitive route is more appropriate and participating in recreational sports provides a fun way to stay active.
Stage 6: Training to Win (Males age 18 and older and Females 17 and older)
This stage is the culmination of all the previous stages. As the child transitions from adolescent to adult, physical, technical, tactical, mental, personal and lifestyle capacities are fully developed. Training is geared toward the highest of performance and peaking for major competitions. Elite athletes are identified and train with a variety of top-level coaches utilizing world-class training methods.
Stage 7: Active for Life
The child may enter this stage at any point following the acquisition of physical literacy. Once he/she has learned the fundamental skills introduced during stages one through three, he/she will have the necessary skills and confidence to remain active for life in any activity or sport that he/she chooses. For athletes who took the competitive route, this stage represents a transition from competition to regular physical activity and perhaps coaching, officiating, or learning a new sport.
As one can see, a S&C/performance coach can have great impact on the child’s development and athleticism. We must, however, be diligent with regard to choosing a coach who is knowledgeable and qualified to work with the youth population. To ensure success and minimize injury during the implementation of resistance training, speed development, and other training variables, the program is reliant upon a number of factors that are specific to the child’s needs and developmental maturity. How do you know if your S&C/performance coach is up to the task? Your coach should initially take a thorough history including the child’s medical history, and previous training experience (if any). Your coach should understand and implement Peak Height Velocity (PHV) into the planning, be knowledgeable of the child’s current sport(s), position(s) played, goals for training, practice/game schedules for his/her sport, and finally perform an evaluation to determine how the child currently moves. This information is pertinent in order to develop a program which is appropriate with regard to exercise selection, intensity, volume, frequency and other elements pertaining to training. It takes communication between the sport coach, S&C/performance coach, and potentially other members of the performance to team (nutritionist, athletic trainer, etc.) to coordinate specific and well-planed practices, training, competition, and recovery time to ensure optimum development throughout the child’s athletic career. The more informed a parent is with regard to developmental stages, appropriate activities during each stage, and “windows of accelerated adaptation,” the better decisions one will make to support the child through his/her journey of sports and living an active lifestyle.
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