A suitable training program for youth athletes may be harder to find than one may think. With so many options available, how can you be sure that the program you choose for your athlete is the right one? The frustration, confusion, and uncertainty can be very worrisome. No one should have to fret about putting their child in a program that could potentially a) injure them, b) inhibit their athletic development, or c) result in their child hating the program. None of these are positive outcomes, but trying to make sense of all the available programs out there and the lack of background knowledge can make finding the right program a challenge.
I often get the question, “what are your thoughts on this conditioning program?” or “what should my child do for training?” Besides the answer, come train with us, and be a part of a program, which for the past seven years, has successfully worked with hundreds of youth athletes of all ages, I explain three main components that I believe any youth training program should encompass.
For the purpose of this article, I am writing with the youth athlete in mind that is under 14 years-old, however, these components are applicable at any amateur level.
Develops Good Workout Habits
At this younger age, we want to set up a solid foundation of athletic development so as the athlete advances in their athletic careers, we can help them do so more efficiently and effectively. The good workout habits we want to develop are:
1. Proper warm-up to get the body ready for action
Although younger kids can seemingly jump right out of bed and perform various athletic movements without any issues, this situation will not always be the case as they get older. Not to mention, having the body perform higher level movements without some sort of skeletomuscular and neuromuscular activation is just plain dangerous because it leaves the body more susceptible to injury. A proper dynamic warm-up that activates the whole body, and can be used before workouts, practices, and athletic competition, is a necessary step in the athletic development process. The sooner an athlete becomes accustomed to starting their routine with a thorough warm-up, the better.
2. Proper work-out techniques
At the youth level, introduction to correct biomechanical movement patterns is essential for developing long-term strength and health gains. Keep in mind that at this level, it is most important to build a solid base of athleticism which includes strength, mobility, and movement. The process of learning correct exercise form/technique, along with the ability to correctly execute said form/technique, is something that should not be rushed nor does it need to be. One of the worst mistakes anyone can make is rushing this process or advancing to higher level progressions too soon. At the younger ages, athletes have the distinct advantage of time. Athletic training programs should take advantage of this in several ways. Youth athletes tend to be more flexible than when they are older because they haven’t had years to develop poor habits that constrict movement. However, younger athletes that are more immobile or inflexible have more time now to make the necessary biomechanical corrections. Essentially, youth athletes can take more time to thoroughly build up a substantial and healthy athletic base and fix any biomechanical inhibitions, but this is only done by learning correct work-out techniques.
3. Proper cool-down/flexibility/recovery processes
Unlike many athletic programs, a suitable program that is interested in youth development does not overlook proper cool-down and flexibility training. Athletes who want to stay healthy and see the best results, regardless of age or skill-level need to stretch post work-out, practice, and competition and have some sort of mobility routine on off days. Stretching and mobility work is not the most exciting part of working out. However, establishing a thorough stretching routine that youth athletes become accustomed to completing after athletic endeavors will be a huge part of their athletic success over the course of their career. We want to set up good working habits so that when athletic health and longevity relies on flexibility and mobility, the athlete already has a process to ensure success.
Another part of being athletic is the ability to be self-aware. Self-awareness is vital to athletic recovery and, therefore, growth. The ability to learn how an individual’s body responds to given stressors (like working out) helps to set up appropriate recovery processes and when to push harder or decrease the intensity of a workout. This skill is mostly learned in the recovery process stage, so any program that does not have one, is surely deficient in properly educating youth athletes.
Fun and Engaging for the Athletes
A good youth athletic program is fun for athletes while a great one gets athletes to do hundreds or even thousands of repetitions without the athlete realizing how much hard work was required to accomplish this feat. At the youth level, we need the athlete to enjoy working out while getting more fit. If a youth program is boring, too repetitious, or unmotivating, we run a much higher risk that as the athlete gets older, working out will be a chore and not an inspiring factor contributing to their development. This doesn’t mean that the youth program isn’t challenging, isn’t focused on completing tons of necessary reps, or doesn’t push their athletes past levels of perceived limits. It’s quite the opposite. However, it takes the proper environment, process, and balance to get athletes to thrive under challenges while at the same time enjoying the journey.
Part of what makes a workout fun and also very valuable for youth athletes is its level of engagement. Providing appropriate challenges to the athletes not only advances them physically, but also provides opportunities for cognitive development. Workout programs that offer changing, multi-functional movements are best. These workouts initially require a lot of conscious thought and planning on the part of the athlete. Through practice, this conscious thought turns into procedural memory routines. Once an athlete is ready for more challenging exercises, the workouts are adjusted (or progressed) to a more difficult level, and the same process is repeated, yielding high-level physical and mental athletic gains. Appropriate youth programs offer tremendous opportunity for both physical and mental development. The result? Highly motivated, engaged, and empowered athletes. This should be the goal of any solid youth program.
Yields Positive Results on the Playing Field
Any athletic training program is really designed for one thing: to yield greater levels of success for the athlete at their sport. This may be the most important aspect to the athlete themselves. We need them to see and feel these gains to positively reinforcement all of their hard work and dedication. This, in turn, will create a cycle of willingness to stay determined, focused, and driven. Eventually, with the proper guidance, this willingness will develop into intrinsic motivation driving the athlete to always be their best.
In Conclusion: Some Simple Suggestions
When dealing with a youth athlete, the best course of action is to start small. There is no sense in overwhelming your athlete, or yourself. Remember, time is on your side at this age and there is no reason to rush or feel like you need to catch up. This mindset will only result in failure and further angst. Starting small allows your athlete to feel success immediately, which makes future success more easily attainable. Besides, not every young athlete is going to be as motivated all the time or as excited to always do every activity. So, keep this in perspective. Any young athlete should just enjoy being a kid and trying new things while bettering themselves along the way. If they like it and are responding positively to the new work loads, then gradually start increasing the level of demand. If not, move onto something else. Lastly, pay close attention to your athlete. Make sure that they are not only performing the appropriate exercises with the correct form, but watch how they are responding mentally and emotionally, and are developing as a whole.