Youth Conditioning (Part 1)

Youth Conditioning (Part 1)



This is such a broad subject, that it’s difficult to do decide what to cover in a blog. When you really look at it though, young people in sports today generally need attention in six areas:

  1. general movement skills
  2. core stability
  3. strength & power
  4. speed & agility
  5. mobility
  6. Nutrition

Of course, the focus on each of these will vary depending on the specific needs of the athlete and the age. Age seems a good place to start. Youth athletes can be categorised as follows: Movement Foundations (2-5), Guided Discovery (6-9), Learning Exploration (10-13), Train with Application (14+).

Before we explore the training modalities in Youth Conditioning, it seems prudent to outline obstacles to progress and excellence in Youth Sports, namely:

  • Early Sports Specialisation (ESS) versus General Sports Skills
  • Results-Now versus Long-term Athletic Development (LTAD)

Early Sports Specialisation (ESS) versus General Sports Skills

There are many studies suggesting that young children should engage in a variety of physical activities in order to maximally develop fundamental movements and fine motor skills. The challenge arises when a child demonstrates a natural aptitude for a particular sport and is then pigeonholed in that sport, whereas all other sports are discarded. The ideal situation is for a child to participate in at least three different sports until teenage years. This allows the child the opportunity to develop a wide range of movement experience and sets him/her up for future success. Parents and coaches must be educated to realise that narrowing a child’s experience will limit athletic potential in the long run.

“Total Training for Young Champions,” by Bompa describes a study done with two groups of young athletes, of age 9-12 years old where one group a participated in only one sport and the other in a variety: The results are startling:

Early Specialisation Group

Multi-sport Group

  • Quick performance improvement
  • Best performance at 15-16 years
  • Inconsistent performances in competition
  • Many were Burned out by age 18
  • Prone to injuries because of forced adaption
  • Slower performance improvement
  • Best performance at age 18+
  • Consistent performances in competition
  • Longer athletic life
  • Fewer injuries

Results-Now versus Long-term Athletic Development (LTAD)

Youth sports are getting increasingly popular. As a result of this they are getting better funded, but along with that goes pressure to succeed in competition. The downfall is that pressure to succeed NOW, hamstrings future progress of the young athlete.  The opposite of the “improvement now” philosophy is that of Long-term Athletic Development (LTAD). The primary mantra of LTAD is continual improvement over immediate performance.  I firmly believe that in many team sports, athletes with great long-term potential are discarded all-too-easily for want of current ability. If these young people, were allowed the time to mature and develop naturally, many could become the hub of a team. But early exclusion can be de-motivating and ultimately lead to drop-out. If children are encouraged to improve rather than perform – that changes the long-term outlook for any club. After all, the under-12’s of today are the seniors of tomorrow.

These are major obstacles that must be overcome to allow optimal development of youth athletes.

Chronological Development

Children develop specific characteristics and abilities at certain ages, although there may be variations from child to child. The International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) refers to the development windows as follows:

Movement Foundations (2-5)

This age group should ideally be learning how to run, hop on one leg, bounding and jumping and similar locomotive skills. A variety of games can aid in children discovering new motor skills. I, personally, believe that children this young should learn as many movements as possible in a fun and interactive way, independent of any particular sport.

Guided Discovery (6-9)

It is predominantly at this age range that children enter organised sports activities. Toward the younger ages, sport-specific skill work should be minimised with an emphasis on developing primitive bodyweight movements, e.g. press-ups, squats, lunges. Balanced core stability can be taught using planks, side planks and glute bridges. Working games into this type of training is ideal. E.g. One exercise I use is getting a child to maintain a high plank (press-up variation) while his/her partner crawls underneath. Then the child lowers to a regular plank while partner jumps over the back and repeats the exercise. Perform the desired number of repetitions. Balance exercises/games are useful, e.g. playing tag while hopping on one leg.

Learning Exploration (10-13)

It is essential that as children mature towards puberty, coaches are alert that differences in physical capability may become more pronounced. Children who are proficient at low-level plyometrics e.g. hopping & bounding may be progressed to more advanced progressions, e.g. jumping from RDL position, etc… Children may join a sport late and may lag in fundamental motor skills. It is imperative that they are not rushed into learning too many sport-specific skills too soon, but are given a chance to catch up in terms of co-ordination and other abilities. This will serve them best in the long term. Mobility, core stability, and mastering body weight continues to increase in importance, as children edge towards adolescence, and are developing more skills in their chosen sports. Many children will be exposed to strength training with external weight in their coming teen years, so they need a solid foundation of mobility, stability, and strength to be adequately prepared.

Train with Application (14+).

 “Youth physical development takes many years to promote and training progression levels cannot be skipped in order to promote success in the short-term,

(Essentials of Youth Conditioning and Fitness, Brooks & Stodden, 2012, Chaplain Publishing). As adolescents continue to mature, their training will become increasingly geared towards physicality, strength and power. However, like building a brick wall, if any foundation levels are neglected, the whole lot can come tumbling down. Athletes with an appropriate training age and appropriate foundation will make consistent progress with applied coaching. Boys, especially, will develop a more muscular physique due to increasing testosterone levels. Teenage girls may see an increase in relative body fat which can to be managed through nutritional and training strategies. It is important to realise that many adult injuries can be traced back to poor training habits in teenage years.

In Part 2 – The six key training areas for 

Thanks to Shane Fitzgibbon for contributing to our growing blog.

Check out Shane website

Kelvin Giles Physical Competency and Athletic Development System Workshop

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