Five Mistakes when Training Young Athletes

It seems more and more that younger athletes are not only starting to specialize in specific sports earlier but that they are also beginning to complement their sports with outside strength and conditioning.  While this is potentially positive for the athletes and the coaches that train them, with younger athletes there runs a great risk of not exposing them to a proper program and actually making them perform worse or even set them up for injury down the road.

In this article I want to expose some of the potential pitfalls that may occur when dealing with athletes who are pre or early teens and being exposed to strength and conditioning for the first time.  My goal is to not only give coaches some insight but to help parents understand what they should look for in a coach and what they should expect when they are looking for the right strength and conditioning coach.

Assuming Everything is A-Ok

You have an 8th Grader coming into the gym today and you know that he is brand new to training, never had an injury and is all excited to go.  Like a blank canvas; a coach might assume that everything is pristine and just waiting for any type of movement to create an athletic masterpiece; however not doing some form of initial assessment will be setting up your young athlete for failure down the road.

A basic medical history from the parents and a candid interview of the athlete is a good place to start.  After I get familiar with the young athlete’s background, I like to run through some mobility and body-weight drills. These drills are not only a good warm up; they also give me a chance to evaluate how the athlete moves.  In my experience, a young athlete and their parents will not have a reference point of how well they move relative to how they think they should move.

Can they do a body-weight squat without the knees shooting forward or the legs caving in?  Can they raise their leg straight up to 90 degrees while lying on their back? Can they extend their shoulders directly overhead?  Are there differences in movement patterns between the right and left sides of their bodies?  These are just a few of the things I look for before I design a program to help correct poor movements patterns, flexibility issues and increase strength and conditioning.

Ignoring Stretching and Rehabilitation Work

I always get a chuckle when I ask the young athletes whether or not they get sore after all of the physical activity they do.  Many say “no” and some say “a little.”  As I brood in jealously pining for my lost youth, I remind myself not to assume that because the new athletes don’t really get sore, have injuries or poor movement patterns that they do not need to do some preventative rehabilitation work.

Foam rolling, corrective exercises, and stretching are essential in every athlete’s program.  Not only do they make up a complete program they also prevent any unforeseen problems that may occur if these modalities are neglected.

These modalities also create proper training habits.  As athletes get older they tend to get tighter in the muscles, especially in male athletes.  By consistently incorporating these rehabilitative modalities, athletes are more likely to turn them into good habits as they progress through their athletic career.

Ignoring the Proper Movements

Young athletes look up to older athletes as their guideline for how they want to act, play and train.  Grinding bench press sessions, eye popping squat reps and walking around with chains strapped to your body look impressive and potentially serve a quality purpose; but they are most likely not right for the young athlete.

Stress the basics and by basics; we are talking mastering complete body control (mobility, stability and strength) through a full range of motion of primarily large, full-body movements.   Basic bodyweight movements like pushups, squats, lunges, planks and pull ups are great movements to focus on and mastering them can lay the foundation for success in other movements down the road.

Ever see the young boy that is 5ft.1 and has a size 12 shoe? Many young athletes are not only growing into their bodies they are still learning how to move themselves efficiently.  Mastering full body movements allows for great neuromuscular coordination which not only makes the athlete stronger they gain more balance while going through the movements.

Progressing too Quickly

To piggyback on the previous point, when an athlete is new to training the learning curve is much larger than a more seasoned athlete. Generally speaking when the newer athlete is exposed to a specific stimulus, after a brief period of learning and small failures, there is a steep increase in task performance success.  This rapid growth of success can be validated through exercise progression success, weight lifted and work volume done in a certain amount of time.

This quick success should lead to some caution as to not get over aggressive with the progression of the program.  If an athlete is doing well with the kettlebell goblet squat it still might not be a good idea to move right into barbell back or front squats.  Essentially they are the same movements, however barbell back squats puts the load in a different position causing more spinal compression and barbell front squats cause much less spinal compression but demand much more flexibility in the wrists (depending how the bar is held) and also a much larger demand in core strength and stability to keep the weight in its proper place.  Another component to consider is that neurological muscle adaptations occur much faster than ligament and tendon strengthening.  The young athlete may have enough strength to move a particular amount of weight, however the supporting structures might not be able to properly handle the external loads and therefore fatigue, a compromise in technique and potential injury could occur.

Smaller progressions are usually more beneficial for younger athletes.  Keeping the same movement with a safe increase in weight and a decrease in repetitions is an easy way to get your athlete to progress.  I also prefer slight changes in the exercise movement, for example, going from using one kettlebell in the goblet squat and holding it with two hands to using one kettlebell and holding it in the racked position on one side of the body.  The racked position requires more balance and core stability than the goblet squat, yet it is not such a dramatic shift between the two movements.

Expecting too Much

This one goes out primarily to the parents.  Parents put their kids into strength and conditioning programs to help them in some way.  Whether it is to gain strength, size, speed, or to increase athletic performance; the reason is there.  All of those qualities take time to build and take time to transfer towards athletic success.  It is important to see improvements due to the training that you are paying for; however, it is more important to focus on the smaller gains rather than the optimal end results.  Is your child getting stronger overall, are they moving better, gaining more flexibility, are they more confident when playing and during life in general?

Also, another point to consider is that training should be considered a long term accumulation of the positive qualities of movement and mentality working together to create a more complete athlete over time.  Much like investing in the stock market, slow steady gains assure greater success over the long term rather than peaking quickly only to reach the inevitable descent just as rapidly.  Is your child’s goal to enjoy their sports and work their way to a college scholarship, or is it to be the best soccer player in the 8th grade?

To have fully well-rounded athletes that perform well in their sport, strength training alone may not be enough.  A well balanced program should incorporate some appropriate conditioning protocol to get the most out of training and athletic potential.