Three Considerations When Training Young Athletes

One interesting phenomena that has occurred at my gym is the number of really young athletes that have come to train with me.  When I say really young we are talking early middle school, some as early as 5th grade.  Now I never imagined working with athletes this young because when I was playing sports we never even thought about lifting weights or even supplementing our training so early.  In fact I did not even enter a weight room until high school.

Younger athletes are starting to specialize in specific sports earlier and along with that, parents feel the need to gain an edge to achieve success early in their child’s athletic career.  In a previous article; Five Mistakes When Training Young Athletes I discuss the potential pitfalls that may occur when designing proper strength and conditioning programs for young athletes being exposed to strength and conditioning for the first time.    

In this article I want to expose some of the more psychological aspects of training young athletes that go beyond program design.  These insights are based on my last few years of training young athletes and my time spent with them is not only challenging but rewarding which makes it a learning experience for everyone.  

Different Reasons for Training

I would be very surprised if any young athlete goes to their parents and says, I need to get quicker and stronger and I think I should find a strength coach to help me out.  With very young athletes their desire to peruse outside training comes directly from the parents.

Most parents have the best of intentions for their child whether it is to gain strength, speed, minimize potential injuries or to increase athletic performance.  I find that the young athlete’s desire to train will be completely different; in fact they might not have an initial desire to train at all unless they have a sibling who trains.

The young athlete’s desire is usually constructed through their training days at the gym and whether it is enjoyable or not.  Later on they may notice performing better at their sport as a result of their supplement training work which could add to their further desire to keep training.

Making training enjoyable, having a friendly and constructive trainer and associating with  a group of close peers are all ingredients for increasing an athlete’s desire and, like adults, if they enter with an open-mind and no preconceived negative notions most young athletes will excel; others who do not possess these traits tend to not like their new training regimen.

I have had a few young athletes who did not take to training which stemmed primarily from not wanting to be at the gym at all.  Some were tired from doing too much activity previously and adding more can make it tough to keep the motivation levels up while others were simply bored because it did not reflect the excitement of their other sports.

Like anything else in life, people are ready at different times.  Some kids can handle the extra work in the gym while others may need a year or two to gain a bit more maturity to be successful.     

Different Ways of Learning

Like older athletes and adults, younger athletes have optimal ways of learning.  The big difference is that young athletes won’t usually tell you how they learn best; you have to figure it out through trial and error.  Most of the time these young athletes move way too fast through their exercises and after so many times of me cuing slow and control I get sick of myself for saying it and I have to try something else to get the desired effect.

Some might need constant visual reminders.  I always demonstrate the movement for the athletes but for those where verbal cues do not work I need to re-demonstrate the exercises emphasizing the positioning and speed of movement sometimes weekly until it finally clicks.

In more extreme cases where attention spans are much shorter and verbal cues and demonstration don’t quite cut it, I have to figure out a way to get the athlete to focus more and I usually do this by assigning a tempo for the movement.  I will say something like I want you to do a two count down, pause for one and a two count coming back up, repeat for ten repetitions.   

Different Levels of Work Capacity

Young athletes seem to come in two models, ones that moves a little slower and has a hard time getting through their work and others that have so much energy they are bouncing off the walls and move from one exercise to the next without seeming to stop.

Because some athletes move faster than another does not necessarily mean that you would pile on more work nor would it mean reducing the amount the slower moving athlete does; ideally you would want to establish and appropriate amount for what they need to accomplish.  Just like my older athletes I write out all of my programs for my younger ones and all of the exercises are ones that the athlete should accomplish during a given workout.  The only thing I tend to do differently is allow for a little wiggle room at the end of the workout where we can either finish or add just a bit more.

I will write a program that the young athlete working at an average pace can get through in the allotted time.  For the slower ones I encourage to move more and limit their rest (and talking) between sets.  For the faster ones I encourage them to slow down a bit and if there is time left over we add in just a little bit more, like working a new skill, more core work or conditioning.      

Working with younger athletes can be very rewarding and challenging all the same.  Because of all of these differences between young athletes, progress will tend to vary, some will excel much faster and some will spend much more time on the basics.  With a little bit of planning, program flexibility and trial and error as to how to get the most out of them, young athletes can excel in training.  From my own personal experience, the process of watching them grow and mature as an athlete and person is very rewarding.