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Learning to Train: Stage 1 when Training Youth Athletes

Welcome back to the blog series on youth athletes strength and conditioning. But if you are new here make sure you check out the previous article on Youth Athletic Development.

In the early 2000’s, Balyi and Hamilton were the first authors to release a research paper outlining a long-term athletic youth development model. This model was criticised due to its limitations and since been revamped. However, what it does provide is a systematic framework and a starting point to start building your own model for your environment, sport and athletes that you coach. One particular part of the model that I took and have found useful are the titles description of certain stages of development. This is essential for the understanding strength and conditioning for youth athletes:

  • Learning to Train
  • Training to Train
  • Training to Compete
  • Training to Win

By using these headings, I can begin to build a picture of which element in the training process will look like for each stage and how this will be systematically progressed and changed through a young athlete’s development. In this post, I will be discussing a few of the key concepts that fall into this learning to train stage of development.   

Introduction to the gym environment for youth strength and conditioning

Introducing youth athletes to the gym environment is critical in this stage of development. From the outset, there’s a lot of excitement and curiosity of being allowed to use the newly accessible equipment. With this can lead to some silly and unwanted behaviour especially in larger groups. There needs to be a setting of gym values and standards especially for the younger, immature athlete. The do’s and the don’ts of individual behaviour has to be taught and consequences for breaching these standards have to be addressed. Health and safety are of high importance as you have to respect the iron because the moment that you don’t, you’ll get hurt. The gym can be a dangerous place and the youngsters have to understand that if they abuse the privilege, they will lose the privilege. Setting out your own values within your space can be detailing key words or phrases up on the wall as a consistent gentle reminder or through consistent clear messages that you deliver when communicating to your group.  

Development of basic motor skills

Below are some the basic motor skills categories that we look to expose our athletes within this stage: 

  • Land
  • Jump
  • Throw
  • Sprint
  • Change direction
  • Catch
  • Single Leg Balance + Control
  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Carry
  • Drag
  • Crawl
  • Brace, Trunk Capacity + Anti-rotate

With each of these categories, many exercise variations can be included with the aim to expose young athletes to a range of different movement patterns. From this list, I’ve been able to build exercise progressions for each category to challenge current skill level and capacity whilst introducing a novel stimulus. This starts with mastering control of your bodyweight before introducing any sorts of loading parameters.

Less overall training structure to youth strength and conditioning

There is an overall less session structure in this stage of development with emphasis on games, enjoyment and engagement through a variety of challenges. No periodisation but a vertical integration of all main qualities being trained at once all year round. However, this can appear completely different as your environment space and equipment can dictate what you have to use at your disposal. An example of what this looks like in the Sportland Academy is the structure of the prescription of our strength exercises. Each individual has their own sheet of 15 different movement patterns to perform only 1 set for the exercise under that particular movement. Each athlete is given the freedom to choose the order in which they complete each exercise. This builds in massive variation within each training session and can even become an exploratory game in which they can play and discover new ways to complete their sheet.   

Training means: general and supplementary prep

The training exercises prescribed during this stage are general. This means that each exercise looks nothing like the sport that they are playing in terms of speed of muscle contractions, specific joint angle of force generation and replication of sporting movement:

  • General strength development
  • General preparation to build connective tissue robustness and capacity
  • Lots of exercises used to ingrain a variety of motor patterns
  • Extensive Jumping + Landing – rhythm work
  • Extensive multi-throws to build elasticity, rhythm, coordination, stability and stiffness
  • Higher Volume, low intensity
  • Simple movements as learning tools
  • Slower speed muscle action

Using the following principles above guides me to select appropriate exercises for this stage. 

Basic training methods with a minimal dose approach

The athletes entering this stage are newbie athletes who haven’t been exposed to this training before giving their training age as zero or next to none. This means that it will only take a small stimulus to get positive changes. The way we approach this in the Sportland Academy is through a 1 set dosing with low / moderate intensity. With these means, we have options to either increase the volume, intensity or difficulty of exercise to create a greater demand on the body as we move up through the stages. Ideally, in this stage especially, we’ll look to change the exercise difficulty first, then the volume before intensity. One thing to consider at all times, if you give a high intensity stimulus to an athlete, this will make an imprint on their nervous system that you can’t go back. The rule of thumb to consider is only give an athlete a stimulus that they need to adapt, not what they can handle.

Optimal Age: < 12 years old 

Ideally, the athletic population that naturally falls into this stage of development are for the ages under 12 years (8/9-11 roughly). This younger age group have the potential to be exposed to strength and conditioning coaches within sport academies, clubs or even schools. However, many are not as fortunate to start so young. For example, if a 16-year-old with no training background comes in the Sportland academy, they would be entered into this stage as they need to learn the basic motor skills, be exposed to general training means with a minimal dose as well as understanding the gym environment.

Monitor growth

Start building a picture of where the young athlete is within their growth cycle and begin to collect data on individual growth rates. Be mindful for very early developers and how the young athlete body is responding to their growth in terms of a reduction in motor skill quality or potential complaints of pain in common growth site areas.   

In conclusion, it must be noted that there is a fluid progression between stages with no definite time frame for how long individuals will stay in each stage. It’s been suggested that it could be 2 – 3 years but that’ll be up to you as a practitioner that’ll decide upon this. Learning to train is just the starting line within a young athlete journey which will hopefully blossom into a successful career competing within their chosen sport. 

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