Our Youth Athlete Training System

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As a coach, the opportunity to mold youth athletes – both physically and as young individuals – is a responsibility in which I take great pride. NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) defines “youth” athletes to be between 9-14 years of age. More often than not , however, I see these youth athletes training similarly to their older, high school counterparts.

Unfortunately, in the world of performance training, reliable guidelines for training youth athletes are hard to find. Additionally, when it is found, it’s often contradicting, misleading, dangerous, confusing, or a combination of these factors.

Technology improvements provide us with large amount of youth training “information” through platforms  such as YouTube or Instagram. I am sure, at some point, you have seen wonder-boy performing various cone drills, ladder drills, med ball tosses, and other quick shoot-and-post videos. While these videos can certainly spark training creativity, this information can be difficult to interpret, sort, filter, or understand on a macro level.

Right now, on a typical weekday, I could easily spend from 3:30pm through 8:00pm training individual or groups of youth athletes. With basketball, football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and hockey competing during every week of the year, team coaches and parents are constantly looking for competent performance coaches. Clearly, the lack of aspiring young athletes is not causing the lack of reliable training information.

Having completed a four-year degree from a proud Exercise Science program, I can confidently say our industry lacks standardized protocol for training youth athletes. In school, I was given strict direction when learning how to train elite athletes, endurance athletes, overweight clients, diabetic clients, older clients, even pre and postnatal women! But, for whatever reason, youth athletes were completely ignored.

How, then, are we supposed to address training youth athletes?

Through my training experiences I have developed a system in which I program for the needs of the youth population. This can be applied to either individuals or groups in a team setting. Hopefully, this system can help parents, other coaches, and maybe even the athletes themselves learn structure to safe and effective performance training.

 

*Note: This is the system that I use, and these are my own concepts and thought processes. I am not attempting to write an academic paper, I’m simply sharing the streamlined methods that I’ve found to work well with my youth athletes.

 

My System

Ultimately, when a young athlete completes one of my programs, he or she should have accomplished my three priorities. My priorities are as follows:

 

1.)   Center of Mass and Postural Awareness

2.)   General Movement Pattern Competency

3.)   Entertainment

 

Failing to address even one of these priorities, I feel that I have underperformed as a coach. To ensure I accomplish my priorities, I follow a template for all my youth training sessions. This template includes:

 

1.)   Warm-up

2.)   Plyos

3.)   Movement Skill

4.)   Lift

 

In the following paragraphs, I will break down my training session template, and explain how I achieve and emphasize my priorities in each section of the workout.

 

The Warm-up

 

1.)   Center of Mass and Postural Awareness: Moderate

2.)   General Movement Pattern Competency: Low

3.)   Entertainment: High

I’m assuming you have been around a group of young athletes aging from 9-14 years old. I’m also assuming that simply being within earshot is draining on you. Luckily for you, we performance coaches are not supreme immortals with the power to control these perpetually moving minions. I do, however, use THEIR high energy to start the session with a bang!

As adults, we know how important warm-ups are for our own quality of movement. We also understand how indestructible youth athletes are, and why “warming up” seems irrelevant for their nimble bodies.

I place a unique emphasis on my “warm-ups” with youth athletes. During the first 8-10 minutes I implement a high paced, high-energy, dynamic warm-up. It is common for these warm-ups to include jogs, backpedals, shuffles, skip patterns, lunge complexes, and rapid response quick feet drills.

Contrary to typical adult athlete warm-ups, these movements are not meant to “stretch” any muscles. Rather, I want these kids to start learning where their body is located in space. Through the variety of their own movement they will begin understanding how to control their own bodies.

Furthermore, a high-energy warm-up is a great way to get these young guns breathing hard, dialed in, and ready for more.

 

Movement Training

 

Plyometrics

 

1.)   Center of Mass and Postural Awareness: High

2.)   General Movement Pattern Competency: Moderate

3.)   Entertainment: Low

Following the warm-up and a quick water break, I will expose my youth athletes to some kind of plyometric drill. These drills will be widely varied, but will be specifically selected to fit into one of the overall program themes. These drills can include single jumps, multiple jumps, vertical jumps, broad jumps, lateral jumps, or single leg jumps.

With younger athletes, I almost never emphasize the actual jump. Rather, I will coach the landing. The position I teach an athlete to land in is widely known as “Athletic Base.” Athletic Base is similar to a defensive position in basketball, allowing athletes to quickly move in any direction.

My most commonly used coaching cue to teach Athletic Base is telling my athlete to “Sit back into your hip.” This direction teaches the athlete to accept load through their glutes rather than quads. I will also tell an athlete to “Find your tongue,” which refers to the tongue of their shoe. If my athletes can see the tongue of their shoe in their peripheral vision, I can trust that they are stabilizing through their hips. If the athlete’s knee is blocking the field of vision to the tongue, this tells me that they are relying on their quads to stabilize. They will need to shift their center of mass back slightly.

I know that if an athlete can properly land and accept load, it is likely that he or she will be quicker in their change of direction and more resistant to common knee and ankle injuries. The center of mass and postural foundation in Athletic Base will also become my reference point for the remainder of the session.

Movement Skill

 

1.)   Center of Mass and Postural Awareness: Moderate

2.)   General Movement Pattern Competency: High

3.)   Entertainment: High

Movement skill training is as widely varied as the coaches running the sessions. I have seen a handful of good training methods used to improve speed and agility, but I have found the following to be the most effective approach.

In my sessions, I focus on one of two possible primary skills. These skills are either linear or lateral movement.

The underlying theme between these two movements is body angles. I constantly emphasize overall body angles through leaning, and teach methods used to manipulate center of gravity. Once an athlete understands his or her center of mass, and how to shift that mass, their overall quickness will typically increase.

The Movement Skill segments are the most technical of the entire workout. Therefore, I will be coaching more here than during any other section. I subtly begin teaching my athletes how to effectively move their arms while they run, how to lean in their shuffles and crossovers, and how to push into the ground to create velocity. I make a point to be quick in my explanation, and decrease any “standing” dead time. As simple as these coaching cue are, continuously reminding them extraordinarily increases their quality of movement.

For the last two or three minutes of the Movement Skill section, I make sure to include some type of game or competition that requires full-speed application of the movement we just learned. Sometimes, the game or competition will include a recognizable game situation. This allows athletes to “play,” with their technique, and helps bridge the gap between performance training and sport application.

 

Note: This section of the session is usually featured by the previously mentioned Instagram and YouTube videos. Repeated, full-speed drills best teach young athletes the priorities I aim to address. However, not understanding the context and purpose of these drills is useless when designing a youth training program.

 

The Lift

 

1.)   Center of Mass and Postural Awareness: High

2.)   General Movement Pattern Competency: High

3.)   Entertainment: Low

And finally… the lift. Strength training for youth athletes is always debated, highly controversial, strongly opinionated, and always seemingly flexible. My methods are not exempt, but again, this is what works best for me.

My main focus for the lift is not to build strength, but to engrain proper posture through movement patterns.

Early in their training program, I will teach postural awareness through static holds. Planks, goblet squats, and sometimes even Bulgarian Squat holds are my favorite. Once the athletes understand what proper static posture feels like, I will begin adding movement.

For youth athletes, I divide my lifts into general umbrella categories that include squat patterns, hinging, and bracing. Every single exercise that I select can fall under one of those three categories. For example: lunges fall under squats, RDL’s fall under hinges, and any row, press, pull-down, or static hold will incorporate bracing.

Again, it’s important to remember that these are YOUNG athletes. As they grow into their bodies, they will naturally become stronger. My FIRST priority is teaching them center of mass and proper posture, not building strength. At this age, it is my job to build their foundation, and allow them to naturally grow into their speed, power, and explosiveness.


 

Hey, Mr. Performance Coach, You Never Mentioned Sport Specific Training or Specialization.

Yes. Correct. You’re right!

For most youth athletes, I believe in exposure. I want to expose my athletes to a wide variety of jumps, movements, and lifts, and encourage them to try them all on the field, court, diamond, or ice. Common relationships among jabs, fakes, cuts, and crossover steps can be translated to many different sports and scenarios. Additionally, if youth athletes have a wide reference base for movement, I believe they will grow – as continuing athletes or as spectators – with a greater appreciation for all sports.

I strongly believe that youth specialization is unnecessary. As it turns out, I’m not alone.

In their book “Easy Strength”, Dan Jon and Pavel Tsatsouline (don’t worry, Pavel is Russian) describe in depth how early youth specialization can lead to a premature peak in performance. Athletes dedicated to very detailed tasks at an early age can ultimately plateau, and fall out of the elite rankings. This could easily turn in to a blog post itself, so I’m going to let the experts speak for me on this topic for now.


 

Summary

As a Performance Coach, I believe it is my job to teach young athletes body awareness through a sense of posture and center of mass. Next, I must teach them how to maintain that posture through movement. Most importantly, it is critical that I deliver these priorities in a positive and entertaining manner that invites a lifelong positive impression of sport on the athlete.

 Hopefully, you will take something from my experiences, and use it in a way that impacts the development of a youth athlete in your own life. There is a lot of static right now on youth training, and my hope is that we all question and dig into programs with the best interest of our youth in mind.

 

If you have any comments, I would love to hear from you! Please link up with us on Twitter or Instagram, and comment below!

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