3 Rules For Training Young Athletes


Improving an young athlete’s ability to run faster, get bigger, produce more force, and be more explosive is one of those things that is so simple, yet can be so complicated at the same time.  It is so simple in the fact that there really isn’t a whole bunch of fancy things we need to do to get there.  We sprint, jump, land, throw, push, pull, and lift. When it comes down to it, that is really all there is too it.

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The complexity is not in WHAT we do, however in HOW we organize, implement, and progress our athletes properly based on individual needs, goals, body types, age, injury considerations, and sport demands.
I rarely deal in absolutes.  I believe that very few things in training and life are at the 100% ends of any spectrum.  However, there are some principles when it comes to training youth athletes that I believe should be adhered to 100% of the time.  However, in high school weight rooms and private training gyms around the country, they are not.  If your son or daughter is an athlete looking to improve performance, make sure these 5 rules are being followed:
1. Kids under age 13 need to PLAY
Kids no longer play like they used to.  In older generations, before the days of the Ipad and Playstation 4, kids grew up on the playground.  They ran, climbed, skipped, fell off the swing, jumped off the playground, ran up the slide, etc.  Early in your life, by doing these things, certain motor patterns were engrained within your brain that children these days are not developing.
Don’t believe me? Go to your child’s practice and ask the kids to skip.  Several will not possess this basic motor skill.
What we didn’t realize when we were jumping off that swing at when we were 10 years old is that we were training for sports performance.  We were giving our brains a wide variety of movements to choose from down the road when we started playing more structured sports.  With too much of an emphasis on structure at a young age, our brains do not have the ability to develop this extensive menu and will present challenges as we get older.
Do not worry about your 10 year old learning running mechanics.  Let them PLAY.  Play as many sports as possible.  Get them off of the Ipad for a few hours a day.  Expose them to as many different physical activities as possible.  They may not be the best 10 year old baseball player, but who cares.  Give them a shot to be the best 17 year old baseball player.
2.  Respect One’s Training Age
Biological Age = Years athlete has been alive.
Training Age = Years athlete has participated in structured training.
I work with a 15 year old athlete who I have been training since he was 10 years old.  Realistically, we have been training with structure since he was about 13.  His training age is 2-3 years.
I work with another athlete who is 17 years old.  He started about 3 weeks ago and has never touched a weight in his life.  His training age is 3 weeks.
The 17 year old athlete is physically more mature than the 15 year old, however the 15 year old’s training program is going to be far more advanced and progressed than the 17 year old.  The 15 year old, over the last three years, has developed a foundation of proper movement, stability, bodyweight strength, and tissue resiliency to handle a more advanced training program.  The 17 year old, while more physically mature, still needs to build this foundation before having the ability to move forward.
If we skip these steps and say, “Hey, he’s 17, he’s mature…let’s get him lifting heavy weights,” we are playing with fire. The 17 year old WILL get hurt if we make this mistake.  This is the biggest and most common mistake I see made in weight rooms around the country.  Kids are throwing barbells on their backs before they have built up the tissues in the trunk, hips, and low back to handle that level of compression.  As a result, the joints are forced to do all of the hard work.  This is when pars fractures, spondylosis, and other injuries of the sort occur.
In the weight room, biological age is secondary.  Training age matters.
3.  Not All Athletes Are The Same
As we discussed earlier, there are really only a few things that we need to do well when training for sports performance. Sprint, throw, jump, land, push, pull, lift. If every athlete needs these things, can’t we just throw a workout up on the wall and let them go to work?
While these general principles are fairly simple, each athlete has different needs.  They have different body types.  They have differences at their joints.  Different postures.  Different strengths. Different weaknesses.  Different schedules.  Different mindsets.
What could be the BEST program in the world for one 15 year old lacrosse player could be the WORST for a different 15 year old on the same team.   This is the issue with general workout programs.  If we do not bring the athlete through a detailed assessment process and prescribe the proper training interventions based on that assessment, and constantly re-assessing, how do we know if we are getting what we want out of a training program?
Let’s use an example.  Two athletes come in with the same training age, same biological age, same size, same sport, same position.  They are both running backs on the football team.  They both want to get bigger and stronger for their senior season.
Athlete A is put through an assessment. All joint ranges of motion are within acceptable ranges.  We know that we can bench press this athlete safely.
Should athlete B bench press as well?  We don’t know that yet.
Athlete B is put through the same assessment. We find that he lacks sufficient shoulder internal rotation. If we were to bench press this athlete, we would be not only putting the athlete at risk, but ACTIVELY HURTING this athlete every time he were to get under a bench and press that bar.
So what do we do?  We find other ways get him pressing. We dumbbell press. We do pushup variations.
We use a swiss bar (an angled bar that helps to optimize shoulder position).  There are thousands of ways we can get an athlete bigger, stronger, faster without bench pressing with a straight bar.
If we are not assessing, we are guessing.
No two athletes are the same.  We cannot fit athletes to exercises.  We must fit exercises to athletes.
These three rules are ones that are commonly broken, and our young athletes are the ones who suffer. Sports performance training is so simple, yet so complicated.  I will leave you with this global training advice:
-When in doubt, err on the side of safety.
-Have fun with it.
-If it hurts, don’t do it.
-Keep the goal the goal.
Best,
Mike Baker

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