Keeping Our Young Athletes Happy, Healthy and Whole

Keeping Our Young Athletes Happy, Healthy and Whole

There is increasing need for training programs for youth. Interestingly, this need is driven by two polar opposite factors. At one end of the spectrum, we have a segment of the youth population specializing in a single sport at a younger age, and as result we are seeing reduced overall functional fitness and higher over-use and acute injury rates. At the other end of the spectrum, as a result of people, inclusive of youth, leading more sedentary lifestyles, we are seeing higher obesity rates, and the associated health issues.


At Dai, we have the opportunity to work with both the single-sport youth athlete, for example those pursuing elite soccer, tennis or mountain biking on a year-round basis, as well as children who simply need more movement in their life to improve their health. So, I was interested to learn what new research says regarding the most safe and effective ways to help children and adolescence achieve their athletic and movement goals.


When I train youth athletes, my initial objective is simple, it’s to improve body awareness, postural control and balance, as well as set down a foundation of good movement patterns. But I have always been reluctant to load exercises for fear of injury.


However, reading the research, I have learned some valuable lessons.  This research not only addresses misconceptions surrounding resistance training for the youth population, it actually indicates that the development years are the ideal time to introduce this training to produce optimal adaptations.


What are the Misconceptions?


It has been suggested that resistance training for youth should be avoided. It has been generally accepted that the load is detrimental and injurious to growth plates and joints, as well as bone health. Additionally, this type of training has been associated with a high injury rate.


Setting the Record Straight


Science now says that a well-developed training program inclusive of resistance training extends the following benefits of improved –

  • General health and fitness
  • Body composition and weight control
  • Bone density
  • Muscular strength
  • Injury prevention
  • Motor skill and motor coordination
  • Self-esteem and confidence


A Few Key Findings


Recent research also tells us that strategically introducing specific exercises, during specific stages of development will elicit optimal training responses. Here are a few of the key findings –

  • The mechanical stress of the resistance has been shown to induce significant bone density accrual resulting in improved bone formation and structure.
  • Youth are “blank slates,” meaning they have not engrained poor movement patterns, nor experienced injuries around which they have compensated and created asymmetries and imbalances. As a result, this is an optimal time to introduce good movement patterns and establish a foundation upon which they can build over their lifetime.
  • Young female athletes do not experience the natural “neuromuscular spurt” that young males experience. Science tells us, by coupling resistance training, ideally during the ages of 14-18 years, we can induce a neuromuscular spurt, providing an ideal environment to positively effect neuromuscular adaptation and significantly improve muscular strength.
  • During childhood, with high neural plasticity and the developing central nervous system, we can positively affect and improve motor skills and motor coordination, as well as establish a foundation of good movement patterns and improve neuromuscular adaptation and muscular strength.
  • During adolescence, while the neural development slows, we see significant structural changes, including increased muscle cross-sectional area and motor unit differentiation. These changes create an opportunity to significantly improve muscle strength.


Safe and effective training for youth


Based on my experience, there is a need for a more balanced approach to training young athletes, specializing in one sport. These kids seem to be training harder (and with less rest) than I did when I was training for elite world championships. The plan needs to be appropriately progressed and comprehensive, with sufficient rest and recovery built in to help them move better to perform better. However, the challenge also becomes disguising the work as play. Keeping it playful and fun is key to improving engagement and adherence.


Similar to developing a training plan for any age and ability, the plan must be individualized based on the individual’s current fitness and future goals. However, individualization becomes especially crucial for youth and needs to be based on the biological and training age versus simply compartmentalizing them based on chronological age.


The exercise selection and progression is based entirely on the individual’s ability to perform the movements with control and stability. It’s important when initially working with an athlete of low training age to focus on movement fundamentals. These exercises utilize body weight for resistance and focus on postural control and alignment, improve balance and proprioception as well as lower limb control and stability. Once these fundamentals are in place, these exercises are progressed with increased volume and intensity, i.e. sets/reps and load or resistance. Additionally, these exercises can be progressed by increasing the complexity and velocity of the movements.


Final Take-Aways


For the young athlete, specializing in one sport, a more well-rounded training program, inclusive of resistance training, can greatly enhance functional fitness to improve performance and reduce injuries. Equally important, this appropriately progressed and balanced program can provide invaluable mental and physical variety; ensure adequate rest and recovery; positively affect the young athletes experience; reduce burnout; and increase longevity in the sport. For kids who are trending toward a more sedentary lifestyle introducing activity earlier in life is an opportunity to help make more consistent movement on a daily basis, a lasting lifestyle.


Giddy Up, and Get Out There