Youth Performance Training

I get a lot of great questions from the readers of  New Functional Training for Sports. I got a bunch about youth performance training and thought I’d combine a few into one blog post.

Q-  I would really like your professional opinion on “youth”performance training. Two years ago, my son (age 8) attended a football camp where professional trainers gave a presentation about year around position specific training and sports performance training. They said something that stuck with me, explaining that  “research shows that a kid learns how to run fast by age 9.” Essentially saying that you need to train to obtain the optimal performance of the athlete by age 9.

A- This is a bit of a complicated answer.  One, I have trouble with “professional trainers” addressing 8 year old?

Also, I’d like to see the “research”.  I know in some Long Term Athletic Development plans they discuss “windows of opportunity” and one is early. However kids can learn to be fast without professional coaching. Yes, they need to move and move fast but, that could be flying down the base path in kickball, not an organized speed session. Relay races will do just fine at 8. If you really believe in the Long Term Athletic Development idea, there is also a later window. However, I’m not sure I even buy that. We’ve seen tremendous speed increases in collegiate athletes although, I will tell you that you can’t make a slow kid fast at that stage. In the bigger picture, slow twitch kids may be slow twitch kids and might never excel at team sports.

Q- Many of todays trainers (as mentioned above) use some parts of this as their selling points:

 “Human muscles innervation is completed around 6-7 years of age (Grasso 2005). This implies that the brain has formed its neural connections to the muscular system and that optimization of these connections can begin. This makes it more possible to perform coordinated activities. By 10-12 years of age, reflexive motor patterns are conditioned and relatively permanent (Grasso 2005). These finding suggest that introducing proper motor skills between the age of muscle innervation and the age of permanent motor pattern formation may be advantageous (Drabik 1996)”

A- Drabik’s book is great but, again we need to interpret what “proper motor skills” are. I keep coming back to the idea that 5-10 year olds need to play. However, play that involves running fast, jumping, swinging etc. can be seen as good play. Video games might fall in the bad play category. The statement above should not be a justification for as I like to say “being in the childhood stealing business”.

Q-A couple weeks ago I was at a track meet. It was hard not to take notice of a kid that you can tell put in some serious work in the off-season. . This kid (age 8) was not running like this last year.

A- If we have a kid putting in “serious work” in the off season for track at 8 we have a “serious” problem. Kids should be playing with friends and riding their bikes, not putting in “serious work” on the track. I always like to say that for every one of these kids that succeed there are a 1000 kids who hate their parents.

Q- My son’s track coach told me that my son does not have fast/quick turnover when running (something that can be achieved with performance training).  The old school in me, just wants to naturally try to use downhill running methods to gradually speed up that turnover at this young age. My goal is not to have a young superstar that fizzles out or plateaus early but rather keep my young kids athletic and hopefully they peak older (in High School) when it really counts. I just want to make sure that I am not hindering my son’s future performance by not addressing certain things now through performance training that could wait until is body gets more developed. I wanted to ask the opinion of experts in the field that were impartial.

What is your opinion on performance training at young ages (kids aged 5-10)?

–       Risks vs Benefit?

–       Is there a certain age threshold that you recommend?

–       What is too young?

A- The risks ( primarily psychological) far outweigh the benefits. My major concern is the perversion of the parent – child relationship. Parents are coaches because they have to be in volunteer situations. When the parent shifts to coach role, resentment builds. Google Todd Marinovich and see how that one turned out.

Athletic development is a process. Every kid is different but, it’s not about physical readiness. as much as it’s about psychological readiness. Some kids are pleasers and want to be around a parent. My daughter ( full college scholarship at 15) was that way. She has always been at the facility and loved the environment. She wanted to be like the older girls she looked up to. My son was different.  Initially ( at 11) he expressed a desire to start training but, quickly got bored with it. It became a source of friction and our relationship was suffering. I was upset that he wasn’t living up to his commitments, wasn’t taking it seriously etc. I had to step back and say ” lets try again next year, our relationship is too important”. That has worked out really as he has done a better job this year at 12.

Personally, I think 11 is a good age to start introducing kids to the weight room. Up to 11 I think kids should be playing sports. Lots of sports. Ideally at least three as well as learning to swim, ride a bike and paddle a canoe. ( Summer Training for Nine Year Olds)

Q- Can my son achieve the same long-term performance results if he started performance training older (age 12yr/13yrs or older) rather than if he started now at age 8?

A- To be truthful, I can’t answer definitively. I believe yes. What I can tell you is that I strongly believe that a child who goes through a normal childhood has a much higher chance of being a well adjusted adult. The Chinese are doing well in certain sports ( mostly those that favor smaller athletes) like gymnastics and diving through early specialization and extensive practice but, I’m not sure it is good child development.

Q- Am I missing out on a future performance window (when he gets older) by not maximizing on his reflexive motor patters by age 10?

A- Again to be truthful, I’m not sure. However, I keep going back to the child development piece which as a parent should override any performance thoughts. Your mission as a parent should be to encourage your child to develop in a well rounded person, not to produce a track or football star. Sport is way to teach great lessons but, not in this case.


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