I’ve been around the Youth Fitness and Training arena for over 2 decades. I’ve learned a lot in that time, especially from my mistakes. That’s why it pains me to see the same mistakes being made over and over in the training of young athletes and children in general.
In many ways, parents can be forgiven for making these mistakes. After all, they don’t have a background in anatomy and physiology or functional biomechanics. Neither do most youth sports coaches, but that doesn’t stop them from playing at the strength and conditioning of young athletes. After all, they study at the University of the Internet Search Engine and as we know, if it was on Google or Youtube, it must be right!
Now don’t think for a minute that I don’t appreciate or respect parents and coaches. I absolutely do. Parents have the most challenging job in the world. Many youth sports coaches are volunteers who do what they do out of the love of the game and a desire to help kids and families. Even many middle and high school coaches might as well be volunteers, given how little many get paid.
Regardless, we all have to do better as it relates to youth training and fitness at all levels. To that end, I’m going to share what I’ve learned from my own mistakes and from listening to youth fitness and training experts all over the world. If you’re making these mistakes, you are sabotaging your child’s sports performance, fitness and maybe even their long-term health and well-being.
So let’s dive right in, shall we? Here are what I think are the “5 Deadly Sins” committed by parents and coaches in the training and fitness of youth athletes and kids.
#1 – A focus on short-term gain – This might also be called the “instant gratification” mistake. You see it all over media and advertising. 6 minute abs. 21 days to a new body. Lose 10 pounds in your first week. Yes, those are all aimed at adults, but the mindset spills over into the youth fitness and training arena.
It’s pretty common for training facilities and youth fitness coaches to make promises of rapid, sometimes immediate gains in speed, strength or other athletic skills. We see 6 or 8 week programs being sold all over the place, with some pretty big promises attached to them. To some degree, they’re not really exaggerating.
You see, children from the age of 5 to about 21 are incredibly plastic. Their muscular and neural systems are ripe for change, development and improvement. They are adaptive machines. When you place an applied demand on those machines, they improve. In other words, training kids in almost any kind of organized and even barely progressive fashion will lead to physical improvements.
Their Central Nervous Systems are amazingly plastic and really good at mastering new and various movement patterns. Their muscles are developing in size, durability and power output. Their bones are getting stronger and denser.
You could literally have a 13-year old athlete do 3 sets of 10 burpees each day for 6 weeks and you would see a noticeable difference in their body composition, strength and conditioning. Have a 16-year old football player run up and down the bleachers 4-5 times a day for that same period and you’d get measurable improvement in the size of leg muscles, speed and power output.
Those results don’t justify either of those ideas as appropriate training programs. All that means is that these children’s bodies have responded to stress the way they were designed to.
The same can be said for short term programs in things like speed. When you put your child through a 4-week speed and agility program, the skill improvement they acquired will begin to degrade in week 5. Why? Because the skill development was rushed to impress parents and the repetition opportunities were insufficient to create deep, lasting movement skills. It was too much, too fast, so it won’t “stick” in the brain and body.
Movement and athletic skills have progressions. Babies don’t just go from lying around eating, sleeping and pooping to running around doing it. They have to learn to roll over. Then they have to learn to crawl, then stand, walk, etc. Yes, you can speed the progression a little, but it has to take its course and you can’t skip steps.
We see the same thing in school. Kids need to master the material in each grade before moving to the next. None of them get a Master’s Degree before finishing 7th grade.
Focus on long-term gains and development. Seek youth fitness and training programs that focus on optimal development and gains that “stick.” Then find a way to make room and time in your child’s schedule to keep working on those gains. Performance will improve, you’ll greatly reduce injury risk and your athlete will enjoy the process far more and far longer.
#2 – Heavy loads before mastering technique – Humans are both competitive and acquisitive by nature. We love to compete – against ourselves as well as others and we love to “get stuff.” So it’s natural for parents, coaches and even athletes themselves to want to put up and “get” bigger numbers in lifts like the bench press, squat, deadlift, cleans and Olympic lifts.
But focusing on the numbers and just moving weight can be catastrophic. The dangers of poor form and technique during the lifts should be obvious. What is less obvious is the lasting increase in injury risk caused by overloading poor movements. Joints are stressed and prone to injury. Muscles don’t function optimally. Bad things can happen.
I love to get my athletes strong. I say repeatedly that strength is king and all other athletic skills are subject to it. Strength allows athletes to be fast, powerful, durable, agile, quick and injury-resistant. But it has to be functional strength and it has to be accompanied by excellent technique.
Beginning with bodyweight versions of as many movements as possible allows form improvement and perfection before adding external loads. Teaching parts of lifts is effective for some movements as well. Olympic lifts lend themselves to this concept.
Progressing to barbell and dumbbell work should happen when an athlete masters the bodyweight version of a movement. Increasing loads should happen only when maximal weight reps can be managed without a significant breakdown in form. Athletes are likely to exhibit minor deviations in form under maximal loads, like those at their 1 rep max or very close to it.
How much deviation is allowable? If your athlete repeatedly performed an athletic movement in their sport that resembled the lift they attempted, would you feel confident that they could avoid injury over time? For example, if a basketball player’s jump looked like their maximal squat, would it lead to injury if repeated over time?
Develop function first, then load the movement.
#3 – Focusing on “parent fitness” – I get it. You go to the gym to take some classes, maybe lift some weights and hop on the treadmill in hopes of winning the battle of the bulge. You want to improve your cardiovascular fitness, lose some weight and hold off the effects of aging as long as possible.
You do long, slow cardio sessions. You lift light weights for high reps. Or maybe you follow your chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, etc., etc. bodybuilding routine that you got from “Muscle and Fiction” magazine.
Does that sound like the way to train your youth athlete? Didn’t think so. Don’t inflict your fitness fears on your kids. Their athletic needs are different than your need to look better naked, most likely.
They need to develop athletic strength, power and explosiveness. They need multi-directional speed, agility, quickness and deceleration skills. They need to develop athletic coordination. They need balance, kinesthetic differentiation, spatial awareness and the ability to manage it all at high speed while making hundreds of predictions and decisions practically every second.
Get them off the treadmill, out of the aerobics class and into a program that can help them get all that. Come to think of it, you might benefit from some of that, too.
Let your kids train like athletes.
#4 – A myopic focus on linear speed – The only sport that takes place in a straight line all the time is 55 or 100 meter sprinting. That’s it. Even in swimming, there are small “waves” and currents in the pool pushing the swimmers off their lines all the time. Don’t believe me? Ask a competitive swimmer.
Football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, ice hockey, softball, volleyball – name a sport. Multi-directional in nature. Yet coaches spend hours teaching “speed drills” – arm action, hip drive, ankle drive, forward lean, yada, yada. Don’t even get me started on the high speed treadmill nonsense.
While I understand that linear speed is part of just about every game, I’d argue that the important stuff in every sport doesn’t happen in a straight line. You can’t even jog a walk-off home run without turning.
Linear speed training for athletes shouldn’t occupy more than about 3-4% of total training volume in any program phase. Sports are multi-directional and vary in speed constantly. Athletes need to learn how to move efficiently and fast in all planes of motion, at multiple angles and they need to be skilled at deceleration (stopping.) Direction change skills, which are prized by every athlete and coach, will grow out of this development.
In sports, speed is the killer app and multi-directional speed is the premium, upgraded version of that app.
#5 – The myth of “sport-specific training” – There is no such thing as “sport-specific training.” If you’re a parent who paid a bunch of money to some trainer for soccer, baseball, softball, basketball or any other sport-specific training, you got robbed. If you’re a coach or trainer selling this lie, you’re a thief. Strong words, I know. But 100% true.
What aspect of the athletic skill set is specific to any one sport? Strength, power, speed, agility, quickness, balance, coordination (in all its forms,) rotational vectors, spatial awareness, mental acuity and tactical decision-making are universal to all sports. Therefore, all effective, functional, comprehensive and progressive strength and conditioning and youth fitness and training programs are “specific” to every sport.
If this training is specific to all sports, it’s specific to none of them. Therefore, no training program that includes these elements is “sport-specific.”
Can certain exercises or groups of exercises be shown to be beneficial to specific aspects of a sport or sports? Yes. Can you group movements and exercises together in ways that enhance the playing skills of a specific sport? Yes. Still doesn’t make any of it specific to one sport.
Quick example. If you’ve ever seen or used a jump trainer like a Vertimax, you know it enhances vertical leap. Therefore, it must be basketball-specific, right? No, wait, volleyball! Wait, high jump! Performance in lots of sports benefits from an improved jumping ability and plyometric power.
Youth athletes and kids in general are in the growth process. Their brains are able to process and create motor plans for an infinite variety of movement patterns. There is literally no limit to the movements children can master. Why then, would we stunt this awesome athletic development with a hyper-focus on one sport?
Children develop athleticism best when exposed to a massive variety of movement opportunities. Creating a broadly diversified training program will foster their athletic skills and give them the best chance at athletic success long term. Specializing the training regimen in favor of one sport or it’s common movements actually derails the development process and makes the child more prone to injury and failure.
What this means is that there won’t be much difference between the training program for a 14 year-old male hockey player and a 14 year old female softball player. A look at the most successful athletes in just about any sport reveals a great diversity of training stimulus and movement opportunity during their developmental years.
Over time, youth athletes may gravitate toward or exhibit proficiency in a specific sport. They may start to garner attention from coaches at the “next level.” When it becomes obvious that your 15 to 17 year old is likely to play one sport in college or beyond, that’s when it is appropriate to build some specificity into a training program. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say it’s appropriate to eliminate some of the training generalities.
One such example would be the 16 year old baseball pitcher who is being recruited to play in college. That athlete would need to have some activities in a training program that are specific to arm care and shoulder health, especially during the season. Even with this reality, at least 80% of the training program would be focused on developing the broader athletic skill-set.
Sport-specific training is intended for older youth athletes with a true love of one sport and an opportunity to play at the next level. It’s not for your 8 year old quarterback, 10 year old midfielder or 12 year old pitcher. Because next year, they might all want to be shooting guards on the basketball team.
Training programs that address a broad range of movement and athletic skills will deliver a better result for your youth athlete and probably save mom and dad a bundle, too.
Those are the “5 Deadly Mistakes Parents and Coaches Make in Training Youth Athletes.” I’m sure I ruffled a few feathers. That, however, has never stopped me from speaking my mind in the past and is unlikely to stop me in the future.
The big takeaway might be this: children are born with an infinite number of possibilities as it relates to movement, athleticism and even sports. Don’t cut those possibilities off by limiting their opportunities. Give them variety and repetition and they’ll figure out what they like and even what they’re good at!
Keep the faith and keep after it!