Training Youth ATHletes:
ATH's Student Athlete Training Philosophy
Damany Taylor, Senior Performance Coach, Student ATHlete
Today many youth athletes, parents of youth athletes, and sport coaches are looking to get a leg up on the competition through sports performance training, and because of this, there are now more youth sports training programs than ever before. With so many options, which direction should you turn? As with most things in the strength and conditioning world, it depends. There is probably no right or wrong direction, but there may be a more ideal direction for you. To have more guidance I think it comes down to understanding the philosophy of whatever training program you’re committing to.
As one of the Student ATHlete Senior Performance Coaches at Athlete Training and Health, in terms of youth, our philosophy is to utilize evidence-led, holistic athletic development practices to ensure long-term, continual improvement and minimize the injury risk for athletes. To do this, we put an emphasis on the biological age of the athletes or in simpler terms, the years pre-, mid- or post-growth spurt. Understanding long-term athlete development is one of the keys in any youth program. My goal today is to share how and why we utilize the biological age of youth athletes to put the athletes of tomorrow in the best possible position to express movement literacy, strength and speed, not only for now, but also for their future.
Evaluation – Determining PHV
Everything we do begins with an evaluation. Whether that be in real-time as we’re training or during a scheduled evaluation appointment. We want to assess specific qualities that influence athleticism, interpret those results, and prescribe exercise based on what we see. The measurements/qualities we assess include:
- Pre-, Mid-, Post-Growth Spurt
- Informs placement in training groups
- Flexibility and Mobility
- Asses asymmetries in movement which will be important for how we prescribe corrective exercise for that specific athlete
- Exercise Form and Technique
- Assess how well the athlete moves with and without load and instruction
- Jumping Performance
- Vertical jump measures the ability to produce force vertically, which is important for top speed running
- Broad jump measure the ability to produce force horizontally, which is important for acceleration
- Sprinting Performance
- Sprinting over 10- and 20-yards to assess linear speed
- The 5-0-5 gives us an indication of change of direction ability
- Strength and Rate of Force Development
- Assess max force production and the rate which force can be applied
The measures we assess align with what we’re trying to improve. Our goals are to improve movement literacy, speed, agility, strength and power. The road we take to get there will depend largely on peak height velocity (PHV) which enables us to classify athletes as pre-, mid-, or post-growth spurt i.e pre-PHV, mid-PHV, or post-PHV. PHV stands for Peak Height Velocity and it occurs when an athlete is undergoing their fastest rate of growth. PHV helps determine the biological age of the athlete, which can give coaches more guidance to make a plan of action in comparison to exclusively knowing chronological age alone. In knowing their biological age, we can tailor each groups’ training to place the athlete in an optimal environment to enhance performance.
With our goals in mind (movement literacy, speed and agility, strength and power), when it comes to improving movement literacy, we emphasize function or fundamental movement skills. Youth athletes that are pre-growth spurt have an increased ability to learn new motor skills because of the volume of gray matter (tissue in your brain and spinal cord that plays a crucial role in allowing you to function normally day to day) compared to adolescents/adults. Because of this, it is our philosophy to expose these student athletes to a multitude of motor skills. We tend to do this through obstacle courses that challenge their balance, throwing/catching/kicking, and their ability to run/jump. Strength training at this time of development is primarily driven by improved neuromuscular function. Because these athletes have not yet experienced puberty they will improve strength by learning to efficiently recruit musculature rather than increasing cross sectional area (or hypertrophy) and lifting more weight. Once these athletes show proper lifting technique, they can be challenged by increasing reps performed with a weight first, and then second by increasing external load. Athletes at this stage show great adaptability to high speed exercises. Sprinting and other plyometric activities such as jumping are great for improving athletic capabilities. This can be done through fun, competitive games that engage kids to play at maximal speeds. We often incorporate races on linear days and different tag variations on multidirectional days.
Athletes experiencing their growth spurt undergo a tremendous amount of stress due to rapid changes within their bodies. That, along with discrepancies in bone density compared to muscle tendon increase the likelihood of overuse injuries. Hence driving our approach to increase strength through focusing more on single leg compound lifts where the total weight able to be lifted is limited but still challenging. For example, our main lift for a multidirectional speed day may be a back squat (a bi-lateral exercise) with our post-growth spurt athletes, but the main lift would be modified to a split squat (a unilateral exercise) for our mid-growth spurt athletes to decrease the total external load on the bar while still challenging their balance.
One other component we need to take into consideration when trying to improve strength is elevated testosterone in males and estrogen in females. Around this time we can begin to expect improvements in strength from increases in lean muscle mass, which is reflected in a change in our programming compared to the pre-growth spurt group. These hormonal gains along with the intense growing stress these athletes are experiencing influence our philosophy on how we attack speed and agility. With plyometrics we’re cognizant of intense landing forces so we may stay away from intense drop heights (higher than the athlete can jump) as well as single limb landings where the forces are solely distributed on a single limb. We instead choose to drive adaptations with more submaximal jumps like pogos, multidirectional low hurdle hops, concentric jumps, etc.
Last but not least the mid-growth spurt period is marked by a time of “adolescent awkwardness”, which is a time where the athletes have to get used to their new bodies because the long bones (femur and humerus) may be growing at a faster rate than the short bones like those in their torsos. It is our job to ensure that we revisit the fundamental movement skills to make sure we hammer home movement literacy as the athletes adjust.
When a student athlete reaches the post-growth spurt stage we now begin to have the most relative structure to our programming. The pre- and mid-growth spurt groups have low-moderate structures emphasizing having fun and learning to train, while the post-growth spurt group is now training to compete. Similar to the mid-growth spurt group, we can expect improvements in strength at all three levels of adaptation:
- Neurally: being more efficient at moving fast
- Mechanically: form and technique
- Muscularly: more mass due to increased sex hormones
Our thinking is to now focus more on producing force and converting that force to power. In order to do that we begin to combine training modalities such as accommodating and pneumatic resistance. Although one thing we keep in mind is that we may have to revisit the fundamentals depending on the experience of the athlete before transitioning to more advanced loading strategies. As athletes reach this phase we start to be more detailed in our speed and agility training. We dive deeper into some of the more technical aspects of jumping and sprinting by putting more of an emphasis on angles and body/limb positioning. Athletes at this stage are now starting to be able to connect the dots and understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and how working on the small details will help them improve. With a pre and/or mid-growth spurt group the focus may be more on static postures of jumping and running whereas a post growth spurt group may work more dynamically with more velocity and complexity.
Here at Athlete Training and Health, we are firm believers in facilitating long term athletic development. We emphasize this by recognizing the role that biological maturation plays in adaptation to training which informs our structure. As stated before, the most important question a parent or a student athlete should ask themselves before committing to a program is ‘what is right for me and will this help me get closer to my goals?’, and there’s no better way to answer this question than to understand that facilities’ training philosophy. At Athlete Training and Health our goal is to utilize evidence-inspired practices to ensure long-term athletic development. We understand the importance of laying a solid foundation of movement literacy, strength and power in order for youth athletes to reach their athletic potential and by creating the type of environment that was just discussed, we believe we are giving youth athletes a great shot at success.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
Fill out this form and we’ll be in touch. Or, read more about our training programs by following the links below:
Student ATHlete: Athletic performance training for athletes ages 8-18
Next Level ATHlete: Seasonal programs for collegiate and professional athletes
Team ATHlete: Specialized, seasonal team-training for teams and organizations
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