In my previous youth development blog post I highlighted how high performance youth squads are dominated by early maturing athletes.  This relative age effect is nothing new.  The strength and conditioning coach plays an important role when it comes to conditioning talented young athletes.  Those that are early biological maturers are not necessarily mature in terms of their training.  You must take this into account when training them.  Conversely, late developers require a certain approach to strength and conditioning that allows them to keep pace with bigger, stronger athletes.  Here I discuss some of the key principles to guide coaches when conditioning talented young athletes.


The Curse of the Early Developer

Early maturers are more likely to get the best deal.  They’re more likely to be identified.  This results in access to better coaching and support.  Therefore, those in high performance groups could be more likely to realise their potential.  However, there are some pitfalls that strength and conditioning coaches can help the athlete avoid.  It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that someone who is physically mature is also mature in other areas.  These areas include their emotional and psychological maturity as well as their training age and history.  Chances are  that most young athletes do not have an extensive history of training.  Therefore, they are not ready for advanced methods of physical preparation.

A common mistake of coaches is to train the early maturer like an experienced athlete.  Just because an athlete presents with freakish strength levels, does not mean that they are ready for highly advanced strength training methods.  Doing so places the athlete at an increased risk of injury.  It also places them under a high level of psychological pressure and possible emotional stress.  Any of us who have performed heavy strength training to failure will know who mentally draining it can be!


The Curse of the Late Developer

Late developers often get overlooked in the short term.  They have a reduced presence in high performance squads.  Competing against bigger, stronger athletes is very challenging and can lead to drop out from the sport.  An important role of the strength and conditioning coach is to reassure the athlete that the situation is only temporary.  A proper strength and conditioning programme can help the immature athlete ‘hold their own’ in training and competition.  Learning to do so can then place them at an advantage once they hit their growth spurt.  More often than not, they are able to apply these techniques with good effect when combined with their new found strength and physicality that accompanies their growth spurt.


Implications for strength and conditioning talented young athletes

  • Manage the expectations of the youth athlete.  Take time to explain implications of growth spurt on performance.  This can reduce the stress associated with a period of huge change.  Understanding how these changes impact on performance is key to maintain motivation of the child.  Relate this to the importance of their strength and conditioning programme.
  • Consider the training age of the athlete when programming.  The vast majority of young athletes, regardless of performance level, will require general physical preparation.  Strength and conditioning drill have a huge skill component.  Many of the adaptations are neural.  Therefore, conditioning talented young athletes effectively requires many perfect repetitions.  Resistance and complexity come later.
  • Avoid highly advanced, quick fix training methods in favour of basic movement patterns against lighter loads.
  • Encourage athletes to actively engage in their programmes.  In high performance settings the coach is all powerful.  Athletes like to please and can be very obedient in these settings.  However, they must feel free to challenge and question the programme.