The physical training to develop fitness for junior athletes is different today than it was in the good old days. Strength training for youths used to be climbing trees, play fighting, building camps and helping parents with manual work. Todays young athletes are subject to the same dangers of sedentary habits imposed by modern living as their parents. Therefore, strength and fitness are important to all young people. A worrying large percentage of our young population are inactive and gaining weight. Despite this trend, junior athletes have ever growing opportunities to play competitive sports and engage in physical activity. Youth strength and conditioning is growing. It is no longer the preserve of elite high performers within junior academies and performance programmes. There are plenty of opportunities to develop fitness for junior athletes.
Modern approach to develop fitness for junior athletes
There is certainly no shortage of competitive opportunities for sporty children. Despite models of youth physical development advocating variety and limited competition, the trend seems to be towards increasing competitiveness at a young age. For example, some young people play football all year round now. Like adults, the pursuit of improved performance in a sport has become a year round thing. An over emphasis upon competition and specific training can lead to increased incidence of injury and burnout amongst young athletes. Modern day strength and conditioning for young athletes is completely different than that of 40 years ago. Elite sports academies now have youth S&C coaches employed to improve movement, increase strength and optimise mobility. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that talented juniors are entering performance pathways less well conditioned than previous generations.
There are now a good number of peer reviewed papers that advocate the use of age appropriate S&C to develop fitness for junior athletes. Effective programmes ensure that athletes develop all fundamental movement skills in order to support sport specific skill development. Develop balanced strength, mobility and coordination through age appropriate progressive regimes that short cut the old fashioned ‘playful’ methods. Coaches and parents alike now see value in children being fit to play rather than playing to be fit.
Young athletes are not mini adults
This statement is obvious. The vast majority of coaches and parents get this bit. However, the most valuable lesson we have learnt when working with young athletes is not to schedule too much in. We don’t mean in terms of training volume. These guidelines are firmly in place. There is a tendency to schedule too many different drills. Junior athletes have so many drills and techniques that they can learn. It is difficult to resist the temptation to expose them to all relevant drills. The danger with this is that they don’t spend enough time mastering fundamental techniques. There is little value is speeding through the curriculum.
To develop fitness for junior athletes introduce 1-2 new techniques a session, and give them plenty of opportunity to master these techniques before progressing them. In our experience of providing leading strength and conditioning support to talented junior athletes as individuals and as part of a group, allowing young people more time to develop mastery of new skills is far more beneficial to performance than drill overload.