by Rick Howard, MEd, CSCS,*D
Providing a safe and effective youth strength and conditioning program is only the foundation of their long-term athletic development.
The Path to Performance
All athletes have one thing in common – they either are, or were, youth. The youth strength and conditioning programs in which these athletes participate have long-term performance implications. So, whether you are a RSCC, CSCS, NSCA-CPT, sport scientist, or other allied strength and conditioning professional, here are three important youth strength and conditioning concepts:
- Develop physical literacy for youth by promoting a long-term approach to quality daily physical education and daily intermittent moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
- Promote positive mental and psychosocial development as well as physical development with a properly designed strength and conditioning program.
- The Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (2009) for guidelines on strength and conditioning programs that emphasize a long-term approach to developing strength and power.
A Model for ALL Youth
At the foundation of training youth is the philosophy that ALL children should be provided the opportunity to develop their physical, mental, and social skills. These physical, mental, and social skills must be considered simultaneously. Coaches must be aware of the nonlinear path of youth development and how this considerable variability of developmental stages has physical, mental, and social implications.
Training strategies for youth must be carefully planned based on the dynamic interrelationships of numerous variables such as number of sports being played throughout the year and during the same season, environment, ethnicity, self-efficacy, focus, etc. Strength coaches need to keep abreast of best practice and research-based program models for promoting the continuum of lifelong physical activity and sports participation for youth.
The Long-Term Athletic Development Model
The long-term athletic development (LTAD) model is a generic guide that can be used to plan the sport/activity specific plan. LTAD heightens coaches’ awareness that the focus should not be on early sport specialization but that a plan should be implemented to meet the individual needs of young athletes as they develop. LTAD is based predominantly on biological (physical) development and suggests training and competition strategies based on developmental and chronological age.
The LTAD-type program should contain developmentally-appropriate strength and conditioning as well as important elements of positive conditioning, active play, and unstructured play. Proper ratios of conditioning-to-practice and practice-to-competition are suggested and have been customized by national governing bodies to meet the needs of their sport (youth hockey and soccer, for example). Youth should participate in a wide variety of sports and activities that develop their physical, mental, and psychosocial skills– early sport specialization is discouraged.
Looking at the Individual Needs of Youth
Within a quality youth long term developmental program, differences in biological and developmental age of youth must be considered. Key measures of developmental maturation must be incorporated into the strength and conditioning program. This requires a cooperative team effort among coaches, parents, youth, physical educators, and strength and conditioning professionals to safely and efficaciously train youth along the developmental continuum.
Children will be at various points along the developmental continuum, even children of the same biological age, and those that excel at an early age need to be diversified to minimize overuse and burnout and those are considered “late bloomers” must be encouraged to continually improve. This will maximize the number of youth that are proficient in movement skills and can make their own choice to be active in sports and physical activity.
The environment in which training occurs needs to be proactive: fundamental motor skill development must be taught, coached, and assessed; positive feedback must continually and honestly be provided to youth so that skill acquisition and the positive benefits of strength and conditioning are always reinforced, and never should children be given exercise as punishment.
Strength coaches must focus on developing coaching cues for excellent lifting technique (and never sacrifice technique for increased resistance). Youth athletes must not be trained past the point of physiological benefit (e.g., making athletes vomit is not an appropriate measure of intensity). The optimal balance of challenge and success leads to youth embracing the benefits of strength and conditioning programs (and sports programs too).
Resistance Training and LTAD
Resistance training for youth is safe and efficacious so long as important NSCA guidelines are followed. For example, participants must be able to listen to and follow directions, there must be quality supervision at all times, and exercise progressions must be developmentally appropriate. The focus of the prepubescent resistance training program is on the development of healthy habits of safe resistance training and the focus on technical performance (technique) over amount of resistance lifted.
Exercise technique is developed through body weight exercise, dowels, and light (2-3kg) medicine balls. Some youngsters that are very overweight or obese will need to use light weights before body weight, as their body weight is a significant challenge. Developmental progressions for a variety of strength and power exercises should be taught. Beginning resistance training is not sport-specific, but designed to develop health-fitness and skills-fitness attributes, which matches the philosophy of the long term development model.
What Can You Do?
NSCA-certified strength and conditioning professionals are uniquely qualified to provide properly supervised, developmentally appropriate strength and conditioning programs for youth of all ages and abilities. By following the guidelines listed in the NSCA Position Statement on youth resistance training and adapting an LTAD-type model to the specific youngster or team, you will provide a healthy, positive strength and conditioning experience that will benefit youth dually as exercise enthusiasts and athletes.
Multidisciplinary, longitudinal research is needed on LTAD, physical literacy, windows of opportunity, assessments, and dose response of strength and conditioning programs at various developmental stages. Furthermore, strength and conditioning programs should be evaluated based on whether they enhance performance for only the short-term or whether they promote long-term elite athletic development. Remember, the work you do to promote quality strength and conditioning programs for youth will have long-term performance implications.
About the Author
Rick Howard is a founding member of the NSCA Youth SIG, Immediate-Past Chair of the NSCA Youth SIG, and the Mid-Atlantic Region Coordinator for the NSCA State Provincial Director Program. Howard also serves on the NSCA Membership Committee.