Fostering youth athletes can be difficult for anyone. With technology, hormone changes, growth spurts, and coordination changes, there are a lot of moving parts to control for maximizing improvement.
Therefore, it is essential to keep the goal of the athlete in mind, as well as the long-term athletic development (LTAD). Too often athletes of this age only perform one type of exercise (running, swimming, etc.). This exercise is often performed to exhaustion, but there are other methods for making improvements and enhancing exercise enjoyment.
On top of this, kids are busy nowadays! In the Bay Area, I work with age-group, high school, college, and professional athletes and the demands of the age-group and high school athletes are unreal. I see middle school students studying for tests or taking entrance exams! For high school, many are high-achieving students, with AP classes giving 2 – 3 hours of homework a night!
When I swam in high school, I thought I was busy, rushing to morning workouts. However, I wasn’t expected to perform copious hours of homework, answer emails, or study for endless college admittance tests.
In the Bay Area, kids live 5 minutes from school, but many have their parents drive. Also, kids just don’t play anymore. They often do one sport, play video games, phone games, study, play instruments, etc. None of these activities build well-rounded people.
Now, we aren’t going to stop the busy schedules or kids or end the phonephilia (my made up word for love of phones). However, there are better ways to foster youth athletic success, for both the short- and long-term. Therefore, I thought I’d make some suggestions I’ve seen work with youth athletes, as well as Olympians.Here are 10 tips for fostering youth athletic success
9 Tips for Fostering Youth Athletic Success
1. Just because it is hard, doesn’t make it appropriate: I often see coaches, whether athletic or strength coaches loading kids up with heavy weight or unheard of yardage at a young age. This mindset is often accompanied with the “make it hard” mindset. Now, working hard and overloading the system is necessary once an athlete passes maturation. However, when an athlete is developing, improving the technical skills is essential. Also, a youth athlete will naturally improve from maturation, therefore pushing a youth athlete with the hardest workouts or practices only increases their risk of injury and burnout within the sport. As a coach (especially as a youth coach), you should try everything in your will power to prevent burnout. For one, the more kids in the sport, the more likely you’ll find a needle in a haystack and you never know which one is a late maturer. Also, the more kids in the sport, the better job security and earning potential. Don’t make workouts too hard at a young age. Always leave room to work harder as the kids age and keep their long-term athletic development in mind!
2. More isn’t always better: Following up with just because it is hard, doesn’t make it appropriate, just adding volume at a young age is not the best strategy. In highly skilled sports…every sport…modifying the biomechanics of a task takes time. So, if you push a youth athlete as hard as possible, it is unlikely they’ll develop the incorrect skills, requiring modification as they age. This modification takes more repetitions with the correct or new skill, than the old one. Therefore, if you are a 15-year-old baseball player and you are throwing for 10 years with improper form, you’ll take ~10 years to override the poor form (assuming you throw the same volume as you age, which is unlikely, but you get my point). Learn the skills first, then add intensity. This applies to each sport or athletic task.
3. There is plenty of time: While working with a gifted high school hockey player, I realized many youth athletes don’t really know how much time they truly have. Him and I discussed sport and he kept saying he was “running out of time” and had to make “massive improvements”, so he could play in college. Now, college does have a specific window, but there is always plenty of time. If this athlete truly wanted to play in college, he could always delay his enrollment, transfer to a college program within a couple years, or walk on a college team within a couple of years. More importantly is realizing sport doesn’t have to end at high school, college, or even the pros. If you truly love your sport you can play anything for the rest of your life and compete. This athlete and I attended a silver skaters game and I think it opened his eyes to the long-term possibilities of life and sport.
4. Variety is the spice of life: As I said in the introduction, many kids focus on one sport at a young age. I see it all the time in the Bay Area and perhaps it is worse in a big city due to traffic and transportation issues, but I have seen this issue exponentially increase over the past decade. Now, performing a high volume of training of one sport at a young age will certainly improve performance in the short-term. However, it is very challenging (I’d argue impossible for the masses) for youth athletes learn precise motor skills before and during maturation due to the constant changes in their body. Therefore, the more an athlete performs a sport at a young age, the more they will cement improper skills and as I discussed, the harder it will be to override these skills later in life. Also, performing one task will create muscular imbalances and increase injury risk. These imbalances have been shown in swimmers as young as 12 (Bathala), but likely occur younger in one sport athletes. Play different sports, perform different tasks and enjoy the variety.
5. Don’t overemphasize one movement plane: Running, crunches, leg lifts, squats, lunges, and many more sagittal (forward and backward) plane movements dominate sports training. This single plane approach impedes overall body coordination and perpetuates muscular imbalances. Think about it, if an athlete only performs a group of similar movements, then some muscles will develop more and skill learning will be impaired. Mix-up the planes of motion, have the kids do motions with rotations, side movements, and backwards. This variety will prevent overuse and improve skill acquisition.
6. Games always increase enjoyment: In sport, games are looked down upon. However, games increase enjoyment and engagement. Kids constantly play video or phone games, whether it is candy crush (is that still popular?) or the new distraction. Instead of fighting this mentality creating an environment of games is essential for enjoyment and learning. We incorporate games constantly! The best thing about games is that kids not only increase enjoyment and participation, but also effort level, sounds like a win-win. Now, the game doesn’t have to be an elaborate event, but can be a simple competition between each athlete or a group of athletes.
7. Take away the constant cell phone use…but use them for something big: Dealing with phones is a tough issue for parents, teachers, and coaches. Kids are on these things constantly! When I see pediatric patients I see them cringe when they have to put their phone down for a physical therapy session! Then after our session, they rush to their phone like a drug. Now, phone addiction and poor phone posturing is a large topic, but for coaches I can’t stress the importance of removing the phones, as the kids will be on them constantly! However, rewarding them with some technology can help bridge the gap and ease their addiction. For example, allowing a group photo for Instagram or allowing them to take a funny Snapchat photo at the end of a session can help them feel like they are using their phones, without them being a constant distraction.
8. If they can teach it, they know it: Large groups make it tough to continually monitor form and fatigue. Therefore, creating an environment where the kids know specific biomechanical skills allows them to teach one another. Too often children are given too little responsibility, making them bored and turning them into a distraction. In our large groups, we teach the kids constantly and they love it! Whether it is simple biomechanical principles, muscles, nerves, or other skills, they kids love it. These kids are hungry to learn, especially about their body and how it works. Also, when they leave a session learning something and demonstrate this to their parent, it gets the parents on board. Teach them a skill and have their teach that skill to someone else, as if they truly know it, then can teach it.
9. Accountability: Kids seem to be more dependent on their parents than ever. Whether it is waking them up for workout, cooking their meals, or doing their laundry. These dependencies is elongating immaturity and increasing the difficulty of many kids to leave their parents as they age. Therefore, creating accountability is a massively important aspect of working with children. At COR, all the kids put away and clean the equipment they use. However, accountability must be fostered at all environments, school, home, and sport. If you’re a parent, give your child some chores, have them make their own breakfast and let them learn accountability, for their sporting, but most importantly their life.
Now, these are only 9 tips for fostering youth athletes and many more tips are possible. Nonetheless, creating an environment for long-term athletic and health development is truly key. Also, these principles clearly aren’t isolated to sport and exercise, but branch into life, the real life-long test.
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the owner of COR, a physical therapist and a strength coach.