The youth (6-12 years) or adolescent (12-19 years) athlete goes through many changes in life and in sport through the growth and development process. Many crucial decisions for long term athletic development are made during this time period. With the trend towards early sport specialization becoming more prevalent in the youth athlete, it is important to ensure that individuals are competent in a broad spectrum of movements so that they are well rounded and able to perform their sports activities in the safest manner possible. Strength and conditioning training can provide a stable foundation for a lifetime of movement.
When speaking with parents of youth athletes about strength and conditioning, the conversation typically begins with a process of reassurance that age appropriate programming is suitable for a developing athlete. Through peer reviewed research, the National Strength and Conditioning Association has determined that strength and conditioning for the youth athlete can be both safe and effective in developing strength, coordination and athleticism starting from the age of six (NSCA, 2009). With this thought in mind, the following five points highlight how strength and conditioning can be useful for the youth athlete.
1. Preparation for the Future
In the past 10 years, long term athletic development (LTAD) and youth physical development (YPD) have been the cornerstone models for development of young athletes. These two distinct approaches use a holistic view to training so that age, growth, maturity and training level are all taken into consideration when a program is designed for an individual. Strength and conditioning training has a significant role in ensuring that young athletes become more coordinated, stable and strong as they advance through their athletic careers.
As the field of sport performance has grown, it has become evident that “coaches should prioritize specific foci of training at different” (Joyce, 2014) times along the training continuum. This stepwise approach is guided by the fact that athletic “skills” and “tools” must be attained as a foundation for more complex training in the future (Grover, 2002). It is imperative that young athletes are proficient in movement basics so that their platform for growth and development continues along an upward trend.
2. Reduced Injury Risk
Despite concerns in the past that strength training is harmful for the youth athlete, it has been revealed that strength and conditioning can make a developing athlete “more resistant to injury” (NSCA, 2008). A higher level of motor control and a better understanding of how their body moves in space, allows an athlete to take more control over their injury prevention. Strategies of how to correctly stabilize the core, distribute bodyweight and resist force are all areas which can lower the risk of injury.
As previously mentioned, when athletes play a sport year round (specialize) they are at an “increased injury risk and musculoskeletal pain is more prevalent” (Joyce, 2014). A properly designed strength and conditioning program guards against over development of a specific set muscle group by incorporating exercises to balance and provide joint stability for sport specific movement. The most balanced, strong and coordinate athletes are the athletes who are least likely to be injured.
3. Increases in Strength
Developing athletes strength capacity can be significantly enhanced (gains of up to 74% have been reported) through a program that uses a variety of forms of resistance training (NSCA, 2009). The ability to coordinate movement and to efficiently recruit muscles in synchronized action are two of the main reasons for the strength improvements. As children age, this is a natural pattern of development but using forms of strength and conditioning training can expedite the process.
The increases in muscular strength seen in childhood can be greater than the strength increases seen in adolescence (Joyce, 2014) which evidences why the early initiation of a formal strength and conditioning plan is an important step. Individuals who train twice per week, on average, have 33% higher strength gains than their once session per week counterparts. Stronger athletes perform better, are more trainable and have the most long term success.
4. Smaller Incidence of burnout or overspecialization
As more sports teams, coaches and parents are pushing for children to specialize in a sport earlier in their careers, it is important to make sure that health and fun are major components of the process. Optimally, specialization should be held off until adolescence so that the athlete has time to develop a large majority of “fundamental movement skills” before “sport specific skills” (Joyce, 2014) are a large portion of the focus. Early adoption of specialization can lead to burnout, overuse injuries and potentially social isolation.
It is the job of the strength coach to make sure that the athlete is proficient in all planes and direction of movement, not just the skill based movements involved in their sport. Becoming adaptable to all situations and being able to learn how to protect against forces that are inherent in sport allows the athlete to be successful through a longer career. Whether through the initiation of a strength and conditioning program or by continuing multiple sports through childhood, all children should be exposed to several modes of physical activity/sport.
5. More enjoyment in movement and physical activity for a lifetime
Through research, we know that those individuals who enjoy movement and physical activity are those who are the most likely to continue a healthy exercise lifestyle through their lives. It is much easier to enjoy physical activity when you move well and with no pain during the process. Strength and conditioning is a way to learn how to positively impact movement quality through mobility and movement training. All movements in our lives have an optimal way to be performed and the better you are at performing those movements, the better chance you have of continuing those movements.