Youth Athlete Development

Strength and Conditioning for our youth and adolescence during their formative years of motor development has only recently reached mainstream popularity; it was only nine years ago during a shoe fitting by an ‘expert’ I was told to not go to the gym until I was 18, in fear of compressing my spine and stunting my growth. Times have certainly changed, and the value of complementary training as a means of developing movement competency in our youth and adolescents is regularly discussed and implemented amongst school sport programs. In an age where free, unorganised play is dwindling, the importance of moving and loading the developing body in ways over and above the demands of the chosen sport(s) is vital; it is this exposure that provides joint resilience and body control for the years to come.

For our youth, entering a secondary education aligns with a great increase in independent thought, problem solving, and emotional intelligence. It also aligns with large changes that occur during puberty, as children diverge away from homogeneity to develop the characteristics that make men male, and women female. From a movement development perspective, some handle these changes exceptionally well, while others develop physically in a disproportionate manner to their improvements to body control.

As a strength and conditioning coach who works primarily with adolescent athletes, I regularly find myself conflicted; part of me wants to indulge their requests for more strength as this is what is usually used as the objective measure for performance improvement (and how they compare themselves to their peers), but another part of me wants to strip movement back to its bare form – can the kids sprint, jump, effectively absorb force (body control), adequately apply force (strength expression), and more generally, move well. Changes to how kids interact with the environment have challenged the development in these areas; the almost endless interaction with technology has suppressed their opportunities to move; and as a result, we see deterioration in movement capabilities a lot sooner. It isn’t uncommon after 12 years of life to have a young adolescent unable to squat, hinge, crawl, push, pull, sprint, jump and land without tremendous difficulty. 6 years earlier, they would have done this with ease. What is potentially most confronting is that our education curriculum, which successfully improves intellectual parameters, stagnates, and in some cases, regresses the ability to move effectively and unhindered. It would seem the value of intelligence and problem solving is somewhat thwarted when the vessel that keeps us alive is already giving way. By 30, this movement deterioration manifests not only in dysfunction, but in pain.

I recently came across a concept from Louie Simmons’ that almost instantly transformed my outlook on youth athlete development – build the car for efficiency and survivability before you add horsepower. It was mentioned within the context of sprint mechanics (which therefore applies to almost every field and team sport); technical efficiency should be the first priority when our bodies are most conditioned to adaptation and change. Not only does this result in the most immediate improvements, but allows strength training to do what it is meant to do – add horsepower to a well running machine. It is too often we get this process reversed – “get them in the gym so they can run faster and play better”. This thought process is fine, as long as you have already established your athlete moves with technical efficiency. If you are a strength and conditioning coach putting more weight on the bar for your athletes, knowing all too well they can’t balance on one leg, or haven’t learned how to sprint, could you be producing a more immediate, long term result working on the chassis of the car instead?