Developing “Athleticism” in Youth

Nov 23, 2017

Peter Twist, M.Sc., CSCS

Many people reflect to their youth and remember playing several sports and spending their spare time in spontaneous play and pick up games. Today, many youngsters specialize in just one or two sports and spend their remaining time on sedentary activities – television, video games, computers and the web. The unhealthy aspects of this trend are further compounded when you factor in the startling growth of fast food chains and the many “quick-fix” food choices that are aggressively marketed to youth. The cumulative result is a generation of kids who are less fit and less athletic. The average 12 year old in North America already has one symptom of heart disease. The key to unlocking their interest in activity, leading to positive pursuits and a healthy future, is to give them the confidence to participate.

Develop a solid base

It is important to develop a solid base of athleticism from which sport-specific training can build from. Young athletes need to develop the secondary fitness parameters – agility, dynamic balance, quickness, lateral movement, rotary power, reaction skills, coordination – while utilizing proper body mechanics.

Since Twist Conditioning specializes in performance enhancement for elite athletes through sport-specific conditioning, parents often will contact us hoping that we can turn their son or daughter into the next million dollar professional athlete. These parents mistakenly think that their children should be streamlined into one sport in order to be successful. What they fail to realize is that their children need to develop a base of “athleticism” before they even think about specializing in a specific sport or embarking on a sport-specific training program. For this reason, our “Youth Athletic Skills Development Program” was designed, in the absence of multi-sport participation and regular opportunities for play, to artificially build well-rounded athletic skills.

Focus on multi-directional movement skills

Training programs of this nature should focus on developing multi directional movement skills and teaching children to be in tune to their body. Children should practice the ability to organize complex motor skills with precision, speed and quick decision-making. We encourage athletes to use free weights to build functional strength and take care of any weak links in the body. This is the time to select a light load and use controlled speed. A squat into a lateral raise is a good example of a full body, multi-joint lift that activates the entire body and teaches the muscles to fire in the correct order for athletic movement.

Young athletes may not be able to handle their entire body weight (for pull ups and chin ups), and weight stack machines strengthen muscles in isolation, so utilizing a barbell or dumbbell will provide a load they can handle and thereby allowing functional exercise. The research also supports that weight loaded activity stimulates bone development, leading to stronger and more rigid bones. We are concerned at this age of including repetitive, high impact activities as they may damage growth plates. Controlled lifting, on the other hand, will contribute positively to bone growth.

Twelve to fifteen year olds can begin to increase the load they are lifting and focus more on power initiation with each repetition. This age group can handle a greater volume and should begin to target muscle growth, power, strength and muscle endurance. They should complete some lifts with instability (i.e. on one leg or standing on a balance board) to help stimulate their proprioceptive (balance) system. This will help build joint integrity and promote the development of the body as a unit, preparing them to handle greater weights.

Developing movement skills is extremely important. We program drills for improving agility, first step quickness and deceleration and avoid overspeed and high impact plyometrics drills. Agility and quickness drills can be introduced in dynamic warm ups, later trained in short full out bursts, and last used as super sets to build coordination under fatigue.

Train both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems

From a conditioning standpoint, we train both the aerobic and anaerobic (sprint) energy systems using as much variety as possible. Running, biking, hiking, game-like drills, and agility patterns all build different attributes and also spread the musculoskeletal demands around, helping to prevent injury. This type of training is also fun, which is particularly important with this age group, who are particularly motivated when their training is structured and enjoyable.

Finally, we add games and competition to the mix. The positive association between training and improved movement abilities through an enjoyable process will create initiative and desire for future training. The young athlete develops a better foundation from which to build sport specificity. The lifelong benefit is greater assurance in their ability to move and control their body, giving them the confidence and self esteem needed to readily try new activities. The rewards of sport and activity are well documented – from health and wellness to academic performance.

Program Objectives for Youth Training
  • To develop “real life” fitness skills beyond their sport (athleticism)
  • To teach movement skills as a foundation to sport-specific preparation
  • To develop a foundation to sport-specific preparation
  • To ensure the physical tools that support skill execution
  • To include neuromuscular and proprioceptive training
  • To focus on the body centre, where most athletes are weakest, then out to the extremities
Key Parameters
  • Athleticism
  • Multi-directional movement skills
  • Speed centre
  • Balance
  • Agility and reaction skills
  • Stopping and braking skills
  • Anaerobic multi-directional intervals

Peter Twist is President & CEO of Twist Conditioning Inc and the former Coach of Conditioning & Player Development for the Vancouver Canucks.

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