Athletic training for youngsters

One of the hallmarks of youth sport training is the concept of same, but less (SBL) where young athletes are trained in the same way, often using the same practices and drills as high performance, older athletes only doing less work with shorter practices. This occurs especially in sports that depend primarily on metabolic conditioning like running, swimming, or cycling. Skills in these sports are relatively simple and are already well established by the time athletes in these sports reach the high performance level.

SBL training is a disaster for young athletes. While it may be a common practice it is not a good one. Younger athletes have unique training needs that can only be satisfied at certain periods during their athletic lives. If we continue training young athletes just like their older counterparts then there will be large gaps in their knowledge of their sports and their basic abilities.

Every serious training program uses the process of periodization to map out an athlete's plan to reach peak performance. Usually these plans cover a period of one year. Training for the Olympics or some other 'bucket list' competition may consist of several 1-year plans leading to the Games.

Periodization plans define the different types of training the athlete needs and when these will occur during the 1-year period. Different kinds of training take place at various times during the preparation period.

If we apply the periodization concept to training young athletes then it's easy to see youth sport participation as one giant periodization plan, one that covers several years. This is why understanding long-term athlete development (LTAD) is so critical to creating effective youth sport programs. If we want these youth programs to eventually produce elite athletes then there is a path we can follow.

I've written several times that the jobs of youth sport coaches and high performance coaching are fundamentally different. SBL, even though it seems like a good idea and is easy to implement, won't develop the skills and qualities that youngsters need to move to the elite level.

A good comparison might be that of a mathematics teacher. Young children don't start their Form 1 math education with probability statistics, they start with simple arithmetic and move on to other, more complex mathematical concepts as they master elementary ones.

Sport is no different. It's not just skills and training. Youngsters actually have to learn how to be athletes. The physical skills and physical training are only part of the process. If we try to skip the lead-up skills then we will end up with athletes with huge gaps in their background that really can't be made up later.

LTAD periodizes an athlete's 'program' by outlining what skills they have to learn, when they have to learn them, and the kinds of training they should be doing at each stage of their lives.

During one of the earliest stages the primary goal is to develop physical literacy. Children have until they are about 11 or 12 years old to do this. Afterwards it's a struggle that can never be fully overcome. It's like learning a language: Learn it easily while young or struggle with it later.

In the Learning to Train stage youngsters learn what training actually means. They have to learn the lingo, the etiquette required to use equipment and facilities successfully and safely, and they have to learn what 'training' in their sport actually is. There's a lot of physical activity involved in this stage but the focus is mostly on cognitive development. They will need the knowledge and skills they gain in this stage in every stage that follows.

In the Training to Train stage the primary focus is to stimulate improvement in metabolic systems and building a background of various kinds of conditioning. This is the stage where athletes get faster, stronger, and build stamina. This is the stage that most people think of when they think of sport training.

In the Training to Compete stage athletes learn, you guessed it, how to compete. As a coach I've seen many athletes who were absolutely great in training situations but who never quite delivered what I thought they were capable of in competition. Learning to compete is a skill related to but separate from training. Training is absolutely essential to be a successful competitor but there is more to competition than merely being in good shape. In this stage athletes learn how to use their skills and conditioning in competition with other athletes.

Coaching education

The key to implementing LTAD is having coaches that not only know their sport but who also understand how the LTAD model works in their sport and why it's important. Coaches have to know what stage their athletes are in and provide instruction, training, and competition that is appropriate for that stage. Most of all, coaches have to know why this is important.

Unfortunately most coaching education focuses on the sport itself. It's not so much aimed at training older athletes, it simply doesn't recognize that there's any difference. Very little coaching education addresses age appropriate training, never mind LTAD stages.

LTAD needs to be part of coaching education. It contains basic information about how youngsters actually become athletes. It shouldn't be something that's tacked on later. If we can provide a well developed, age appropriate program for youngsters at various stages then the elite athletes that eventually rise to the top will have better skills and a deeper understanding of their sport.