As a strength coach, I've periodically had opportunities to work with young athletes—and I don't mean 17 or 18 years old. I mean kids 15 and under. These are usually athletes in a given sport who have demonstrated that they're better than the rest of the crowd, and they want to take their training more seriously early on in order to excel and advance to higher levels. In my experience, there are a few things I've noticed that are beneficial to share.
Assuming you've already convinced the athlete and his or her parents that properly planned resistance training won't negatively affect the kid's growth or development, here are some things to consider.
Rule 1: Understand the Starting Point
Nine times out of 10, young athletes who have a lot of natural and genetic ability haven't yet been trained on proper movement. That means that even if you have a 15-year-old basketball player who can two-hand slam with ease, chances are his body isn't in proper balance—or anything near it. As a result, watching him attempt a Squat or hinge pattern (for example) will likely reveal that plenty of attention is needed.
This isn't only important for improvements in performance. It's even more important for injury prevention, which in my opinion is the most important goal for any athlete who hires a strength coach. It's better to have an athlete play his or her sport even if he/she still needs work than to get hurt and be sidelined for the season.
The basic movement patterns we all know (like Squats, Overhead Presses and Deadlifts) should be welcome additions to programming, especially if all other things are equal and there are no restrictions that would prevent the athlete from performing these lifts or their variations.
Rule 2: Strength Matters
On a similar note, it's easy for a strength coach to get caught up in high-performance training that closely mimics in-game movements. Especially for athletes who are very young, it's important to examine the sport. Attend any sporting event at the high school junior varsity or freshman (or even younger) level, and watch closely. Specific skills aside, the athletes who dominate are usually the most developed and strongest on the floor or field, regardless of the sport. It's a reality check that can put things in perspective for strength coaches when they realize the deficiencies of strong athletes in their natural, raw state. Simply making that one fix can change a whole lot and promote a huge boost in an athlete's performance, both in and out of the gym.
Again, focusing on improved performance in primary movement patterns and a few accessories usually transcends specific drills early on, helping the athlete develop a much-needed foundation and base of athleticism, which will translate well to the court or field to make him/her run faster, throw harder, jump higher and be more resilient when absorbing contact.
Rule 3: You're a Strength Coach, Not a Sport Coach
Remember that you're solely responsible for what goes on inside the weight room. Your job is to help the athlete get stronger. You're not responsible for improving his or her in-game or ball skills. That is the job of the head coach, as reflected in his or her practice plans and habits. It's easy to blur the lines between our jobs and those of other professionals.
Giving an athlete an odd agility drill in the name of good conditioning is one thing; but spending lots of time on ball skills is straying from your area of expertise, even if you were a former player yourself. Trust the process, and trust the fact that your training, combined with your athletes' practice, will turn them into more efficient machines.
Rule 4: Keep It Simple, Stupid!
The KISS method is the smartest way to go when working with a young athlete. I've found good benefits using a minimalist approach, since most youngsters have several years of natural development ahead of them. An increase in coordination and imprint on muscle memory happens over time, and things don't need to be too fancy before that happens. The truth is that by having you there, an athlete is already three steps ahead of the rest of the crowd, and taking things step by step will pay off in the long run.