Building A Better Young Athlete, Part 1: Laying the Foundation
As a young athlete, developing your body is like building a house. Start with a sound foundation or else you'll be setting yourself up for problems down the road. In the sports world, there is a huge push to get faster and stronger as quickly as possible. But ultimately you're hurting yourself by rushing your physical development. Injuries happen from training too soon with heavy weights, incorrect form with plyometrics and placing too much early emphasis on "sport-specific" conditioning forms. (Check out How to Start a Training Program.)
In the second installment of this series, I'll feature some strength building progressions and guidelines. However, right now I want to focus on the importance of improving movement efficiency and systemic strength—before moving on to more advanced forms of training. This will help you develop the right way and have an overall healthier and more enjoyable athletic experience.
Your first step in training is mastering the basics. The importance of this is correct form. Good technique helps you avoid developing muscle imbalances and movement restrictions, which can serve as precursors to injury. So before you jump into exercises like Sled Tows and Tire Flips and start bounding over hurdles, you need to possess at least baseline levels of mobility and systemic strength.
The exercises featured below are designed to help accomplish those goals. During your development from child to young adult, there are sensitive periods wherein certain physical abilities like balance, coordination and spatial awareness are best attained. These age-appropriate drills will enable you to build the foundation you need to safely engage in more intensive training as you physically mature.
Don't worry if you've already passed the beginning mark. These exercises also help older teens who may have initially gone about things the wrong way by helping to restore lost range of motion and redirect focus to commonly ignored muscle groups. Training the muscles that don't normally receive a lot of attention is crucial to reducing the risk of injury. If done consistently, these exercises will serve as the perfect springboard into more demanding drills featured in the next article.
Ages 10 to 13
If you fall into this age range, you can start adopting a more structured approach to your training. But you still want to keep things fairly enjoyable. Typically during this time period kids experience numerous growth spurts, so you should emphasize working towards improved mobility. A great way to address both issues is with exercises like:
Ages 14 to 18
By this age range, most young athletes are just starting to strength train or already involved in it. Although that's all well and good, if you haven't laid the type of groundwork detailed above, you may be in for problems. I recommend focusing on improving the interplay between mobility and stability in different regions of the body.
It's not enough just to be strong or have good range of motion around a joint. You need a combination of the two, often simultaneously, to function efficiently as an athlete. This approach goes a long way toward helping offset common muscle and flexibility imbalances like poor thoracic rotation and core strength, tight hip flexors and quadriceps, weak upper back/tight pecs and limited hip and ankle mobility. Keep the focus on these weak points, while still offering a substantial physical challenge with drills like: