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Physical development and maturation in young athletes

This is an excerpt from Coaching Excellence by Frank Pyke.

To learn more about the development of young athletes, as well as other important coaching topics, read
Coaching Excellence.

Physical Development and Maturation

The evaluation of younger athletes is heavily influenced by their individual rates of physical development and maturation. The period of the adolescent growth spurt (typically 12 to 15 years for females and 14 to 17 years for males) is characterised by wide variations in the rate of development of physical, psychological and skill attributes. The peak height velocity of 8 to 10 centimetres (3 to 4 in.) per year is typically attained around the age of 12 years for girls and 14 years for boys (see figure 8.1). Aerobic training can be increased after peak height velocity is reached. Strength and power training is accelerated a little later in boys, typically around 15 or 16 years of age.

The awkward adolescent phase in which motor skills decline transiently during periods of rapid growth is well known to most coaches of adolescent athletes (Beunen & Malina, 1988). For these reasons, testing programs are generally introduced when athletes reach about 15 or 16 years of age.

From early childhood to maturation, people go through several stages of development: prepuberty, puberty, postpuberty and maturation. Each stage has a corresponding phase of athletic training. Various models of long-term athlete development have been developed to assist the coach in preparing junior and adolescent athletes. The two most well-known of these models are the theory of periodisation of training as described by Tudor Bompa (Bompa & Haff, 2009) and the long-term athlete development (LTAD) model by Istvan Balyi (Stafford & Balyi, 2010).

The LTAD model has two versions, each comprising sequential stages to assist the coach in planning the development of younger athletes. The early specialisation version of the LTAD is for athletes starting at a younger age in skill-oriented sports such as gymnastics. The four stages of this version are training to train, training to compete, training to win and retirement and retainment. The late specialisation version is primarily for athletes in team or strength or power sports. The five stages of this version are FUNdamental (ages 5 to 9), learning to training (ages 8 to 12), training to train (ages 11 to 16), training to compete (ages 15 to 18) and training to win (older than 17). Training loads increase gradually as younger athletes progress through to senior ranks.

An important question for the coach is when to start basic testing or evaluation of a junior athlete or team. Athletes should be introduced to the concept of testing around the age of 13 or 14 with very basic tests of performance, fitness and skills. The focus at this point should be on education and providing a foundation of knowledge and experience for more advanced testing undertaken in later years. Athletes should also be taught the basics of stretching, recovery practices, nutrition and hydration, mental preparation and tapering and peaking for competition.

More organised testing is introduced at age 15 or 16 as the athlete matures and more time is allotted to training and competition. The key areas of fitness and conditioning, psychological preparation and technical development can all be supported by a testing and evaluation program. By age 17 or 18, the athlete's physical, technical, mental, personal and lifestyle capacities have evolved, and the focus of training shifts from development to maximisation of performance.

Read more from Coaching Excellence by Frank Pyke.

More Excerpts From Coaching Excellence