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Training and conditioning for young athletes



Children love sports. They also enjoy participating in competition. In the United States alone there are some 35 million children invading gyms, fields, ice arenas, and swimming pools within their community.

It is a known fact that active children benefit in many ways from being involved in sports, including improved fitness, good mental and physical health, self-discipline, teamwork skills, and the opportunity to socialize with peers.

Despite the many positive effects of sports, we have to also admit that children can also have some not-so-pleasant experiences, such as physical and psychological stress. A winning-at-all-costs mindset can also result in an unpleasant and unfriendly environment, particularly if the coach is too aggressive.

Scope of the Book

Children’s training is a relatively complex matter. This is especially true during the ages of growth and development, when technical, tactical, and physical training have to be very well organized. Training and Conditioning Young Athletes, therefore, is intended to address to all aspects of training and be a theoretical and practical source of information for instructors and parents alike. The text covers many aspects, from injury prevention to planning short-term and long-term training. The book also offers training programs for the development of strength, power, speed, agility, and endurance throughout all stages of growth and development.

Injuries and Their Causes

Although the sport environment is mostly fun and positive, training and competitions do sometimes result in uncomfortable injuries. Parents and coaches need to know that injuries can often be prevented. However, before we discuss injury prevention, first we have to be aware of the cause of injuries:

  • Overuse injuries have their roots in repetitive drills and exercises that are practiced even under the conditions of fatigue.
  • Sport-related trauma is most common in team sports and contact sports.
  • Too many games and an overemphasis on winning combine to cause injuries.
  • Lack of progression in technical, tactical, and physical training, such as flexibility and strength training, can cause injury.
  • Improper training conditions, improper personal equipment, and lack of observing the rules associated with training equipment result in dangerous situations.
  • Commercialism is a problem when companies push a new gadget to try, but it is an untested gadget.

Injury Prevention

The coach, technical staff, and particularly the parents should always examine training conditions, the selection of exercises, training equipment used, and the protective equipment. Technical staff should always be aware of proper coaching methods, particularly for strength and fitness training. Physical training has a clear injury prevention role, specifically in the areas of flexibility and strength training:

  • Flexibility: From an early age, children should be encouraged to develop ankle, hip, and shoulder flexibility. When developing flexibility, you have to keep in mind this essential rule: The maximum degrees of flexibility used during competitions should be the minimum degree used during training. Following this rule will protect children from experiencing injuries caused by underdeveloped flexibility. The development of flexibility is best achieved early, during childhood and early adolescence. From this stage on, the scope of flexibility training is an easier one: maintaining what has been achieved in the past.
  • Strength training: In the early years of sporting activities, the focus of strength training must be the prevention of injuries by strengthening the ligaments and tendons. Many injuries occur at the ligaments and tendon levels. Remember that ligaments keep the anatomical integrity of the joints, while tendons transmit force to the muscle to perform an athletic action. Children’s strength training programs have to address not only the muscles performing the technical skills but also the ligaments and tendons, which need to be strengthened.

Do not push the kids when they are visibly tired. Fatigued children cannot concentrate on technical and physical tasks and, as such, are predisposed to injuries. The children should be having fun, both to avoid injury and to enjoy the time with their teammates and friends.

Guidelines for Long-Term Training

Progression is one of the essential principles of training children. The training system outlined in the book starts by building a solid foundation and then builds other strength-related components, such as sport-specific power, speed, and agility. Throughout all stages of long-term development, we encourage instructors and parents to observe training variety, with the emphasis being on individual potential and on the children’s physical and psychological characteristics.

The organization of the long-term training is based on the standard age classifications for young athletes:

  • Under age 12 (U12)—Initiation: The main goal is to initiate children in every aspect of training in the selected sport, particularly the fundamentals of technical and tactical skills.
  • Under age 15 (U15)—Athletic formation: This is the stage for continued instruction in the technical and tactical aspects but also for stressing the physical abilities required by the sport.
  • Under age 17 (U17)—Specialization: This is the time when the young athletes are exposed to position-specific skills and to physical and psychological development. From this stage on, decisions made regarding training methods take into account the specific energy systems dominant in the selected sport.
  • Under age 19 (U19)—Building the foundation of high performance: In addition to technical, tactical, and physical instruction, attention should also be concentrated on developing the psychological abilities to tolerate stress and frustration.
  • Ages 21-23 (U21-23)—High performance: The athlete is now achieving excellence and professionalism in all aspects of the sport. This is also the time when physical training—particularly strength, power, and agility—have to reach the highest levels.

Throughout all these stages of development, specific details and suggestions are offered. Nutrition guidelines are also offered.

Planning Training Programs

It is well known that planning is required for effectiveness in all aspects of human activities. This is also true for sports training. Instructors and parents involved in children’s training have to organize and direct sports training for long periods of time, from childhood to maturation. To be efficient, an instructor has to be organized in planning a training program, not only for the competitive season but also in the preseason, when the scope of training is to prepare the children to cope with the physical and psychological stress of competitions. Therefore, suggestions are offered for an annual training plan but also for shorter-duration plans, such as a week.

The Development of Physical Abilities

This part of the book may be considered as essential since the development of physical abilities for the selected sport can often be the determining factor for a young athlete. The progression of physical training starts with strength training; from there, an instructor can build sport-specific power, speed, agility, and endurance. Suggested training programs are offered for each ability, starting from preseason and continuing to the end of the competitive phase. By following our suggested training programs, a junior athlete will develop quickness, reactivity, endurance, and solid confidence in himself or herself.

Training and Conditioning Young Athletes discusses essential aspects for anyone interested in sports training for children.