"Slow cooking" your athlete for success (part 2/2)

In the last article we talked about how many parents think simply playing the sport is enough to create a great athlete. While some of the greatest athletes may be able to get away with just playing the sport (Mario Lemieux Lionel Messi) the vast majority of top athletes have raw talent AND were well trained outside their sport.
In this article we present to you some guidelines and practical tips on dealing with athletes at different ages. The age ranges below are not set in stone (developmental age is more important), but they give you a framework to work from. The majority of these recommendations come directly from the IYCA (International Youth Conditioning Association)

Under 8 years old: Every kid is an athlete at this age.  Parents need to expose children to a wide variety activities to build a large number of movement "tools" to add to their tool box.  These "tools" are called fundamental movement patterns or physical literacy.  Think of gym classes from the 60's and 70's. Hopping, throwing,catching, climbing, tumbling, balancing etc.  We like to make up games that include all of the above in obstacle courses.

8-11 years old: This age group is known as the "Golden age" of athletic development.  These are the years where the athlete can "go down the road a little bit" in terms of adding to the physical literacy that they learned in the first part of their lives. My kickboxing coach used to use the term "go down the road a bit" when taking a fighter who has the basics and now needs to build on top of those basics.  At this age, athletes should still participate in multiple sports/activities, and overall athleticism should be the focus.

Teach athletes how to run, jump, catch, kick and throw with more power and accuracy, and begin to develop strength and speed by teaching mechanics and body weight exercises.  Exercises like pushups, pullups, lunges and jumping activities should gradually be incorporated into an athletes routine, but not so much that the athlete dreads them. 2-3 days per week of 20-30 minutes is enough for the strength based portion. 20-40 minutes should be spent on technique, games and athleticism.  This is the correct ratio.  

Have athletes practice sports skills they show interest in, but encourage work in multiple sports throughout the year. Allow kids to concentrate on a sport while they're in-season, but move on to a different sport to keep things fresh. Allowing kids to play on teams with their friends and coaches they like is very important at this age because it makes sports more fun.  

The most important goal at this age is to make each season or experience enjoyable and positive enough that they want to come back for more.  Try not to get sucked into too much seriousness yet - there's plenty of time for that later.

11-14 years old: The ages of 11-14 are critical for speed and agility development because these traits are more easily developed before the massive growth spurts during adolescence.  This is the age when more focused training can take place as long as the foundation has been laid. If athletes at this age are still struggling with fundamental motor skills, more time needs to be spent on these skills.  A step by step approach is critical to the athletes development in this period.  Running mechanics have normally not been addressed and parents begin to notice a lack of speed compared to the natural runners/skaters at this age.

Once coordinated kids can lose some of their smoothness during this period, good training can avert this. Most of the issues of growth and development (Inflexibility, dis-coordination, muscle imbalances) can be made up at this time.

Parents often struggle finding time to fit in this type of training during these years.  Parents and coaches need to find windows of opportunity during the year to focus on physical literacy and athleticism. The off season is the best time to address these traits, but athletes should gradually move to a year-round approach that includes brief exposures to training multiple times a week.

At this age sports become more serious.  Many kids will start to ask for more help or begin practicing more on their own. Put kids in situations that gently challenge them without making them feel incompetent. A little struggling helps the athlete grow, but emotional development is important to understand at this stage.  Some kids will want to step up, others will need a more gentle approach.

By the end of this stage, kids on the road to high sports success will start to concentrate on one sport. Its important to keep another sport in the back pocket to destress and for variety (and fun) during this time. Early recruiting sports will add more stress and expectations to the athlete.

As time moves on high pressure situations will be added to the mix. Wait as long as possible to take part in these events, but some sports "call" the athlete before others.  Achievement over development begins to be rewarded, so wait as long as possible in order to extend development.

Athletes not on the high performance route should be encouraged to make sports/activities fun and enjoyable.  However, we must be careful to continue to develop competency.  An athlete competent at a sport is one they have a greater chance to continue playing into the future. There should never be a time where we "deselect" kids or encourage them to quit. While it's obvious that not every kid will be elite, there is more to sports then being a pro athlete.

15 years old and up: Athletes 15 and up have often concentrate their efforts on one or two sports.  It is at this point that the faster and stronger athletes begin to over-take those athletes that have not trained or whose natural early advantages have not been built upon.  During this period hormonal changes in these athletes allow them to gain tremendous amounts of strength and speed.  

Training should be concentrated on speed and power at this age.  Athletes in this category are able to recover from intense training and repeat the process again and again.  Those athletes not engaged in structured speed and power training begin to fall behind and either become injured or fall below the competitive level.  Competition takes on a larger and larger role in this age group. 

For those athletes that are "sub-elite" enormous ground can be made up over a 6 month period due to growth spurts and/or structured training. There are innumerable stories of freshman athletes being cut and later becoming outstanding athletes. This is know as the "Jordan Effect" (Michael Jordan was cut as a freshman).  Often athletes that have progressed through all of the stages of development can switch sports at this time and be very successful.  Parents should still encourage improvement over competition when time is available.

I hope this helps you understand the process of long term athletic development and gives you some practical ideas of how to help your athlete/s. There is no cookie cutter approach to developing an athlete, so it's important to give each athlete what he/she needs and avoid experiences that lessen their desire to excel.

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