Effectively Developing Young Athletes

Our youth should not be developed like professional athletes. They should not have specialized training programs, and they should not specialize in one sport. Instead, they need more general athletic preparation. They need to play more sports, spend more time practicing and less time playing games, and more time developing consistently in a proper strength and conditioning program. Overwhelming research has shown that off-season variety (strength training and multiple sports participation) is superior in youth athletic development. Yes, that means even if your youth want to be a hockey player, it serves them best to participate in a training program that does not resemble sport-specific participation. In fact, from a development standpoint, variety actually enhances physical development in athletes at this level by expanding the motor pool from which an athletes draws upon.

Dispelling The Myth

By enrolling your youth athlete in a strength and conditioning training program does not stunt growth. This is just one of the many myths of strength training. I can confidently inform you that there is no chance that strength training damages bones and stunts growth. In fact, strength training properly will strengthen bones, improve posture, and lengthen and stabilize muscles. All of these will help stimulate growth.

Performance Testing

I’m against performance testing! Some might find this ironic seeing how my role in the OHL Combine and NHL/CHL Top Prospects is to test high-level players’ off-ice abilities and gather data. However, the large difference in these situations versus our local youth athletes is that these are older, more trained individuals. We are gathering data to help OHL and NHL teams make more educated decisions on who to draft. No atom, peewee, or bantam hockey player, or high school athlete is being drafted. Thus, there is absolutely no need to use performance testing at this youth level. Kids don’t want testing; parents do. Kids want to have fun and get better in a nonjudgmental environment. I am 100% convinced that a huge part of our success at Athletes Fuel Strength & Conditioning is that we don’t test youth. It’s much more about building community and self esteem than about test results.

Performance testing provides invalid data and sends the wrong message to youth athletes and parents. Coaches love to do it because they think it makes them and their program look “elite”. Parents love it because they believe it is preparing their son/daughter for the next level. I only test to see where an older, more experienced athlete is deficient. Thus I can use the data to enhance the already trained athlete to get that much more athletic potential out of them.

Performance testing is not for beginners, and regardless of how “elite” you may think a 14-year old is, he/she is still a beginner in my mind. That me this means no athlete should be tested for performance indicators unless they have spent at least 2 years consistently in our training programs, and are at least 17 years of age.

Instead, I choose to spend my time with these youth on developing proper movement efficiency, training habits, consistency, and building a base of athletic foundation. I don’t need to test these athletes to see if they’re improving. I see it everyday when I interact with them in the training process. They naturally get bigger, faster, and stronger as a natural part of development. If they follow a quality-training program consistently, they will make accelerated progress than if they didn’t.

Payton Sabourin - Athletes Fuel

Landing mechanics help develop eccentric strength. This is a primary goal during the initial stages of youth development, demonstrated here by Payton Sabourin, who trains at Athletes Fuel – Contributed Photo

Training vs. Working Out

Training is what makes athletes better. It is systematic planning. It is understanding that if I want to, for example, develop speed and power, I cannot crush my lactic system with circuits or high-intensity intervals with incomplete rest. It is understanding the length of training residuals and conflicting training qualities. It is developing the long-term plan with each phase of training building off the next with specific goals in mind, and making sure the training plan reflects goal adaptation.

Working out, on the other hand, is senseless. No one gets better. It is simply a good sweat and doing anything to achieve this. There is no goal, no planning to adapt to the goal, and everything is thrown together randomly hoping for the best.

What I’ve learned from working amongst our country’s high-level strength and conditioning coaches is that all good coaches do things relatively the same. We have subtle differences, but the roots of our programs are all very similar. This is because in the beginners mind there are many choices, but in the experts mind there are few. Anyone can smoke an athlete; make them sick or drenched in sweat. However, what is much harder to do, and more effective for athletic development, is increasing the number of quality training sessions and performances. It’s about challenging, but repeatable performances. Training looks and feels much different than working out.

Speed & Agility

Speed and agility are mostly made in the weight room. Some technique work on acceleration mechanics also needs to be done, but in large part the weight room will be the foundation. The message here is simple: get stronger and more powerful in the weight room, and our youth will be in a better position to get faster as they will now be able to put more force into the ground.

In terms of direct agility training, it should have little to no emphasis in training. The only time I use it is as a primer for the nervous system to essentially tell the body “wake up, we are about to get into more reactive training”, which requires the central nervous system to fire efficiently.

Agility is developed as a result of building eccentric, isometric, and concentric strength; as this is essentially every muscular action that takes places upon changing direction. Think about everyone’s favourite agility developing tool; the ladder. This is a complete waste of time, but I want to use it as an example so you can understand where I’m coming from. It is made up of continuous changes of direction. You are decelerating, stopping, changing direction, and accelerating. The athlete with the highest rate of eccentric, isometric, and concentric strength as well as reactive ability will be the best in traditional “agility” drills. This can only be built in the weight room. Yes, even better than the athlete who buries himself or herself with agility training. This is because the athlete who has spent time developing this “special strength” has all the prerequisites for changing direction.

The same can be said for sprinters. I’ve never met a high-level sprinter who is built like a twig. They are all powerful and strong individuals. They are fast because they are able to produce more force than their competitors. The majority of the force they build comes from the foundation of strength they have developed. So when a parent comes to me and says “my son or daughter needs to get quicker feet”, what they are really saying is my son or daughter needs to improve their acceleration because they are getting beat to loose pucks, balls, etc. Quick feet get you nowhere. Think of the agility ladder example. Yes you may see an athlete zip through the ladder with lightning quick feet, but they aren’t really going anywhere are they? They are relatively still in the same spot. A powerful and propulsive push using your ability to produce force gets you to where you want to be. It may not “look” fast, but this is because the push requires the athlete to take longer to produce that force. However, the force they do generate will ultimately allow them to win that race to the puck, ball, etc.

Hopefully the information provided to you above will help you understand how training should and should not be. It’s important that we educate parents and athletes about making the right decisions when enrolling into a strength and conditioning program. Only a structured and progressive training program that is highly coached will result in substantial improvement in sport performance.

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