“Long-term athletic development” is a phrase that has gained a tremendous amount of traction in the past few years. It highlights the importance of a gradual and meticulous journey for physical growth and performance gains in speed, strength, and power with youth athletes.Coaches need to have some degree of knowledge about child development so they can learn how to help their athletes during these dynamic times of growth, says @fitsoccerqueen. Click To Tweet
Many sports coaches see their players starting at a young age all the way until high school or college, which is an extensive period of time to be caring for a human. Through growth spurts, maturation, coordination disturbances, speed hindrances, and so much more, coaches need to have some degree of knowledge about child development so they can learn how to help their athletes during these dynamic times.
They need to know when to cut back on the training load, when to work on stability, when to home in on deceleration mechanics, when to optimize recovery, when to progress difficulty, and when to build strength, speed, and power in a safe and progressive manner.
Being a youth sports coach is a rewarding career for any adult who finds joy in guiding, teaching, and inspiring kids. There is nothing better than running an exuberant practice that leaves kids with beaming smiles on their faces. There is nothing more fulfilling than seeing a young athlete proud of themselves for scoring a goal. There is nothing more exciting than high-fiving your players after a hard-fought game. There is nothing more beautiful than seeing your young athletes blossom as they grow up.
While the work coaches do is fulfilling, it also comes with immense responsibility—the care of a human being through all of its physical and mental growth processes. Here are 10 things youth coaches must know about child development to set their athletes up for a successful and healthy career.
1. Everyone Is on a Different Schedule
This much I know: You can’t rush physical development. Every child is on their own biological clock, so one 11-year-old kid might be slower than the 11-year-old kid next door.
Of course, it’s frustrating for a parent to see their kid at a physical disadvantage, but coaches have to remember to educate parents to meet kids where they are in their development journey. Constantly berating them for their size, strength, body composition, speed, or awkward coordination won’t solve anything, especially during a time that is uncontrollable. It is best for coaches to be fully transparent with parents, as well as their young athletes, on what to expect during this time.It’s frustrating for a parent to see their kid at a physical disadvantage, but coaches should educate parents to meet kids where they are in their development journey, says @fitsoccerqueen. Click To Tweet
Child development is a natural process—one that we must be patient with and forgiving of at times.
So, what is the solution here?
For the late-maturing child who is waiting to develop speed, strength, and power, continue to focus on coordination, technical skills, and the other beautiful gems inside of them. Is this kid a good striker? Can they read the game well? Can they play aggressively? Focus on what a child can do during this sensitive time.
2. Speed Can Slow Down During the Growth Spurt
A child may be the fastest kid on the team from ages 7–11, then all of a sudden, their speed stagnates, or worse yet, decreases.
The growth spurt can be a tough time for young athletes, as accelerated growth leads to whacky coordination and can impact performance negatively (Quatman-Yates, Quatman, Meszaros, et al., 2012). It is a period when bones grow at a faster rate than muscles, coordination is disrupted, and body composition changes drastically. These can all cause a significant decrease in performance, leaving the child frustrated.
The one thing I hear the most from parents is that their team coach tells their child they need to improve speed. This is always the pressure put on kids during the growth spurt. This is upsetting, to say the least.
Coaches need to understand that this time is hard enough for kids to go through, physically and mentally, so the last thing they want is to have pressure put on them for something they cannot control. To that end, speed can rapidly slow down, so coaches should know what to say that does not leave the young, maturing kid devastated.
Some empowering things to say during this time could include:
- “Your one-on-one skills against defenders are out of this world!”
- “You have a great ability to read the game and anticipate play.”
- “You are so awesome at scanning and being aware of your opponent!”
- “You have a powerful shot!”
- “You are the best communicator and leader on our team.”
Again, focus on their strengths during this time, and let speed catch up as they mature into their bodies.
One more thing: During this time, it helps to reinforce coordination so their sprinting mechanics clean up, and they can move efficiently. Here are some coordination and stability drills to bring to your team practices:
Video 1. Crawling in all planes is an excellent way for kids to explore movement while improving core stability and total body strength against bodyweight resistance.
Video 2. Bird Dogs are one of the best exercises for reinforcing contralateral coordination of the opposite arm and leg and crossing the mid-line of the body to connect the brain hemispheres.
3. A Female Athlete’s Menstrual Cycle Impacts Performance
There have been numerous times when coaches have run pre-adolescent and adolescent female athletes into the ground, whether with full field sprints, frog jumps, burpees, endless laps around the pitch, or sprinting stadium steps on concrete. Why is this a problem? Athletes on their menstrual cycle are more susceptible to fatigue and sleep disturbances, so it is much more helpful to promote adequate recovery, nutrition, and proper load monitoring during this time.
Dawn Scott, former U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team sport scientist, determined when the players were on the phase of their cycle where sleep quality declined the most and provided them with education on how to improve their sleep, whether with nutrition or hydration. Of course, young female athletes do not have Dawn Scott as their performance coach, but I highly recommend following her work on the topic and becoming aware of why it’s a risk factor for injury.
If young female athletes look bogged down at practice, keep in mind they could be on their cycle, so it is best to provide them with solutions, not criticism for their fatigue.
4. Stability Is a Requirement for Pre-Adolescent and Adolescent Core Training
Stop with the endless crunches. For core work, coaches need to keep in mind that it must cover stabilizing all of the muscles of the trunk—from the gluteals to the abdominals to the psoas. The tying together of these muscle groups allows for kids to change direction efficiently, absorb force and stay balanced for injury reduction, and sprint with good posture.
Are the gluteals, abdominals, obliques, and psoas co-contracting during the exercises you prescribe? Intermuscular coordination is critical for young athletes to be able to perform movement in a balanced manner and to help stabilize the spine without pain.
According to the Journal of Coaching Education, traditional exercises such as sit-ups and crunches are insufficient as preventatives for injury because very few athletic movements are performed with weighted trunk flexion. Sport coaches should focus on dynamic isometric training, which improves balance and strength and might decrease the occurrence of low-back pain (Brock and Huckleberry, 2013).
Here are some stability movements to sprinkle into practice sessions:
Video 3. If coaches are crunched for time, the Pallof Press is an excellent movement to get in on the pitch to improve pelvic stability.
Video 4. The Plank Bird Dog is a nice progression of the conventional plank that challenges reflexive stability while raising the opposite arm and leg.
5. Young Athletes Need Behavior Change
When it comes to changing things like improper nutrition and hydration, young athletes do not want to be lectured. Kids are smart and know that fried chicken is worse for them than a bowl of vegetables. They can also Google what foods are healthiest and do not need an adult telling them what to do. Rather, they need adults to lead the way and set the example, as they are the sharpest observers of behavior.
What is in your pantry? How are you talking about food at practices? Are you placing the behavior change in front of them and providing them with healthy snack examples? If you truly want to change a young athlete’s behavior, walk the walk yourself.
But behavior and habit change should also be a staple of your program. Building a culture of accountability outside the gym and off the field ensures that young athletes grow mentally, socially, and academically.Building a culture of accountability outside the gym and off the field ensures that young athletes grow mentally, socially, and academically, says @fitsoccerqueen. Click To Tweet
Having athletes reflect on their improvements reminds them how far they have come and pushes them to analyze what actionable steps they took daily to achieve their goals. Journaling progress like this, as well as setting new goals, is an excellent way to train their minds and encourage behavior change.
6. Training Age Must Be Considered
Training age is important to keep in mind because an athlete may be further along than someone the same age as them because they have been training longer. As an example, a strength training program will look vastly different for a 13-year-old with a novice training age (first few months) than it would for a 13-year-old with an advanced training age (more than 1–2 years).
Video 5. The Single Leg Deadlift is a movement pattern that young athletes must master with body weight first, as it is a heavy proprioceptive movement that takes time to nail down.
Video 6. This progression is for an athlete with a higher training age who has successfully engaged in motor skill learning for several months.
Training age is a big factor in a performance program, and everyone must have the movement patterns customized to where they are.
Training age is also an indicator of when to expect performance results. Beware of expecting vast changes in speed, agility, and strength in just a few months. Just like a flower, wait for the child to bloom. Human physiology has not changed, so it is best to meet kids where they are and ensure they put in the work for the long haul with their athletic development.
As an example, here are the results of performance improvements for three athletes who trained consistently under a strength and conditioning program for a year, 2–3 times a week:
Broad Jump: 5’5” (2019); 6’8” (2020)
10-Yard Sprint: 1.85 (2019); 1.81 (2020)
20-Yard Sprint: 3.48 (2019); 3.12 (2020)
Vertical: 19.1 (2019); 20.2 (2020)
Pull-Up: 0 (2019); 3 (2020)
Broad Jump: 6’5” (2019); 7’4” (2020)
10-Yard Sprint: 1.82 (2019); 1.80 (2020)
20-Yard Sprint: 3.39 (2019); 3.10 (2020)
Vertical: 19.3 (2019); 21.6 (2020)
Pull-Up: 3 (2019); 7 (2020)
Broad Jump: 6’4” (2019); 7’0” (2020)
10-Yard Sprint: 1.92 (2019); 1.81 (2020)
20-Yard Sprint: 3.32 (2019); 3.12 (2020)
Vertical: 19.5 (2019); 20.5 (2020)
Pull-Up: 0 (2019); 2 with weight (2020)
Video 7. Consistency year-round is key for drastic strength and performance gains. Young athletes must make the time to work on physical goals for the long run.
Looking at the video feedback, here is a novice high school freshman on the first day of training:
Video 8. The toe of the outside leg could be more squared up for a better reacceleration in the other direction; there is some collapsing of the trunk and falling toward the wrong direction.
Here is an advanced athlete of the same age in their second year of training:
Video 9. Notice the nice positioning of the outside leg for a more efficient reacceleration in the other direction, the stable trunk, and the minimal collapsing.
7. Training Must Be Different for 7- to 8-Year-Olds Than It Is for Adolescents
It is comical when coaches run their 7- to 8-year-olds the same as they would run their high schoolers. First and foremost, coaches should pay attention to the extreme physical differences between elementary, middle, and high school athletes.
For the elementary school athlete, a variety of movement is optimal, as they are in a critical period of optimizing motor skill learning and building brain connections.
Video 10. This is a great game for young athletes to work on various aspects of performance, including coordination, strength, and object manipulation.
Expounding further, there is a plethora of mental differences as well. The last thing younger kids want is to be instructed with wall drills, agility rings, ladders, and monotonous drills where the coach barks a running commentary. Younger kids thrive on fun and energy within a practice session, as well as the opportunity to problem-solve without the help of an adult figure.Younger kids thrive on fun and energy within a practice session, as well as the opportunity to problem-solve without the help of an adult figure, says @fitsoccerqueen. Click To Tweet
For the older athletes who are in the performance phase, the components of mechanics, speed, and strength need more dialed-in focus within a session. Mentally, older athletes are also in a mindset where they are ready to receive structured feedback on technique.
Video 11. A skill like acceleration, for example, takes months and years of reinforcing, as well as teaching forward lean posture and the ability for athletes to “chase their shoulders” to propel their force forward.
8. All Age Groups Benefit from Free Play and a Variety of Movements
As detailed and structured we want to be with our older athletes, free play serves its purpose for this age group, too. From a nervous system standpoint, play relaxes kids and brings them joy because stakes are low, and error has no cost. Of course, the young ones love to be given a task-oriented game, where the coach exits stage right and lets the problem-solving occur organically.
Video 12. “Doors” is a fun reactive agility game that is transferrable to team sports and teaches reacting and cutting based on an external stimulus.
The older kids also benefit from play amidst the busy structure of year-round sports. Sometimes it is a nice escape for them to return back to the childhood days of tag and fun.
Video 13. Tag is a small-sided game that forces athletes to react, dodge, and anticipate, and then get in their speed work to the finish line after all players are tagged.
9. Plyometrics Should Be About Quality, Not Quantity
Full-field frog jumps, jump squats for time, and endless burpees all confuse me. This begs the question, what are coaches trying to get out of high-volume plyometric training? If it is to fatigue the child athlete, then they are on the right track.
However, causing chronic soreness and nervous system depletion should not be the goal of plyometrics. Quality form from teaching landing mechanics, optimizing the concentric and eccentric muscle actions, and focusing on properly pumping the brakes in all planes of motion are all key here for kids who are growing into their bodies.
Video 14. It serves the maturing female athlete to work on stability when pumping the brakes.
It is important to teach athletes how to absorb force from an injury reduction standpoint, but producing force is just as critical when programming plyometrics. Again, plyometrics are not about fatiguing the athlete; they are about ensuring the athlete produces force into the ground.
Video 15. Plyometrics that focus on force production help to improve an athlete’s speed and are incredibly taxing on the nervous system. Keep reps at a minimum (4–6 contacts) with quality explosiveness.
10. Overuse Injuries Can Increase During the Growth Spurt
With the growing system of year-round organized sports, youth athletes become more susceptible to overuse injuries. Arguably, the volume of games kids play is exponentially higher than adult and professional athletes. What’s scary is that kids going through rapid growth spurts, or the time of peak height velocity (PHV), suffer overuse injuries even more.
Osgood-Schlatters, Sever’s disease, stress fractures, and chronic muscle soreness are all overuse injuries that cannot be ignored pre, during, and post PHV.
It is not wise to run your team of teenagers as punishment after they lose a weekend game. It is not wise to ignore active recovery at practices. It is not wise to push them through a drill when they have knee pain. Load monitoring becomes a necessity for the maturing athlete to safeguard them from injury.
Some things for coaches to keep in mind as they plan their practice week:
- How many minutes did this athlete play?
- How did they sleep for the past week?
- Are they hydrated and nourishing their bodies?
- What is their rating of perceived exertion (RPE), based on intensity and number of runs and changes of direction they made in a game?
Open communication, especially for youth clubs that do not have the monitoring technology, helps coaches understand the physiological and mental needs of the athlete for the upcoming training week.
Remember, it is essential to nurture and care for young athletes, especially as year-round sports continues to spiral out of control with a high volume of practices and games. Moreover, understanding how children develop physically and mentally through growth spurts and maturation ensures they develop in performance at their pace and stay resilient to injury as much as possible.Understanding how children develop physically & mentally through growth spurts & maturation ensures they develop in performance at their pace & stay resilient to injury as much as possible. Click To Tweet
The human component of coaching is one that we cannot ignore. After all, coaches are caretakers for kids just as much as parents are.
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Brock, M. and Huckleberry, S. “Guidelines for sport coaches on core-strengthening techniques for athletes: improving performance and decreasing occurrence of back pain.” Journal of Coaching Education. 2013;6(2):135–147.
Forcada, C., Pons, A., Seijas, R., et al. “Risk factors and prevention strategies of anterior cruciate ligament injuries in young female athletes.” International Journal of Orthopaedics. 2017;4(3):734–739.
Quatman-Yates, C.C., Quatman, C.E., Meszaros, A.J., et al. “A systematic review of sensorimotor function during adolescence: A developmental stage of increased motor awkwardness?” British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2012;46(9):649–655.