The period of late pre-adolescence to early adolescence is a great time to introduce more organized training to the developing athlete. At this age, physical and cognitive maturity have increased to a level where the athlete can understand the aim of a sports performance training program. For the most part, athletes at this age can generally stand in line, pay attention, and take directions.
The warm-up period is the perfect opportunity to start to introduce and teach many athletic skills. I believe the warm-up is the most important part of a training session in a youth athletic development training program. In this article, I cover the realities of working with younger populations, as well as some ideas for high school and above. Warming up for training with elite athletes and warming up for learning with youth athletes are two totally different balls of wax.I believe the warm-up is the most important part of a training session in a youth athletic development program, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
The purpose of this blog piece is simple: Get coaches thinking about more than foam rolling and fascial stretching, and make age-appropriate changes to the warm-up so it’s fun and enriching. Coordination training needs challenging tasks and motivated athletes, so let’s get beyond activation exercises and self-care for children and treat them like youth athletes instead of old patients.
What Is an Appropriate Mindset for Warming Up Athletes?
Athlete performance is the goal for most coaches, but if you don’t think about the mindset of young athletes, you will lose them. Many of the principles of training don’t really matter at young ages, as the child athlete wants to have fun and has far different needs than an aging veteran athlete or elite college student. For older athletes, we all agree that the warm-up is a time to prepare the body for the more intense training session ahead for that day, and the next week, month, and even years.
The warm-up is exactly as it sounds—a time to increase core temperature and provide the muscle tissue with some extensibility through movement. Done the right way, it also serves to develop even more important physical and neurological factors, such as:
- Mobility and stability
- General coordination
- Spatial awareness
- Static and dynamic balance
- Fundamental movement skills
- Foundational sporting movements
- Sprint and agility techniques
These are all very important foundational physical qualities for the developing athlete, and they will need years of repetition to develop them. Although some youth athletes may physically look prepared for serious training and competition, they likely have many holes in their athletic development. This is due to:
- Lack of variety in their everyday physical activity.
- Less access to physical education.
- Participation in only one sport at an early age.
- Lack of free play, recess, and/or child-led activities.
- Long hours sedentary in the school classroom.
The ultimate goal of a quality strength and conditioning program is to develop speed, agility, strength, and endurance to their highest levels. But first we need to ensure that the young athlete has a prerequisite level of mobility, stability, coordination, and balance. These elements form the foundation of athletic development and young athletes need time to fill in these developmental holes. This is why the warm-up is such an important time: It’s a perfect opportunity to introduce and develop these foundational athletic qualities.The warm-up is the perfect opportunity to introduce and develop foundational athletic qualities like mobility, stability, coordination, and balance, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
I’m all for young athletes participating in speed development exercises, as well as learning basic strength training early on. It’s a smart long-term strategy that will pay off years down the line. But at the same time, I am always searching for strategies to make sure we cover our athletic bases and find success right away.
For example, I can teach a multidirectional A-skip or bear crawl and start to improve rhythm and timing almost immediately. Gone are the days of a quick jog around the field or an agility ladder followed by a static stretch, neither of which do anything to prepare the body for much of anything. Yes, it’s easy to water down a high school warm-up with less-demanding exercises and training, but youth athletes are not throttled-down Olympians or pros. Coaches must understand that the warm-up is a critical period that can go a long way to prepare the athlete for both sports practice/games and exercise.
The Core of a Youth Warm-Up Session
The athletic warm-up is a five-part series used to develop all-around athleticism. During each sequence, the young athlete will find themselves moving through a variety of novel and diverse movement skill sets. To keep the athletes challenged and engaged, we keep each sequence short and we constantly come up with new variations of movement.
You must remember that many games and sports sometimes call upon the athlete to move in unorthodox positions and patterns. Practicing movement variability allows for learning basic movements along with the many variations of those basic movements. This better prepares the athlete for the chaos of sport by enabling them to make the correct bodily adjustments when the need arises.Practicing movement variability prepares the athlete for the chaos of sport by enabling them to make the correct bodily adjustments when the need arises, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
The athletic warm-up is broken down into the following five ingredients:
- Locomotor skills
- Real athletic and coordinative mobility
- Stability, core, and balance
- Gymnastics, stunts, tumbling, and animal moves
- Movement skill and connective strength
Locomotor skills are simply basic ways to move, and they’re one of the foundations of coordination. The various locomotor patterns provide context to the athlete about their environment and where they are in space in relation to objects and other people. These basic skills allow us to move from point A to point B. And over time, with exposure and practice, we learn to choose the best skill for the job. Basic locomotor skills include walking, marching, skipping, hopping, shuffling, leaping, and galloping. Years ago, children would master these movements in elementary school physical education, but many children are not exposed to these movements enough these days.
Video 1. Real movement really means displacement, so use the space you have. Regardless of the level of athlete, make sure you take advantage of space, as we live in cubicles or classrooms that require us to be crowded and constrained.
The beauty of these simple movements is the infinite number of ways they can be implemented, which can really challenge different elements of coordination. The exercises involve moving in multiple directions, both vertically and horizontally, through space. Using these movements, the coach can ask the athlete to move their limbs though unique speeds and ranges of motion. For example, running with high knees while at the same time making circles with one arm develops synchronization of movement in time, which is the ability to do two unrelated movements at the same time. So, the key with these movements is to get the arms involved by moving in different ways than typically used in running.
A simple locomotor skill series:
- Cross body skip
- Side shuffle bilateral arm circles backward
- High knees/unilateral arm circles forward
- Straight leg run/unilateral arm circles backward
- Backpedal with alternating arms circles forward
Having kids move earlier and earlier in a warm-up settles them down. Just a few minutes of moving—specifically locomotive movement—releases the pent-up energy kids have from a long day. We make free running and motions a cornerstone of our warm-up at Achieve, as kids need to get up and be creative without barriers. Slow movements are okay from time to time, but if you are holding stretches, moving one joint at a time, and foam-rolling kids, you are not developing them for the long run.
Real Athletic and Coordinative Mobility
This is probably the least understood aspect of the warm-up. A few years ago, a new breed of strength coach/pseudo therapist emerged in the industry, and they replaced good movement with static stretching, foam rolling, and corrective exercises. They led many to believe that most athletes were weak and dysfunctional, which resulted in a watered-down approach to training. Although probably beneficial, I do not believe our children need physical therapy—they need to exposure to basic movements training on a consistent basis.
The purpose of the mobility session is to expose the joints to different directions, ranges of motion, and muscular tensions to better prepare them for what they may encounter in a training session or a competitive activity. This is accomplished by using whole body movements through their entire range of motion. Think basic human movements like squatting, lunging, reaching, and rotating.
For the young athlete going through an active growth spurt, mobility work is even more important, as they tend to lose mobility and coordination for short periods of time. Couple this with sitting in school for most of the day and it doesn’t take a scientist to realize that a few minutes dedicated to moving the body through full ranges of motion can go a long way for both performance and long-term joint health.
Video 2. The value of stick exercises is their simplicity and purity, meaning they teach athletes without much instruction. Every youth coach should see PVC pipes as something beyond overhead squatting or teaching cleans.
I have found the use of PVC pipes and the mobility exercises from stickmobility.com to be a game changer for young athletes. The sticks allow us to move through large ranges of motion while simultaneously training foundational movement skills.
The following short stick series is something we do a few times with many of our young athletes.
- Overhead side to side
- Overhead to reach
- Long lunge sway
- Offset overhead squat
- Overhead split squat
- Lateral lunge to rotate and reach
The use of PVC pipes is great for both genders, not just boys. The ability to grasp and manipulate a simple pipe is fundamental to learning how to hold a hockey stick, bat, racquet, and even a golf club. General stick work isn’t super sexy to parents, but when they see their kids learn to be adaptable with all activities, they will appreciate this simple modality.
Stability, Core, and Balance
In our view, core training encompasses developing strength and stability through the entire body, not just the abdominals. We look to train from fingernails to toenails and everything in between. Movement skill period training may find the young athlete in a prone or supine position, on one foot, on two feet of varied stances. Some movements will be static, while others will be more dynamic.Moving in place is fine for adult fitness classes or group exercises, but kids need to have more controlled chaos or they get bored, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
We look to develop total body tension from 4-3-2 points of contact with the ground. In a past article, I showed many of the crab and bear positions we often use with our athletes. We also look to practice athletic positions on our feet from a squared stance and split stance, as well as one leg. These static and dynamic positions further reinforce many of the positions found in sport/training and provide a better frame of reference for good body position for the young athlete.
Video 3. The crab exercise should be a staple for all athletes at some point in their career. Adding in a few variations does so much more than entertain kids—it teaches an array of demanding movements that benefit athletes down the road.
These exercises are also a perfect lead-in to the exercise series that involve transitions from standing to the ground. The following sequence of exercises is one of our core/balance staples.
- One-leg reach
- Lateral bear crawl
- Crab reaches
- Supermans with PVC
Kids don’t need to do too many static activities, as they want to not only move, but move around. Moving in place is fine for adult fitness classes or group exercise, but kids need to have more controlled chaos or they get bored. Some internal movement or solo exploration is fine, but remember that locomotion is the name of the game.
Gymnastics, Stunts, Tumbling, and Animal Moves
This period is for the athlete to practice moving on the floor or transition from being on the feet to the floor. The reality is that many young athletes have forgotten what it’s like to be on the ground. A long time ago, they gave up crawling and rolling for the more efficient forms of locomotion like walking and running. But many sports involve the athlete going to the ground or falling.
Football and wrestling are the two obvious ones, but any field and court sport can find the athlete on the ground. For example, a slide tackle in soccer or diving to stop a ball in baseball. This is why practicing tumbling and basic gymnastics is important.Young athletes should be comfortable handling their body weight on the ground and confident in finding the right solution to protect themselves during a tackle or fall. Click To Tweet
Young athletes should be comfortable handling their body weight on the ground and have confidence in finding the right solution to protect themselves during a tackle or accidental fall. It’s also important to note that, due to a lack of physical education, as well as absurd injury laws, many young athletes have never even learned simple tumbling skills like rolls and somersaults. As a coach trying to get the best out of these young athletes, I feel this is a very important skill to introduce, practice, and master. Some of my favorites are:
- Basic forward and backward rolling
- Cartwheel-type variations
- Handstand variations
- Animal imitation activities
Video 4. Get kids to go from on their feet to the ground and back again. Tumbling skills are not just for gymnastics; they are for all athletes who will experience being bumped around.
The challenges of new exercises help develop true grit; meaning, if an athlete can do a movement in one session, that is actually a benefit. Most athletes need to face literal obstacles and frustrations, and not be sheltered. At younger ages, athletes can fail if they are having fun, but don’t place them in situations where they repeatedly do movements that are challenges. Give them enough easier patterns to feel good about themselves and follow up with moonshot activities down the road.
Movement Skill and Connective Strength
We all know strength development is an important part of the athletic training process. That is why at each training session we devote a small amount of time trying to master simple bodyweight exercises. Although many of our young athletes will be introduced to more tradition barbell, dumbbell, and kettlebell work, we always want to be sure we cover all of our athletic bases so all of our athletes never get too far away from the basics. For the youngest of our athletes, these exercises will be the perfect foundation for more intense bar work later on.
Finally, many of these exercise work as a perfect lead-in to more dynamic exercises. For example, a low walking lunge will prepare the legs for skips for height, which will then lead into a sprinting session.
Video 5. The basic bear crawl is popular, but often misused or taught wrong. Crawling is a skill that needs to be taught young, but as athletes get larger, you need to be careful as size and skill don’t scale.
The following exercise battery consists of alternating leg work and ground work. The distances are not large: 10-15 yards done in a slow and controlled manner, always with a walk back to starting position.
- Bear crawl
- Low walking lunge
- Backward bear crawl
- Low lunge backward
- Spiderman crawl
- Low squat walk
- Backward spider reach
- Alternating low squat walk
Don’t just toss in all of the movements at once. Put time into each exercise and demonstrate it properly and see what the kids can do. Athletes don’t have to do every exercise perfectly to try other movement patterns, but when an athlete can do a drill proficiently, adding an iteration is far more effective than trying to do too much.
What About Older Age Groups?
Advanced athletes, even ones in college and high school, benefit from getting out of the stretching and foam rolling routines. As an athlete becomes more explosive, it’s likely that self-care exercises grow, but they shouldn’t overtake a warm-up. The purpose of a good warm-up is to reduce the problems and small dysfunctions of a body, not to treat symptoms! Coaches need to embrace the fact that corrective exercises are often just mistimed solutions to problems we created in the first place by getting away from a foundation of physical literacy. The more that coaches work with youth athletes and focus on movement training and expanding their coordinative vocabulary, the more likely athletes won’t have nagging injuries and pain.The purpose of a good warm-up is to reduce the problems and small dysfunctions of a body—not to treat symptoms, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Some structure is necessary with athletes, and the amount depends on the size of the group and the maturity of the individuals. Just letting athletes show up and train hard may work from time to time, but when warm-ups are skipped and treated like a second-class citizen, other bad habits form on the main training. Every minute is valuable, but don’t become so overzealous that athletes feel regimented and restricted. Warm-ups are not entirely different than training, and the more warm-ups look removed from the main workout, the less value they have with actually getting an athlete better. It’s not that you can’t do mobilizations or foam rolling, it’s just that those activities support or restore health, they don’t improve athleticism.
Parting Thoughts on Youth Coordination
The warm-up with younger athletes still needs to be somewhat structured and organized. While we don’t need to look like a small army, kids need to learn valuable lessons such as paying attention and behaving. The balance of letting kids be free and have fun while moving them through the development process is sometimes hard, as kids will be kids.
Don’t fight the tide and think about discipline—think about redirecting their engines to activities they want to do or feel that they don’t have the opportunity to do. Giving them space and freedom to express themselves and play is better than forcing drills. Even games they see as overstructured are important now.