If you are the parent of a young athlete between the ages of 8 and 12 and are interested in their long-term athletic development, this may come as a surprise to you: the one thing they do not need at this time is a speed training program. Yes…you heard me correctly, they do not need a speed training program.
Worrying about their 40 times or pro agility tests is largely a waste of time at this age. Speed training programs are for older, adolescent athletes who are both physically and mentally mature and have developed a wide range of movement skills through proper foundational training and development. Most youth athletes are not physically prepared to take part in a speed training program because they have yet to develop the necessary physical foundation to express speed. As we will see later on, if your young athlete lacks the ability to balance on one foot for 15 seconds (which we see all the time), it may be a clue that they need a more remedial training program rather than an advanced one.Most youth athletes are not physically prepared to take part in a speed training program because they have yet to develop the necessary physical foundation to express speed, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Pushing young athletes to do any type of training program that they are not prepared to do (both physically and mentally) does not help anyone in the long run. Yes, the athlete may make a little progress at first, but they will never reap the benefits long term. And if the training program becomes a chore instead of being engaging and fun—in those cases, the athlete has little incentive to try hard.
Now, before all the track coaches and speed gurus start calling for my head, I want to make one point abundantly clear: I am in no way saying young athletes should not sprint. Quite the contrary, young athletes should be exposed to sprinting activities “all the time.” Sprinting is a fantastic activity for young athletes.
According to Dr. Mike Young, sprinting improves the communication pathways between your brain and body (which, for a young developing mind and body, seems very important), improves running mechanics, and trains many of the large athletic muscles of the lower body. All good stuff for the developing young athlete; however, they do not need to be on an advanced speed training program.
The Major Elements of Coordination
With young athletes, there should be no concern with shin angles, front side mechanics, or arm action drills, and no one should care about running specific times like the 40-yard dash. The sprinting activities that young athletes need to be exposed to should come in the form of ball games, races, pattern running, relays, and chasing activities like tag and invasion games. Children love the competitive nature of these types of activities and tend to put forth their best effort without even realizing it.
Along with lots of game-like activities, what athletes ages 8–12 really need is coordination training. Coordination is the foundation of all athletic skills. Coordination is not one singular ability, but a global system of interconnected elements. Many parents and coaches believe a child is either coordinated or uncoordinated, but that is not entirely true. Coordination has many elements that need to be developed simultaneously to improve athleticism or specific abilities—for example, like improving speed ability.What athletes ages 8–12 really need is coordination training. Coordination is not one singular ability, but a global system of interconnected elements, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Coordination is made up of seven or eight major elements, but for the purpose of this article, I will focus on the following five:
- Balance and stability: A state of bodily equilibrium in either static or dynamic planes.
- Rhythm: The expression of timing.
- Spatial awareness: The ability to know where you are in space and in relation to objects.
- Kinesthetic differentiation: The degree of force required to produce a desired result.
- Reactive ability: The ability to respond with movement to a particular stimulus, such as sight, sound, or touch.
According to former MMA fighter and longtime strength coach Brian Grasso: Younger athletes who learn to master the elements associated with good coordination (balance, rhythm, spatial awareness, reaction, etc.) are far better off than athletes who are not exposed to this kind of exercise stimulation until advanced ages. This is an important point—even though athletes are capable of learning new skills at virtually any age, research has shown early exposure to be greatly beneficial to an athlete’s overall development. As Dr. Jozef Drabik notes in Children and Sports Training, coordination is best developed between the ages of 7 and 14, with the most crucial period being 10–13 years of age.
All young athletes will have varying strengths and weaknesses across these abilities. When I first work with a group of young athletes, I strategically set up the training session to include activities that will clue me in on how developed or undeveloped these abilities are.
Targeting Coordination in Training
As a full-time coach, I don’t have an abundance of time to walk each athlete through a specific movement assessment; instead, I informally screen the athletes with fun movement challenges. In short, I’m looking to see if the young athlete has the prerequisite ability to move well. This basic foundational movement ability will allow them to be successful and injury-free on the field of play. Think of it in terms of math skills: to be successful in advanced math, you need a good foundation of basic math skills like addition or subtraction. You don’t learn algebra in first grade.
For athletic development, it’s the same—children need to learn the basics of movement first, before doing an advanced training program or sport-specific skills. When I first work with a group of young athletes, I look to see how good they actually are at the basics. It’s a fun workout using some novel exercises and activities, while for me as the coach, it’s an opportunity to screen the athlete and get a good idea of their current level of athletic ability.
To get a better understanding of this training approach, let’s look at a typical training session and some examples of how we train for the development of coordination.
Static and Dynamic Balance
I ask the athletes to lay on the ground, then on my command, they stand up as fast as possible and balance on one leg without falling or touching the ground with the other foot for 15 seconds. We try this a few times on each foot, simply watching if the athlete can efficiently maintain balance. We then take the drill one step further by asking the athlete to balance and then hop in place, then side to side, and then in a circle.
Video 1. Rising from the ground challenges athletes to establish their balance and hops, jumps, and single leg squats are fun and foundational movements to progress into.
Finally, we use a small box for the athlete to hop up on and squat on one leg. The goal of the assessment is simple. We assess:
- Can the athlete stay up on one leg?
- Do they wobble, lose balance, or have to constantly adjust themselves by putting their other foot on the ground?
- Can they handle their own body weight while hopping?
- Can they squat down at least halfway without collapsing?
If the young athlete struggles with these tasks, that’s a clue they still need foundational work before moving to the advanced stuff that the parents and sport coaches always beg for.
How does balance relate to speed development? First off, sprinting is done on one leg. When one foot is on the ground, the other foot is off the ground, swinging through air. To sprint efficiently, the young athlete must be strong and stable when the foot hits the ground. Without good dynamic balance and stability, speed development is very difficult in the long term. Sprinting alone will not develop better balance and stability, and therefore these limitations will continue to hold the athlete back down the road.
My favorite way to look at rhythmic ability is simple: we ask the athlete to skip. First, we skip in a straight line. Then, we look at them skipping sideways, backward, zigzag, and finally while turning. Again, there is no perfect, set way to skip; however, with an average coaching eye, it’s easy to see which athletes have decent rhythmic ability and which ones don’t. Some things to take note of:
- Do they have to think about how to skip before doing it?
- Do they have cross-lateral movement (meaning, do their opposite arms and leg move together at the same time)?
- Can the athlete skip and also move in multiple directions?
How does rhythm affect speed development? Speed is a nice combination of timing and force. The best sprinters seem to be able to not only produce a high amount of force but do it at exactly the right time. Developing a good sense of rhythm at an early age can go a long way when learning more advanced sport-specific skills down the road—and that includes the many rhythmic sprint drills that coaches love to have their athletes do.
Video 2. Forward, backward, lateral skips provide the opportunity to develop the cross-lateral movement pattern involved in countless sports skills.
Out of all the different coordination elements, spatial awareness is probably the most fun to implement. Again, spatial awareness is about the athletes knowing where they are in space and in relation to other objects—simply put, it’s your brain recognizing the environment it’s in and making the appropriate plan to navigate that environment. That is why we want young athletes to develop a wide and diverse movement skill set. The more options the brain must choose from, the more successful the movement outcome.
A great tool for this is to use a set of hurdles or hula hoops. We ask the young athletes to slowly step over and under a set of hurdles: Can they get over or under without knocking down the hurdle? Next, we move to a crawl: Can the athlete crawl under and over a set of hurdles or crawl through some hula hoops without hitting the sides?
Video 3. Common tools like cones, hoops, and PVC pipe can be used for a basic obstacle course to challenge the spatial awareness of young athletes.
This can be very challenging, as many young athletes are not used to being in this position. However, kids love the challenge of not hitting hoops or hurdles. It forces them to slow down and requires some effort to get through the course correctly instead of just speeding through it.
How important is spatial awareness in speed development? As you can probably guess, when a young athlete knows where their body parts are, how they feel and move will go a long way when teaching them different physical skills. When the body is used to moving in a variety of ways, it can micro-adjust when needed.
Most sports are not a linear game. The athlete has to deal with the ground and opponents on the field. The field may not be perfectly flat, or an opponent may suddenly appear out of nowhere. Good spatial awareness comes into play when adjustment is needed, which can mean the difference between staying free of injuries or getting injured and losing or winning the game.
This is similar to body awareness. It’s the sense of knowing how much force a person needs to accomplish a task. A simple example is when you throw a ball to someone close, you throw it softly. When throwing a ball to someone far away, you need to throw the ball a bit harder. A great offensive lineman uses just enough force to keep the defense in front him. Too much force one way and the d-lineman may slip off in the other way.
Video 4. Jumping is not simply a matter of how high and how far, the ability for athletes to control their body in the air is also crucial.
Kinesthetic differentiation ability is precision ability. We use two different fun activities to screen and train this:
- We ask the athlete to jump certain distances and land precisely on a spot or line on the floor. For example, jump forward off two feet and land as close to the line as possible. This can be done jumping forward, jumping sideways, or doing a 180-degree turn.
- The other activity is called cone destruction—this is great because the athlete has to work hard to use the right force and aim to knock over the cones. There is also a fair bit of running involved, so this is a great conditioning/fitness activity. Because the activity is timed, young athletes get competitive and tend to work really hard without even realizing it.
How kinesthetic differentiation relates to speed development is simple. Intuitively knowing how much force to use for a certain task is important.
For most field and court sports, reactive ability will probably rank as number one when it comes to coveted abilities on the field of play. Reactive ability is simply decision-making ability. Most sports are played at a high speed in very chaotic situations. Having the ability to react and make the right decision quickly based on what the athlete may see or feel in front of them can be the difference between winning or losing (and not getting injured).It’s one thing to make quick decisions, but the athlete must also have the movement toolbox to move in the correct way at the right time, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Reactive ability is closely linked to other abilities, like balance and spatial awareness. It’s one thing to make quick decisions, but the athlete must also have the movement toolbox to move in the correct way at the right time. There are lots of ways to screen this ability:
- Using objects in the air.
- Using visual cues, like a coach pointing certain directions.
- Using audio cues, where the coach calls out certain directions.
A simple way to screen and train this ability is with a tennis ball. The coach stands behind the athlete and throws a ball in front of them. When the ball comes into view, the athletes sprint and grab the ball before its second bounce. Kids love the challenge of this drill, and it can give the coach some great insight on their current reaction ability.
Video 5. Game-based activities help kids develop agility, game speed, and the reactive ability to make quick decisions in competition.
How does this relate to speed development? Visuospatial awareness and peripheral vision are important in chaotic sports. Being able to have a sense of what is happening around the field even if the athlete is not directly looking that way is important—think of the no-look pass in basketball. With the tennis ball throw, the coach can get a sense of how fast the athlete can interpret the info (ball coming into view) and react to it.
Next, how fast can the athlete actually move to get the ball? Do they react fast but move slow on the first few steps? That’s a clue that the athlete may not be strong enough to get their body moving and will need to spend some time being able to handle their own body weight.
Sensitive Training Periods
As I mentioned, Jozef Drabik indicates that coordination is best developed from the ages of 7 to 14, with the most crucial period being between 10 and 13 years of age. This means that there are critical windows of development in children, also called windows of opportunity (ASM). During those pre-adolescent years, the central nervous system is highly plastic or adaptable. Meaning, with the right environment and input, we can develop and exploit these coordinative abilities to a much higher level than at any other time in life. For example, the best age to develop reactive ability for boys and girls is 8–10.
Armed with this information, we can make sure that when we work with children of this age range, the training environment is rich with reactive-type activities. We can then accelerate the learning of reactive abilities during this phase.Before you can be great in any specific sport, you need to first become a decent all-around athlete, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Before you can be great in any specific sport, you need to first become a decent all-around athlete. This starts in training by improving coordination and movement skill. An all-around skilled mover has the ability to learn sport-specific skills faster and has a wide foundation from which to build biomotor abilities like speed, power, and strength later on during adolescence.
With my athletes, I play the long game. We care very little about performance parameters during pre- and early adolescence. I realize for some coaches this is difficult in today’s results- and data-driven training industry. But to be a successful youth coach, you must develop a coaching eye.
I always encourage young coaches to learn to use their eyes before they worry about their stopwatch or weightroom numbers. How do they look? How do they move? Can they bend, reach, balance, hop, skip, and jump? After 20 years coaching, I can tell you a good mover is easy to get faster on the field and stronger in the weight room.
Become an expert at teaching movement skill. When these things are in place, speed will come along naturally. Remember, the kids are always growing. Mother Nature is making them stronger and faster every day. All we’re trying to do as coaches is exploit and elevate what she’s naturally doing.
Finally, let’s not forget the fun factor: young athletes are not mini-adults. They need less structure, less coaching, and lots of variation. Kids love trying new things, and when the novelty wears off, they want to try something else. Constantly and consistently exposing them to new activities and variations will keep it fun and keep them coming back each session. Then, one day out of nowhere, in the blink of an eye, they’ll walk in 5 inches taller, and they’ll be teenagers and ready for something new!
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF
Wormhoudt, René, Savelsbergh, Geert J.P., Teunissen, Jan Willem, and Davids, Keith. Athletic Skills Model: First published 2018 by Routledge.
Drabik, Jozef. Children and Sports Training. Island Pond, VT: Stadion, 1996.
Gabbard, Carl, Elizabeth LeBlanc, and Susan Lowy. Physical education for children: Building the foundation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1994.
Grasso, Brian. “Coordination and Movement Skill Development – The key to long-term athletic development.” Mytpi.com. Improve My Game. 12/3/12.