The purpose of this article is to explain the equipment and setup needs for an authentic youth athletic development program. In my training facility, training young athletes is not simply just an extra revenue stream. Athletic development for the youth athlete is what we do! We believe in long-term athletic development; therefore, our programs start with very young children learning with simple movement ABCs and physical literacy all the way through the high school, college, and adult athletic realms. The age group I spend most of my time with is between the ages of 9 and 13, which is late preadolescence to early adolescence.
An athletic development program for preadolescents and early adolescent athletes is not the same as a program for teenagers and adult athletes. To put it into the simplest terms, when you think about the typical strength and conditioning program exercises, exercises like deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts typically come to mind. For a youth athletic development plan, on the other hand, you should think in terms of exercises like jumps, hops, skips, and rolls.A youth conditioning program should look more like a gym class from the 1950s than a 2018 strength and conditioning facility, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Whereas the goal of the adult program is to develop qualities like speed and strength, the youth program aims to develop coordinative abilities like spatial awareness, balance, and movement adequacy. Although an introduction to strength training is an important component in any youth program, equipment like barbells, kettlebells, and trap bars are not must-haves when it comes to working with youth. A youth conditioning program should look more like a gym class from the 1950s than a 2018 strength and conditioning facility.
The following list contains some of the equipment pieces needed to develop all-around athleticism in young athletes age 6-13, and ideas on using them.
Fold-out or roll-out gymnastic mats are No. 1 on my list of equipment needs for youth athletic development. First and foremost, as a safety issue, they provide a soft surface in case someone falls. When working with kids, especially younger kids, falls happen all the time.
Video 1. Getting mats in the gym is a priority—both in terms of safety and for teaching needs. Good mats add value for all ages and activities, not just kids and gymnastics.
We have quite a few children who are just starting to play contact sports like football, hockey, wrestling, and lacrosse, so we introduce them to games like kings and pawns that have a rough-and-tumble component. Although looked down upon by some cautious parents and school administrators, rough-and-tumble play, especially for boys, is both completely natural and beneficial to developing long-term emotional control.
Second, mats provide a fantastic surface for doing what we call “floor work.” I consider floor work to be any movement or exercise done on the hands and feet. Kids can do these movements in place or as a form of locomotion.Crawling will always have a place in my youth athletic development program because it trains so many qualities at once: namely coordination, systemic strength, and core stability. Click To Tweet
The best-known floor work exercise that probably comes to mind is the bear crawl. Although crawling has become a bit over-sensationalized by the fitness industry and bastardized as a form of conditioning by crappy coaches over the past few years, it will always have a place in my youth athletic development programs because it trains so many qualities at once: namely coordination, systemic strength, and core stability.
The crash pad is easily one of the most popular pieces of equipment with our young athletes. My facility is small, and the crash pad against the wall allows the athletes to sprint to full speed and not have to worry too much about decelerating too quickly or tripping into a brick wall. The kids often run hard into the pad, have a laugh, and continue on.
The crash pad is also a wonderful piece to use for landing from a dive, vault, roll, or flip. These movements provide the young athlete with a great opportunity to develop a better sense of where they are in space. We often combine sprinting, jumping, and diving with catching a ball, which is a movement seen in many sports. We believe these movements are trainable.
In the book “The Athletic Skills Model,” the authors mention a form of balance called “air balance”: “Maintained balance while in the air is important for running and sports involving jumping, hitting, smashing diving, rotating, falling, swaying or moving in the air while throwing, hitting, catching or kicking.” The book goes on to say, “These skills are also necessary for maintaining balance while rotating in the air in, for example, volleyball, baseball, basketball, handball, American football, rugby, and football.”
Mini trampolines offer the young athlete the ability to increase air time. With increased air time, the athlete has the unique opportunity to practice various combinations of jumps and turns/spins along with creating efficient landing solutions. The first time I saw the use of mini-trampoline work was in the book “Refining Human Movement,” written by Paul Uram in 1968. The book had a progressive series of jumps consisting of 90- to 180- to 360-degree turns, as well as pike and tuck jumps.
It only took a few sessions of playing with the mini trampoline to see the wealth of movement opportunities it could offer the developing athlete. For jumping purposes, we combine continuous bounces, which are more vertical in nature, into a jump and landing off of the mini tramp, which is horizontal in nature. While the athlete is airborne, we look to slowly add progressively bigger turns.
Video 2. We love using trampolines with kids, as it encourages them to take flight and not fear falling. Athleticism in the air sometimes requires assistance and many key sporting actions occur off of the ground.
One of our favorite movement combinations consists of three consecutive vertical jumps, making sure we attain maximum height with good body control, into a jump off with a 180-degree turn and landing. Immediately upon landing, the athlete executes a backward shoulder roll. This combination of movements is called linking, where we combine different movements into one complex movement pattern to improve all-around coordination.
Anyone who ever played American football knows these pieces of equipment are a staple at football practice. These versatile little buggers are often used for teaching blocking or tackling techniques. When I had the chance to purchase a set of these pads for cheap, I jumped at the opportunity. Just one look at them gave me hundreds of movement ideas for young athletes.
Video 3. You can use Block Pads to make the environment more dynamic and exciting while still providing purpose beyond the teaching and training. Block Pads are the right combination of protection and firmness for nearly all exercises.
We often put them flat on the floor and use them as a warm-up tool to develop different fundamental movement skills like shuffling, backpedaling, and high stepping. With our older athletes, they work great as barriers for plyometrics-type activities. With our young children, we often stack them on top of each other and combine them with mini trampolines to create jumping and vaulting patterns.
Adjustable hurdles can also be a staple of youth training programs. With young athletes, flexibility training is not a huge concern. Kids, by their very nature, cannot sit still for very long, so holding long static stretches with any intent is not happening. Instead, we focus on moving through large ranges of motion.
Video 4. Stepping, ducking, crawling, and jumping using the hurdles provides a fun and challenging task that hits those large ranges of motion.
Tennis and Foam Balls
No youth training program would be complete without some type of safe ball catching and throwing. Catching and throwing has crossover into many, many sports, like baseball, softball, and football, so it is important to include various aspects of those movements in any coordination development program. And let’s not forget two of the most epic catching/throwing games: pickleball and dodgeball. These two classic games not only train throwing and catching skills, but also other physical skills like reaction and agility.
Video 5. Kids should throw, catch, and dodge soft and safe foam balls such as the Gator Skins from Gopher. Their performance site also sells great training equipment for sports development. No youth training program is complete without some type of safe ball catching and throwing, as it has crossover into many, many sports, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
The Patch is an adjustable indoor/outdoor obstacle course. Its lightweight but seemingly indestructible design with large beams and wide bases allows for multiple setups to practice many different fundamental movement skills, like crawling, leaping, jumping, and vaulting. When you break it all down, using the Patch allows for three basic activities: go over something, go under something, and go around something. This is a very simple but powerful concept for young athletes to understand.
Video 6. One of the most creative ways to get athletes balancing athletically is to use the Patch. Build endless patterns and challenges, all while making it safe for young athletes to play on.
Most of the time, I simply set up a series of obstacles and then let the kids figure out how to navigate through the course. The variety of different combinations is endless, and when combined with other equipment, it exposes the young athlete to a variety of movement challenges.
Usually used in gymnastics academies, these Velcroed foam blocks are a great addition to any youth athletic development program. Similar to the Patch, the blocks provide endless variety. They can be broken down into separate pieces to run around and jump over. Stacked together, they provide varying heights to teach climbing and vaulting skills. Laying on their side, the children can run up the ramp or roll down the hill, both of which are great fun.
Video 7. Barriers and vaults are great for kids and are versatile for different activities. Older athletes can use them as well, provided you have the right plan.
I was always a huge fan of “American Ninja Warrior,” especially the beginning of the race where the athletes have to leap back and forth from diagonal boxes without falling into the water. I thought it was such a great idea that I made a smaller version for the young athletes I work with. Although the Ninja Warrior setup is still a fan favorite of the kids, we’ve played around with the slant boards quite a bit and have come up with many other uses.
Video 8. Lateral agility and creative problem-solving activities radically improve when you add slant boards into the equation. They are perfect for all sports and age groups—but make sure you know how to safely set them up.
From an injury prevention standpoint, I really like jumping on and off these boards. The ankle complex gets challenged in different ways than from flat ground and jumping can be done in multiple planes and directions. To work on eye-hand coordination like catching, we often throw tennis balls off the boards.
Football and strength coaches may be familiar with this oversized medicine ball, which looks like a round Mexican punching bag, and is used for specialized practice and contact drills. A giant boulder may look intimidating, but the shape and padding will not cause injury if used properly. Years ago, the military used large, oversized medicine balls for physical preparation, but youth athletes can benefit because it creates a simple constraint for games and other activities.
Video 9. You can use rolling pin style options or just an oversized medicine ball for fun and games. Here, the wrecking ball is a nice way to get kids to race and jump as an alternative to competing against each other.
For older athletes, change of direction drills can be more chaotic without increasing risk beyond what is necessary for sports preparation. Buying brand-new balls isn’t expensive, and it can be tricky to take in old equipment from outside sources due to bacterial risk from sweat and high use. Choose a ball that you can easily clean and maintain. While they are heavy, they do roll, so you can store them easily. Carl Valle started using them again after seeing videos on Twitter, and now believes they should be a staple from age 8 to pro levels.
Rounding off this list is a fan favorite of old-school physical education occupational therapy: the scooter board. Scooter boards are a fantastic tool to develop gross motor skills and functional strength in children. With wheels that roll and swivel smoothly, scooter boards offer plenty of freedom of movement. Children can move themselves along on the knees, supine, and prone, strengthening both the arms and legs.
Video 10. Scooters are a timeless, cost-effective option that can be incorporated in numerous activities.
One my favorite positions is the prone crawl. Many children these days present with poor posture, weak upper bodies, and poor visual tracking skills. In the prone position crawl, the child must alternately pull with the arms, which provides plenty of tactile feedback and arm strengthening, as well as eye tracking from side to side. The child must also keep their head up and extend at the spine. This is a fantastic all-around movement for young children.
Do Your Homework Before You Buy
This is by no means exhaustive as to the equipment needed for a youth athletic development program. It is simply a list of equipment that I have found useful working with children from the ages of 4-12 over the past 10 years. Our main goal when working with children is to improve coordination and fundamental movement skills. Thus, we lay a foundation to develop other athletic skills on top of later on.There are too many facilities trying to train children like miniature adults, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
There are too many facilities trying to train children like miniature adults. Strength training for children is great, but let’s not put the cart before the horse. We need to first make sure children enjoy movement, and then become good, coordinated, all-around movers. After that, we can worry about organized strength and conditioning programs.