These days there is an endless supply of online video, not to mention TV footage and magazine articles, showing what professional athletes do in their workouts. Many times these are highlight reels of the coolest looking or most diffucult exercises they do.
And as a parent of a young athlete, if you’ve ever seen something like this surely you wondered whether this is the type of training your child needs to achieve excellence in their sport. To understand what types of exercises are best for your young athlete, you must have a firm understanding of what their greatest training needs are at their particular age level.
Up to about age 14 or so, general coordination enhancement is the greatest proiority. This includes balance, hand-eye, foot-eye and rhythm skill building. As the years go by, these skills should include increasingly complex coordination challenges that further progress their devlopment.
Athletes at the pro level will still work on coordination but at this level it will be highly specialized to their sport and position. As an example, an NFL field goal kicker is best served working specifically on kicking a football through goal posts with just their dominant leg from distances that match their in-game needs. An aspiring 10-year old NFL kicker would be much better served improving their kicking skills with a wide range of objects, with both legs, and with a variety of targets to hit.
Having a 10-year old go out and just kick hundreds of field goals instead of prioritizing general skill development creates two huge long-term problems. The first is it creates an imbalance of muscle strength and coordination, which we now know is one of the greatest predictors of a future injury. The second is this approach leads to much higher rates of burnout and a total loss of interest in their sport.
This same scenario could be adapted to any other sport or position with similar implications.
The other primary goal of athletic development up to age 18 is to maximize total-body strength. Stability around often-injured joints like the shoulders and knees should take a very high priority in these years, along with mastering the most efficient way to execute basic weightlifting drills while slowly progressing the resistance. When watching training footage of a pro athlete, keep in mind that he or she has spent many years building the great foundation they needed to train this way before ever doing what you see them do. For younger kids, skill mastery and stabilization matter much more than executing a highly intense drill that looks great but does little to achieve the results they need at this time.
Plyometrics are a great example of this. Watching an elite athlete do some sort of unbelievable jump training exercise can help a player at that stage gain that extra 1% of power development they need to separate themselves from the competition. To a 13 year old who may not have the strength or movement skill foundation needed to do the same drill safely, it can lead to either an immediate or long-term overuse injury with no improvement gains whatsoever. And even if they did have the ability to complete the drill, the level of stress they put on their undeveloped frame still does not justify its use in the big picture.
So what is the lesson we can all learn from seeing what the pros do in their training? I’d say that for any young athlete who aspires to be like them to remember that it is the countless hours of foundational-development these players did in their younger years that allow them to do what you see them do today. If that player was standing next to you I’m sure they’d tell you that you can’t get to where they are overnight, but if you keep pushing a little more every day then you can achieve greatness over time.
But be patient, because taking the rarely travelled slow road always gets you much farther in the end.