Off-season Training for Young Athletes
By: Bill Boland
There is no denying that the training methods used for top level athletes have trickled down to the junior levels. Teams and parents hoping to give their kids an advantage are investing in off-season and personal training programs. While they are intended to improve performance, some programs leave many questioning at what age these measures are appropriate, and “how much is too much?”. Hopefully, this blog can give some answers to those questions. I think I have a pretty good handle on this issue as a former athlete, fitness professional, and a father of two. First off, lets break our young athletes down into three age categories; under 12 years old, 12-14yrs old, 14-18 yrs old.
For kids under 12, exposure to different sports and a healthy lifestyle should be our primary goal. During these years kids should be developing multiple different motor skills. Running, jumping, throwing, skating, swimming etc. all help develop overall athleticism and confidence. Combine this with learning the rules of play, how to be part of a team, and the importance of keeping your equipment ready and being punctual all do a world of good for our kids. There will always be outliers (that one kid who skates circles around all of the others while handling the puck like a Jedi), but exposure and social development are key for these kids. The sports they enjoy, and even the ones they excel at can change dramatically as they develop. I played rep lacrosse from the ages of 4-12, before quitting and getting deep into Karate which I started when I was 9. I tried hockey but didn’t care for it. Same thing with baseball. Exposure to multiple sports is what allowed me to find my passion.
Do kids under 12 need off-season training? I believe the off-season of one sport should be spent exploring another. Every parent knows how hard it is to hold the attention of even the brightest kid. Rotating through different sports is a great way to keep kids interested and active. Even if your child is involved in a year-round sport like martial arts or wrestling, exposure to other activities through sports camps or house-leagues will benefit them physically and mentally.
Kids from 12-14 years can vary greatly in physical development. This is something that kids and parents are just going to have to deal with. Kids in this age bracket can benefit from a properly designed strength program. The folklore that weight training will “stunt their growth” has been completely debunked. That said, I don’t believe this is absolute best use of their time. I will admit that statement sounds odd coming from a guy who built his business around strength training, but let me explain. I believe that kids at this age have a huge potential to develop the skills and aptitude to be great athletes. They can lift weights if they want, but their bodies may not kick into gear for another few years. Instead they can develop the technical aspects of their sport. This can teach them the importance of practicing at home and studying their sport. Sure, some kids might be bigger. That won’t matter if they can’t hit the ball or pick the top corner of the net. I am a huge advocate of technical development, and I feel this is the perfect age group to start refining different skills. Off course if kids want to learn how to lift weights at this age, they should be allowed to do so. This also a great age to integrate team training in the off season. Even free options like organized training at a local track on weekends can be great development opportunities.
The ages of 14-18 years old can be highly competitive. It is this age bracket that is starting to compete for scholarships and professional sports opportunities. By this time, the kids with the most natural talent have already been identified. The ones that have to put in extra work will have to work even harder to keep their spot. Once a kid turns 14 years old, they should learn how to squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press. They should get on a basic strength training program to develop the total body strength required to excel on the field and reduce the risk of injury. A periodized program that continues to develop or at the very least maintain strength gains while preparing them for their competitive season should be introduced as well. All of this should be taught by a qualified professional, who has experience and training in coaching barbell exercises. Run of the mill personal trainers and so-called functional movement gurus may not have any idea how to properly coach these very important exercises. A focused strength program immediately post-season, followed by more specific strength/conditioning/skills program pre season is a pattern that has led many athletes to success. This can also establish what should be a life-long habit of going to the gym.
As parents, we all want the best for our children. As coaches and trainers, we all want the best for our athletes. Putting some thought into how to spend the off season is vital to how our young people perform on and off the field.