How young is ‘too young’ to start training?: Part 3
Welcome to the third and final instalment in our series on the contentious topic, ‘how young is ‘too young’ to start training’. In parts 1 and 2, we dispelled the myth that youth athletes under the age of 18 shouldn’t partake in strength and conditioning, and considered some of the key components that must be included in a youth strength and conditioning programme in order for it to be appropriate and effective. In part 3 we discuss why individualisation is so important in youth strength and conditioning and provide some practical examples of this. If you missed either part 1 or part 2 then click here to read them.
One-Size-Fits-All Gym Class
How many times have you gone into a gym and seen a class that is run with a one-size-fits-all approach?
Whilst some classes do try to differentiate within the group to cater for different ages and abilities, for the vast majority this isn’t the case…nor is it feasible in a large group with just one coach.
This is why it is crucial that youth strength and conditioning is conducted with smaller athlete to coach ratios in order to optimise youth development by being able to:
- Differentiate between athletes
- Ensure the emphasis is on correct technique (bigger groups result in less coach contact time per athlete meaning poor technique may slip through the net)
Issues with Chronological Age
Everyone remembers the guy at school who was a foot taller than everybody else his age and had a beard two years before anyone else? Safe to say, children all mature at different rates.
Due to the processes of growth (change in body composition or body size) and maturation (the variable timing and tempo of progressive change in the body from childhood to adulthood), it is not particularly accurate to define a stage of maturation or development by a child’s chronological age (their age in years and months) [1, 2]. Indeed, paediatric data shows that physical performance in youth athletes progresses in a nonlinear fashion due to the influence of growth and maturation .
Importance of Training Age
This is not to mention the differences in training age (number of years engaged in formalised strength and conditioning) that can occur between two youth athletes of the same age . What might be the appropriate training programme for Athlete A (14 year old male, training age of 4 years) will most likely be unsuitable for Athlete B (14 year old male, training age of 0 years). Indeed, irrespective of chronological age or biological age (discussed below), young athletes (in fact, all athletes!) must be trained according to their training age .
Biological Markers of Development
Stages of physical development can be better assessed by biological age (measured in terms of skeletal age, maturity of physique, or sexual maturation). In particular, age can be predicted by the practitioner from peak height velocity (PHV) (defined as the age at maximum rate of growth during the pubertal growth spurt). This usually occurs around age 12 in females and age 14 in males . During the period of peak height velocity, a youth athlete may be at an increased injury risk and so the strength and conditioning coach may need to modify the training programme accordingly .
Let’s go back to our two athletes…if both Athlete A (14 year old male, training age of 4 years, already achieved PHV) and Athlete B (14 year old male, training age of 0 years, not yet achieved PHV) were to partake in the same strength and conditioning session, differentiation (i.e. athlete-to-athlete individualisation) needs to occur to their training programmes. On the face of it they both seem very similar (same gender [male], same chronological age ), there are in fact key physical and circumstantial differences that exist between the athletes (differences in training age, one has achieved PHV, one has not). This would therefore indicate that different athlete-centred training programmes need to be followed by these two athletes in order to achieve optimal athletic development.
Cognitive Stages of Learning
Within the field of sport psychology, three distinct phases of skill acquisition have been identified according to the now classic Fitts and Posner model :
- Cognitive Stage
- Associative Stage
- Autonomous Stage
Of particular importance to us is the cognitive stage of learning. This is because of the fact that during childhood and throughout adolescence, this age of athlete (or child in general) is primarily in the cognitive stage. During this phase, the athlete relies heavily on the coach for simple cues to ensure a high success rate in this phase as they are not always aware of what they did wrong, nor how to correct it. To reinforce successful attempts, external feedback must be given by the coach.
The coach plays a crucial role in this stage of development reinforcing the point made in part 1 of this series that youth strength and conditioning is safe only in the presence of qualified personnel. As mentioned earlier in this article, having smaller coach to athlete ratios than in your typical gym class enables the coach to play a more proactive role in teaching the key movement competencies which were covered in part 2.
To conclude part 3, due to the differences in chronological age, biological age, training age and peak height velocity, it is vital that youth strength and conditioning programmes are individualised, through the process of differentiation, within a group setting. Additionally, it is crucial that the coach is always on-hand to provide instant feedback during this process as, with athletes of this age being in the cognitive stage of learning, constant coach feedback plays a crucial role in the successful acquisition of the new skill.
When we look back at all 3 parts of this blog series, what have we learnt?
- Youth strength and conditioning is perfectly safe as long as it is conducted in a safe training environment under the watchful eye of a qualified coach.
- Contrary to what some may think, youth strength and conditioning is not centred on lifting heavy weights but is focused on improving fundamental movement skills and key movement qualities.
- In order for athletic development to be optimal an athlete-centred process, achieved through differentiation, must occur even within a group setting due to the varying rates at which youth athletes physically develop.
References G. P. Beunen and R. M. Malina, ‘Growth and biologic maturation: relevance to athletic performance’, in H. Hebestreit and O. Bar-Or (eds.), The Child and Adolescent Athlete (Oxford, 2008), pp. 3-17.  R. Lloyd & A. Faigenbaum, ‘Age- and Sex-Related Differences and Their Implications for Resistance Exercise’, in G. Haff & T. Triplett (eds.) Essentials of Strength and Conditioning (Leeds, 4th ed., 2016), pp. 135-54.  R. M. Malina, C. Bouchard and O. Bar-Or, Growth, Maturation and Physical Activity (Champaign, 2004).  R. Lloyd and J. Oliver, ‘Developing Younger Athletes’, in D. Joyce & D. Lewindon (eds.) High-Performance Training for Sports (Human Kinetics, 2014), pp. 15-28.  L. Micheli, ‘The Child Athlete’, in R. Cantu & L. Micheli (eds.) ACSM’s Guidelines for the Team Physician (Philadelphia, 1991), pp. 228-41.  P. Fitts & M. Posner, Human Performance (California, 1967).