Since becoming a coach with Athlete Focused, I have had the pleasure of working with many young athletes, from primary school students to elite level high school students looking to make a name for themselves in their sport. The range in physical maturation, technical ability and attitude towards training varies enormously from group to group. The variation in these factors means that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will never be able to account for every individual’s requirements. At Athlete Focused we design our youth programmes based on a ‘Long-Term Athletic Development’ (LTAD) model. The purpose of implementing this model is to ensure that each athlete is receiving the appropriate support for their stage of development. This approach treats physical development as a marathon, rather than a sprint, and provides a great opportunity to instil good habits and movement patterns from a young age. Each coach will have their own views, styles, and preferences for how they coach in line with this model. When I coach young athletes, there are a few things I am always thinking about when I design a plan.
I find it is most useful to think of a young person’s athletic development as a pyramid, where the top of the pyramid is the pinnacle of their athletic career. To reach the highest peak a pyramid must have a strong, wide base with no gaps. At the start of my time with an athlete they will have accrued a certain collection of movements that may have been explicitly taught (from sports coaches for example) or implicitly learned through interactions with their surrounding environment. These movements form the base of support from which the pyramid will grow.
Wide array of movements – Slow and steady progress – Maximum potential reached
Filling in the gaps – Building a strong base
If we don’t fill the gaps at this stage, athletes will be left with a reduced repertoire of fundamental motor skills that will be more difficult to learn at a later stage, potentially hindering their potential as an athlete.
Missing fundamental movements – Weak base of support – Limited potential
As the athlete progresses the style of training will also change becoming more structured and sport specific. The youngest athletes typically engage in the most varied forms of activity. At school they will be involved in a wide range of sports and activities, they will be climbing trees, jumping on and off furniture, wrestling, sprinting and generally capering as kids do. On the flipside, older athletes might have decided to focus on a single sport, reducing the variation in their physical activity. While these athletes may be beginning to specialise in one sport, we know that on average the most accomplished athletes are those who engage in multiple sports growing up. Therefore, as a coach of young athletes, we can enhance performance by targeting the types of movements that they would not ordinarily experience in their sport, ensuring that they are always receiving a stimulus that is physiologically and neurologically challenging. This keeps the pyramid building steadily, where early specialisation might result in a slightly lower ceiling of sporting potential.
Early specialisation – Potentially lower peak
Once we have established where our athletes require support, the next thought when designing a programme is how best to engage the athletes so that, not only do they find the sessions enjoyable, but they are left with a lasting positive impression of strength and conditioning. I have often had people tell me that they have been put off exercise of any form due to their experiences of PE in school; with sports coaches mindlessly running students into the ground, using exercise as punishment, with no real consideration on their long-term development. It is always my goal to ensure that athletes of all ages enjoy their sessions so I will take some time to establish what the dynamic of the group is, what aspects of training they enjoy most, and how this can be integrated into their programme. Depending on the groups this could be games, competitions, different types of exercise, or even something as simple as the playing the type of music they enjoy throughout the session. There is often a degree of trial and error to find the right formula, and the obvious answer may not always be the correct one. For example, one of the youngest teams I work with enjoy competing in strength challenges whereas my oldest group, a high performing rugby team are having the most fun when participating in playground games during a warmup. In my opinion, implementing these elements into a session seems to be a worthwhile method of maintaining enjoyment and engagement, even if this is at the expense of a potentially more “physiologically optimal” exercise.
With the programme planned, the next step is to question how the athletes are going to be better off by the time they finish their programme, in terms of their knowledge, competence and confidence in a gym or sporting environment. This ties in with the previous points and comes with proper education and culture building. Confidence in the gym can be developed by providing athletes with the right support at the right time so that they are able to complete tasks and learn movements while still feeling like they are being challenged. We collect data to record and highlight progress meaning improvements are made clear and visible, and we always try to develop a culture of support that sees mistakes as positive learning experiences rather than something to be embarrassed about. It is crucial that we can build a culture where all our athletes feel confident and comfortable in a gym so that athletes feel able to perform out with the comfort of our training bubble. These factors are by no means the only things to consider when building a youth development programme but for me they are essential in developing strong and empowered young people.