Training the Younger Generation of Athletes
Whether it's in the work force, politics, education, upper level athletics, or mid-major athletics, it seems as though everyone is looking to gain an edge . Now more than ever, the younger generation of athletes (and their parents) have their sights set on outperforming the competition before it even arises. While it's extremely important to let a young athlete's body mature to the proper level before he begins training, once he hits that mark, it’s time to hit the weight room. If not, he'll be left in the dust.
Once an athlete hits the seventh grade or 13-year old mark, generally speaking, I believe his body is mature enough to at least begin a basic training regimen of body weight movements (push-ups, sit-ups, body weight squats, chins, etc.) multiple times a week. If the young athlete has a coach who can teach these movements in an understandable fashion, it will not only lay a tremendous foundation structurally but will also lay the groundwork for a solid strength training regimen.
When dealing with young athletes, the first thing they want to do is put as much weight on the bar as possible so that their ego-driven minds will be satisfied by outdoing the guy next to them. This is absolutely the worst thing that can happen. It is essential to have a qualified strength coach monitoring and guiding these athletes when learning movements. It is also extremely important when starting out to have a small group setting. One coach shouldn’t be in charge of any more than four to six athletes at a given time. Putting thirty eighth graders in a weight room with two coaches is a recipe for disaster. Attention to detail is a key factor here. A coach must give his undivided attention to the athletes and ensure that the movement is executed properly. Is a 14-year-old kid ever going to master the bench, squat, deadlift, or clean like an elite level athlete? Absolutely not. But with proper coaching, he can at least learn the basics of these movements without injuring himself or anyone around him.
In the beginning, a coach must keep the programming simple for the younger guys. While percentages, bands, and chains are extremely beneficial to upper level athletes, they are almost useless when working with the younger athletes because their bodies haven’t come close to adapting to the movements at hand. So adding resistance and assistance is just pouring gas on the fire. A strength coach must put together a training program with simple movements that can easily be performed correctly by the athletes.
Joe DeFranco often refers to the term “training economy.” This means find the exercises that are most beneficial to the athlete and that can be performed fairly easily, giving the athlete the biggest bang for his buck. A coach shouldn’t worry too much about Olympic movements in the beginning with young athletes because they're a sport in themselves. A beginner would have little to no chance of performing these complex movements correctly. Instead, focus on movements such as box jumps or squat jumps. By simplifying the training, you are still teaching a kid to be powerful and explosive, but you're giving him a better chance to execute the movement properly, which, in turn, will produce optimal results for the athlete.
While younger athletes have an extremely fast recovery time, it is essential to not overdo it in the beginning. I believe a three-day a week program is plenty for these guys. One day should focus on the upper body (bench press focus), one day should focus on the lower body (squat focus), and one day should focus on power and explosiveness (triple extension focus). Not only will a kid see tremendous results with this split, but it will also prevent him from getting burned out. At this age, kids, for the most part, are extremely fragile and have trouble focusing on one particular thing.
I believe the single most important aspect of any strength coach is his ability to motivate athletes. Sure, technique, coaching, programming, and all that jazz are extremely important, but if a coach can't motivate his athletes, he isn't doing his job. It's so important for younger athletes to buy into what they’re doing. If you can get a kid in the weight room to perform exercises properly and have fun while he’s doing it, the sky is the limit. Too many coaches think they have to be hard asses 100 percent of the time. While in some cases that is important, you have to understand who you’re working with. A strength coach working with younger athletes must be relatable because not only are you helping them in the weight room, but you are also helping to mold them into young adults. Kids find out a lot about themselves in the weight room under high stress situations. If you can provide a positive environment for them, you will be a role model for them in more ways than you can imagine.
One of my first clients was an eighth grade kid who weighed 100 pounds soaking wet. He came to me not knowing the difference between a barbell and a dumbbell. He was a kid full of anxiety and depression, with thoughts of taking his own life on a daily basis. He showed up to my gym without an ounce of muscle or an ounce of confidence. We started from the ground up with push-ups because he couldn’t even bench press the bar. It took what seemed like forever for him to really get things going, but one important aspect of this kid was that he never missed a single workout. He’d go to his grave before he missed a training session. Four years later, not only is he the strongest kid in his grade and 100 pounds heavier, but he is the strongest-willed kid I know. Sure, he has flaws, but he has come full circle from where he was. Not only did I shape his body in the weight room, but I helped mold him into a fine young man. As a strength coach, there isn’t a more rewarding feeling in the world. Knowing that I changed a kid’s life in a room full of dusty iron and sweat really puts things in perspective.
It's very important for young athletes’ bodies to mature to the appropriate level before beginning any type of training program. Teaching technique is probably the most important fundamental aspect of training younger athletes, and a coach must keep it simple in order to keep their attention because their minds are all over the place. Outside of the Xs and Os of training, the biggest role of any strength coach should be to motivate because you never know what kind of impact you may have on a kid's life.