I never limit myself when it to comes to developing young athletes but certain restraints exist that I must not ignore to provide the training they need while also preparing them for long-term success.
On average I work with a young athlete once a week for 50 minutes so I must be judicious with the type of training I provide to them. Usually they are playing a sport at the time with a lot of running (endurance work) and sport specific skill practice so I don’t even go there, and in the sport specific skill department I never will because their coaches are better qualified to do so.
So with limited time and keeping the long-term view in mind what do I devote my attention to?
The answer is movement quality and efficiency a.k.a. speed, skill and agility. I want my athletes to posses’ tremendous raw athleticism that can be applied and utilized in any sport/athletic setting. I have interviewed several top college coaches and asked them “what are you looking for in high school athletes?” and inevitably they tell me they want kids that are fast and skilled, “we can always get them bigger and stronger!”  They understand that once that window of opportunity for skill acquisition is missed it’s pretty much closed off permanently. Size, strength and endurance are qualities that can be improved upon throughout most of adulthood. But reactive ability, speed, agility and raw athleticism must be developed from a young age in order to be fully optimized.
Need more convincing?
A recently released study by Stodden and Galitski * examined the longitudinal effect of a college strength/conditioning program incorporating speed, strength, and agility drills over a 4-year period. In a longitudinal study subjects are followed over time with continuous or repeated monitoring of certain factors in this case speed, strength, agility, endurance and body mass variables.
The aim of this study was to determine the changes in body type measures and athletic performance over a 4-year eligibility career of American football players. The positions were Offensive Linemen (OL) and Defensive Linemen (DL) and skill players—wide receivers and defensive backs (WR/DB).
Assessment included body type measures of body mass, height, and percent body fat. Strength assessment included bench press, squat, and power clean; muscle endurance involved the number of 225-lb bench press repetitions; power included the vertical jump (JV); and speed assessment used a 40-yd sprint.
In general, strength increased significantly over time for both linemen and skill positions, however, measures of maximum power and speed did not. Percent body fat decreased significantly in linemen but not in skill positions, primarily because first-year linemen tended to report over fat, whereas skill players reported in a very lean condition.
It’s also interesting to note that the most significant changes occurred between years one and two. These positive changes were largely in the areas of strength, endurance, and body composition. The OL/DL gained mass but also lost fat while the WR/DB also gained mass while remaining lean. This early boost is likely due to the fact that athletes are now exposed to high-level programs with the means to provide sophisticated physical training protocols within multimillion-dollar training facilities under the watch of expert strength and conditioning personnel. In addition to an emphasis on the physical aspects, many universities employ nutritionists and psychologists to develop individuals to their potential.
Below is the conclusion from the authors of the study based upon their findings:
Research suggests that with the exception of reducing fat weight, significant increases in speed are difficult to achieve. These data suggest that speed cannot be significantly improved in elite athletes over 4 years of training. In the present study, speed improvement in linemen was only 2.7% and in WR/DBs was 1.7%. The larger change in linemen was positively correlated with a reduction in fat.
While, maximal voluntary strength output and upper-body muscle endurance can be significantly increased over years of appropriate training, the variables constituting maximum power output and speed do not exhibit similar changes in 4 years of high-level training. It is noteworthy to mention that recruited players should already possess superior power and speed because these variables are particularly difficult to positively alter in 4 years of training at the college level. *
So despite having access to elite strength and conditioning programs in an environment with outstanding training facilities and far superior nutrition than consumed in high school, even with all of these variables in the athletes’ favor speed and explosiveness did not improve much if at all. And while the linemen did improve their speed slightly it was largely due to the loss of body fat.
Not only do we have anecdotal evidence (the coaches told me what they are looking for), which in my mind is just as important because coaches know better than anyone what it takes to be an elite athlete, we also have hard evidence from the scientists. Taken together the emphasis for developing young athletes should be on speed, agility and movement/sport skill.
There will always be exceptions to the rule such as an extremely fast wide receiver that is easily bumped off his routes because he lacks strength or a pitcher who loses 10 MPH off of his fastball after throwing 50 pitches because he lacks sufficient endurance. But for the most part movement efficiency and skill are commodities that are in high demand and will never go out of style. Do you recall the last time a broadcaster remarked that wow that guy/girl was way to fast and missed the play… Never happens, but athletes that missed making a play by a step because they just weren’t fast or quick enough? You hear and see that all the time!
And I am not talking about having kids do rigid speed and agility drills with a heavy emphasis on technique. In my mind that type of training will actually make them rigid and stifle their instinctive athleticism. We need to put them in positions and expose them to environments where they are forced to react and do what comes natural. Children have an innate sense of what is right and if forced to react quickly will position their bodies and apply forces that allow them to be fast and agile.
It is very important to understand that when coaching children there are certain stages in their development that must adhere to the “laws of nature” to optimally develop them as young athletes specifically and competent life long movers generally. As a crude example before you can run or leap you must first learn to crawl as it contains all of the fundamental movement patterns that serve as the foundation for these more advanced movements.
As a general rule very young children (in most cases under age 9) should engage in free play to develop fundamental movements skills (running, jumping, throwing, climbing…). Once those skills have been added to their toolbox they can begin to refine those fundamental movement skills. Around the age of 9-14 are the so-called “skill hungry” years. At this stage of development children begin to refine the raw athletic skills of running, throwing and jumping by doing them faster, farther and higher while also demonstrating control (change of direction, accuracy, and touch) over these skills when required. In the late teen years, around 15+ years of age, the athletic skills refined in the previous stage are now best-applied and used in sport specific settings. For example instead of running as fast as you can and putting the brakes on to change direction you add in the element of reacting to an opponent while attempting to catch a thrown ball. Or as a thrower rather than throwing at predetermined target you know practice fielding a ball while moving to your right, planting and making an accurate throw across your body.
If any of these stages are skipped athletes will lack the foundation to apply the more advanced sport specific skills. It’s like trying to shoot a canon from a canoe! You may be strong and posses plenty of raw power but without the platform to support it that strength and power will land flat.
Youth Athletic Development/Nutrition Specialist