Is speed training appropriate for adolescents? Part II
Brian Grasso reviews the impact of flexibility, strength and speed training for young athletes and their coaches
In part one of my article (see Issue 11 of the Successful Coaching Newsletter (April 2004)) 'Is speed training appropriate for adolescents', I discussed the concern of inappropriate power, strength and hypertrophy training with pubescent athletes. One of the main concerns I have with respect to trainers working with our younger athletes is their lack of knowledge in reference to the science of human development and, moreover, how that translates into incorrect programming.
Understanding the simple fact that 'hard work' does not necessarily equate to 'smart training' is of the utmost importance. Many sport training facilities and individual trainers pride themselves on providing excessively hard training sessions that leave the young athlete feeling exhausted at the end. Now, there is nothing wrong with working hard and I certainly have no objections to young athletes training to the point of fatigue. The problem however, is that more often than not, the 'hard work' is just that... hard work. Training sessions need to be developed with the long term needs of the athlete squarely in focus. Six-week training packages at three sessions per week (which is very typical for sport training facilities) address nothing more than short-term fitness needs and NOT long-term athletic needs. Remember, we want all of our young athletes to have long and successful athletic careers, with the eventual goal of becoming a functionally fit and healthy adult. There is no short-term solution for that.
Specifically speaking, in part one of this article I discussed growth spurts and the interruptive nature they have on both motor control (which directly effects sport specific ability) as well as the muscular system as a whole. To recap, as the distal and proximal ends of a bone grow apart (during growth) the muscles acting on that bone are placed under extreme stress. Because bone grows faster than muscle, as the bone lengthens, the muscles are placed under significant tone. A toned muscle cannot be optimally strong or powerful considering that both strength and power require pliability at the muscular level to either exhibit or be improved optimally.
That would automatically render strength training, power training and speed training as endeavours destined to meet with less than optimal results. Moreover, and less than optimal results not withstanding, there is also a real concern for injury at this point. Strength training, for example, increases the tone of a muscle. In growing athletes, the muscular system is already under significant tone. The dynamic needs of power and speed training also become problematic with growing athletes. A young athlete with a toned body and lacking coordination should not be performing endless repetitions of jumping or sprinting exercises.
Herein lies the difference between 'hard work' and 'smart work'. Hard work occurs when trainers, typically not familiar with growth and development, take young athletes through fitness-based conditioning sessions aimed at improving the fitness of the athlete in a short period of time. These sessions often include machine-based strength training, plyometric drills, high speed treadmill sprint drills and basic 'abdominal' or 'core' work. Smart work involves developmental-based conditioning sessions aimed at improving the overall athleticism and developmental conditioning of the athlete over a prolonged period of time. These sessions will often include bodyweight or technical elements of strength training, technical aspects of jump training, technical components and developmental drills associated with speed training as well as integrative strength work (designed to improve the synergistic and harmonious nature of the body working as a unit).
No one would expect a young student to pass grade four in six weeks. In fact, to become good in anything typically requires a concerted effort over several years. Why then, do we insist on training young athletes with hard work over a short period of time?
Enough about what we should not be doing, let us move on to what young pubescent athletes should be doing.
Young athletes, in my experience, do not stretch enough. Static stretching has come under a lot of fire recently having been labelled as 'unnecessary'. Unfortunately, it seems that message has filtered its way down to our youngsters. While I would not argue with the fact that static styles of flexibility are not important (perhaps even limiting) to a pre-game routine, static flexibility as a whole cannot be ruled out as important, especially in this age category. Common sense should prevail, if the body is weak then strengthen it and if it is tight then stretch it. Pubescent athletes, as we have already mentioned, are typically under significant tone due to growth. Elongating these restricted muscles becomes important for both performance enhancement as well as injury prevention. A 10 to 20-minute routine of static flexibility should be a part of every young athlete's daily habit.
Technical Aspects of Strength Training
This particular topic has a degree of opinion attached to it. Personally, I feel as though all athletes benefit from power-based lifting exercises (pushes, pulls, cleans etc.). Many professionals disregard power lifts as necessary. I, obviously, disagree. Irrespective of your opinion, the fact remains that all strength training exercises (at least useful strength training exercises), have a degree of technique attached to them. Squats, for example, can be a very beneficial exercise or a very detrimental exercise depending entirely on your technical ability to perform them (technical ability in this case is considered in conjunction with the health and work ability of your anatomy). Having said that, how many trainers or sport training facilities take the time to critically teach the intricate techniques associated with performing strength and power exercises? That can be likened to the fourth-grade teacher 'glancing over' the specifics of maths for a couple of days and then expecting the students to understand and perform the intricate aspects of algebra later in their academic careers. Lifts must be taught to be performed optimally and without the risk of injury. Pubescent athletes are in a perfect time frame to be taught lifts. They are on tone due to growth so should not be handling too much load anyway and are typically a little less than optimally coordinated, therefore slowly re-learning basic movements will ease their transition back into solid coordination.
Technical Aspects of Speed Training The exact same argument resides in this aspect of training as it does in the above points. To be optimally fast and powerful, a young athlete must have good technical ability. Classically poor running technique (including a 'bobbing' head, eyes down, bent forward from the waist, 'winging' elbows) accounts for why many young athletes do not transition well from JV to Varsity athletics or high school to College athletics. Having said that, how many trainers and sport training facilities impart the technical elements of speed on to their young athletes? Unfortunately, in reference to my opening paragraph, we live in an age of six-week training packages that call for reckless amounts of high-speed treadmill work in order to 'improve' speed. When working with young athletes, make them understand the importance of good technique. Slow movements down and work on things at a decreased pace, eventually adding speed to movements until the athlete can exhibit high quality form at an increased pace.
Building a superior and injury-free athlete should be likened to developing as a good student. It takes a prolonged amount of time, requires the leaning and exhibiting of good habits and is built on a foundation in which skills and abilities are taught and perfected over time.
Six-week training packages with sub-par instruction are not the answer.
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About the Author
Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development.
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