Conditioning in young sports people

There are many misconceptions about training young sports people. While certain of these may have some truth to them, there are general guidelines to training young sports people. In this article we will be focusing on athletes in late childhood/early puberty phase. In this age group children will be experiencing normal growth development as this is the phase just before the “growth spurt”/puberty phase. With this in mind there are then physiological characteristics that will have implications for training.

First and foremost, it is vital for children at this age to be playing as many sports as possible and not to specialise into one sport. Their training should focus more on “play” and “fun” rather than technical training. It is in this phase where they develop their all-round functional movement and gross motor patterns therefore making it vital for them to perform as many all-round movements and activities as possible.

Children at this age have adequate endurance capacity to meet the demands of most sporting activities and therefore have the capacity to keep going with long slow distances and endurance activities. This is because their heart size is increasing in relation to the rest of their bodies. However be aware that the energy system responsible for high intensity intermittent endurance is not yet fully developed, therefore when planning these high intensity bouts of training do so in short durations. These must be practised often and built up gradually. Along with this -and although it may sound obvious- a child’s metabolism is less economical than those older than them. This therefore means that they utilise more oxygen during exercise which means they will fatigue earlier. Therefore do not expect younger children to keep up with older children and always keep training sessions relative to each age group.

With regards to muscle development, larger muscle groups are more developed than smaller muscle groups at this age. You will find that the child will be skilful in movements requiring the use of the large muscle groups and not intricate movements involving the small muscle groups. Therefore it is important to emphasise the development of general motor skills involving these large muscle groups. Then you can gradually begin to introduce more precise, co-ordinated movements which use the smaller muscle groups.

Strength is developed by improvements in the neural pathways rather than neuromuscular adaptation of the muscle fibres. This means that children do not improve strength the way adults do by loading the muscles and joints with external resistance, rather you will see improvements in strength by performing co-ordination activities.

Co-ordination activities are also very important in developing balance and other motor activities along with agility and flexibility and these will become more refined towards the end of this phase where the balance mechanism in the inner ear gradually matures. Therefore it is important to emphasise these co-ordination exercises during all activities in this phase.

Be wary of training children in the heat. In this phase children:

(a) have a shorter tolerance for exercise in extreme temperatures, and

(b) subjectively feel like they are able to be active in the heat before physiological adaptation has occurred.

Therefore they may not show signs and symptoms of overheating as quickly as we would like and therefore are at higher risk. It is therefore wise to postpone or restrict exercise in the heat/humidity. When training in the heat, longer warm-ups may be required to allow for acclimatisation and you must ensure that plenty of fluids are ingested when you are training in hotter conditions.

Aside from the physiology and the implications for training, one must also consider the psychological and mental implications for training. Children in this phase have attention spans which are gradually increasing but they battle to listen or stay still for long periods, so be sure to keep your training sessions free of long breaks or long team talks. Keep the sessions fun and exciting and not too complicated with difficult terminology. Children will respond to instructions which are easily understood and will perform better if they are having fun. Repetition is also vital as they will learn most through repeated activity/movement, as long as this movement is performed correctly.

By using these guidelines for training young sports children you will hopefully be able to gain the most out of their training as well as not put them at risk for any injuries. As has been mentioned earlier, children should be allowed to explore as many different movements and sports as possible as this will benefit them greatly in the years to come. As children continue to grow and move out of this phase and more into their “growth spurt”/early puberty phase the characteristics of the physiology and the implications for training will change drastically.

Look out for our article on Conditioning during adolescence/puberty phase.

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