U14s versus U18s – training at the right level

Progressing through High School there are two notable skill and physical challenges a young sportsman or woman face; the transition from Under 13 to Under 14 level and again from Under 16 to Open. In these two stages there is a huge leap in the physical and skill-related demands placed on younger athletes as they face older, stronger / bigger or more experienced opponents. Added to which, children of the same age will have better developed skills, be stronger and faster than their peers. At these deviations in age group, changes in the size of the pitch and equipment (e.g. from barefoot to rugby boots) might also add variables developing athletes need to adjust to.

Aside from these visible changes, young athletes will also be looking up to older sportsmen and women within their school admiring their skills, talent or size. Such “external motivation” and admiration has the potential to have either a positive or negative effect on young sportsmen and women’s motivation and approach to training.

Trying to be patient and focusing on long-term development of skills, techniques and physicality can be very frustrating for junior-level athletes. This admiration and impatience can negatively affect how developing sportsmen and women train, the skills they try to develop and what they might do to emulate their heroes. In extreme circumstances, the pressure to ‘be competitive’ can enhance the appeal of substances such as steroids.

If approached positively, the “external motivation” of heroes or older sportsmen and women can push one to train harder and try new skills. However, young athletes often feel pressure to perform better than is age appropriate and without sufficient or proper training. To develop the same skill-set as 1st team or provincial players, junior athletes need to develop “good basics”. These basics don’t only include skills (e.g. types of shots, tactics or handling) but also physical basics through the correct training and conditioning done with realistic expectations and a lot of patience.

To keep their children’s motivation high, parents can develop a “Mastery Approach” to training and skill acquisition (Elliot, 1999). Mastery implies that skills are patiently learned, refined and continuously developed by approaching realistic goals and an age-appropriate training regime.

The differences between athletes in skills and size will invariably narrow as children get older but the pressure to be competitive within an age-group and the desire to emulate older athletes can have a negative influence on motivation. Guiding children to patiently ‘master’ the skills relevant to their sport and age-group, rather than those of older more experienced athletes, will help them to develop a good base-level of mental and physical skills to cope with pressure at senior/open level. Ask the following question;

“What skills, knowledge and training is needed to compete in THIS age group?”

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