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The importance of developing fundamental movement skills in youth athletes

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Youth training is a topic of interest and discussion among coaches as there is a lot of scrutiny around whether youth athletes should be participating in strength and conditioning training. When to start and how much training is appropriate are often two of the main topics discussed. However, what we need to identify is not only the age of the athletes but also how movements are being performed. Are these young athletes provided with adequate coaching to ensure they are performing movements correctly and safely in a controlled and appropriate training environment? The aim of this essay is to discuss the importance of getting the basics done right first and the importance of developing fundamental movements in youth athletes first.We will be looking at athletes ages 11 to 18 years, at various stages of development and maturity as they progress through adolescence. How does the training vary depending on the different stages of Peak Height Velocity (PHV) and how does the training differ at different stages of training and biological ages?

Importance of strength training at youth and academy level, especially for sports such as football, rugby, basketball etc. Due to the nature of such sports involving various speeds, change of direction, jumping and landing as well as contact and collisions in the case of rugby, the injury rates are higher than those of other sports such as tennis, badminton, weight lifting Hamill (1994).

This highlights the importance of fundamental strength training from a young age, to aid with injury prevention. The results of the study show weight lifting as being on the lower end of the chart, indicating minimal injury risk when performed in a controlled and supervised environment.

Getting the basics right is crucial for youth athletes engaging in weight lifting as a sport or as part of their strength and conditioning training for their main sport (ex: football, rugby, cricket, etc). Working with academy players is challenging as they would be keen to lift weights and get stronger, also potentially having a competitive element with their teammates, more noticeable in boys as they would want to show how strong they are getting by lifting heavier weights. The main focus however, is the educational side of the training, ensuring that young athletes are getting the fundamental movements right before attempting to load up. A simple way to balance this is to use resistance machines in conjunction with free weights, to allow players to increase load on more controlled exercises such as the leg press or the chest press machine, where the lower back is supported, thus allowing them to increase the load and building strength in a more controlled manner. The focus then shifts on getting the limbs moving in the right planes of movement when preforming free weight based exercises such as a squat or a bench press.

Having a progressive and structured plan for your athletes helps give them direction as to where they are with regard to their weight lifting training age, as this may vary significantly to their biological age, depending on their experience with strength training at their current or previous club. Players transferring from lower level league clubs tend to have a lower strength training age, as they might not have had access to a gym at their club or a strength and conditioning coach to guide them. However, this is not always the case, so each player would need to undergo a movement screening analysis prior to the start of their program. This helps the coach identify the level they are at and can design the plan for them accordingly based on their current level, so they can build the foundations and progress from there.

Working with various academy level clubs has given me the knowledge and experience to design progressive programs for youth athletes to follow. We set the current level, then discuss the program required for them to progress to the next levels gradually and over a realistic time scale. For instance, if a player has never doing any strength training, it would be sensible to first start with body weight movement patterns, then gradually progress to resistance machines and free weights once they can move properly. The progressions will vary upon the players responsiveness to the program as well as their buy-in. During the various stages of PHV, athletes may have various responsiveness to training, this can be dependant on their acceleration growth stage. Growth acceleration in post PHV stage has far larger effects on strength, power and running speed than in the earlier stages of PHV (mainly moderate and large effects are observed).

It is also common knowledge that one of the counter-arguments for strength training in adolescents is the potential of epiphyseal plate injuries due to improper mechanical loading and excessive training volume in adolescents. Poorly implemented strength training is a risk factor to bone / epiphyseal stress related injuries. Some of the include epiphysitis (inflammation of the growth plate, also known as little leaguers elbow), Severe’s disease (calcaneal epiphysitis - inflammation of the growth plate in the heel), Osgood Shlatter’s Disease (tibial tuberosity epiphysitis, where the bone at the site of the tibial tuberosity growth plate is inflamed) and Sending Larson Johansson Syndrome (a knee condition that most commonly affects teens during periods of rapid growth. Typically aggravated by excessive stress on the tibial tuberosity). Caine et al., (2011); Johnson (2008). Injuries to growth plates can affect bone repair, which may lead to the premature closure of the epiphysis. These risks can lead to complications, such as limb length discrepancy, angular deformity of the bone and increased risk of osteoarthritis later in life.

This highlights the importance of getting the fundamental movements right and following a structured program, so as to minimise the risk of the above mentioned injuries. Overtraining can also be a risk factor, so it is important that training load, volume, frequency and intensity are monitored closely with youth athletes to ensure they are not overtraining and getting adequate recovery between sessions.

It is the coaches responsibility when working with youth athletes to monitor their movements closely and ensure that they perform exercises with correct technique. It will be likely that athletes would need to regress in order to progress - if the coach identifies that the player is performing movements correctly when progressed to more advances movements, then they would need to work with the athlete to take a step back and correct the technique before progressing further or adding additional loads. This stage of development is crucial for learning as well as implementing the correct technique. Working with open age players in different sports highlights this, as I’ve encountered players with a “high training age” that transition from academy level into open age teams, but are performing the fundamental movements incorrectly. It is quite a challenging task as a coach to explain to the athlete that they have been performing the movements incorrectly and are at risk of injury if they continue performing the movements in that pattern. One of the challenges in this case is to get the athlete to take a step back, regress the movement and lighten the load, in order to re-train the movement with correct technique. It is a sensitive issue at times, as players might feel like they are being picked on or that they wot be progressing as well as their teammates if they lighten the load or regress the movement. Once the player accepts that they need to correct the technique, it is quite a challenging task to re-train and change the pre-conceptional ideas on how the movement needs to be preformed. For instance, working with female athletes, one of the most common issues we face when academy players transition into open age teams is the knee valgus. It is very common for young female athletes to invert their knees inwards when performing a squat. This will have negative effects on their training if pursued and loads are added on. We work closely with new athletes transitioning from academy to open age to screen movements and assess any changes and adaptations required to ensure that players are performing the movements correctly prior to adding a load.

Conclusion: Provided the program is well designed, safe and effective, strength training is beneficial for youth athletes of different ages. It is important that the program is instructed properly and progressed / regressed accordingly to ensure that the athlete is performing the correct technique and movement by getting the basics right first prior to progressing to more advanced complex techniques or increasing load as to prevent injury as well as to provide a solid foundation of training as athletes move on from academy to open age teams.


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