Long Term Athletic Development: How do we ensure our growing adolescents are given the best chance to reach their full potential in sports, exercise, and daily life activities!?
The foundations for long term athletic development are laid from early childhood, becoming increasingly important throughout adolescence. With the rising reliance on technology, we are seeing an upward trend in sedentary youth.
Only 2% of teenagers aged 13-17 meet physical activity guidelines in Australia
(Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2021).
The health benefits of exercise are no secret! Though when it comes to this age group, it can be challenging for parents and coaches to cope with competing interests, changing motivation, growth spurts and injuries.
As a parent, awareness of Long Term Athletic Development as part of ongoing participation in sport and physical activity is crucial, as the habits formed during adolescence often carry your teenager through key transition periods (such as moving from primary to high school, and the different stages of puberty) and into adulthood.
1. Why is athletic development important from a young age?
Being active can have a profound effect on both physical and mental health. It improves cognitive function and energy levels, encourages healthy weight and can reduce the symptoms of some health conditions. Aerobic exercise and strength training during childhood and adolescence also creates many long term physiological adaptations including:
Increased bone density – along with appropriate nutrition, weight bearing activities and increased muscle loads are crucial to enhance bone mineral density. The highest rate of bone growth occurs between 10 and 20 years of age. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5532200/)
Strength gains – In young adolescents, strength improvements are predominately due to neural adaptations. I.e, the muscles are able to fire more efficiently due to increased motor unit activation from the brain. In older adolescents, hormonal changes such as increased androgen levels in males, results in significant strength gains in response to training. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5532200/)
Improved motor skill coordination – Improved patterns of motor neuron firing can result from movement repetition. For example, continuous sports participation can improve hand eye coordination.
Increased resting levels of Phosphocreatine, ATP and glycogen – Anaerobic training, such as short sprints, can train the body’s energy system to be more efficient and therefore improve athletic performance in adolescents.
Increased capillarisation in muscles and lungs - ongoing participation in exercise leads to Increases in the rate of oxygen diffusion from the lungs into the blood stream, and from the blood stream into the muscle. This equates to improved aerobic performance and a longer duration to fatigue.
The confidence gained from such physiological adaptations can have compounding, long lasting, positive effects. Conversely, Chaabene et al. (2020) explored what happens in the absence of adequate exercise, specifically strength related.
What happens if children and adolescents don't meet physical activity requirements?
They found that children with insufficient levels of muscle strength may lack an important prerequisite to develop fundamental movement skills such as running, jumping, and throwing. Accordingly, they suffer from poor movement skill competency, leading to low movement confidence which discourages participation in physical activity and further reduces movement competency.
Deficits in muscle strength may act as a trigger to start a negative spiral leading to adverse health outcomes such as overweight or obesity. Fortunately, early intervention via strength training or movement coaching can provide the platform required to build movement confidence and prevent this negative cycle.
2. Help! My teen is suddenly uncoordinated and tight!
If you've noticed your teen has 'lost' previous coordination, sports skills and flexibility, don't stress, this is completely normal!
During peak puberty, girls can grow up to 8cm per year (11-14 years old), whilst boys tend to grow up to 10cm per year (13-16 years old). Throughout a growth spurt the growth plates expand, resulting in rapid bone growth, particularly in the limbs. This process leaves the muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves playing catch-up as the soft tissue is growing slower than the bones.
Consequently, soft tissue is stretched beyond normal limits until it can match this growth. This is why your previously bendy child is now struggling to touch their toes which limits movement and causes discomfort.
The nerves also need time to grow and develop new neural pathways. It is this latency of the bone to muscle to nerve growth that presents the gangly, uncoordinated, injury prone teenager.; not ideal conditions for peak performance in sports and exercise!
How do we help our teens??
The keen eye of a competent coach or well-informed parent will know when an adolescent needs to change their training style according to their maturation level. Evidence suggests that a combination of neural training, strength training, functional movement skills (FMS) and sport specific skills, presents the best outcomes for athletic development, injury prevention and general well-being. However, in order to yield the best results and minimise injury risk, coaches must structure their program carefully.
This table shown in Llyod et al. (2012), and utilised by our coaches, highlights how different developmental stages require a different training approach. Using this model, a typically developing 15 year old boy should be primarily focusing on sport specific skills, agility, speed, power, strength and hypertrophy, with less emphasis on functional movement skills, mobility, endurance and metabolic conditioning. However, a coach must assess the training age, and maturity status of an individual rather than just using chronological age to dictate a program.
For example, take two 15 year old students training together; student 1 has recently grown in height and strength, whilst student 2 has not yet reached puberty. Student 1 would likely benefit from hypertrophy training as they would possess the hormonal levels necessary to support muscle growth whilst student 2, lacking the capacity to build much muscle, would benefit more from body weight, neural training.
However, the coach might find that student 1 is uncoordinated in his movement due to the recent growth spurt and subsequently the coach must strip back the program, shifting emphasis back onto FMS to further develop neural pathways. Every program must be individualised depending on the goals of the adolescent, chosen sport, maturation status and injury status.
3. How does strength training reduce injury risk and improve sports performance and participation?
Adolescence is a critical period for building foundations of strength, motor skills and self confidence!
Due to the changing nature of their bodies, teens are at a greater risk of injury during this time. Overuse injuries are very common in teenagers and mainly occur around the growth plates. Conditions such as tendonitis, shin splints, Osgood Schlatter disease, stress fractures and Sever’s disease, are usually caused by repetitive, high impact movements such as those seen in sports. Alternatively, sedentary behaviour such as prolonged computer use can lead to overuse injuries including carpal tunnel syndrome and epicondylitis (aka tennis elbow).
If an adolescent finds themselves continually getting injured it may turn them off their sport, damage movement competence/self confidence and consequently lead to sedentary behaviour. Thus it is very important to take protective measures to minimise the risk of injuries and therefore prevent setbacks in athletic development.
What age should my child start strength training?
Early adolescents (10-13 years), whilst lacking the hormones needed for muscle hypertrophy, are still able to make great strength gains via neuromuscular training (NT). NT is an umbrella term that covers general (e.g., FMS) and specific (e.g., sport-specific actions) strength and conditioning activities like resistance, balance, core strength, plyometric, and agility exercises. Peitz et al. (2018) found that traditional resistance training induced small effects on functional movement skills and strength whilst plyometric training resulted in significant gains in both. Dahab & McCambridge (2009) found that “children can improve strength by 30% to 50% after just 8 to 12 weeks of a well-designed strength training program”. These improvements are largely due to improved motor neuron recruitment, i.e. more muscle fibres are able to be innervated and fire together. Hypertrophy training plays a greater role in athletic development during middle to late adolescence.
Isn't strength training dangerous for kids & teens?? Will it stunt their growth??
Whenever we discuss young adolescents and weight training, we must address the recurring myth surrounding resistance training damaging growth plates, leading to stunted growth. When referring to the scientific literature, there is almost no supporting evidence to suggest that resistance training is damaging, so long as it is done in a controlled environment guided by a coach (Dahab & McCambridge, 2009; Malina, 2006; Faigenbaum & Myer, 2010). Contrarily, there is a plethora of evidence out there to support youth strength training and its role in injury prevention.
When will you add weights to my teens training?
Whilst younger adolescents reduce their injury risk via improved movement and motor unit coordination, older adolescents generally have more development of these foundations. Accordingly, weighted resistance training is the most efficient way to develop strength and prevent injuries at this maturation stage. By addressing the risk factors associated with youth sport injuries (e.g., previous injury, poor conditioning, muscle imbalances and errors in training), it has been suggested that both acute and overuse injuries could be reduced by up to 50% (Micheli, 2006).
Of highest priority for resistance training are early sports specialisers, physically inactive youth, and young girls, owing to increased injury rates. Resistance training among these at-risk populations has been shown to reduce injury risk by up to 68% and improve sports performance and health measures (Zwolski, et al. 2017).
Long term athletic development must be fostered from a young age, not only for sporting excellence, but for reinforcing positive habits, leading to an active, fitter and healthier individual.The physiological adaptations, movement skills, strength, coordination and attitudes developed during this stage of life lay the platform for a thriving, physically active lifestyle moving into adulthood
Studies reveal that supervision from a qualified professional such as a qualified strength and conditioning coach, lowers the risk of adverse outcomes from neuromuscular or resistance training. A coach is able to test for muscular weaknesses, poor movement patterns and monitor for signs of over-training. They provide a safe environment for adolescents to build the crucial foundations for athletic development. This enables the individual to meet the demands of their dance, gymnastics, acrobatics, soccer or any other sport.