Training is an integral part of any athletes daily routine. It allows the body to cope with the demands of the sport and helps gradually build strength, endurance and improve skill levels. Training helps to gain motivation, ambition and confidence as well as learning about the importance of having a healthy mind and body. Many people believe that to be successful you need to spend hours on hours playing that sport. While part of this is true, time must be devoted to learning the finer principles of movement to excel at the chosen sport. This must be specific to the athlete and their sport and include a range of training types including aerobic exercise, strength training and functional training. This will help to improve endurance, power, speed, co-ordination, flexibility, agility, balance, muscle recovery and decrease the risk of injury. Now how does this relate to young athletes looking to improve in their sport and gain an extra edge over opponents?
As mentioned, strength training is just one component of training and not the most important factor but can be very useful for young athletes. Firstly, there is a negative stigma around young athletes and strength training and how it may affect the athletes growth and health. This is because most people immediately think of a young athlete throwing around heavy weights, but this is not the case. Heavy bodybuilding exercises serve little to no purpose for athletes in general. They have little neural requirements and do not improve movements or skill in fact they’ll most likely make the athlete slower and inefficient. Instead it should be focussed on specific movements to activate certain muscles. Strength is a component of what the body requires to perform athletic actions against resistance. Current research highlights that resistance training can be safe, effective and worthwhile for young athletes. This must be under the supervision of a qualified professional with age-appropriate exercises and proper lifting techniques. For best results the athlete should focus on their weaknesses which will show up in a series of tests and skill assessments, it will also help monitor progress. Working on weaknesses will continually challenge the athlete’s ability in those movements and skills.
The importance of strength training for young athletes and how to be safe and effective.
Strength training has been shown to improve performance which can give an extra edge over opponents. Young athletes may not have the strength, endurance or stability to properly perform the techniques within the sport as their bodies are still developing. Strength training will guide the young athlete for optimal mobility, co-ordination, strength, stability, and movement efficiency. The training should begin with simple light exercises, even body weight and then progress slowly once technique is perfected. This should be done under guidance of a strength coach/professional. If the strength training is completed properly not only will the athlete build strength but also knowledge and understanding of muscle mechanics, body position and proper technique. This will reduce the risk of injury during training and sport. The weight will never injure someone if done properly and safely, improper technique (even with light weight) can lead to injury during the exercise or in the future.
Strength training can also help the athlete to create a platform to build on as they go into adulthood with the development and growth of those motor skills and muscle mechanics. Research suggests it can also have a positive effect on self-esteem and self-confidence. A training program allows the athlete to gain focus, attention and dedication. Although, need to take into consideration that young athletes are still kids and must design the program to be fun and enjoyable and also need to avoid burning out or pushing them too hard.
So, I know what you’re thinking, is it safe for my child to “lift weights?” or what is the “best age to start?” or “when is it safe?” or “It will stunt my child’s growth?”. Age-specific strength training can begin as early as 8 years old, but most recommendations are during pre-adolescent phase when the athlete has developed some health and skill related fitness. Strength training if done properly it will not stunt growth of the athlete and in fact promote health and growth.
Further research on strength training:
A research conducted in AFL showed there was a decrease in the amount of hamstring injuries after adding a training program including anaerobic interval training, stretching and sport specific training drills. This also highlights that balance is important not to just focus on strength, but the training program should encompass endurance, power, speed, co-ordination, flexibility, agility, balance and muscle recovery. Sprinting for example research has shown that plyometric training, including unilateral exercises and horizontal movement of the whole body elicits significant increases in sprint acceleration performance. Research has also shown that there is a large amount of force travelling through the spine during a golf swing, in fact eight times their body weight. With such force through the spine it is important that the golfer has a training program that improves strength and stability of the core and spine whilst maintain range of motion.