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Children are not little adults

December 31, 2003 09:00 PM

by Brian Grasso

This statement’s basic message is, in a word, obvious. We wouldn’t expect our ten year old daughter to find a full time job and we won’t be surprised if making the mortgage payment on time isn’t the first concern our fifteen year old has when he wakes up in the morning. Why then in the sporting world do we expect young athletes to train, compete, think and react like adults? Young athletes are exposed to conditioning programs that are often well beyond their structural and neurological abilities and taught to emulate elite sporting stars in their mental approach to the game. Is this the way to produce world-class athletes, or are there different concepts that we need to learn, understand and implement?

Without question the most mismanaged collection of athletes in North America are young athletes. They are encouraged to emulate professional sporting starts, criticized for efforts that ‘don’t measure up’ and are often guided by well-intentioned yet largely uneducated coaches who don’t understand the concepts involved with developmental athletics. Young athletes ARE NOT little adults; they have very specific and crucial physical laws associated with their development. Children go through such tumultuous changes physically, physiologically and emotionally as they ascend in age that it only makes logical sense that coaches, trainers and youth sporting officials understand these age-related issues and learn how to program for them.

Athletic development refers to the slow progression or development of an athlete over several years of training. Within this long-term approach or scope exists a term on which the foundation of athletic development resides: Multilateral Development. Multilateral development is a simple concept which essentially relates to the need for young athletes to be exposed to as much athletic stimulus as possible as they mature. From a practical standpoint, this means that under no circumstances should young athletes become specialists in any one sport. The whole point of multilateral development is to generate as much athleticism as possible. Physiologically speaking, the central nervous system encased in young athletes should be thought of as a malleable sponge that is able to learn, comprehend and recount at an unbelievable rate. Limiting this ability by specializing at a young age is counterproductive to optimal athletic development. Herein lies the common misnomer with respect to youth sports in North America. It is a fairly universal theory among many coaches and trainers that to become an elite or world-class competitor, one must engage in years of specialized training. While this statement isn’t wrong, the key point is that this specialization cannot begin at too young an age. In fact, between the ages of 6 – 14, athletes should be focused primarily on developing fundamental proficiency in as many athletic skills as possible. Running, jumping, throwing, lateral movement, spatial orientation – the list is long and endless. The fundamental components of ANY sport are based on movement ability and associated physical properties, such as summation of forces and neuromuscular sequencing. Athletes must progressively master the science of movement as children.

Athletic development can be categorized into four distinct stages, according to Tudor Bompa of Toronto’s York University. Although each category appears to be age-determinant, several factors including biological age and emotional maturity are considerations.


Ages 6 – 10

  • All sport and training should be in ‘game’ format.

  • Ensure that each child is participating equally and that no one feels left out.

  • Children should focus on having fun.

  • Emphasize multilateral development.

  • Concentrate on proper technique of any movement and not endless repetitions.

Athletic Formation

Ages 11 – 14

  • Growth spurts may interrupt or retard development. Be patient.

  • General concepts of training and conditioning can be introduced.

  • Concentrate on the ‘core’ of the body before you work out towards the periphery.

  • Avoid too much in the way of sport specific conditioning – overloads can easily cause soft tissue injuries.

  • Under proper guidance, lifting techniques can begin to be taught. Avoid ‘bodybuilding’ styles of conditioning. Instead, focus on the proper teaching of the Olympic lifts (i.e. cleans and press etc). These lifts should be without load.

Beyond this age, we get more sport specific and high performance in nature. These younger ages, however is where we tend to be having the most difficulty.

Brian Grasso is the owner of , which is the world leader at providing coaches, parents and athletes with educational resources on the concepts of functional conditioning and athletic development.

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