Is speed training appropriate for adolescents? (Part I)
Brian Grasso considers the benefits of speed training for young athletes.
You see the promotional material everywhere, from sporting-based magazines to television and radio commercials. SPEED TRAINING! Speed... an elusive commodity that all successful athletes require. But how should younger athletes develop it?
A key element to consider when working with teenaged athletes is the degree of growth they are currently experiencing. A growth spurt occurs when bones elongate from the proximal and distal ends. Osteoblastic activity occurs which makes the bone both longer and eventually stronger. Needing attention during this time is the impact bone growth has on the muscular system as the bone grows significantly faster than muscle. The implications of this are that during and shortly after a growth spurt, the entire muscular system is placed under a great deal of strain (which typically accounts for why adolescents incurring growth are often sore).
Picture this from a practical perspective. Make a fist with both hands but stick your first fingers out. Hook an elastic band around both your left and right outstretched fingers. Now slowly pull your hands apart from each other. What happened to the elastic? It got very stretched out and was placed under a significant tone. That is exactly what happens to your muscles when bone grows. Elasticity is decreased while the tone is increased.
Another issue plaguing adolescents during growth is an awkward movement. This is a similar type of situation as the muscular tone issue; bone growth happens faster than the body's ability to reorient itself to the new length. All of the habits we exhibit, from our thought patterns to the way we move, are housed as 'facts' in pathways programmed into the brain. Once ingrained, these pathways are difficult to alter.
Everyone has habitual ways of performing tasks. Brushing your teeth, as arbitrary as that sounds, is a perfect example. You likely have a 'set' way of brushing your teeth, whether that means you always start on one side, or always start with a particular brushing pattern; the fact is you have a 'set' method. Now, next time you brush your teeth, actively try to perform it a 'different' way. Start on the other side, uncap the toothpaste with your other hand; some way or another, just try something completely different. As you think about the 'change' you will most certainly be able to do it. In time, however, when the challenge of this article is no longer on the front of your mind, you will start brushing your teeth again without giving it a second thought. The last thing you do before you crawl into bed, or the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning. Either way, it will return to be a mindless task. What will happen then? You will revert back to perform it the way you always have. Simply put, it is an ingrained pathway in your brain.
Now, when youngsters experience growth, their awkwardness can be explained simply by the fact that their bodies are now longer and denser than their brains remember them to be. You try taping a six-inch extension of wood to the end of each of your arms and see how much stuff you bang into! Kids going through growth are awkward for a reason: the central nervous system, which is responsible for all movement, no longer has a grasp of where the body is in relation to peripheral objects and to itself.
So, you have a growing athlete who is 14 years old. How many times have you seen or heard those 'qualified' fitness professionals state that this is the age at which young athletes should start training hard for speed, power and hypertrophy? Load up the weights (or better yet, put them on strength machines where they will be 'safe'), start counting out the plyometric drills and let us get this kid onto the high-speed treadmill for some speed/anaerobic conditioning! High-performance sports training, here we come!
Give me a break
You have an awkward athlete who is lacking optimal coordination and possesses a severely toned (and likely restricted) muscular system. Adding speed, power and hypertrophy training right now could not only be less than optimal from a developmental perspective but also potentially harmful. Having said that, walk into any 'sports training' facility right now and you will see young athletes pounding out set after set of sprints on the treadmill and rep after rep of jumping drills. Very often, you will also find that same 'qualified' trainer doing little more than offering encouragement and counting the number of 'back and forth' jumps an athlete did during a 30-second time frame.
While there are several factors and key points of programming for young athletes, one of the most overlooked is the technical aspects of both lifting and movement. An athlete who does not move well and efficiently is an inferior athlete. Yet rather than teach, correct, understand and discuss the science of efficient movement with young athletes, many 'qualified' experts opt instead to merely count repetitions.
Why? Because showing an increase in the number of reps an athlete can perform is a tangible sign of improvement which can then be translated into marketing to both the parents of the athletes (sign your 14-year-old up for another 6 weeks of training) as well as to the market at large. 'Before' and 'after' scenarios are eaten up by our society and if the training facility can show folks that 'junior' will be able to run at 13 miles an hour on the treadmill rather than just 10 then they are going to get customers.
Lost in all of this is the long-term development of the athlete. What happens after the six weeks are over? Are they better athletes, more in shape or merely more able to perform the particular drills that the facility takes them through? In a future issue of Successful Coaching, I will discuss the type of training ventures that young athletes should be performing.
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About the Author
Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: