The training and preparation of young athletes for sports competition involves a wide-ranging series of considerations. Training is a concept involving both the physical preparation of the athlete, as well as the teaching and the implementation of sport-specific techniques through coaching and practice. The physical elements of training must be delivered in a coordinated fashion, as a part of a comprehensive mental preparation of the athlete, including the use of a variety of sports psychology tools to focus and to motivate the athlete in training and competition.
Youth sports involve the consideration of physical and mental training issues that are absent in adult athletic training. As a youth, by definition, is an adolescent person, typically one who has entered puberty, a young athlete is generally in the midst of the most rapid physical growth cycle that he or she will ever experience, with the exception of infancy. All youth sports training must take into account the fact that as the athlete's body is growing, the bones and connective tissues are especially vulnerable to injury, particularly those related to overuse of a particular joint, or the forces generated by the repetitive stress of various sports accumulating to cause injury to an immature musculoskeletal structure.
The training of young athletes must also make provision for the fact that an athlete in the 12 to 16-year-old age range is unlikely to have the same level of emotional maturity as an adult athlete with respect to the reaction to coaching criticism, or the impact of the demands of high-level competition. Effective communication between the young athlete and coach is fundamental to successful training. The coach must engender an environment that encourages the athlete to raise any question or concern regarding training.
The unique features of the training programs developed for young athletes place a primary importance on the creation and implementation of a program that is based on the principle known as the periodization of training. The division of the training year (or any other significant period) is a recognition that athletes generally cannot train at a constant level; there are natural cycles to a training period that usually are tied to a specific goal or objective, and subsequent periods of rest or reduction in training intensity. All athletes, irrespective of their talent level, tend to benefit from training that provides a specific focus, with an opportunity to reflect on progress at the conclusion of the training segment to permit a readjustment on future training. The unique physical and mental training circumstances of young athletes make periodization of the utmost importance.
The periodization of the training schedule for a young athlete with respect to a single sport will include designated preseason, competitive season, and off-season periods. Given that many young athletes may participate in more than one competitive sport, both the preseason and the off-season for one sport may represent the opposite segments respecting the athlete's other sports. The periods may also be further subdivided based on either known competitions or a desire to peak for them. In team sports, the usual competitive season is a progression from an opening game of the year to a season-ending playoff. In individual sports, such as track and field events, the competitive season may be a series of peaks, depending on the relative importance of the individual meets that form the season.
The determination of appropriate training periods provides the younger athletes with a measure of structure to their training that they might not be able to direct on their own. This issue is of paramount importance when the young athlete may be engaging in significant training intensity and training volume, such as that contemplated by two-a-day workouts in sports such as football or track and field.
The provision of effective direction to a young athlete with respect to diet and proper nutritional habits, including hydration, is an essential aspect of youth training. While all athletes are subject to dietary temptations, especially if they are training at a high level, young athletes have the dual concerns of proper nutrition to support their regular adolescent growth, coupled with the additional physical stresses of training. The successful motivation of young athletes to maintain proper diet will include the education of both the youth and their parents regarding nutritional practices, including the designation of a meal during the week when the athlete can go beyond the usual dietary boundary to a limited extent.
Of critical importance to the formulation of training periods is the insertion of periods of downtime, especially with respect to competition. The risk of mental fatigue, associated with high-level competition, travel to competition, and intense training to prepare for competition can be difficult for a young person to bear. This concern is especially pronounced in young athletes who either play more than one competitive sport, or who play a competitive sport on a year-round basis. Even for the competitive youth athlete, sport must remain fun.
In North America, the youth year-round sports trend is a relatively recent phenomenon. Until the 1980s, the American high school sports seasons had both a rhythm and a regularity that tended to encourage young athletes to play more than one sport. In the fall, the key boys' sports were football, volleyball, cross-country running, and soccer; for girls, it was soccer and volleyball. In the winter months, basketball was the primary sports for both genders, with other individual sports such as wrestling and swimming. In the spring months, a wide variety of sports were played, including lacrosse, track and field, and other outdoor activities. The summer months were typically devoted to organized sports such as baseball.
The rise of organizations such as AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) basketball in the summer months and year-round soccer training, or the increase in summer skills camps and schools in sports such as ice hockey have distorted the previous rhythm of the youth athletic year in North America. The drive to secure an athletic scholarship for a university education has placed a premium on year-round play. The risk of developing single-sport specialists at age 15 is that the athlete may not be competitive at age 20, and give up sports entirely.
Once the training periods and the related objectives are established, the training must be progressive, but at all times connected to the overarching notion that young athletes are not to be trained like adults, with simple reductions in training volume to account for their younger age. The development of the physical fitness of a young athlete, separate from the sport-specific skill development, must ensure that the characteristics of the musculoskeletal system of the young athlete are respected. All aspects of this physical training, in each of the components of strength, flexibility, endurance, and speed, must be addressed using less intensity and less volume that would be applied to a corresponding adult.
Keeping in mind the need to protect against injury to the young athlete, the training sessions must have a measure of fun. Young athletes are especially susceptible to burn out, the accumulation of physical demands and mental stress, when the sport takes on the aspects of classic 9-to-5 drudgery. A burned out athlete is a damaged athlete; the successful coach and corresponding training program will provide opportunities for the young athlete to have fun without the pressures of achieving a training goal. In individual sports, a day off to play an entirely different game is a common technique; in team sports, fun competitions are used.
Technique is essential to any sport success at any age; the teaching of the proper techniques to young people is critical for both safety and ultimate success. Technical instruction with young players must begin with a reinforcement of the particular rules of the sport. Rules instruction is of particular importance in contact sports, where the young players may have seen professional level competition and seek to emulate the actions of those players in their own training and play. American football has numerous opportunities to make contact with an opponent, within prescribed rules. Once the rules are entirely understood, the young player can be taught to execute the physical maneuvers in a safe manner.
With most athletes, physical techniques are not ideally taught through the simple demonstration of the entire sequence, with a direction to imitate it. Young players inevitably require progressive instruction, with the overall technique broken into its physical components, such as footwork, body position, hand position, and the sequence of movements to reach a result. An example is the basketball technique known as the box out, where a defensive player moves his or her body to prevent an offensive player from securing a rebound on a missed shot at the defender's goal. Instruction in the proper execution of the box out would begin with what the rules of the game permit by way of bodily contact; the coach would then identify any gray areas concerning what a referee might regard as incidental physical contact. Once an understanding of the appropriate rule is established, the players would be taken through a series of non-contact drills to assist them in developing the necessary spatial sense to the relationship between their position on the floor, the likely position of an opponent, and that of the goal and backboard. The next stage in the progression is the reinforcement of their desirable body position as the ball is being shot toward the goal. The teaching sequence culminates with a live practice of the technique involving an opponent if every other component has been executed correctly.