A parent brought his 7 year old son along to pick up his other son, a 16 year old. The younger boy was walking around the gym waiting for his brother to be finished and his parent asked me, “When should his younger brother start training?” I looked over at the younger boy who was hanging from a pull-up bar and thought, “Well, he’s training right now!”
Many parents wonder when their child should start “training” and what exactly should they be doing. I think one of the major issues is that parents all too often associate “training” with resistance training or weight training. They forget that there are many other forms of training that are beneficial to all athletes regardless of age. I think that young athletes should always be “training”; they should be allowed to climb trees, crawl on the ground, or run around. All of these activities are training. We need to focus on allowing kids to experience as many different movement patterns as possible. For example, when you encourage your children to read books from different genres, the more they read the greater their vocabulary becomes; if we limit children to only a few specific books, their vocabulary will be weak. Movement and training are the same way. If you only allow your child to do one type of movement or training, then other facets of their bodies can become weak. Speaking of vocabulary, I have always thought it is amazing how fast children can learn multiple languages. The same goes for movement because the process of bone ossification (or the building of new bone) does not stop until the age of 25. Between the years of 5 to 14 ossification is at its greatest rate, spreading rapidly throughout the body. This means that from birth to age 25, our bodies are still changing and learning how to move. We pick up these movements so quickly in the 5-14 year age range because we are a blank page. Hopefully we haven’t specialized yet, and we also haven’t had the chance to ingrain destructive movement patterns that will inhibit our function later in life. Thus, it is important that young athletes take advantage of that time when their bodies are so primed for learning. I have been in training situations where high school athletes cannot skip or run backwards. The average athlete today sits far too much, and only moves in the same motions that his/her chosen sport requires. In our society athletes specialize too soon and thus only develop specific movement patterns for their chosen sport which can lead to injury later down the road. For example, just a decade ago Tommy John surgeries were far less prevalent in youth and high school pitchers, now they are commonplace and thought of as normal. My job is to ask why this happening and what I can do about it.
I often wonder how athletes fifty years ago stayed healthy; back then there was limited knowledge of injuries and medical procedures. In my opinion, the previous generation’s had strong fundamental movement patterns along with a large variety of different forms of training. The high school baseball star back then also played football and ran track, and his summers probably consisted of swimming, hiking, and maybe even a pick-up basketball game. What was great about his training philosophy is he was training his body with all different kinds of movements and proprioceptive input in addition to giving his body the necessary time to rest and recover. Looking back, some of the greatest athletes of all time where multi-sport athletes: Jim Brown played lacrosse, basketball, track, and football; Bo Jackson is the definition of cross-training, playing both professional baseball and football; and even this year’s Heisman Trophy winner, James Winston, is a two sport college athlete. In terms of training our young athletes, we need to make sure they are proficient at the most basic movement patterns. No matter what age the athlete should be able to perform bodyweight movements like lunges and squats not only for athletic performance, but because he/she will need to lunge and squat for the rest of his/her life. Developing athletes should also focus on locomotion patterns; if the athlete can walk, skip, run, hop, jump, and leap in all THREE planes of motion, they have built a great foundation. In this entire article we have not discussed picking up a “weight”, and the youth athlete with the strong foundation probably hasn’t picked one up either. I undoubtedly believe that we should focus our attention on building a strong three dimensional foundation first. And then and only then can we progress to more typical strength and conditioning movements.