Tips for Young Athletes and Those Who Train Them


This post was written as my contribution to a series of posts on training young athletes, published in coach James Marshall’s blog.

I will begin with tips not for the young athletes themselves but for those who train them.

I begin by commenting on a concept from the post by Frank Dick, “before you get into teaching young people techniques they must have the physical competencies to do so without building in compensatory movements.”

I don’t distinguish very much between teaching general exercises and sport-specific exercises (techniques of the sport). In both cases one has to observe athletes to see whether they are ready for the exercises, if needed correct their defects, and then, with the defects seemingly corrected, still correct those defects or others as the exercises reveal them. To do so effectively one has to pay attention to the athletes and know how to dose the exercises, their form and internal load. (External load = External resistance, number of reps, distance, etc. Internal load = Physiologic effect of the external load.)

Now I will end the fuzzy generalities and give examples.

A gymnast learns vaults. Soon after the warm-up he does well, but as the workout progresses his form gets worse. Eventually he misses jumps, more and more, and yet the coach encourages him to keep trying as if trying harder could help when inhibitions have set in. The coach is not paying attention to a technical flaw in the landing on arms, that in turn has its source in a posture defect. Every landing is causing a discomfort and raising an alarm in the athlete’s motor centers, “This hurts, this damages, stop this.”

A young female gymnast lags behind the group in hip flexibility. She is skinny but much taller then the rest of the group. Her Russian coach, a former gymnast, makes her do the same flexibility exercises as the rest of the group, even though they evidently don’t work for her. The coach has no clue that there are other flexibility exercises than those that work only with little children built for gymnastics. The coach has no understanding of anatomy that would give him a way of adjusting her position in stretches so to make them effective for her.

A high school track-and-field sprinter has a pronounced upper and lower cross posture, which forces his legs and arms to move in inefficient patterns. His coach, a high school p. e. teacher, has never given him corrective exercises. The athlete was allowed to sprint prior to undergoing a corrective exercise program.

A judo wrestler ends a practice bout, and walks off the mat with a slight limp, which he had not prior to this bout. Time for another bout, so he steps on the mat again, with a limp. His instructor acts like all is well. I stop the wrestler and order him to have his knee examined. The exam revealed a severely sprained ACL, that took several months of rehab to get back to normal.

Now tips for the young athletes themselves.

A good technique feels comfortable. If it does not, then you are taught wrong. It does not matter whether you were not prepared well for learning that technique, or you were taught a wrong technique, or you have misunderstood the instruction—you were taught wrong. It is a responsibility of the instructor to instruct according to the athletes’ capabilities.

The most effective training loads (resistance, number of reps, distance, etc.) are such that do not distort good form. If your form in exercises or techniques deteriorates, you are doing too much. You are erasing good technical habits and ingraining bad ones.

A good coach is the one who looks at the athletes when they exercise and not into notes on a clipboard or in a laptop, notepad, or whatever. If your coach or instructor doesn’t catch your errors on the first or second repetition, you need to go elsewhere for instruction.

* * *

Here are all the posts on training young athletes, published in James Marshall’s blog:

Training young athletes: Part 1 Frank Dick

Training young athletes part 2: Vern Gambetta, Roy Headey

Training young athletes part 3: Paul Gamble, Simon Worsnop

Training young athletes part 4: Gil Stevenson, Denis Betts

Training young athletes: Part 5:Kelvin Giles

Athletic training in practice: Tom Kurz

More articles on the practical application of principles of training are at Stadion Publishing site.

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3 Responses to “Tips for Young Athletes and Those Who Train Them”

  1. Dear Tom,

    Once again, my most sincere compliments on your excellent and very needed post, Tips for Young Athletes and Those Who Train Them. In my opinion, as a Sports Chiropractor and Fellow in Biomechanics, this post along with your STADION published book, Children and Sports Training: How Your Future Champions Should Exercise to Be Healthy, Fit and Happy, by Jozef Drabik a leading East European specialist on children’s fitness and sports, should be read by every coach and athlete. The reason being, I think these comments relate to some of the biggest and most common flaws in athletic training today.

    Whether a coach is university trained or on-the-job trained very few know how to analyze an athletes posture and body mechanics in conjunction with the underlying sport activity and its performance. Not only are these points important in regard to athletic performance but in injury prevention as well.

    Dr. Richard J. Vahl, MSc, DC, Ph.D.

  2. 2 Evan M

    This sort of thing drives me nuts. A few years ago, I had a kid in my high school chemistry class who used to limp into class with bags of ice on his shins. I talked to him about it and said, “You have shin splints, don’t you?” He said he did, but he was preparing for a track meet coming up. I said “Your coach lets you run like this?” The student said yes. I told him I thought he shouldn’t run when he could barely walk and his health was more important than a track meet. He insisted that he had to keep training.

    If I could go back in time, I would talk to the coach about it. However, at the time, I figured he would blow me off as just a science teacher with no coaching credentials or experience meddling in his business. After all, with coaches, stupidity usually comes coupled with arrogance. That doesn’t excuse me from not giving it a shot, though.

  3. One of the best articles I have ever read geared toward athletes and coaches alike. A former coach and gymnast myself, it is just good “old fashioned” common sense! I happened to be tall, lean and lacked hip flexibility and yet, we all only ever did the same stretches.

    I still remember running with shin splints, funny thing is, when you’re in motion and “going for it” you don’t notice them, it’s only before and after having ventured into your move.

    The thing I find interesting about gymnastics today, looking back, is how “the head games” stood out like red flags it’s just that no one seemed to know what to do about them, for me, as a gymnast, that was left for the gymnast to figure out on her own. How unstoppable would the coach and gymnast be who knew how to share these “fears” and work through them!

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