How to Develop the Young Athlete Properly

The world has changed greatly over the past 15-20 years. Technology has boomed at a pace in which nearly every single person over the age of 10 has a small computer in their hands. The age of information is at its peak, but this can also be a double edged sword. This has changed the landscape in which children are raised and has high influence over young people’s lives where they crave playing video games and scrolling through social media. There has never been a time in the world where instant gratification has been so prominent in young people’s lives. What does this mean for young athletes though? With the performance demand being so high and children lacking the traits to build performance (a lot of these mental), we are seeing a huge increase in instances of mental illness such as anxiety, depression, and even suicide. Today, I want to talk about the development continuum of an athlete through the course of pre-adolescence and adolescence. We will cover both the physical and mental aspects of children and teens during these critical times and how to take advantage of their biology for peak performance. 

Ages 5-6

Mental

We will start at age 5 because before this time, kids will not be all that interested in organized sports at all. This is an extremely important time in the emotional and cognitive development of a person. At this time, the child is becoming a lot more confident in their abilities. They have a great will to learn new tasks and boast about learning those tasks if the accomplish something new. There is also a great persistence in working on a task for long periods to accomplish that task. The child wants to ask many questions at this stage because they are constantly learning. They want approval from their parents when accomplishing a task.

Physical

Children are growing at a rapid pace during these ages. The limbs and skeleton are growing at rates to where the muscles can’t keep up. Chiropractor and founder of Titleist Performance Institute Greg Rose gave a great analogy to think about this. “If you can imagine a bow and arrow, the bow continues to grow, but the string stays the same. This puts a lot of tension throughout the musculature.” This is a prime physical growth time for children. This is also a time in which they are learning fine motor skills such as hand eye coordination, locomotion, and ball skills. (catching and throwing)

What Does This Mean For Parents?

At this time, children want to be creative and imaginative. Their minds and bodies are seeking new experiences by themselves to learn new skills, but also with children. Let them play! Let them climb trees, get knocked down, skin their knees, get dirty. These are great things! If they want to play an organized sport, then that’s great. If they don’t want to yet, then don’t force it! Go out and play with them yourselves. At this stage, the child idolizes the parent and wants their approval. Learning all the basic skills as an athlete are critical during this time period, so the more the parent does these skills with the child, the better that they are going to be at sport in the long run. This means you have to get off your cell phone or get off the couch and go play with your kids! Since the muscles are being put on tension, this is also a great time to develop speed for kids. You won’t be able to have them go do a sprint workout because you will just lose their attention, but if you throw them 50 passes where they have to sprint and then try to catch a ball over their shoulder, they will most definitely develop speed. Don’t just throw them on a team and say that they are active enough. Go do these activities with them

Ages 7-8

Mental

At this age bracket, children start becoming more independent. They often times have the ability to be by themselves for short periods while working on a project or being engaged in a book. They also have the ability to be very self critical on their own abilities and look to the parent for encouragement if they do feel like they are underperforming. Due to being highly energetic, these children often times can become very irritable as well due to being tired.

Physical

At this time, children are becoming increasingly more interested in participating in team sports and being around their peers. The idea of being competitive starts to become understood, so they have more desire to play on these teams. Balance systems and fine motor control are now very well developed, so now these children have the capability to run, decelerate, and catch a ball. This is still a time of peak growth, so speed development is still very prominent during this time.

What Does This Mean For Parents?

Introducing children to team sports and being around their peers is especially important during these periods. It’s also important to not have outcome based expectations for your children during these times. Teaching them the rules of the game and helping them to understand is going to become extremely important. Being patient with this process is also going to be extremely important because they are going to have a natural tendency to be hard on themselves during this time period. The encouragement of the parent goes a long way. The emotional maturity of the parent goes a long way too as your emotion should not match  1.) the outcome of the game (win/lose), or 2.) how your child played in your mind. Do you want to get your child disengaged from athletics fast? This is an easy way to do so. They care a lot more about your emotions and expressions vs a win or loss. If you are displaying dissatisfaction towards them because of the athletic competition that they were competing in, then they will most definitely not want to participate again. Once again, be extremely involved with your children by teaching them new skills. Don’t be afraid to start challenging them a bit in these one on one situations with them. Resilience and grit can start to be built at this age, but only small doses over a long period of time. Click below to hear a podcast episode on the Top 10 Traits that we learned by playing sports!

Ages 9-12

Mental

At this moment in time, children are starting to seek more independence away from their parents and start to spend more time with their peers. This has both positive and negative effects as a result. This independence is good in that it is teaching them to stand on their own two feet, but it also makes them susceptible to peer pressure and a willingness to try new things to impress those around them. Self esteem can also decrease greatly as this age group starts to become much more aware of the world around them. They start comparing themselves to their peers in areas of athletics, school, and looks. “Comparison syndrome” can start to become a real thing as children can start to think that they lack in certain areas which affects overall self worth. 

Physical

For males, this tends to be a period where there is not much growth happening at all in comparison to other times during the development cycle. Due to this being the case, this period is an excellent time to work on athletic skills that are prominent in the sports that the athlete is playing. This could be learning the specific fundamentals needed to be successful for the QB position, learning how to perform a golf swing the correct way, or learning how to serve on the tennis court. All of these skills take a lot of time and proper teaching from an outside source. This is when the power of repetition really starts to take place as kids can build a tremendous skill set during this time period.

What Does This Mean For Parents?

This is an awesome time for parents as you will get to go and enjoy watching your child play multiple sports as the years pass. It will be extremely important that kids not do too much during this period. Playing multiple sports at this age is extremely important, but not multiple sports simultaneously over the course of the year. When kids have practices and individual training sessions twice a day for multiple times a week, this is way too much. These kids will get burnt out fast and have a lot of overuse injuries. Since kids are developing a lot of skills during this period, this is also an excellent time to introduce your children to the weight room. Does this mean that they have to lift a lot of weight? Absolutely not! Performing lifts such as the power clean, squat, hinge, strict press, and pull ups with body weight and lighter weights to develop great technique before puberty hits will be a great primer for the neuromuscular system. They can even start to put more weight on the bar as the technique gets better because they will get stronger as the neuromuscular system changes. Once all the hormones become apparent in the next stage, then the athlete can really start to develop a lot of strength and power. 

Ages 13 and 14

Mental

Once puberty hits for the athlete, there is a big influx of hormones in the body which means that there will be a big influx of emotion as well. This moment in time is an emotional rollercoaster for the child as they feel great about themselves one moment and then feel horrible about themselves the next. With the physical changes that are happening within the body, this age group often thinks that everyone is looking at them and can become paranoid because of that. This age group is also very willing to become more risk takers as they don’t often times think about the future consequences of their actions. 

Physical

At this point, the young athlete has built a tremendous athletic foundation which is the framework for athletic success. Coordination, ball skills, agility, speed, and specific athletic movements have all been developed to this point. With the hormone influx, it is now safe to start throwing more weight on the bar and build strength for the athlete. This would be considered the “peak height velocity” as most males grow at the fastest rate during this age range. The athlete should now recognize what to expect from the weight room and how to perform the movements in the correct manner. This makes it extremely easy to put weight on the bar and really start to develop a lot of strength. A common mistake that we often see is that children at this age will start to put too much weight on the bar to compete with kids that are stronger. This is super common in the sport of football as the younger guys want to keep up with the older guys. 

What Does This Mean For Parents?

Patience is going to be extremely important for parents during this stage as kids will oftentimes be upset or moody without really any explanation. For the parent of an athlete, this means that paying close attention to body language and mood will be especially important because a lot of times children will not want to come to you with the specific feelings or emotions that they are experiencing at the time. This is a double whammy when athletic performance suffers because of the negative emotions that they are feeling. If an athlete has placed their identity or self worth in “being a jock”, this athlete can start to develop some anxiety or depression. It will be important to find a grey area where teaching self discipline and resilience is very prominent, but also being mindful of current mood from the athlete dictates how you communicate with them. This is a great time to start planting the idea of separation of athlete and overall human being. Athletes should never start to assimilate what they do and who they are as being one. 

Ages 15 and 16

Mental

By now, these teens have increased their ability to problem solve and handle complex ideas. Organizational skills such as time management, test prep, and study skills have become developed and they use these skills for success in the classroom. Most teens at this age know the difference between right and wrong as their moral compass becomes very prominent. This age group starts to develop sleep characteristics to stay up late and sleep in late. Don’t worry parents, this is alright. Their circadian rhythm actually sets them up this way, so let them sleep. It will actually promote performance instead of building laziness. At this age, some children are seen as “know it alls” as they have started to build an understanding of theory and concepts.

Physical

Once a good strength base has been built by the athlete, the athlete can now start building power in multiple planes and also start performing more complex movements if they would like to. This means including Olympic lifts such as the snatch, clean, or clean and jerk to the mix. This also means a lot of plyometric work and med ball work to get the athlete moving in multiple planes. At this point, sport specialization is pretty common. Depending on the athlete’s goals, this is definitely alright if they want to start to specialize at this age. By playing multiple sports to this point, they have built a ton of skills to be successful. If the athlete is mature enough and has the desire to narrow down to one or two sports, then it is definitely alright to do so. With that said, does this mean playing that sport all year round? That’s not what I said. In season and part of the off season can be spent on the field or court playing sport, while the rest be spent in the weight room or field building the performance of the body.

What Does This Mean For Parents?

This age is challenging as kids will most definitely want their independence and ability to make their own decisions. They won’t often ask for help to make decisions, but deep down they will want some input as a validation of what they are doing is the right decision. Don’t be afraid to bring up tough situations if you think a decision is weighing on your child. Chances are that they are just waiting for you to come to them. This will be a great period of time to go watch your kids compete in high school sports. All the time and effort that has been put in on the front end will now show. I know that these were some of the most enjoyable years for my parents, my brothers, and myself.

This Matters…

In summary, it is going to be extremely important to understand how biology plays a role in the physical and mental development of an athlete from the time they are 5 years old until they finish high school. By understanding these specific mental and physical milestones, it allows both the parent and athlete to be more aware of how to take advantage of these moments in time for proper development and success. These age ranges will change for some as some children hit puberty faster, but the sequence is still very relevant. Get this dialed in for peak mental and physical performance! If there are any questions, please feel free to reach out by texting/calling at 812-343-4226 or emailing at drew@theqbdocs.com

-Drew Kiel PT, DPT, CSCS

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