The “Business” of Training Youth Athletes

Years ago I worked at a facility and near the end of the fiscal year when the budgets were being finalized the same question would come yearly from management; “What sports are we going to target for training?” I hated this question and each year I would answer with the same, “who cares, let’s just train athletes.”  And as usual the group would try and target hockey, knowing full well there were groups like Crash Conditioning that were doing a great job and had that market covered.  Why go head on with that? It has been about 7 years since the original conversations and two things are still true; I still dislike the question and my response remains the same.  Just train kids and people to be athletic.

To be truthful that is a pretty bold idea and would take a cultural shift to get people thinking about training for athleticism and not a specific sport.  People have made a living from classes that are targeting a specific event and sport.  As I said previously, there are groups who have been doing a niche market for years and have a wildly successful following.  However many businesses or management groups fail to see the larger picture.  In many circumstances the sport specific training is attempting to take place over 6 to 8 weeks.  The level of learning and actual adaptation that could occur over that time is moderate and unfortunately the level of success is measured by how much the athlete sweats during the training.  It becomes little more than a boot camp attempting to look like a sport specific daily training environment.  Where many groups fail to succeed is in their model of training the groups for the long term process and securing the by in of the athlete and even more importantly, the parent or coach.

I am going to rock a number of people and go out and say, so called sport training is missing the mark when it comes to youth development.  I am not saying all but many talk about Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) and claim that the training is in accordance with the LTAD document.  But the document is an idea, a road map.  Following it means that the athletes are trained according to the windows of training opportunity.  However many fail to measure growth and maturation, and the programs are once again classic programs that are similar to the programs delivered to the senior level counter parts.  The programs lack the physical literacy, the fundamental movements and the play/ games aspect that help to develop true athleticism.

I was recently at a camp and one of the most refreshing statements I heard was the general manager of the team state three key concepts that the athletes must have in order to be in the program.

  1. Be a good person. Represent yourself, your team and those that have helped you along the way (parents / family / coaches) in every situation you are in, from the daily training environment, to competition to even traveling and being seen wearing your team issued gear.
  2. Be a good athlete. Strive to make physical and motor improvements in training that gives you tools to be…
  3. A good (specific sport not divulged) “sport specific” athlete.

I was pleased to see that this successful general manager said good athletes before good at the specific sport.   They understood that the tools developed from the daily training environment will transfer to help foster the sport specific environment.

In March of 2013 former NHL coach Brent Sutter made headlines for stating that Canadian kids play “too much hockey.”  This ended up grabbing the attention of Don Cherry who defended minor hockey.  The debate will continue.  Hard to say who is right?  However I was able to work with a group of athletes, 108 in total and all were tested on general field tests.  When the teams were chosen it was found that those who made the team were not the best at all the tests of physical abilities, nor did they stand out on one or two of the tests.  But a majority of the athletes that made the teams tested well in all the test.  They were athletic.

This article on Active for Life ( draws a pretty clear picture.  Yes there are going to be those sport specific athletes that started young and make it big.  These are the outliers.  Giving the athletes the tools necessary to be successful roots in general athleticism, not in specialization, and specifically in early specializations.  To truly develop an athlete means to build a robust and structurally tolerant individual that can adapt, with a huge set of abilities.  Build better all-around athletes and you build better sport specific athletes.

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