by John Baker
The age old questions – when is it ok for my kid to start training? I’d like to start out by defining what training is. Often when we think of training, our brains immediately go to strength training. However, as any athlete knows, training can refer to a host of activities, only one of which involves being in a gym weight training. With our definition of training as a large variety of tasks related to athletic development, let’s proceed. It is my opinion that there is no right time to start training. Rather, it is my opinion that life and its many physical tasks is one large continuum of training. However, there are age-specific training modalities that should be implemented at certain times in a child’s life in order to match their natural development. By providing certain challenges and training methods at specific times you allow the child to develop the qualities we’d typically use when describing a ‘natural athlete’. These include a high degree of hand eye coordination, proper movement mechanics, quick reaction time, high levels of strength and power, and a high capacity to learn new skills.
Eight years old is when fairly traditional methods of youth training may be implemented. Now to be clear, eight years old is probably still to early for weight training for most kids, but at this age they can begin priming the movement patterns that will be used in weight training and sport. This can be done via bodyweight exercises, climbing, obstacle courses (change of direction, carrying things, crawling, sprinting, hopping, etc.), and gymnastics. Despite not being ready for weight-based training, eight to ten years of age is the period of time that a child has the greatest potential to increase power capabilities (the ability to exert force in a given unit of time), setting the stage for the rest of their life. The key here is to allow the child to master control of their body through increasingly complex movement and in a variety of different settings, at their own pace. Additionally, the variety of drills and tasks helps improve skill acquisition potential, specifically in relation to the complex sports specific tasks they will face later in life. Lack of variation, or too much specialization will decrease their capacity to be well rounded and be adaptable to dynamic game situations.
The most important thing at this age is that training needs to be fun. You should not push them too hard, or overly structure training to the point at which enjoyment and their natural level of curiosity to challenge themselves is diminished — this point can not be stressed enough, you can either foster a love for sports that can last a lifetime or ruin it. Children do not have the attention span to keep up with highly complex drills and practices that you do as a coach. Additionally, if you do not allow them to master proprioception, the ability to sense the position of, and control of their bodies, they will not be able to advance to more complex skills with ease.
Resistance training can safely begin for kids around twelve years of age. It is encouraged that they work with a professional to ensure that proper movement patterns are being taught, and training is properly structured. It is more important to push for structural balance and movement patterning at this age, or at the beginning of any weight training career, rather than to push for load. If the former is accomplished, the latter will follow with much less risk of complication and injury down the road. Additional training should focus on sprinting, throwing and jumping activities.
The common notion of damaging growth plates should not be a concern. If your child has been active in their life up to this point their bones and joints will have been put under plenty of stress to withstand the demands of weight training with ease. The simple act of running and jumping can generate a compressive force equal to seven to eleven times a persons bodyweight onto the knee joint. For example, a 120lbs child will have 840-1320lbs of force placed on the knee each time their foot strikes the ground when running, or when they land from a jump. With this in mind, if the same child does a squat with a 20lb dumbbell, they will be facing a mere 140lbs of compressive force — much less of a force than their body has built up the ability to handle.
As you can see training can be done at any time during a child’s development, but the modality does matter. The goal throughout a child’s development should be making them as well rounded as possible. Specializing too soon drastically increases the risk of injury from overuse and burnout. Your child isn’t going pro at age ten, so please let them be ten. There have been lots of great youth athletes that never went anywhere because of burnout, and there have been lots of professional athletes that didn’t specialize until they were in college. Train them accordingly for their age if you want them to have the best chance to succeed.