Performance Training For Young Athletes

What it is and how it can help

As a parent, it’s not always easy to assess the needs of your young athlete, especially when it comes to athletic enhancement, strength and conditioning, or nutrition and recovery. Having over 35 years of experience training athletes of all ages. I’ve witnessed first-hand training of young athletes for travel, high school, collegiate and even professional sports. The landscape has changed drastically during these years. However, there is one common thread at all levels: sports have become way more competitive!

My intent is to offer insight on how to progress your young athlete—concentrating on the ages of 7 through 18—through this matrix so they have the best opportunity to be successful on the field and, more importantly, in life. After all, we all want our kids to live a healthier, happier, and more active life than we’ve had. But how we do we do that? By helping them to develop a strong mindset, love movement, stay strong, and avoid injury. It is important to discuss goals and plan performance training with your athlete; here are some things to consider.

How old is your athlete?

Of course this is an easy one, but consider that the nervous system of the human body is fully developed at 12-13 years of age. In order for your child to master basic hand-eye coordination (catching & throwing), basic running skills, jumping and landing skills and overall body control and balance, it’s important that kids begin learning these skills before that, between the ages of 4 and 11. It’s not necessary for it to be competitive, but it should be instructive and fun. Can you imagine your child as a 35 year-old adult wanting to run a marathon or play recreational softball, basketball, tennis, or golf and not having the skills to throw, catch, hit, or shoot a ball? Now is the time to develop those skills.

Are your goals for your athlete aligned with their goals? 

Let’s face it, we all want our kids to be superstars in everything they do. Academics, sports, social situations, and even earning potential. Take the time to have this conversation with your child on an ongoing basis. Mostly you’ll get “I don’t know”! If your young athlete is noncommittal, that’s okay, as long as you’re both on the same page.

Courtesy of Next Level Fitness

Where is your young athlete on the athletic maturity scale compared to his or her peers, teammates, or competition? 

Let success and confidence be your guide! The first rule is, are they having fun? We all know that success doesn’t happen overnight and that our kids need to learn that failure and disappointment are a part of life, but building confidence is key to athletic and life success. Be sure that your athlete is participating in a program or sport that corresponds with his athletic maturity and not necessarily his age group. Bragging about your son “playing up” may not be the best thing in all situations, especially if he’s not ready and sits the bench or gets overwhelmed. If your child is not keeping up due to a lack of conditioning or speed or even strength, you should consider getting him professional coaching outside of the team to get him caught up give him an edge.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of your athlete’s game? 

From my experience, weaknesses are usually the lack of speed, quickness, and strength. Very seldom is it ball-handling or goal-scoring. When deciding between multiple skills camps or enrolling your athlete in a 10-week performance program, go with the 10 week program.

What level of coaching have they had in the past? Professional or parent led training sessions?

If it’s only been parent led so far and your athlete’s development seems to be stalling, then maybe it’s time to invest in professional coaching.

What are you willing to invest in your young athlete? 

When will I see a return on my investment? Untrained athletes tend to improve drastically during the first 6-8 months of training, whereas the trained athlete makes only incremental—but no less important—improvements.

Should they be training while in-season?

No question! Players get weaker and lose quickness as the season progresses. From the competitive level and up, all athletes need at least 2 days per week of strength training during the season.  Find the time…make it happen!

What should pre-season look like? 

Eight to twelve weeks prior to the season is critical for an athlete. Going into the start of practice at peak speed, strength and conditioning is imperative. Plan ahead!

What are their time restrictions? 

Academics must be a priority, and sometimes we must know when to say “when.” Maybe we have to skip the second trip to the beach. Maybe we don’t have time for the extra skills training on Monday nights. But don’t skimp on strength and performance work. That’s the stuff that keeps you alive and healthy and improving your body…which is your machine!

This is a lot of information to take in. But while you are considering your child’s future, keep in mind learning how to train and obtaining success is going to be the biggest factor in their ability to live a healthier and happier lifestyle as an adult.

Courtesy of Next Level Fitness

What type of training program is required for your athlete considering his age, goals, current level of skill, physical attributes, and fitness?

We developed the Athletic Development Pyramid – a five tiered system. Athletes that have the mindset, physical attributes, and skill set at their current level move up the pyramid. Athletes shouldn’t get discouraged—work and perseverance can overcome a lot of things—as can finding the right performance training program to help them advance.

Below is an explanation of the model and is a basic guideline; there will always be a few individuals that exceed expectations and move up sooner or need to remain with their peers.

  1. Early Athletic Development (ages 7-9): Playing recreational sports is enough for most kids. At this level they should be exploring a variety sports. Their training outside of practice and games should be focused on coordination, learning how to run, jump, move, and gain core strength and confidence.
  2. Athletic Development (ages 10-12): Kids at this age should be trying out for the middle school team or continuing with recreational sports or even a travel team. Athletes at this level need to stay focused on coordination and movement skills because they wake up every four to eight weeks with a new body. Strength should also be introduced, focusing on mostly body-weight exercises that continue to develop athleticism.
  3. Competitive Strength and Performance (ages 13-15): This is the stage where making a competitive U13 or U15 travel team or becoming a starter on the middle school team is the goal. The goals in training these athletes are twofold: injury prevention and improving performance. Strength training and developing good quality movement mechanics (sprinting and lateral) are essential. Understanding the mindset is also critical: does the young athlete truly want it? Or does the player want to be on the team because his friends are? Understand their motivation, because it’s important and sports are a big commitment. Between playing, training, travel, and costs it can overwhelm a young athlete and his parents.
  4. Explosive Strength & Performance (ages 15-18): If the goal of your young athlete is to become a high school starter or top travel player in today’s sports landscapes, this is where the rubber meets the road. At this level, an athlete must possess a certain amount of explosiveness; they should be in a year-round strength and performance program. Paying attention to smarter food choices, better sleep, academics, and developing leadership skills in the weight room and on the field should begin to develop at this point.
  5. Elite Strength & Performance (ages 15-25): This is the pinnacle. These athletes are most likely collegiate sports bound and are either non-scholarship rostered kids or have athletic scholarship potential. At this point, athletes should have mastered all or most of strength training and should be incorporating advanced contrast training. The main goal here is success at the next level, whether that’s collegiate or professional.


Colby Schreckengost
About Colby Schreckengost 6 Articles
Colby Schreckengost is owner/director of training at Next Level Fitness & Performance in Haymarket, VA. Colby holds a BS and MS and is a former strength and conditioning coach at the University of Tulsa. He is a certified personal trainer and Sports Nutritionist.

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