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The Science of Youth Development

Updated: May 25, 2021

There are many things to consider when developing a well-rounded youth training program. In this section we will aim to open your eyes to the different and unique ways that a child not only develops on their own, but how training can be an effective tool to boosting a youth athlete’s growth in a number of areas.

Does training stunt growth?

The common myth is that training stunts growth in children. This is not true. There have been many studies that have shown that a structured training program during childhood can not only improve various fitness components, but does not affect the growth rates of height and weight [1, 2]. Whilst there have also been studies that have shown that if a child participates in a supervised, structured training program, there is no effect on growth cartilage and therefore no effect on growth rate[3].

A large number of injuries in children related to some sort of training fall under the category of accidents, such as dropping a weight on to a limb or misuse of equipment[4], with many happening at home in unsupervised situations[5]. This further emphasises the need for any kind of training done by youth to be done in a professionally supervised environment. We want to be able to educate our youth athletes well enough that they feel comfortable to be able to go home and to train without the risk of injury.

Selecting a development program

Putting your child into a training/development program can be a big step in their sporting journey. Some key factors to consider when introducing a child into a new training program include :[6]

  • Maturation Level

  • Changes in structure

  • Nutrients

  • Environment

With the help of a qualified coach, the right training program for your child can have a huge impact. Exposure to regular and structured training of fundamental movement skills as well as sports skills in childhood can enhance neural and muscular adaptations [7]. In laymen’s terms, it is helping kids to improve their brain’s function and strengthen their muscles. This can also improve a child’s movement efficiency and physical performance.

An appropriate youth training program should therefore be considerate of these factors whilst being able to effectively develop key fitness attributes and skills such speed, balance, control, strength and coordination.

Windows of Opportunity

There is some debate as to whether there are definitive "Windows of Opportunity" during a youth athletes development where they are more sensitive to development of certain performance factors. We look to develop all facets of training and performance throughout a child's development but here is some background as to what ages might be best for certain focuses.

The above graph is a typical growth chart, using average male heights throughout childhood just as an example. The main focus areas of the graph are the different windows of opportunity. As we know boys and girls grow and develop at different rates, so there are times where they will both develop certain fitness components well, and times where one gender has an accelerated growth period for some components.

As you can tell by the graph, there is a possible window of opportunity for developing speed[8] and power[9] for both boys and girls pre-puberty. This shared growth period is due to factors such as:

  • No extra hormones for boys or girls effecting their growth capabilities

  • Kids are still getting used to their body and still learning how to move well which can lead to improved mind-muscle connection

The other shared window of opportunity for boys and girls is the opportunity to develop their cardio fitness between the ages of 12 and 16 [10]. This is because there are a number of factors that effect a child’s cardio fitness [11], which include:

  • Heart& lung function

  • The stronger their heart and lungs are, the more blood and oxygen they can pump around their body

  • Muscular Function

  • A child's muscles become more efficient with exercise

  • Cellular capacity

  • The body's ability to send and receive signals from the brain

  • Body Composition

  • Metabolic Capability

  • Their ability to break down energy sources

When it comes to the peak development periods related to just boys, involving speed and power, most of the extra development is due to a greater ability to increase their muscle mass and therefore muscle strength[8]. Girls only have a short period of boosted speed development due to the many hormones involved in puberty. [8]

Whether your child is in a "window of opportunity" or not shouldn't effect their desire to grow and get better at all facets of sport. This is why a well structured youth training program is so important.

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