The reemergence of youth sport around the country after a long pause due to the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront the topic of reintroducing athletes appropriately and safely back into sport after a significant hiatus from play. Despite the increased understanding of sport and exercise science today, there may be a disconnect between the information and guidance provided by the strength and conditioning community and the real-world practices of many youth sport organizations and coaches.
This article focuses on four key areas that draw from my experience working as a strength and conditioning coach with individual youth athletes and teams, and as a part-time football coach. The aim is to identify common pitfalls and outdated practices often employed to condition youth athletes for sport and provide coaches with guidance and resources for further education on training concepts and practical applications. The goal is to optimize performance and minimize injury risk in youth athletes.
Nothing quite brings a palm to my forehead faster than showing up at football practices and seeing what I call the “picking daisies warmup.” After a slow lap around the field, all team members organize themselves into a series of lines, lie on the grass and engage in a series of half-hearted static stretches led by the team captains. After a few minutes, they stand up, do ten jumping jacks and, just like that, they’re ready to play! Nothing about this warmup demonstrates an effective buildup or preparation for the demands of the sport they’re about to play. Unfortunately, “half-hearted” describes most warmups I see in youth sport settings today.
Literature on effective warmups has extensively documented the benefits to performance and reductions in injury risk (1,2). Specifically, warmups serve to:
raise core body temperature
raise heart rate
increase blood flow
increase respiratory rate
increase joint viscosity
activate and mobilize targeted muscles and joints
raise exercise intensity to near competition level
potentiate subsequent performance
The warmup is also an excellent opportunity for youth athletes to develop their movement literacy, which is ultimately part of the foundation of high-level athletic performance (3). Movements in a warmup should be done with the same level of intent and focus on technical execution as is typically reserved for strategic and skill-based practice periods.
So how does one construct a proper warmup? Generally, warmups that utilize more dynamic movements and stretches appear to better prepare athletes for speed and explosive tasks (4). A method commonly used by elite-level coaches and trainers is the RAMP warmup protocol (Raise. Activate. Mobilize. Potentiate) developed by Ian Jeffreys (5). This protocol aims to raise body temperature, stimulate and mobilize targeted muscles and joints, and activate the nervous system for explosive movement (5). A RAMP warmup moves from low to high intensity and general to specific movements to adequately prepare the athlete for practice or competition. The drills in the latter section of the warmup can be tailored to mimic sport-specific and even position-specific actions to better “bridge the gap” to all-out play.
See the following links on warmups and the RAMP protocol to learn more:
A coach can quantify the session’s total training load by tracking the volume (how much work) and intensity (how difficult) for each activity performed. Athletes returning to sport after a long hiatus (e.g. offseason, break due to injury, etc.) are, too often, introduced prematurely to an aggressively high training load. Anecdotally, following the lifting of COVID restrictions, many of the high school athletes I worked with this year described this as their experience when they returned to play. There was excitement to be back on the playing field, as well as a sense of urgency from coaches to get kids back into “playing shape” as soon as possible.
While the excitement is understandable, the coach must ensure a measured approach when introducing training stress to athletes returning for preseason play. These athletes are at a greater risk of injury as they may be unable to tolerate the increasing loads placed upon them due to potential detraining during the offseason (6). In order for an athlete to adapt and increase fitness, they must be exposed to an appropriate amount of training stimulus and then allowed adequate recovery. Coaches must adhere to the principle of progressive overload, whereby the total training load is increased incrementally week to week to allow adaptation to occur and mitigate injury risk (7). An ideal weekly progression would see the total training load increased within the range of 5-20% (16).
How then does one take a measured approach to introduce training stimulus into the practice environment? As the saying goes, “you can’t track what you don’t measure.” Implementing a basic method for measuring and tracking training load during practice can go a long way to provide the coach with information on how the team responds to training and the progression of training load over time. There are certainly advantages to monitoring loading by investing in one of the many wearable electronic devices on the market (GPS units, accelerometers, HR monitors, etc.). However, this is likely not possible for many youth sport organizations due to factors including cost, time, or access to the necessary staff to collect and interpret data accurately. Fortunately, there are reliable and straightforward tech-free ways to track training load. One such method is to measure training volume by tracking “active playing time” in practice and measure training intensity by using rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scales (8). These metrics can calculate the total training load of a given session when used together.
Richard Bucciarelli, a professional fitness coach and sport scientist, has an excellent series of videos that detail this topic and provide practical examples of how coaches can implement this kind of load monitoring with their teams. Check out the links below:
The article provides a table (Table 2) that contains recommended workload progressions for different training activities based on the current status of the athlete(s) returning to play. For instance, if you had an athlete returning from an injury that kept them out of practice for 6 weeks (i.e. a return from long inactivity), for conditioning activities it is recommended that there should be a 50% reduction of the max training volume during week one, a 30% reduction during week two, a 20% reduction during week three and a 10% reduction during week four. In week five the athlete would return to full training volume during team conditioning sessions (15). In the case of a major injury, ideally this progression would only be performed once the athlete has completed their base rehab program under the guidance of a healthcare professional and cleared to return to practice.
Once you have figured out your system for calculating total workload in practice, it just becomes a matter of looking at the table and seeing which loading progression is most appropriate for the status of your athlete(s).
3) Exercise Selection and Execution
To this day, I still have nightmares of wobbly 1/4 lunges, worm-like pushups and never-ending V-sit holds. Then there are burpees, which are a popular choice because they “suck” to do. Unfortunately, they also “suck” as means of developing physical qualities in young athletes. Errors in exercise selection and execution are often confounded by the poor implementation of other training parameters and principles detailed in this article. Coaches may often give athletes exercises that are beyond their current abilities. They perform them for too long, at too high an intensity, with too little recovery to ensure optimal execution on subsequent sets. The result is poor execution and high levels of accumulated fatigue, which can lead young athletes quickly down the road to burnout and overtraining (13). According to the Long-Term Athlete Development Model, developing physical literacy is an essential component of youth athletic development, establishing the basis for athleticism and a healthy, active lifestyle later in life (9). Therefore, it is crucial to ensure young athletes are in a position to perform exercises optimally in any fitness program.
When selecting an exercise, a coach should consider the following questions:
What is the goal of the exercise?
Can the athlete perform this exercise with acceptable form?
How do I regress this exercise?
How do I progress this exercise?
What are appropriate set and rep schemes, work-to-rest ratios, or distances?
Once you’ve selected an exercise, ensuring it is executed safely and effectively can be challenging in a large group setting. Here are some tips:
Use simple verbal cues – external cues are generally more effective for motor learning (10). E.g., “sit down on a chair” as a cue for proper squat technique
Slow it down
Do it together as a group
Add pauses to each end of the range of motion
Provide sufficient rest
Pair athletes together and have one of them act as coach while the other performs the movement
Sport coaches are often great at preaching quality reps and high-level technical execution in the strategic and skill-based practice periods. We’ve likely all heard (and likely repeated!) “perfect practice makes perfect.” It makes good sense that the same approach of emphasizing quality movement be implemented during conditioning focused periods as well.
Here are links for more information on the Long-Term Athlete Development Model as well as progressions for general exercises and plyometrics:
The scene is all too familiar. The coach orders everyone to the line and pulls out the whistle. It’s conditioning time! The pace is a fast and furious, all-out effort with little-to-no rest between bouts. After the first couple of rounds, the quality and speed of movement plummet. Kids stumble around, gasping for breath and whining while parents and coaches taunt and jeer. To be clear, I love seeing kids push themselves and work hard just as much as every other coach out there. However, most physical conditioning sessions in youth sport practices come across more as ‘punishment’ than training. It’s essential to consider the cost of this “drive them into the ground” mentality. Lengthy bouts of intense exercise create substantial fatigue. Without sufficient rest in between, the quality of subsequent sets drops drastically. Coaches need to understand how to implement an appropriate work-to-rest ratio based on the demands of the sport or training goal.
The work-to-rest ratio is a simple concept – how much work is being done relative to the amount of rest provided. A 1:3 work-to-rest ratio means three times as much rest is provided as the amount of work done. Adjusting the work-to-rest ratio is an easy and effective way to manipulate the training intensity. If the ratio is adjusted from 1:3 to 1:2, athletes have less time to recover, making the session more challenging.
A basic understanding of energy systems is important when implementing work-to-rest ratios. There are three primary energy systems (Table 1):
Table 1. Energy systems with activities and corresponding recommended work to rest ratios
Typical W:R Ratios
Short, explosive bursts of activity lasting between 0-10s (11)
Longer bouts of medium to high-intensity exercise lasting 20s-2 min (11)
1500m run, round of boxing, extended play in basketball
Short Intervals: 1:12-1:20 Medium to long intervals: 1:3 – 1:5 (11)
Long, low to moderate-intensity exercise lasting 2 min-3 hours (11)
marathon, bike ride, hiking
Intervals over 3 minutes: 1:0.5 – 1:1 (11)
While all three systems are always working at any given time, the duration and intensity of the activity being performed will determine which system becomes the predominant source of energy (11). Therefore, selecting an appropriate work-to-rest ratio is crucial to ensure that you’re training the energy system you wish to affect. For example, suppose the goal is to get your athletes to increase their sprint speed (phosphagen system). In that case, you’ll want to have substantially longer rest relative to work periods to ensure they continue working within this energy system.
Knowing the dominant energy systems in your sport is key to designing effective conditioning plans for your athletes. Many field and court sports have a substantial contribution from the phosphagen system (e.g. short sprints, tackling, jumping, rapid change of direction, etc.) with varying contributions of the glycolytic and aerobic systems depending on how long plays last, the distance covered and recovery time between bouts of intense activity (11). Knowing which ones are most crucial to performance in each sport can help you decide how much time and energy should be allocated to training each of them.
As a part-time football coach, what I’ve generally seen in this world is conditioning work that primarily works the glycolytic system, comprised of high intensity, long duration bouts, and often short recovery periods. However, research tells us that football relies heavily on the phosphagen system for plays (~5-6s) and then utilizes the oxidative system for recovery between plays and when the athletes are on the sideline (12). So, the question becomes, what are we preparing these athletes for when implementing conditioning sessions that are more than what is needed, creating so much fatigue that athletes can barely maintain a jogging pace through them?
Before implementing interval-style conditioning workouts for a team, it’s helpful to know the average work-to-rest ratios in the specific sport. The literature suggests that soccer demonstrates work-to-rest ratios of about 1:7-1:8, with 3-4s of higher intensity exercise interspersed with bouts of lower intensity activity (i.e. walking, jogging) (11). To be even more specific, one could also look at the breakdown of the average work-to-rest ratios by position. Creating interval workouts involving movements performed in the sport (sprinting, cutting, backpedalling, etc.) while adhering to these parameters can be an effective way to directly prepare your athletes for the energy demands of the sport.
Here are some resources to learn more about energy systems and work-to-rest ratios in the context of sport:
abcPE VCE Physical Education video on work-to-rest ratios Click Here
Much work remains to be done to bridge the gap between sport science and the consistent application of best practices within youth sports. Unfortunately, many outdated and misinformed practices are still in use, ultimately to the detriment of young athletes’ development. Sport coaches, and conditioning coaches, have the responsibility to deliver effective conditioning in addition to regular tactical training. With continued attention on improving the quality of warm-up activities, monitoring the progression of training load, picking appropriate work to rest ratios, and training appropriate energy systems, the quality of athlete development will increase, and the risk of injury and burnout will decrease.
Author Bio: For over a decade, Joey has dedicated his career to working in the sports performance and fitness industry. Through his business, Accel Performance Training, he trains individual athletes, groups and teams ranging from middle school and high school to university, Olympic and professional level athletics. Joey also brings an extensive amount of experience from his days competing as a high-performance athlete as both a football player (McMaster University) and a Canadian bobsleigh athlete (2018 Canadian Olympic Team). Ultimately, he is committed to providing training that is measurable, accountable, and specific to the goals of the athlete and the demands of their sport.
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