With daily public school-based
gym curriculum diminishing, and the allure of screen time, the incidence of
obesity in Canada has our country receiving a failing grade on our physical
activity report card. In 1978, 14% of Canadians were considered obese (1). This
obesity number rose in 2015 to 25% in adults and 24.5% of 15-year-olds were
reported as overweight (1). This number is projected to rise to 30% by the year
2030 (1). This will create a significant burden on our healthcare system.
Participation in sport and
supplementary strength and conditioning programs are necessary to help kids
minimize the occurrence of obesity, and provide them with a platform to develop
physical literacy skills. However, at times through sport, we are running into
challenges of kids specializing at an early age to try to achieve elite status.
Hockey is a common example of this with 8 and 9-year-olds playing as many as 70
hockey games through the fall, winter and spring. This is potentially setting
kids up to miss windows of opportunity to develop and optimize other crucial
skills through participation in typical summer activities like soccer, tennis,
baseball and weekends at a cottage near water. Before the age of 12 years old,
physical literacy skills may be optimized if they are introduced to sport
participation in unstructured and/or structured play. Physical literacy skills
consist of gross motor skills like running, jumping, twisting, kicking,
lunging, throwing, swimming. Also important are the ABC’s of movement (agility,
balance, coordination, and speed), and the KGB’s of athleticism (kinesthetic
sense, gliding, buoyancy, sliding)(2).
In 2015, the International
Olympic Committee made a bold statement on youth athletic development
evidence shows that a diversity of activities in early development is an
indicator of continued involvement in more intense activities later in life,
elite performance and continued participation in sport” (3).
Our Canadian Sport for Life long
term athlete development model has broken down potential physical requirements
of athletic development into the 5S’s: Suppleness, Speed, Skills, Strength, and
In this model, there are suggested windows of trainability in childhood where these physical skills may be optimized to reach genetic potential if introduced at the right time. The suggested windows of trainability are based periods, before, during and after the onset of a growth spurt. Additionally, strength coaches need to be mindful of the fastest rate of growth or Peak Height Velocity (PHV). Sport For Life offers an excellent resource that outlines in detail a process for movement development from an early age to active participation through adulthood. Click HERE to see their Physical Literacy: Building a New Normal for all Canadians document.
Being involved in activities like
gymnastics, tennis and track and field are great for exposure before the PHV as
they encompass the basic movement skills and the ABC’s of athleticism.
Similarly, participating or
competing in cardiovascular activities like swimming, soccer rugby, cross
country running and mountain biking at PHV will allow for aerobic system
training during the window of opportunity to reach genetic potential in that
system. Post PHV athletes need to consider starting to build on their strength
capabilities and power as there is a window of trainability 12-18 months
post-growth spurt where this is very sensitive to training.
As strength and conditioning
coaches this is crucial information to keep in mind when designing team and
youth programs. Beyond an understanding of their capabilities, emotional
intelligence, and their needs, you can assess what stage your athletes are in
by plotting their physical growth monthly to determine when a rapid change is
occurring and they are in their PHV. Alternatively, the University of
Saskatchewan has a great online resource (5) where you can plug in simple
anthropometric variables and get a print out of when an athlete is going to
reach PHV and what their adult stature will be. As the training age advances, a
coach needs to prepare proper exercise progressions and regressions to adjust
for the differing needs of athletes within the same training group or team.
This information can be utilized to design an educated plan for growing
athletes and educate parents on the types of supplementary activities they can
get involved with to assist in becoming a well-rounded athlete and maximizing
It is key to point out that these
windows are suggested, and should not be treated as firm programming
necessities. At our facility, we may use these guidelines initially as we begin
the learning process of assessing the needs of the kids we work with. However,
over time we create programs based on the specific abilities and needs of the
individual which may vary from the suggested windows of development. We do this
with specific testing and assessment.
Regardless of the sensitive
periods, all fitness attributes can be improved (to varying degrees) at all
ages. Degree of improvements and focus will be dependant on needs and goals.
When designing a program for any developing athlete is it important to know
both their physiological stage, their current fitness, skill level, and
psychological maturity. A small battery of field tests can give you a sense of
where your athlete is and help to direct your exercise selection and
At our facility, we use the following guidelines as we learn about the athletes we are working with.
For the kids we work with, kids
typically start with programs we focus on the technique of basic strength
movements like squats, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups and progress to introducing
power movements like kettlebell swings, DB snatch, Olympic bar hang cleans and
various DB strength movements for those who are capable and competent. We then
progress those who are ready to speed and coordination drills like Hex Rail,
shuffles drills with cones. At times we also use coloured cones with specific
instructions to move to a specific colour and/or direction.
We next progress kids towards
more challenging programs that build off the exercises they have practiced in
the earlier phases of training and increase volume and intensity with supersets
and trisets. Table 2. Shows a sample program of this.
Systematically through an
organized, thoughtful approach to child sport activity participation and
complementary training programs, we can ensure children are exposed to physical
literacy and 5S of sport performance to help reach their potential. This will
have them more apt to participate in physical activities through adulthood. The
impact of this will resonate with a healthier mental, emotional and physical
Sarah is the owner and an exercise physiologist at Active Life Conditioning, a 5000sq ft multidisciplinary training centre in Collingwood Ontario. She has been working with youth and elite athletes for over 20 years and works with Provincial sport bodies such as Alpine skiing, Snowboarding and is the lead strength and conditioning coach for the Grey Bruce Highlanders AAA hockey organization. Her clients include various professional and semi-pro hockey players, and other aspiring developmental, provincial and varsity calibre athletes. Check out Active Life Conditioning at www.activelifeconditioning.com or contact Sarah@activelifeconditioning.com