We often get asked how old someone can be to train in our athletic development program. Within the context of our specific program, there are some ages that fit better than others.
However, total athletic development begins at birth, and continues until you are no longer interested in becoming a better athlete. This could last until the end of high school, college, or even your entire lifetime!
Of course, how you develop athleticism looks different at various stages of life. What a 5 year old should do to optimize improvement is obviously not the same thing a 15 year old would do. Not as obvious, perhaps, is that the 15 year old also shouldn't be training like a 25 year old either.
The following is once again a simplified outline of a heavily researched topic, but should serve the purpose of understanding how to train & develop athletes over the course of their sports careers.
Phase 1 (Ages 0-9): Developing Foundations
In this stage of life you are primed to learn new movement skills through exploration and experimentation. Unstructured or lightly structured activity is ideal, preferably ones that involve some combination of running, jumping, balancing, climbing, catching, throwing and kicking. This is also known as 'free play'.
And the more of it, the better! Setting the habit of being physically active for a younger child can have an exponential benefit down the road.
Strength training should not be structured in this phase, but game-based strength drills like bear crawl or crab walk races/games, just to name two, are a great way to build that side of the foundation in early years. These are a great fit in school gym classes or after-school programs.
Of course there is no harm in a structured sports program in these early years, provided it does not take up the bulk of physical activity time for a child, and allows for lots of general movement skill acquisition. Sports practices where kids stand around in lines or in their position for most of a practice or game is not ideal.
Without going too far off course, ingraining excellent nutrition habits in these years is also a must. The habits you develop by age 10 will have a powerful effect on performance throughout all the forthcoming phases. Limiting sweet and salty snacks to a minimal level, eating fruits and vegetables, finding protein sources that you like are great starting points.
KEY TAKEAWAYS IN PHASE ONE: Be as active as possible, in as many different types of movement skills as possible. Unstructured is more beneficial than highly structured. Form excellent nutrition habits right away.
Phase 2 (Ages 10 - 13): Filling In The Cracks & Expanding The Foundation
With maturity, many kids are ready to take the leap to a more formal athletic development program in these years. Here, we seek to identify and develop any weaker skills sets that may impede success later on if they are left unresolved.
This could involve an emphasis on coordination, flexibility, stability, speed, strength, power, or a wide range of sport-specific skills necessary to thrive in their chosen field(s). Whatever the need, it is crucial in these years that extra attention is placed on building them up as best as you can.
Training is more nuanced and exercises at times are more complex than Phase 1. This requires a level of focus from the athlete in order to attain the desired result, and not every 10-13 year old is mature enough to handle that. But those that are gain an advantage on their competitors because they are getting more benefit from every repetition, every set, and every workout.
Along with fixing weak points, training can now build areas of talent as well. A strong kid can get stronger, a fast kid can get faster, a skilled kid can take on more complex sport skills.
Finally, kids in this phase can begin to build the mindset of a champion by not only enhancing their focus as stated above, but also improving their work ethic and their ability to step out of their comfort zone to take on newer and greater challenges. These mental attributes are just as important, if not more important, than the physical growth they'll see from training.
KEY TAKEAWAYS IN PHASE TWO: The goal here is steady, continuous growth in speed, strength and sports skills while bringing up weaker points in your overall profile. Simultaneously, a Champion's Mindset - focus, hard work, taking on & overcoming challenges - begins to take shape.
Phase 3 (Ages 14 - 18): Sport-Specific Training
In what is generally your high school years, athletes should now tailor their development time to fit the more specific needs of their main sport. Especially in today's ultra competitive culture, weakness in any one area makes it more likely someone else will come in and steal your playing time.
The most common areas of need are speed, conditioning, and strength on the physical side. Equally critical to playing success are sport-specific skills (passing, hitting, shooting, etc) and a mental understanding of game tactics. Competition begins weeding out those who are falling behind. This can be a cruel phase for many, especially if they are unprepared for the rigors of the next level.
With nearly fully matured frames, athletes can load up with progressively heavier weights in their workouts. Strength training also raises your speed and power traits, making it highly recommended for just about every sport.
The volume of training can be increased both in sport and training, but coaches must remember that rest and recovery days are when the actual adaptations happen. Training an athlete at this age like a professional will only lead to burnout and nagging injuries.
Care also must be taken to keep an eye on foundational skills like stability and flexibility, as both injury and growth spurts may put a dent in your foundation which will need repair through training.
Skill work, both in sport and with speed & agility, can become increasingly more fine-tuned to find small flaws that can be corrected to enhance performance.
With a solid foundation built through Phases 1 and 2, including the proper nutrition habits that are now deeply ingrained, improvement here can be dramatic.
KEY TAKEAWAYS IN PHASE THREE: Sport-specific training now becomes more important. Volume and intensity can be ramped up in this phase. An emphasis on finding more specific technique improvements are another way an athlete can see noticeable performance improvements in training, an edge those with a Champion's Mindset can take advantage of.
Phase 4 (Ages 19+): Peak Performance Training
If you're still playing in college or beyond, you are approaching the pinnacle of your sport. Your athletic development is near the summit, but you're not there yet.
Volume and intensity can be further ramped up, provided you built up your training capacity in Phase 3, to levels that may at times make you question why you are playing the sport. Workouts can be brutal, because you are attempting to enter a level of physical dominance few of us will ever experience. It is hard, grueling work.
Then, for athletes who have truly pushed their bodies to the limits of its capacity (and are fortunate to still be able to play), around age 27 it becomes time to shift more towards a maintenance approach. The incremental gains you can still make must be balanced by the potential risk of injury and missed games.
Training is about sustaining, for as long as you can.
KEY TAKEAWAYS IN PHASE FOUR:. Elite training is grueling, but it gets you that last 5% or so of athletic development that can separate you from the pack. Eventually, however, training must shift to a maintenance mindset to stay healthy on the back end of a professional athletic career.
In this series on Long-Term Athletic Development, we've learned what the term means, what is currently off-track in most cases today, and some ways to potentially fix it.
This final post is meant to show that, just like in any other endeavor, there are no overnight successes. Only well executed plans.
Winning is a great motivator at all ages, but true champions keep the results on the scoreboard in context. The real wins come from development, the slow and steady progress over many years that most people today are overlooking, but can put you on the path to excellence.