The fitness world certainly has changed radically in the last 15 years.
It is crazy to think that back when I first started coaching back then there were really no ‘small gyms’ to speak of. Your options were to go to a big gym and train on your own, hire a personal trainer who often worked out of their home, or hire a trainer at your gym (but very few did that as I recall).
It feels like we have a gym on almost every street corner. It is getting to the Starbucks/Dunkin Donuts level of saturation.
Most of these facilities cater to adult fitness, but there are also many like ours that focus more on athletic development for ages 18 and under.
At first glance we appear to be very much the same service.
The equipment is roughly the same.
We do lots of similar drills.
We sweat, grunt, and yell a lot.
To the general population the idea that ‘fitness is fitness’ seems quite prevalent today.
But here’s the thing that I strongly believe is being seriously overlooked….
Athletic development training has more differences than it does similarities with adult training.
Unfortunately that doesn’t mean kids are always getting a different service. Too often we see the exact same programs used for adults that are just marketed towards kids. Or you’re seeing a slightly watered down training, but not one that takes into account the vast differences between the needs of the two populations.
The differences do not always stand out, but they are critical if you are at all interested in doing right by kids who train.
Having been in the industry for almost two decades while working with both sides, I see 10 major differences in getting the most out of training between adults and younger athletes:
1. Athletic development is not ‘One-Size-Fits-All’
A workout of the day or a general program for all athletes is an absurd concept. No elite sports trainer in the country (that I’m aware of) does this.
And the reason is simple – there are far too many variables to make one program effective for large numbers. You need to factor in age (there can be a HUGE difference between training a 13 year old and a 15 year old), sport played, position, and exercise history, just to get started.
Training here requires not just getting stronger, but performing complex exercises at fast speed, so coordination issues and experience levels are going to vary greatly.
Adult training is far less diverse. Almost every adult wants to remove some pain, drop a few pounds, and get back the energy and youthful feel they used to have. Programming for like-minded people lends itself nicely to a one-size-fits-all approach on this side.
2. Today’s typical athlete is too active, but the typical adult is too sedentary.
I’d guess that for more than 90% of adults the workout they do at their gym is the most physically demanding thing they do in their day, and represents most of their activity for the week.
Contrast that with today’s typical young athlete who plays on multiple teams, is never out of season, and practices or plays games 5-7 days per week.
Should the workout bury them in the same fashion as a typical bootcamp session would?
If you are in a true off-season, maybe. But in most cases a younger athlete needs a different style of training.
Their goals are all about accumulating training time during their growth years to force an athletic adaptation of their bodies. The stage of life they’re in allows them to improve more for less effort, but because they’re in this growth stage they are also far more susceptible to overuse injuries.
Most kids today train too little and play their sport too much, and part of that may be because they perceive a workout as being too exhausting. So they do nothing and miss a chance to improve that day.
A younger athlete that trains 1-2 days per week with less intensity will still make progress, but adults need more than this to see true change. Again, different populations with different outcomes.
3. Athletes are often times in growth stages, and training needs to address these challenges
With the onset of puberty and the constant limb length changes that occur until full maturity, there are a range of balance, coordination and flexibility issues that an athlete deals with.
These are not the most exciting skills, but to become the most athletic person you can be you definitely need to address them with exercise. These are the skills that used to be covered in physical education classes more often than not, but times have changed.
Adult classes would still benefit from solid doses of these, but they are often mimimized for the sake of getting stronger and more fit. An athlete who makes that same mistake, especially if they are still growing, will pay a much heavier price.
4. Because of in-season and off-season needs, the annual training calendar is different for athletes
An athlete has very different ways to train and improve based on where they are in their sports calendar.
During the off-season athlete can focus on hammering away at their biggest needs for next year – strength, muscle gain, speed, conditioning – and they can tailor training to heavily emphasize almost any physical skill.
An in-season athlete will not have the time or energy to do it all, so they need to focus on three big things – power, flexibility, and speed.
Adult classes need some variability to avoid overuse issues, but do not require the more periodized approach that athletic development requires.
5. Speed & agility technique is immensely valuable for athletic development, but largely irrelevant for adult classes
Running form is certainly helpful for an adult to prevent overuse injuries, but rarely will they get judged on their 40 time or their ability to get separation from a defender.
Athletes who play field sports do care, and if they’re wise they’d be spending 1-2 hours every week of the year working on refining their technique. No skill is more coveted in sports than speed, and training clearly impacts your ability to maximize it.
6. Sports require specific power development
Similar to speed training, sport-specific power training can greatly enhance your ability to throw, kick, and shoot. These are critical to success in sports, but again are typically rendered as minor or irrelevant in most adult-style workouts.
Athletes should focus on true plyometrics (the ones where you absorb a force and then try to produce force with as little time in between as possible), rotational medicine ball throws and Olympic Lifting done for power output with a large emphasis on the finer points of the drills.
Using proper technique in an Olympic Lift, or a medicine ball throw, or a plyo jump has a huge correlation to how beneficial that drill is to on-field performance. Just doing these drills at high volumes won’t necessarily translate to sports the way you wish.
7. Conditioning should be sport-specific, too Getting into ‘basketball shape’ is a lot different from going for a long run.
Hockey shifts have a very common work to rest ratio throughout games that is totally different from a soccer player, or a baseball player.
These are the little details that can make sport-specific conditioning so very effective when it comes to being in shape for your first practice.
Adult fitness classes today are big on conditioning, but is it specific to the sport and level you currently play at?
If it isn’t, your working extremely hard for very little impact.
8 Lactate threshold readiness – Is your athlete ready for this?
Our adults often times work at a pace that get their heart rates pretty high for sustained periods of time. And as adults, they have the physiological capacity to buffer the lactic acid buildup that accumulates and causes training like this to be so painful.
But athletes that are usually below age 16 do not have this capability fully developed yet. And because of this, training a non-developed aspect of an athlete’s toolbox is not only dumb, its dangerous.
Social media posts that show the hardest, craziest training types possible are certainly interesting – I know I’ve watched a few myself – but this does not mean that what you see is equally applicable to everyone in a workout setting.
Training always needs to stay focused on how to best utilize the limited time and energy a person has to improve based on their unique goals. Straying away from what’s best for an individual in favor of killing them with fitness is wrong on a lot of levels.
9. The value of having a mentor or coach who believes in you
We all benefit from having people in our lives who are supportive and believe in what we are capable of.
In the cut-throat world of youth sports today there has never been a more important time for coaches to act in a way that truly advances the best interests of their athletes. The pressure young athletes face today is extreme, and their self-esteem hangs in the balance.
Sports training programs, done correctly, are far more than just workouts. They are environments where kids can challenge their potential while being guided by mentors who are not only looking out for them, but also remind them constantly of what they are capable of becoming.
No kid is going to believe in themselves if those around them don’t. And despite the best intentions of loving parents, most kids are going to come back at you with “They’re supposed to believe in me, they’re MY parents!”.
But when an outside source sees something positive in them and let’s them know it, it can be life changing.
10. The value of having a mentor/coach teach you the right approach from the start
They say it takes about 1,000 repetitions to master a skill, but 10, 000 repetitions to undo a poorly developed one.
Learn it right from the start, and you drastically accelerate your development curve.
Knowing not just the right technique for your drills, but knowing how to challenge yourself, how to develop a true workout mindset, these are just as critical for long-term success.
A quality sports performance coach can do wonders here, far more than you can do for an adult class where there are almost always years and years of learned behaviors that are deeply ingrained already.
So does all this mean we don’t love working with our adult classes too?
Absolutely not. In fact they are some of the funnest and most enjoyable hours of the day for our coaches.
The point is that, in many ways, youth training has far more variables to consider and in a lot of ways is far more complex and challenging to do correctly.
Those that take the easier way out by copying the more streamlined world of adult fitness do their kids a terrible disservice. The coaches who do right by both populations can help tranform the health and careers of far more, and we can never have enough of those types of coaches in our field.