Vail Daily column: Performance training for young athletes |

Vail Daily column: Performance training for young athletes

Last week, I discussed how to provide the right opportunities for youth to excel at sports. I illustrated the importance of having a healthy dose of variety when it comes to participation in sports; too much specialization in one sport isn’t optimal for youth. They need diversity to increase their motor learning and minimize boredom. Variety also highlights specific skills that might otherwise be overlooked.

The same applies to performance training. The program for youth to increase fitness capacity needs to be broad and general to promote overall athleticism.

Discussing programs for specific age ranges within youth fitness participation is beyond the scope of this article. However, as youth progress from pre-adolescence through college, the program evolves from very general, low intensity exercise to more specific, intense training.

If a young athlete decides to perform at the college level and beyond, specificity will become a factor, as by then the young adult will participate primarily in one sport.

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Long before this is a reality though, the vast majority of youth need to be exposed to good movement skills, endurance, basic strength, power and agility. The No. 1 priority in developing any of these traits is safety first. Injury prevention is the absolute No. 1.


Considering safety, the following exercises I feel are realistic for introducing youth to physical culture.

Movement skills: Bear crawls. Bear crawls are just what they sound like. The trainee assumes a quadruped position on all fours and elevates the knees off the ground slightly. The trainee begins the exercise by crawling with the opposite limbs. The right arm moves forward at the same time the left knee moves forward. The knees never touch the ground, however. This is a great introductory skill that builds rotational stability (the ability to avoid twisting). It also develops coordination and helps build foundational core strength.

Endurance: Running. Running is so good for youth. There aren’t many sports that youth participate in that don’t require running. Even sports like skiing require a significant aerobic capacity that can be built with running. Trail running is ideal because it provides undulation in the terrain that builds reactivity and stability in the youth’s lower extremities. Running uphill takes it up a notch, as this self-limiting exercise reduces the likelihood of injury.

Basic strength: Calisthenics. Observing youth perform pushups and pull-ups tells a coach all they need to know about the trainees’ ability to demonstrate basic strength. A lousy pushup or the inability to perform pull-ups can easily guide a skilled coach. Youth need to develop the ability to move their own body weight before using external loads.

Power: Jumping. Vertical jumping is the greatest barometer of power development because the force of gravity acts upon all objects equally. A 200-pound youth is not disadvantaged from the 110-pound counterpart. Therefore, jumping is a great metric for testing the ability to apply and demonstrate force quickly. Therefore, long jumps, frog hops, bounding, skipping, jumping from knees to feet and rapidly hopping in place are all good medicine for youth in the quest for introductory power development.

Agility: Jumping rope. Jumping rope is a great self-limiting exercise because foot speed can limit your ability to clear the rope in time, causing you to trip. It very easily and quickly develops foot speed. The joint impact is minimal because of the low amplitude jump (versus jumping off of a box for example). Another great agility tool is to lie down and get up as quickly as possible, shuffle sideways and repeat for an extended period of time.


The exercise selections are endless; more variety is better up to a certain point. (We must not overwhelm the athlete for varieties sake). Variation reduces boredom and moderates overuse injuries. Diversity also builds a well-rounded, better conditioned athlete.

Lastly, it is a myth that strength training stunts a youth’s growth. As long as the young gun can listen and follow directions, he or she can lift heavy stuff. Let’s get our youth on the right track, and most importantly, create a fun and safe environment.

Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at or 970-401-0720.

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