Just as no two athletes are the same, athletes at two different points in their career are inherently going to require different approaches to training. In approaching the training of a given athlete, it is important that the coach (or self-coached athlete) considers the training age and the stage in which the athlete is currently at. In this article, I will try and devise a basic approach to categorizing and implementing training for athletes in a given phase of their career.
The Stages of Athlete Development
This isn’t gospel, but I think you can break athletic progression into 4 stages:
- Stage 1 – Youth Sports & Pre-Development
- Stage 2 – Foundational Development
- Stage 3 – Specification & Late Development
- Stage 4 – Maintenance & Extension of Career
Though not specific to a certain age, you can roughly say that young athletes would fall into stages 1 & 2, while older and more established athletes would fall into stages 3 & 4.
Athlete Development in Stage 1
In stage 1, athletes are just beginning to enter organized competition in the form of school sports, youth sports leagues, etc. These athletes should not be training with any specialized methods. Stage 1 athletes are best served with practice in the form of play – soccer matches, foot races, flag football, etc. Being that kids have short attention spans and are not physically developed, specialized training is arguably one of the worst things you can do if you want the kid to have a long, enjoyable career in sports. Soviet research showed decades ago that early specialization is not good for long term athlete development, and in line with this athletes in stage 1 should not specialize to a specific sport.
During this stage of development, athletes should be taught proper, basic movement patterns. Most instructional time should be spent teaching them how to run with proper posture, how to squat without their knees collapsing inward, how to safely decelerate, etc. By teaching them safe movement habits at a time where brain plasticity is extremely high, stage 1 athletes can be set up for long term success.
Towards the end of stage 1, such as in grades 5-7 (ages 10-12), athletes can begin to do body-weight strength movements such as push-ups, pull-ups, squats, crawls, etc.
- Stage 1 athletes should have fun
- They should play sports or games with their friends
- They should not specify and train for one single sport. Variety is the spice of life, especially here.
- Athletes should have zero pressure to do a specific sport or to have goals in a sport, but rather should be encouraged to go have fun.
Athlete Development in Stage 2
Stage 2 could run anywhere from late junior high to high school (grades 8-12 in the US school system), with athletes ranging from 13 to 17 years old. During this time, developing qualities of strength, core stability, and general mobility are a good place to start. Additionally, in place jumps and rudiment hops can be used, with a focus on proper landing mechanics taking priority over jump height/distance/intensity.
As athletes progress up towards adulthood, some intensification can take place relative to the athlete’s level of physical readiness. As a high school athlete, I myself went a bit crazy with intensification, benching and power cleaning at max 3-5 days per week. I got pretty strong, benching 315lb and cleaning 245lb at 170/175lb bodyweight, but my shoulders took a beating and my questionable power clean technique got cemented into my brain.
Intensification is obviously required, but athletes don’t need to be pushed to breaking 1-rep maxes or doing depth jumps all the time. There is plenty to be gained in this stage regarding anaerobic and aerobic work capacity, technical ability, and the mental/emotional habits which are required to have some amount of success in competition.
Some athletes in this stage will start to present the signs of being a head-case, and you as a coach have an opportunity to help lead them down a path of self-confidence. On the flip side, you can be like plenty of terrible coaches who beat their athletes’ self-worth into the ground to the point where they never want to compete again – the choice is yours. It is my opinion that patience, empathy, understanding, and good communication should trump assholeyness, though many coaches still subscribe to the idea that tough talk and excessively hard work is what creates champions.
Lastly, training should be focused on the development of specific, fundamental qualities. In the case of sprinters, workloads can be broken up into acceleration, speed, GSSE, short speed endurance, long speed endurance, etc. Each of these qualities can be given a specific day, or maybe blended with another quality. Focused sessions are potent for skill development, and athletes in this stage need to develop the skills needed for their specific discipline.
- Athletes should start to develop fundamental qualities such as strength, core stability, and proper movement techniques.
- Towards the end of this stage, intensification can take place, but not to the extent that this is the primary goal of the program.
- Jumps and lifts are great, but should not be extremely intense (depth jumps and 1-RM’s all the time)
- Athletes should be taught how to keep a healthy perspective, and to avoid setting unrealistic goals or expectations.
- Training sessions should be focused on improving a specific set of qualities
Athlete Development in Stage 3
Stage 3 athletes could be roughly classified into collegiate and post-collegiate athletes. In this stage, specification and intensification are the primary concerns. By this point, athletes should be well versed in proper movement mechanics, and they should have a basic but well rounded exposure to sport specific training methods and principles. Stage 3 is where athletes should choose a sport to specialize in, and their training can shift to being highly sport specific.
For speed and power athletes, stage 3 is where the athletes get to focus more on developing the high intensity qualities required for success in their sport. Higher loads, higher velocities, and higher volumes can all be used if implemented in a logical and thoughtful manner. Accommodating resistance, depth jumps, high intensity complexes, etc. can become a larger part of the overall training program as well.
Stage 3 can be looked at as the stage where the goal is the maximize the potential of a given athlete’s physical outputs. Speed, strength, power, etc. should all be maximized in this stage, and this stage can take place over a fairly long period of time (years). If we were to put a number on it, this stage would probably equate to 20-25 years old, give or take depending on the specific athlete at hand.
First year college athletes will in many cases still fall into stage 2, seeing as a freshmen class can bring with it a very wide variety of skill sets and capabilities. In this year, coaches should focus on bringing everyone up to speed instead of forcing excessive workloads on the athletes. As these athletes progress through college, intensification can take priority, with an aim to produce their best performance in their final year of competition.
Coaches with stage 3 athletes should start to individualize training, as the rate of progression and response to intensification will vary significantly from athlete to athlete. Leaving ego’s and dogmatic thinking at the door is crucial for coaches if they want to help athletes with long term development.
Training sessions can start to blend various qualities toward the end of stage 3. In the case of sprint athletes, acceleration and speed or speed endurance can often be blended into the same practice, with the goal being to produce the ability to put together a good race. Being able to accelerate well is great, but only if it can implemented into the race as a whole. By blending qualities from time to time, athletes can learn the skill of running their full length event instead of only practicing the race’s constituent parts.
- Stage three should be viewed as the specialization stage, with athletes focusing on a single sport.
- Stage three will show a shift towards intensification and increased workloads
- Stage three training should be individualized to the needs of the athlete
- Coaches need to approach this stage with the goal of long term development – not rushing to compete well at the conference championships at the expense of the athlete’s well-being.
Athlete Development in Stage 4
Stage 4 is the final stage in an athlete’s competitive career, with the goal here being to stabilize the ability to perform at a high level without injury. Generally speaking, this would qualify as athletes who are professional or otherwise nearing the end of their competitive careers.
Training loads in this stage become extremely individualized, with a focus on physical and mental/emotional status taking precedence over what the “plan” states the athlete needs to do. High intensity and regenerative training means will become the primary focus, with less of an emphasis being placed on general fitness (given that the athlete has the requisite level of fitness needed to complete the rest of their training).
This doesn’t mean these athletes have it easy, but rather athletes of this stage are near their maximal potential, and as such need to be kept healthy so they can express their skills in competition. Usain Bolt for example simply needs to get to the competition, and he will likely do pretty well relative to the rest of the field. Would it be worth it to risk injury to try and increase his power clean max by 10lb? I don’t think so. He still trains hard, but only to the extent that he can stay healthy and make it competition.
Athletes in this stage should stick with training they enjoy, working weaknesses in the off-season and focusing on strengths as they near competition. Confidence, physical health, and mental/emotional stability will produce high quality competitive results for a stage 4 athlete moreso than smashing massive workloads that they despise.
- Stage 4 athletes are nearing the end of their career
- Maintaining performance and ensuring physical, mental, & emotional well-being are at the top of the priority list
- Eliminating bad habits and working weaknesses in the off-season can shift toward working strengths closer to competition
- Training should predominantly consist of methods the athletes like and believe in – think individualized training
- Confidence and well-being will produce good results for these athletes – immense workloads might not
As stated before, none of this is gospel, but it should be kept in mind as a reasonable way to look at the stages of an athlete’s career. In the case of any athlete, consider the following:
- Where they are in their career
- What they’ve done prior to working with you
- What their needs are and what they can handle
- What the primary goals should be given where they are in their career
By keeping these ideas in mind, we can all create and implement training which is optimal for the athletes and the career point in which they are at.
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