Age Appropriate Training for Youth

Most of us know children mature at different rates yet do not know that every child has an optimal time or “window of opportunity” for developing the various physical qualities that propel them towards high levels of athletic achievement. These periods of physiological development are known as “sensitive periods” and occur at a child’s greatest potential for physical adaptation to specific sports training stimulus. If the child does not engage in sports or physical activities during this stage of development, the result will be a permanent loss of fitness and athletic potential.

Coaches often make the mistake of training children between the ages of 10 and 16 based on their chronological age rather than their developmental age. Research has shown that chronological age is not a good indicator to begin athletic development training programs for young tennis players. There is too much variation in the physical, cognitive and emotional maturation of athletes within this age group. Taking a physical training program and scaling it down for a junior is not a good alternative – kids are not mini adults and should not be trained like them. The best way to determine a child’s developmental age is to identify their Peak Height Velocity (PHV) or their growth spurt. Typically, this occurs between the ages of 12-14 in both girls and boys. At this time their ability to adapt to physical stressors demanded of them is heightened, and results can come quickly which ultimately dictates their future in athletics.

A mistake parents make is having their child specialize in tennis (or other sports) at too early an age. If the child is only playing one sport during their developmental years (5-12) their “physical literacy” will never have a chance to progress. Physical literacy means the development of fundamental movement skills (FMS) and fundamental sport skills (FSS). This should allow a child to engage in a wide variety of physical activities with confidence and efficiency before the onset of the growth spurt.

Dr. Istvan Balyi has done much research on Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD) which is defined by this five-stage model.

1. FUNdamentals: Males 6-9/Females 6-8 years of age
2. Learning to Train: Males 9-12/Females 8-11 years of age
3. Training to Train: Males 12-16/ Females 11-15 years of age
4. Training to Compete: Males 16-18/ Females 15-17 years of age
5. Training to Win: Males 18 and older/ Females 17 and older

Sustained success comes from training and performing well over the long-term rather than winning in the short-term.

Ken Macdonald MS, NASM, TPI