Developing Young Athletes

With the birth of my daughter a few years ago, I’ve been inundated with questions about training young people.

What types of training should (or shouldn’t) they do?

What can you do to maximize their long-term athletic development?

How can you maximize not only their performance, but their health and well-being?

These are all great questions, and I’m going to do my best to answer them today.

Be forewarned, though – there will be times when this resembles a rant more than a blog post.

And if that’s the case, so be it 🙂

My Story

Growing up, I was obsessed with sports.

I (almost) literally played every sport known to man, whether it was popular or not.

Not only was it fun to learn new sports, but this was back in the day when we actually played games in gym class – we didn’t just learn rules and tactics, then take tests!

My favorite sport growing up was basketball, and of course being from Indiana, my favorite player was Larry Bird.

I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be 6’9″ or have the silky-smooth stroke of Larry Legend, so around the age of 15 I realized that strength training could be of benefit.

Even though I was doing the most ridiculous workouts known to man (circuit training, 100’s, etc.) I still saw a change in my physique, and most importantly, in my game.

Even at 15 years old, it was obvious to me that if I could develop my physical skills to a higher level, I would have a leg-up on my competition.

From that day forward, I was on a mission to learn as much about strength training and conditioning as possible.

At 34, I realize that the things I did then were stupid, but I also know that I can give the kids I work with an amazing foundation to build from.

Here are just a few thoughts to marinate on, whether you’re the parent of a young one, a coach, or possibly both, I think there will be something in here for everyone.

“Training” Little People

People always want to know what my thoughts are on training Kendall. Keep in mind she’s not even 2 yet, so I use the term “training” very sarcastically.

Of course, the questions I get range from serious (“How young is too young to strength train?”) to silly (“When is she going on the Russian squat protocol?”)

Hilarity aside, these are great questions and things I’ve thought a ton about. The last thing I want to do is screw my child up because I’m some crazy, overbearing parent.

When it comes to little kids, I think the most important thing for them to do is experience a ton of different situations and environments.

Let them walk, run and jump everywhere. Most kids I watch hate simply walking – they’re always running, jogging, skipping, or trotting to get from Point A to Point B.

Let them climb and hang from stuff whenever possible (assuming it’s not cabinets or dishwashers, two things Kendall is currently obsessed with).

Quite simply, let them move around and explore all kinds of new things. The world is their playground.

With Kendall, one thing we really enjoy is a place called My Gym. It sounds silly, but this is like a kids indoor gym with all kinds of stuff they can crawl on and under, stairs and steps to climb, things to hang from (and fall safely on), etc.

You name it, and they probably have it.

And the really cool thing is, every time we’re there, she’s on to something new. She’s always trying new stuff and just exploring what her little body can do.

As she grows up, I’d really like her to try a whole bunch of different sports. Whether she really likes or sticks with any of them throughout the years will be up to her, but I think the more unique sports she can play, the better off she’ll be in life (let alone sports).

Think about it like this…

…soccer is great for developing foot-eye coordination…

…basketball is great for hand-eye coordination, lateral agility and movement, etc….

…gymnastics are great for learning tumbling, body and spatial awareness, etc…

The more sports and unique environments I can expose her to, the better off I think she’ll be.

Last but definitely not least, I think the most important thing I can do for my daughter is to make things fun.

Who says that things always have to be hard, or competitive?

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of these parents that wants to hand out “1st Place” prizes to every kid who competes in something. I think that teaches our kids a lot of bad lessons.

But then again, I don’t think we need to necessarily push them to excel in each and every sport or activity, either.

It’s ok to try something and not like it, or not be good at it.

If I can make being healthy and just enjoying her body and movement something that’s enjoyable, then I’ve done my job as a parent.

So that gives you some of my thoughts on movement with little ones. What about those kids who are ready for more formal training?

Training Young Athletes

The scenario I described above works for any child up to that age range of 11-13, at which point they may start some more formal methods of training.

Even at that point, however, the focus should still be on play, movement awareness, etc.

So what do you do when they are ready to get in the gym and start training?

A few months back, I started training my niece, Zoe.

She’s a rock star athlete, and you can just tell she’s an athletic girl (mom was a pretty legit volleyball player back in the day; just another example that good genetics never hurt!)

At 14, I’d still recommend that Zoe play as many sports as she finds enjoyable. If she can play 3 or 4 sports per year until she settles on one that is her favorite (or her best), great!

Not only does she get to learn more sports and tactics, but it prevents burnout as well.

WARNING: Tangent Alert!

If you train kids that are already sport-specific or focused, you need to be in tune with how they’re feeling. I will put cash money on the fact that at some point in time during their competitive calendar, they flat-out hate that sport. I’ve seen it time and again.

Be tuned in, and you can not only shift gears a bit with your training, but keep it fun and fresh to reduce said burnout.

But I digress….

In the gym, my goal is to make a complete athlete.

And the word complete here is critical.

Too often, I see kids get moved right into this world of “upper/lower splits” (or even worse, the dreaded body-part split) before they have any training base whatsoever.

And here’s my real issue with that, especially early-on…

While you have an upper and lower body, you also have a trunk/core. And that trunk/core ties the upper and lower bodies together.

Furthermore, that core is typically one of, if not the, weak link in the equation!

My goal for young athletes it to teach them a bunch of movements, but ones that all tie in their core and trunk into the equation.

Here are a few examples that might help:

  • Squat: Goblet squat, front squat, goblet squat with heartbeat, offset kettlebell front squat

    Overhead Waiters Walk
  • Deadlift: Traditional versions are fine, as are offset RDL’s and suitcase variations
  • Horizontal Press: Push-up variations, single-arm bench presses
  • Horizontal Row: Inverted Rows
  • Vertical Press: Overhead pressing, offset
  • Vertical Pull: Chin-up/pull-up variations
  • Loaded Carries: Offset waiters walks, farmers carries (standard and offset)

As you can see, we can absolutely train all the big movement patterns without breaking them down into constituent body parts or muscle groups.

Sure there are times this may be necessary, but whenever possible, I want to teach athletes to move their entirely body as a seamless, integrated unit versus a collection of body parts.

Another critical component of youth athletic development is teaching kids to use their brakes.

What do I mean by that?

Think about every crappy sport-performance or athletic development facility on the face of the planet. What do they promote?

“Increase your vertical jump!”

“.2 seconds off your 40 in 6 weeks!”

The garbage these places spew is ridiculous.

I’m thoroughly convinced anyone could take an out-of-shape athlete, or one who has never trained before, and get those types of improvements.

Instead, what we need to focus on is their athletic and movement foundation.

If we’re going to do it with the lifts by teaching them the big movement patterns, we need to do it in their movement training as well.

How do we do this?

Teach them how to land when jumping.

Teach them how to control their foot, ankle, knee, hip and trunk when going into a cut.

Teach them how to slow down and control their body effectively, so they can explode out of those positions.

Here’s the underlying theme…

Everyone wants to talk about building a bigger engine (higher jumps, faster runs, bigger lifts), but no one wants to talk about building a more efficient set of brakes!

Here’s another way to think about it – I’m all for driving a Ferrari someday.

But if I drive a Ferrari, I better have some Ferrari brakes as well. You don’t want to drive a Ferrari with brakes like a Kia!

When you’re training young athletes, here are a few things that you can start doing now to give them a better foundation:

  • Teach them the big lifts, focusing on integrating the core.
  • School them on how to control/slow down their body, versus simply creating more force.
  • Make training fun and enjoyable. It should be something they look forward to, not something they dread.


I know I’ve talked about this in seminars before, but I’m not sure I’ve talked about it on my blog.

And yes, I’m going to break an important rule of writing by introducing a new subject in the summary. Sue me… 🙂

At the end of the day, as coaches of young athletes we have a critical role in their development. The skills and techniques and movements we teach them now are things they will use the rest of their life.

When that child is 20, 30, 40, 50 or even 60 years old, those things you taught them early on in their life will carry over.

You owe it not only to yourself, but to the kids you work with and coach every day, to make yourself the best coach possible.

This thought is always in the back of my mind, and it’s why I’m constantly pushing myself to become the best coach I can be.

And if you want to become the best coach possible, you need to educate yourself continuously.

The International Youth Conditioning Association (IYCA) has just launched their updated Complete Athletic Development program, and it will give you all the tools necessary to build more complete athletes.

Complete Athletic Development 2.0

At the end of the day, I want every kid I work with to enjoy their time with me.

And whether they know it or not, I want to give them a movement foundation that they use and build from for the rest of their lives.

All the best


PS – The Complete Athletic Development Program will be on sale through this Sunday, November 25th. Save yourself $100 and pick up your copy today!


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  1. Pick up the CAD 2.0 this morning and can’t wait to get it in the mail. I plan on reading the manual and viewing the DVDs over the Christmas Holiday Break. Also, you receive and automatic ticket to the upcoming IYCA events in March or June.


  2. Hi Mike. As a grades K-6 physical education teacher and grades 7-8 basketball coach, I really appreciate this article. I’m in my 7th year of teaching and am always eager to learn more and better my program. The main focus of my program includes a large variety of dynamic movement/warm-up exercises, body-weight strengthening & stability exercises, a large variety of sports & recreational activities, and fitness testing. I’ve never heard of the IYCA until reading this article. I’m definitely interested in the DVD program & certifications they offer. I’ve gone back and forth with myself as far as whether I should be pursuing various certifications as they are not required to teach in school. Can you tell me more about IYCA’s certs? For example, is there a yearly renewal fee? If you become youth fitness specialist level 3, are you automatically levels 1 & 2 certified as well? Or are they three totally different areas? On one hand it would be nice to have the certifications on my résumé, but then again, maybe buying the DVD program would be more beneficial to someone in my field, and more affordable. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for the great info as usual.

    • Brian –

      Sorry but the flu held me hostage all weekend 🙂

      I think the DVD’s would be a great starting point, as that will give you the background to get started. From there, you can determine if the certs are a good idea or not.

      Hope that helps – thanks!

  3. Mike-
    First let me state I love reading your stuff. Always great content. As for the “increase vertical jump, faster 40″…it’s called marketing. You have to have something to grab the readers attention. Also, to use NO ONE wants to talk about building a more efficient set of brakes!…well that may be a bit of an overstatement. Thanks for the information.

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