You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This old proverb definitely fits when it comes to Strength and conditioning (S&C) with athletes. The later a player is introduced to structured S&C programmaes the more difficult it can be to get buy-in and learn the technique of exercises as they may have been doing things wrong for over a decade! Getting players into proper technique and giving them a bit of knowledge on what a good squat or push up should look like early can make things a whole lot easier down the line when more advanced exercises may be added in.
S&C is becoming much more mainstream now and has established itself in rugby and soccer and now also at the top-level of GAA. Gradually S&C is being implemented at lower levels with younger and younger players as part of long-term development pathways. I myself have worked with a few underage development squads (aged 13-17 year olds) in both hurling and soccer where S&C was introduced and it was very successful.
With most of the groups testing was done prior to starting the S&C and this showed pretty much the same things throughout all groups. Teenagers without the mobility to squat, touch their toes or do a push up on one end while there were also kids the opposite, falling into deep squat position, easily touching their feet but didn’t have the stability to get into a good push up plank position. Of course there was the odd wonder kid that scored well on these tests but over all young players didn’t have the body awareness, motor control or basic strength you would expect for guys only a couple of years off senior training.
I was under about 4 different coaches between the different groups but programmes were basically the same because they followed the same principles. Mostly body-weight exercises teaching players how to do a full solid squat, how to get tight in a plank and the same with a push up while getting a perfect rep, how to hinge and how to lunge. Any weight or resistance that was added had a purpose, band rows, goblet squats, medicine ball throws. No weight ever used unless you’ve mastered the step before it. It was the basic stuff that players that age need to learn and by the end everyone was able to do push ups, everyone had a solid squat and most importantly they were ready for whatever gym based training would be in the next stage of their development.
And also if they were attending gyms on their own time they would have gained knowledge that would stop them hurting themselves!
Many people are against S&C in sport because of a lack of understanding of it. Sure there are some coaches that don’t have their priorities right but the goals of any good strength and conditioning coach should be set in stone.
Protect the players from injury and make them better at their sport.
By teaching the players how to properly perform these exercises safely we limit the threat of them injuring themselves doing any exercises incorrectly. By making the players stronger and in more control of their bodies we also limit the risk of injuries and make them better athletes to perform in their sport.
The younger the better?
Worth noting when working with boys aged 13-16 is that some of them will have gone through a growth spurt (GS) and some not. The difference in height of players at this age can be huge, there could be two feet between two lads that were the same height at the start of the year! With this sudden growth players lose co-ordination, balance, body awareness, relative strength and are more susceptible to injury (Van der Sluis et al. 2014). This is just temporarily of course if they remain active. There was a clear difference with what the players struggled with depending on if they were pre or post GS. Pre GS players had higher mobility but struggled with any stability exercises while most post GS players had greater stability but a poor working mobility. The smaller players had much more control and were able to pick up the new movements much easier. When they do eventually hit GS they will probably still regress slightly but I would expect them to re-learn the movements much quicker than the other players (Ford et al. 2011, Myer et al. 2013).
The same idea applies for trying to teach a 30-year-old how to squat for the first time. They’ve been sitting at a desk for 8 hours a day the last twelve years it’s likely they’re just as stiff as a kid going through GS if not worse! Compare that to a young player just came through from the under 21’s, he’s had structured S&C coaching right up from an early age. He doesn’t have to think about doing a squat its just another movement like kicking a ball. He’s onto much more advanced things and is seeing the benefit on the field with his power and speed. By starting off early players can learn these movements before they pick up the knocks and niggles that everyone gets as you grow up with sport.
So that’s a little write-up about some of my time doing S&C with adolescents and my experience with it. Again the idea is to prepare them for future training, get them moving well and a base level of strength to fend off injury. It’s far from putting as much weight as you can on a young lads back and trying to get them big and slow as some believe. Overall the players well-being and they’re sporting performance are the priorities. Coaches and club members should be pushing for S&C to be implemented by a qualified coach to young players in their clubs. The long term benefits to club and county are clear!
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