Physical development of the young athlete: Doing it right

If you could turn back the clock and begin your athletic journey again, what would you do differently? This is a question I often ask myself, and the more I learn and experience as a coach in the physical development of young athletes, the more apparent the answer the becomes: a lot.

My current journey is one of restoring my body back to pain-free movement after years out of sport with injuries and surgeries, with an increasing appreciation for the complexity of the human body. There is a lot to consider; the nervous system, somatosensory and circulatory system all working together to help restore quality function to the musculoskeletal structures, while resisting the conventional model of compartmentalizing the body into muscles and isolated actions. The body always finds a way to work around restrictions in joints and tissue, until it is eventually unable to positively adapt to the inefficient stressors causing mechanical failure, and pain joins the party. But what causes these compensatory and patterns non-traumatic symptoms in the first place? Why is there a pandemic of hip and knee injuries in the young GAA playing population? You won’t get a straight answer for these questions with a Google search but they are certainly worth investigating, some other time. For now, we can agree that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

While I don’t have all the answers on how to get out of pain, taking a look back at my training practices over the years and what was missing, based on what we know now, might shed some light on the matter. If I could find myself a DeLorean and go back to the start, here are some things that I would do differently.


Get physically literate

Essentially, our goal in athletic development is to build adaptable, resilient and robust athletes with a strong foundation of movement skills. Or as Kelvin Giles adeptly puts it: “Give them the physical competence to do the technical stuff, and the technical competence to do the tactical stuff…in that order” (2014, This Isn’t a Textbook).

This message has been coming loud and clear from top coaches such as Kelvin and Vern Gambetta for a long time now, but working with Academy footballers from the ages of 8 years has really driven the message home for me. We see boys who are mostly very mobile, but lacking in motor control and basic co-ordination. After a few months we see rapid improvements in their ability to lunge, hop and land on one leg, brace their body, connect the body from head to toe. But if we take away this fundamental movement development, what are we left with? Football, football, and more football.

Developing a broad movement vocabulary just wasn’t part of the lexicon when I was that age, 20 years ago. We played hurling and Gaelic football for the local club, at school we mostly played soccer, after school we cruised around on our bikes and hurled in the park, and did a bit swimming. Indeed, all this developed a stellar metabolic engine, but as we know, without a foundation of mechanical efficiency this can lead to problems.

So, to all the 8 year olds reading this blog, find a coach and start now. It doesn’t need to be boring and you won’t stop growing, but you will be better than your mates and in 20 years you won’t be falling apart. To borrow another quote from Kelvin;

“By giving each child the ability to solve movement puzzles – all directions, all planes, all speeds and amplitudes – and carefully utilising the tools of explicit and implicit learning processes, they will be in control of all their body actions.”


Give young athletes the physical competency to efficiently solve the movement puzzles of their sport


Move more, Playstation Less

It started with Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Mega Drive, and then the Playstation One was released in 1995, followed by the Playstation Two in 2000 when I was 13. Good timing; just as I was hitting periods of accelerated biological maturation, I was spending endless hours sitting on my rear end. I embraced the 10,000 hour rule long before Malcom Gladwell popularized the concept. A typical day in my teenage years then was spent sitting on my ass in school all day, going to hurling or football training, then going home and sitting on my ass for the evening. This pattern is even more prevalent amongst our young ‘active’ population today. Now there are iPhones and iPads and Playstation 4’s and every conceivable device that encourages us to sit down, stare at a screen, and twiddle our fingers.

The UK Strength and Conditioning Association’s position statement on youth resistance training alludes to the lack of movement development during these years of peak growth and maturation:

Research has suggested that physical activity levels in youth peak at approximately 6 years of age, and consistently decline throughout childhood and into youth. Consequently, the supporting structures of some young athletes may be ill prepared to handle the demands of weekly sports practice sessions and weekend competitions. (Lloyd et al. 2012)

This paper goes on to explain that:

Musculoskeletal growth during puberty, in the absence of corresponding neuromuscular adaptation, may facilitate the development of abnormal joint mechanics and injury risk factors…These intrinsic risk factors, if not addressed at the proper time, may continue through adolescence and into maturity, thus predisposing…athletes to increased risk of injuries. (Lloyed et al. 2012)

This makes sense, and begins to tell us a lot about the chronic injuries that we see in our young athletes, and the irreversible damage that culminates in athlete’s in their 20’s having surgical procedures. We have young people playing more and more sport in an otherwise increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

The UKSCA position statement suggests that taking part in multi-faceted resistance training programmes may help counter this growing trend. This is sound advice of course, although one might consider reframing it for your average 7 year old who mightn’t be overly tempted by a resistance training programme, it sounds structured, boring and probably has lots of 3 sets of 10. Of course, when a young boy or girl is 12 or 13 they may be mature enough and might enjoy, with proper coaching and supervision, going to the gym. But before that, let’s encourage them to move more. 

We’ve become detached from movement, we’ve become detached from reality. Gray Cook

Go out and climb a tree in the park, while you are there set up a slackline between two more trees and fall off it a million times as you learn to balance. Wrestle with your mates, do some tumbling and cartwheels, practice handstands, play some groovy music and dance around. Introduce kids to movement patterns in every plane; squats, lunges, hinging, rotating, crawling. Teach them how to project implements, how to run properly, jump and land. Then put all these together into fun physical games, reminding them that moving in the real world is much more enjoyable than using a controller to move characters around in a virtual world.

Author: Cairbre

Cairbre is the Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Tipperary Hurling Team, having previously coached Arsenal Women FC and at the Arsenal Youth Academy. Blog posts inspired by a curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind, and the pursuit of athletic performance.

UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.


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