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Youth Sports: Train to Be an Athlete, Not a Position Player

Youth Sports Train to Be an Athlete, Not a Position Player



In an attempt to better serve the coaches, players and parents involved in youth and high school baseball and softball, the PBSCCS periodically publishes information on factors that can affect conditioning and performance at these levels. Topics are selected from questions submitted by participants, coaches and parents in youth and high school sports.

The question for this posting is from the parent of a 12-year-old three sport athlete. “My 12-year-old son plays three sports, baseball, basketball and football. He takes hitting, pitching and fielding lessons at a local baseball academy. Recently, one of his baseball instructors suggested that if he wanted to be good in baseball, he should quit the other two sports and focus on baseball. Is he right? Should my son give up two sports that he enjoys and specialize in baseball at age 12?”  The PBSCCS contacted NSCA certified and registered strength coach J C Cole. Cole has decades of experience working with athletes in multiple sports from beginners to developing athletes to World Champion alpine skiers like Mikaela Shiffrin and Lindsey Vonn.

Almost everyone in all sports, recognizes that our youth sport development system has problems. We have overeager sport organizers feeding off parents need to give their children every conceivable athletic advantage at an early age. This often leads to overuse injuries and burnout among developing athletes before they reach maturation. Society’s need for bigger, faster, and stronger has permeated youth sports and the effects are detrimental to our kids.

For those of us in the strength and conditioning profession, it has affected our profession in a way that is challenging to navigate. Our customer base consists of parents who want a competitive advantage for their children through performance training programs. More often than not, the request is usually for specific exercise prescriptions that are geared to the child’s sport. This is where we have lost our way as a profession. We need to change our mindset and approach to achieving success in youth sports.

Training youth athletes for performance should be fairly simple. We need to keep it simple and explain to the parents and children that we work with that we will help them become an athlete first, and a sport-specific athlete second. What I mean is we need to make them athletic before they can become a successful baseball, softball, lacrosse or football player. Our education system has cut physical education programs in most schools which has left us with a gap in teaching and developing the fundamental movement skills in young athletes.

I have often been approached by parents of young athletes looking for drills to improve foot speed. They ask for cone and ladder drills that seem to have a following on social media and are easily accessible in video format. We all agree that footspeed is an important and specific need for success in sport. How we train for it, should not be. My first response to their request is in the form of a question, “Can your child jump rope?” Sadly, the most frequent answer is “No” or “They have never tried.” Jumping rope was a staple of physical education during the boomer generation and has slowly worked its way out of vogue. So, I politely tell the parents, to come back with that footspeed drill request when their youth athlete can jump rope consistently for 10 minutes. Until then, specific foot speed drills are unnecessary because the simple motor pattern of easy explosive movement cannot be executed and repeated.

Yes, it is a simple intervention, and yes, it’s up to the athlete to get this done. It doesn’t require a strength and conditioning coach to design a footspeed program for a young athlete. Additionally, core strengthening strategies can be executed by learning and repeating simple plank progressions. Rotational strength and power can be developed using only body weight and/or light MD balls. More often than not, the youth athlete also doesn’t possess the balance needed to execute the movement pattern, let alone perform it against added resistance. Job 1 is usually developing the ability of the athlete to perform the simple movement preparation patterns of lunging, squatting and stepping without added resistance.

“Adding resistance to dysfunction does not remove the dysfunction. It often makes it worse.” – Loren Landow, Strength Coach, Denver Broncos.

The solution is fairly simple. Don’t progress an athlete to something specific and sexy until the movement fundamentals can be performed and repeated with good form. Train the aspiring football, baseball, softball, soccer player, etc., like an athlete. Simple movement and stability patterns should be easy to execute and repeat prior to moving on the next stage of training. An athlete should be able to “own” a position and movement pattern before moving on to something more complex. For example, a standard bilateral Olympic deadlift is recommended in some youth training programs. But can the athlete hinge properly? Can he/she execute a “Standing-T” movement and stabilize during movement prep? Having worked with youth athletes for most of my 25-year career, I rarely see any athlete under the age of 16-17 execute these patterns without flaw.

I gain more ground having the youth athlete work on their “Standing-T’s” and Single-Leg RDLs with body weight or light resistance than I do having them dead-lifting bilaterally with poor form. I have found that single-leg exercises in young athletes produce more results faster than bilateral movements. Why? Single-leg exercises require balance, body awareness and concentration, i.e., good athletic foundations.

I started my strength and conditioning career training competitive alpine ski racers. One of the foundations of our off-season training program was the introduction and progression of sprint and acceleration mechanics. For athletes that are locked into concrete-stiff ski boot shells for 6-7 months out of the year, these exercises were greeted with disdain from many of our athletes. They were beyond hard for them to grasp and very frustrating. I was often asked by parents and athletes why they were doing them and what does this have to do with skiing? The answer is unequivocally, nothing. It has everything to do with developing sound, fundamental athletic skills. What does change-of-direction field drills that could be used for soccer or football have to do with Skiing? Nothing, but it teaches the skier to move like an athlete, not like a skier.

Across the board, you can see top performing athletes in the world that are or were multi-sport athletes. For example, two of the top NCAA Lacrosse players in the world are taking their granted fifth year and participating in other sports. Dox Aitken, UVA’s top Lacrosse Attackman and National Champion, is taking his fifth year to play football at Villanova. Pat Spencer, Loyola Attackman and Tewaaraton Winner (MVP for NCAA Lacrosse), is playing basketball at Northwestern. Bode Miller and Mikaela Shiffrin, FIS World Cup and Olympic Medalists are both very accomplished tennis players. And the list goes on and on.

The takeaway here is, be an athlete first. When a parent asks me for a dedicated, off-season strength and conditioning program for their 13-year-old, I have a simple program that I give them. It consists of:

  1. Buy a mountain-bike and ride it 3 days a week.

  2. Join a club sport team that is not your main sport.

  3. Climb two to three 14ers this summer with your family if you are lucky enough to live in a state like Colorado.

  4. Jump rope every day.

  5. Be a kid. Play in the backyard, get your knees and elbows dirty, run through the woods and play capture the flag. Be a “free-range” athlete.

It’s a far too simple plan for us as a society to grasp, but I think most would agree that we have lost our ability to allow youth athletes to be kids. They have to be pre-programmed and destined for greatness in sport. If you allow them to grow and train organically and enjoy the process of sport learning with simplicity, there are few limitations to where they may go and how much success they might achieve. The exposure to different sports and modalities of training may lead them in a direction of success and passion that you never expected.

So, keep training for sport simple, not sexy. Youth athletes need simplicity and repetition to effectively groove the movement patterns needed for successful performance. Allow time for game-play and competition scenarios, but keep your eye on the fundamentals and watch them grow, learn and succeed!

Additional readings




John (JC) Cole CSCS*D RSCC*D, is Managing Partner of Fast Performance LLC, Denver, CO (, where he trains athletes in all sports. He is also the former Human Performance Director at Ski and Snowboard Club in Vail, CO and strength and conditioning coach for the 2002 US Paralympic Team.

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