As is stands right now in the strength and conditioning industry there isn’t a whole lot of quality information out there regarding youth training recommendations to get your kid off to a great start in his/her athletic career. Remember I said quality information, not just information. There are plenty of power skating schools and part-time trainers currently working with kids although who may have great intentions, are missing the mark when it comes to optimizing athletic development and nervous system capability.
First of foremost, yes youth athletes can and should be training to optimize their future athletic career but the training stimulus isn’t identical to what adults should be exposed to. Meaning, don’t have your kid perform 7 sets of 3 with band resisted deadlifts at 90% 1RM as a part of their training session. Any and all advanced techniques are to be kept for a later date when they will actually provide benefit.
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Why do we hold out on those?
Because a kid is a kid! The advanced methods are used once you are approaching your genetic potential and progress is coming at a much slower pace and you need new motor unit exposure to get over a current plateau in a movement.
Kids are blank canvas’s, they can make a ton of progress for a long time with just the basics. Not to mention advanced techniques for any type of resistance training, mobility or conditioning can be just as mentally taxing as they are physically and can really bring the fun out of training with your youth. That is the worst thing that can happen. The last thing you want them to do is to lose interest in athletic development – if it’s not fun, it’s not going to last.
One of the biggest reasons there is a current lack in the industry for youth training fundamentals is simply because everybody wants to know how the pro’s train. They want to know; what is Sidney Crosby doing?
When ironically, the proper development of youth is arguably the most important factor in long term athletic success. Up until an athlete hits puberty (on average), it is during this time his/her nervous system is being molded like clay. Athletic ability is highly nervous system dependant through many different avenues that include total body relative strength, stride frequency, agility, balance and body awareness.
In a nutshell, the more movement exposure you receive in these crucial years, the more of an advantage you are going to have in the above qualities. Movement exposure refers to running, playing, crawling, multiple sports (hint: don’t specialize in hockey too young), resistance training, running backwards. Anything and everything movement related.
The more unique movement skills learned, the better. This directly translates into a greater athletic ability not just acutely, but in the long term as well due to proper nervous system development.
Should Young Hockey Players Focus Only on Hockey?
To address the above hint, one of the biggest pieces of advice I could offer coaches and parents is to not specialize too early with their kids and/or youth athletes. The above traits I mentioned related to central nervous system capability are much, much harder to train in and out of the gym at a later age in life.
This is why a minimalists approach to specialization is the best recommendation for future specialization. For example, if you took two kids and made one focus and play hockey year round every year versus another kid who played hockey during the winter but then played baseball in the spring, soccer in the summer and lacrosse in the fall he is going to be the better hockey player come adolescence + adult years.
Sure he played less hockey, but his nervous system exposure and development before puberty was extremely superior to the first kid who only focused on hockey and therefore he created a much better skill-set within stride frequency (huge for speed), body awareness, total body relative strength, balance and agility.
Not to mention the kid with greater exposure to sports would have a far less susceptibility to creating any repetitive strain injuries or structural imbalances. It’s night and day from a sports performance and physiology perspective.
Multiple sports exposure > Hockey specialization
Am I saying only ever do hockey during the winter? Of course not. Especially if the kid absolutely loves hockey and wants to play it other times as well. In this case, limited exposure (once per week or once bi-weekly) during the summer time is ideal for two major reasons:
#1: More coaches get more eyes on him. If he/she has different coaching throughout the summer and winter they may pick up areas in which they need to work on their game to reach a higher level. The more opinions, the better. This is especially true if your kid is enrolled in a hockey development school throughout the summer.
#2: No exposure “drought”. If your kid goes through a 2-4 month drought with zero ice time and then is expected to hit the ice for tryouts come this fall he/she will be at a greater disadvantage compared to those who had exposure to the game throughout the summer. In my opinion just jumping on the ice for a public skate isn’t enough, you want your youth athlete doing skill work and/or skirmishing once a week or once bi-weekly prior to tryout time.
On-Ice Hockey Training
While we are discussing typical summertime training options, I’d like to give a brief overview on why at the beginning of the article I stated that although well-meaning power skating schools and part-time youth athlete coaches, they normally miss the mark for real development.
Where I grew up in Ontario, Canada, there was such a thing called power skating that everybody attended during the offseason. Looking back at the one I attended, among still many of the ones currently in business today they make an extreme fundamental flaw for optimal carryover to the game of hockey.
Much of the time we spent at power skating school was performed either with no stick at all, or with the stick behind our back. I’m not sure if this was to try and improve our mental awareness for lower body co-ordination or if this was just done because we weren’t actually playing hockey. Nevertheless, we trained without sticks and that’s a bad move for development.
Because the movement mechanics between you skating with a stick and without a skate are not identical, in fact, they differ in a lot of ways that even the untrained eye can easily see. This leads to very little carry over to the game of hockey because once that stick is back in your hands you’re back using the skating technique you have always used.
Sure there may be some carryover, but the carryover would be minimal and in my personal opinion the best adaptation coming from the power skating I did was at best aerobic capacity development.
Look back at history and don’t make this mistake guys, when doing any form of power skating, on-ice conditioning or anything of the sort. Train with a stick in your hands. Doing so will bring the greatest amount of technical carry over to the game situation.
Agility Training For Kids
Now stepping away from the power skating and bringing about a point I see with youth athletic training; pre-determined movement patterns have minimal carryover to sports performance. Meaning, if you are running around three cones for agility you’re really not training agility.
Because the movement pattern is pre-determined. You already know exactly where you’re going and what you’re going to do about it. A game situation is never like that. Not to mention agility is the transfer of absorbing and re-directing force, a quality much more related to relative strength then cone drills. I go over this in much greater detail in an upcoming project coming out soon titled Next Level Speed.
To add some practical advice to agility, a kid would both get greater agility development and flat out have a way better time playing tag or playing dodgeball with the other kids. Tag and dodgeball are both completely unpredictable (already beats the cones), more physically demanding and way more fun. If you want kids to have some better agility, play a little game at the end of the training session or practice.
Young Hockey Players and Strength Training
Now for the million dollar question: Should my kid strength train? Is it safe?
Yes, absolutely! In fact, I would go as far as to say I think it is unsafe if they don’t strength train!
Don’t get strength training confused with what you see on TV and on magazines. Strength training for youth does not mean deadlifting, Olympic lifting, squatting or moving any kinds of heavy loads.
Strength training simply means training with a form of resistance to create a positive (and healthy) adaption in the body.
I can’t understand at all when parents will throw their kid into martial arts, football, hockey or wrestling and then start to think twice when it comes to resistance training.
That’s a completely wrong thinking process.
Safely training with resistance is not only going to make youth athletes better athletes, but should actually give more peace of mind to the parents of the youth kid partaking in strength training. Strength training will drastically decrease the kids’ risk of injury out on the ice and no, it’s not going to stunt his/her growth. Additionally, resistance training movements will pay great dividends to central nervous system development during these stages of life as well.
Having said all of this I do have guidelines to follow.
I said right out in the first couple lines of this blog post, don’t have your kid perform high intensity work. It’s completely unnecessary. Opting for an overall lower intensity training periodization is the smartest and best way to approach this thing.
When training youth, resistance training should primarily come in the form of body weight exercises. The best ones to incorporate being:
• Chin up variations
• Pull up variations
• Dip variations
• Squat variations
• Lunge variations
• Push up variations
• Abdominal circuit variations
Always keeping the intensity low with rep ranges anywhere from 10-30 per exercise while keeping a close eye on proper technique. From a non-bodyweight perspective, youth athletes can also safely use light dumbbells, medicine balls and light sled drags.
What you want to stay away from is directly loading the spine; squats, overhead press, etc. It’s also wise to stay away from barbell movements in general, unnecessary at this point in time and to be introduced in adolescence.
From a conditioning perspective, youth athletes can make great progress with both aerobic and anaerobic work. But for the anaerobic work, opt for no bodyweight loading. Conditioning systems utilizing hill sprints and/or track work is ideal here.
Nutrition For Young Hockey Players
Last but not least, some of my regular followers I’m sure saw this coming but one of the absolute best things you can do for your kids overall health and athletic development is to not feed him/her a poor diet!
The modern day youth diet is the worst it has ever been in history and is completely full of sugar. They go from juice boxes, to pop, to fruit snacks, to chocolate, to chocolate milk, to breakfast cereal, to ice cream, fast food, etc. It never ends. Parents more often than not just give in to the kids and give them whatever they want but the saying holds true, you are what you eat.
These sugar high and lows are accompanied by high/low mood swings and high/low attention span and focus. If a kid has sugar for breakfast and then 90 minutes later is sugar crashing during school or during hockey practice his ability to stay focused and attentive is going to be lackluster. This is in addition to the physical effect that sugar crash is going to have on his performance.
Am I saying kids have to eat like pro athletes? Of course not. That’s completely unrealistic and is not going to happen. But what is realistic and what should more often than not happen is to at least change some things. More proteins and more healthy fats in a kid’s diet will take them a long way with both their in school attention and their athletic performance/body composition. Also a kid’s chewable multivitamin wouldn’t be a bad idea here either.
I hope this blog post today was helpful for those looking for some solid information regarding youth athletics and what can actually improve performance vs. what is not worth doing.
Keep a look out in the near future as I will be creating a complete youth development system aimed for the coach or parent who has both their kids’ performance and safety in mind. This system will include all the information required to give your youth athletes to proper foundation in order to make long term progress from.
Take away points:
• Youth athletes shouldn’t specialize in hockey year round.
• Strength training is totally safe when done properly.
• Low intensity training should be favoured.
• One of the best things you can do for your kids performance is improve their diet.
• The more sport exposure, the better.
• All forms of on ice conditioning / skill work should be performed with stick in hand.
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