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Training young athletes

The most decisive stage of an athlete’s life from a medical and orthopedic point of view is probably the moment of decision to concentrate on one particular sport, with all that that entails in the way of prolonged and planned intensive training. It would be desirable for a young athlete’s physiological qualifications for the sport in question to be analyzed, but unfortunately there is as yet no sound medical basis for a reliable judgment.

Regular, targeted training is now starting at younger and younger ages. Training methods that have been developed for adults are directly applied to children without adapting them either to suit their age or to suit individual variations. With regard to training and competitive activities for adolescents, the trainer and the coach must be aware of the risks that exist for children in the long term as well as in the short term. Sport must remain play for children and a means of maintaining physical health for adults. Training activities must therefore be questioned: is it really right to train as hard as athletes do today in order to reach the top level,and are the right training methods being used?

Physical fitness training

Physical fitness training is no more effective for young people aged 10–20 years than for any other age group. The anaerobic energy-producing capacity—the ability to produce energy in the absence of oxygen— is lower in children aged 10–12 years than in teenagers. Regardless of age and this capacity, however, young people can benefit from taking part in activities that demand anaerobic energy, and children do not seem to feel tiredness in the same way that adults do. However, recent findings indicate that adolescents do not lose anything by delaying systematic physical fitness training until they are in their late teens.

Strength training

In growing children the internal organs are able to adapt to great loads while the musculoskeletal system can easily be damaged. The effects of training in children and young people are seen mainly in the muscles, the cells of which increase in size. This increase in size is directly related to the length and intensity of the training program. The muscles become stronger when they are trained and lose their strength rapidly when the training ceases.Children and young people respond to muscular strength training because there is relatively more effect on the musculature than on the skeleton. Under normal circumstances their muscles are not used for strength-requiring activities to the same extent as those of adults, and strength training in growing youngsters therefore has a more obvious effect on their musculature. In adolescence great increases in strength are characteristic of both men and women, but in the early teens the increase in strength is distinctly less than the increase in body size. Athletes in their early teens are therefore not quite as strong as
their body size might indicate.

In strength training with heavy loads, muscular strength develops faster than the strength of the skeleton,which can lead to avulsion fractures.There are a number of different types of strength training. In isometric training the ability of the muscle to exert power increases but its stamina does not increase as much as in dynamic training. In adolescence the attachments of tendons and muscles in particular are vulnerable, and therefore children and young people should be cautious about isometric work with a load, which means that the muscles are working without appreciably changing their length. Light dynamic work, such as running and walking, when the muscles are working by lengthening and shortening, is in most cases sufficient.

Training with heavy weights should be avoided by individuals who are still growing. The load on the vertebral column during weight training, for example, can be so great that the vertebrae are affected. Only the weight of the body should be used as a load in strength training, and only when the skeleton has stopped growing, which in girls happens at about the age of 16 years and in boys at 17–18 years, should systematic strength training with heavy weights be permitted.

Before that a growing youngster can perhaps use light weights, but the training intensity should only be stepped up by increasing the number of exercises carried out.A strength training program should be drawn up according to the growing youngster’s age, maturity, body build, physical fitness, and sex. Time for tissue recovery is very important.

General mobility training

A considerable part of an adolescent’s mobility training consists of basic movements which are carried out more or less automatically, such as moving the body and maintaining the balance. This type of movement is hereditary and is controlled by instincts which are passed on genetically and gradually develop during childhood. Balance, for example, is not fully developed until the age of 9–10 years. Whether physical training can influence development in a positive or negative direction is not known.

In most sports there are complex patterns of movement which have to be learned with the aid of the pre-existing instinctive knowledge. When such a pattern has been developed it is difficult to change, so it is important to learn it correctly from the start. The nervous system can incorporate new patterns right into the teenage years. It is undesirable to incorporate incorrect information into the nervous system before it is fully developed, as it would subsequently be difficult to alter. Technique training should be carried out during the latter part of the period of growth.

Training in different age groups

7–9 years: play, technique, and all-round training

Training of children aged 7–9 years should above all be full of variation and fun, that is, the play element should predominate. Light fitness training including different ball games is suitable. All-round training should be the aim. Technique training should be introduced now, as children of this age are very receptive to learning.

10–11 years: general basic training, technique training, and all-round training.

Training of children aged 10–11 years should include technique and coordination exercises, since this is an excellent time for improving reflexes and mobility technique by training. Play elements are important features in the training, but systemic fitness training and anaerobic training are not meaningful during this period.

12–14 years: general fitness training, learning of technique and tactics.

During the age period 12–14 years, which partly coincides with puberty, there are rapid changes in growth and maturity, both physically and mentally. The training must be adjusted to the maturity of the individual youngster. The body is, both physically and mentally, in a sensitive stage of development, and this must be taken into account. The play element should be given ample scope.Technique training can also be carried out since the ability to learn continues to be high during this period of growth. Some specialization can begin in the sports for which the young athletes have shown talent. They can be introduced to tactical methods.

15–16 years: preparation for specialized training.

In young people aged 15–16 years basic physical fitness must be built up, and therefore regular fitness training should become a habit. Anaerobic training can now begin. Comprehensive gymnastics and flexibility training are of great importance during this period, since growth often makes young people stiff and unsupple. Strength training can start when the muscles and skeleton allow an increased load.

At this age young people can start to learn the correct lifting technique, but should only use light weights. A heavy load should not be used, as the skeleton has not yet stopped growing. The strength training should be intensified by increasing the number of times an element of exercise is carried out, not by increasing the load. It is important that the athletes spare their backs from overload by using the correct lifting technique.During this period, specialization in different sports can be undertaken.

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