Many experts believe and studies confirm that today’s culture of early sports specialization with an emphasis on year-round structured training is stunting the mental and physical development of youth. Until about age 12, general athleticism—nurtured with free play and multiple sports—should be prioritized over sport-specific skills. Even after the age of 12, free play—without interference from adults—remains important.
Based on my education in the areas of sports science, human growth and development, sports psychology, and coaching, as well as my 20-plus years of experience coaching young athletes (both in the weight room and on the field), I recommend the following general guidelines for developing youth athletes.
Note that these are general age recommendations. Not all kids develop at the same pace.
Phase One: All About Play
Typically Between Ages 4-7
Before the age of 7 is a critical time for developing basic movement skills, coordination, balance, and strong bones and muscles. These accomplishments will set the foundation for future success in sports as well as health and wellness into adulthood. Nurturing a variety of activities early will also enhance brain function, creativity, social skills, and confidence. During this phase of development children should be introduced to an assortment of movements involving unstructured sports, games, and creative free play. Some structured sports activity is beneficial as long as the majority of physical activity is child-driven. Kids do not need to be taught skills in a formal manner at this age, they should learn through discovery. Even organized practices should allow opportunities for child-driven free play.
Frequent climbing, hopping, running, changing direction, swimming, throwing, and kicking are all movement patterns recommended for this age. Obstacle courses, tag, hopscotch, tree-climbing, red-light-green-light, and other childhood games are encouraged. During organized sports, coaches may begin to incorporate dynamic warm-up movements like high knees, butt kicks, and lateral hops, however coaches should not require perfect form at this age as athletes are still exploring basic movement skills.
Phase Two: Nurture The All-Around Athlete
Typically Between Ages 7-10 for Girls and 8-11 for Boys
Between the ages 7-11 is the time to nurture qualities that relate to general athleticism—such as speed, agility, balance, coordination, and mental aptitude for sports. The best approach is through multiple sports participation (both structured and unstructured), free play, and functional strength and movement training. Because studies indicate specializing in one sport too early can lead to a decline in athleticism, overuse injuries, and burnout, experts advise against athletes specializing during this critical stage of development.
Around this age coaches can begin using short structured warm-ups that include dynamic movements— like high knees, butt kicks, leg kicks, pendulum kicks, lateral hops, bodyweight squats, and hinges. Proper form should be demonstrated and encouraged with a focus on improvement, not perfection. Aim for exercise proficiency by the end of this phase in order to prevent injuries and for kids to begin to develop safe functional movement patterns that will translate directly to sports. Parents should encourage unstructured free play and pick-up games at home. Athletes may also begin a structured strength training program at home with a focus on core strength and functional movement. Generally, 8 and 9 year olds do well with a short 10- minute routine a few times a week. For 10 and 11 year olds, they can work up to a 15-20-minute workout two or three times per week. Lightweight and bodyweight exercises should be the focus as athletes work to acquire the balance, coordination, and mobility required to begin developing more strength during next phase.
Check out my Exercise Library to explore exercises for home or practice field.
Phase Three: Skill Development and Functional Strength
Typically Between Ages 11-14 for Girls and 12-15 for Boys
Around ages 11-15, the kids who have developed general athleticism through participation in multiple sports and developed explosive speed and strength as a result of a functional training program will begin to outshine kids who have devoted all their time to skill proficiency in one particular sport. The coordination, agility, and strength that multi-sport athletes acquired in Phases One and Two will make it easier for athletes to enhance their sport specific-skills and gain functional strength in the weight room. While some athletes may begin to narrow their sports selection during this phase, it is not necessary to give up sports that they love to focus on a single sport. The majority of college and professional athletes played multiple sports during this phase of their development.
Whether athletes decide to narrow their sports selection during this phase or continue their path with multiple sports, time off from structured sports is important in order to avoid overuse injuries and mental burnout. Every six months, athletes should take off at least two weeks from all organized sports. Specialized athletes should take off four to six weeks after each season to participate in activities other than their primary sport—a different organized team sport, or cycling, swimming, or other fitness-related recreation. Free play and pickup games are always okay—unless injuries or physical fatigue are factors. Studies show that pickup games and free play do not tax the body mentally or physically the same that structured training and competition does.
During this phase coaches should place a strong emphasis on functional movement training with dynamic warm-up exercises at the beginning of practice. Functional core and strength exercises can also be incorporated into practices. Some coaches will avoid implementing a strength program during practices because they feel they’re giving up valuable practice time. However at this age, as athletes become bigger, stronger, and more physical—while striving to stay ahead of the curve in order to compete—functional strength training becomes essential to injury prevention.
Check out my Mobility Warm-Up Routine for use at home or practice field.
It’s vitally important that athletes in this phase of development begin a structured strength training program at home, at school, or at a gym. Remember that strength is not the primary goal of a sports training program. Of major importance is functional strength—the sort of strength called for on the playing field. Seek guidance from a strength-and-conditioning coach, physical therapist, or other professional who has education and experience working with kids.
Check out my Exercise Library to explore functional exercises for athletes.
Athletes should master proper technique for basic movements like Squat and Hip Hinge while also working on core exercises and movements that challenge coordination and balance. Safe and efficient technique for jumping, landing, accelerating, and decelerating should also be taught and emphasized during this phase.
Kids who learned proper form and mechanics with resistance training in Phase Two may slowly begin to increase loads as they reach puberty. While an increase in certain hormones will make it easier to gain size and muscle during this stage, be aware that growing bodies are susceptible to injuries when form is compromised or loads are increased too quickly. Because bones and connective tissue strengthen at a slower rate than muscle, it’s imperative to take a conservative approach when considering increasing load for any particular exercise.
Phase Four: Build on Sport-Specific Skills and Strength
Typically Between Ages 15-18 for Girls and 16-19 for Boys
Around the ages 15-19, kids develop adult bodies. Training becomes more serious and the development of team skills, individual skills, and strength and conditioning all become essential for success in competitive sports. Athletes who have taken a long-term approach to development, as explained in the previous phases, will have a significant chance of reaching their full athletic potential during these years.
While not essential, competitive level athletes may begin selecting one or two sports as a focus. As discussed in the previous phase, every six months, athletes should take off at least two weeks from all organized sports. Specialized athletes should take off four to six weeks after each season to participate in activities other than their primary sport—a different organized team sport, or cycling, swimming, or other fitness-related recreation. Free play and pickup games are always okay—unless injuries or physical fatigue are factors. Studies show that pickup games and free play do not tax the body mentally or physically the same that structured training and competition does.
During this phase, coaches should continue to use a functional dynamic warm-up before practices and competitions. Coaches should also work closely with an experienced Functional Strength Specialist or Strength-and-Conditioning Coach to develop and implement a program for athletes to use outside of practice. If athletes have yet to master basic lifting techniques, it’s necessary that they have plenty of support from their Strength-and-Conditioning Coach and that they take time to learn the techniques before increasing loads.