One of the hardest concepts to get across to youth athletes is the importance of age-appropriate training methods. If it isn’t advanced, complex, or professional-grade, it probably isn’t going to satisfy many initially. But, with a steady dose of patience and education, combined with a consistent message based on long-term development, eventually most athletes will jump on board enough to become compliant with the program, if not actually enjoy it.
Coaches, though, can oftentimes be even harder to dissuade from the meathead or one-size-fits-all approach. As we all know, not every coach tasked with the responsibility of training a high school team or athlete in the weight has the requisite background knowledge or expertise in strength and conditioning. Without it, they are usually heavily influenced by the methods that have either worked for them personally or worked for others – or maybe even methods that haven’t worked for anyone at all…
In this way, many athletes are traditionally grouped together based on age or grade. You have your freshman, your underclassmen, and your upperclassmen. What this fails to take into consideration is that not every athlete that is the same age is actually the same age.
Yes, you read that right. Two 14 year-olds may not actually be equal in terms of age. That is because asking your athlete for their age is more complicated than just inquiring about their time spent on Earth.
Age can be more complex, and thus training can have a varying relationship with age. Today we will discuss the three ways to define and determine an athlete’s age.
1. Chronological Age
Ask any of your athletes their age and this is guaranteed to be their answer. Chronological age is the one which quantifies your athletes’ time since their birth.
While chronological age is useful for categorizing students into grades, classes, and other non-physiological dependent groups, it is rather impractical for strength and conditioning purposes. That is because chronological age does not account for training experience. One 18 year-old may possess five years of training experience, while another may have no training experience at all.
Chronological age is also limited by its loose relationship with our biology. While we can generally predict an age range when certain physiological changes take place, this range can vary, as can the exact point in time when many of them occur.
While it is good to know your athletes chronological age, it isn’t all that usable in a practical sense.
2. Training Age
Chronological age is very cut and dry. Training age too is easy to quantify, yet it can have a more dynamic influence over training itself.
In terms of strength training, to identify the training age of your athletes, you simply need to determine how many years of strength training experience they have accumulated.
For example, you may have a 16 year-old who has accumulated the same amount of training time as an 18 year-old. Or you may have two 15 year-olds who have different training experiences. This matters for a couple of very significant reasons.
First, an athlete’s training age can dictate what types of training are appropriate for their experience-level. In other words, knowing an athlete’s training age can help a coach determine what level of difficulty an athlete can currently handle in their training. An athlete with a higher relative training age can generally tolerate more advanced training methods without risking injury. Conversely, an athlete with a lesser training age needs more fundamental training to ensure safe and quality work.
There is another important concept to understand when considering training age, and that is the law of diminishing returns. Simply put, as an athlete ages in their training (accumulating more training experience) they begin to progressively adapt to the training. In a sense, it is like becoming resistant to training, as the athlete yields progressively less returns on the same training time invested. This requires that more advanced training methodologies are utilized to ensure continued adaptations. Training age can help you indicate if an athlete requires basic or more advanced methods.
As a high school strength coach I personally make it a point to determine what the minimal effective dosage is for my athletes. And for most, this means very basic training.
Although the fundamentals aren’t always “sexy” or appealing to my athletes, I work hard to explain to them that our first year or two together is a massive window for adaptation and progress. And, with this massive window, I can do just about anything to obtain a huge return on investment in terms of strength – and subsequently many other training characteristics. So, why not use this window to establish the foundation of movement quality and proficiency by implementing the basics of strength training?
In this way I am also delaying the use of more advanced methods. Why is this a positive? Because by delaying the use of more difficult, complex methods, I can then use them later when gains begin to diminish, which can potentially push the “plateau” of diminishing returns slightly higher (as seen on Fig. 1).
As simple as training age appears to be on the surface, its ramifications on training outcomes are quite great.
3. Biological Age
Of the three age classifications discussed today, biological age is by far the most complex and hardest to determine.
Biological age refers to the physiological stage of life that the student-athlete is currently occupying. We’re talking hormones, skeletal development, and rate of growth.
I cringe when I hear coaches say, “That freshman is so small, we need to get him in the weight room 4 or 5 times each week.” That is because it isn’t until puberty that our athlete’s hormones really begin to kick. The coach above sees that, yes, one athlete may be scrawny compared to a more developed kid of the same age, but he is failing to see that their biological ages may not be matching up like their chronological ages do. The smaller athlete may have size 13 feet, a high pitched voice, and zero underarm hair, while his counterpart already has a goatee.
Since the testosterone isn’t flowing quite at the same rate as the other kids, doing high volume hypertrophy training probably won’t yield as great of results as may be hoped. But, relative strength and movement skills can certainly be improved.
It is hard to determine an athletes biological age, as appearances and chronological age can sometimes be misleading. But, by at least understanding its influence over training outcomes, a coach can make adjustments to a program that may or may not be working effectively for a certain student-athlete. And, it can help a coach realize, too, that what works for an older or elite athlete may not be age-appropriate for a younger athlete, physiologically speaking.
Training the high school athlete isn’t as simple as some might think. Not only does the high school level span 4 chronological years (from 13 or 14 years old until 18 or 19 years), it also contains athletes with varying quantities of training experience and in varying stages of their life-cycle.
Due to their relatively young training age, high school athletes generally have a large window for adaptation. Combine this huge window for neurological adaptation (i.e. strength and skill acquisition) with the varying rates of physiological development, and you should hopefully see why the basics are always the best place to start with your high school athletes.