Gamifying Pre-Pubescent Speed Training
I've seen it numerous times across my coaching career where parents will tell me about previous trainers, or I see trainers on social feeds, utilizing advanced methods or giving high school level speed and agility training to children prior to them going through puberty. I also shake my head at these, because I understand how easy it is to fall into this trap of doing this as I've done it myself before as well. But when we look at training pre-pubescent athletes, we need to look at gamifying training in order to create opportunities for long-term progress.
First, I need to be up front in saying I do use some "advanced" training things with the few pre-pubescent athletes I train. By advanced, I mean I have a few of them learning barbell basics like RDL's, Bench Pressing, Front Squatting, and Trap Bar Deadlifting. The main reason being they all attend middle schools who have weight rooms and their sport coaches all seem to be gung-ho about having them do team lifting sessions. From a speed training perspective, I do far less than I used to as a result of not having much space to do it.
But it always pops up on my feed when young athletes are being given specific sprint drills, structured agility drills, and even resisted sprints as part of speed or strength training programs (along with 1RM testing, which is a whole different blog topic). My issue is not how the means are not counter-productive, but how they are unnecessary at the point in time relative to an athlete's ability or career.
Young athletes don't need structured speed sessions, they need small sided games with constraints which yield specific results.
Young athletes need more "gamification", or utilization of game play which is designed in a manner which produces skills and adaptations which can enhance sport. Things like rhythm, coordination, visual tracking, evading, and chasing all come to mind. When we look at training athletes who have yet to go through puberty, we need to aim to set up environments which seem unstructured yet realistically force them to into the right frame of mind. These games usually small sided, are fun and can be highly effective at basic skills which can lay a framework for later down the road.
When we look at constraints which can spin games into means of developing athleticism, we need to break them down into two categories: abstract and concrete.
Abstract Constraints are rules and regulations, and the game itself. Through carefully structured rules and regulations, even with seemingly silly ones, games can take on a shape or form which allows specific adaptations to occur. One of the favorites I love for working on balance, flexibility, and strength is called "King of the Monkeys" (see video). The rules note you have to stay crouched down or on all fours, and are "out" if you step out of bounds or have anything other than a hand or foot hit the ground. This forces athletes to work on ankle and hip mobility, while utilizing each other as resistance for strength development.
Concrete Constraints are things such as boundaries or implements. By widening, narrowing, altering height, or changing a standard implement within a commonly known game, we can change how athletes interact with each other and work on sequencing movement. A great example is playing basketball or soccer with a football, or confining spaces to increase contact with other players. This may also mean creating gates to pass through or avoid. A great example of this may also be the games "Sharks and Minnows" or Freeze-Tag, which can have altered playing space or obstacles within it.
The thing we need to understand about this gamification is how it often doesn't look like training. This is key for adults to understand, but for pre-pubescent athletes it doesn't need to look like training. Kids, in general, just want to have fun. If we can create situations through small-sided games which elicit an adaptation or scope of learning while still having fun, we delay any training burnout an athlete may experience throughout their career.
Does this mean they cannot do structured training at all? No. But the degree of which we introduce standard training practices should be gradually introduce throughout puberty as to build a base for structured and periodized training after the completion of puberty. But for those in the lower grade levels who are still one or two years away from puberty (8-10 year old females, 9-11 year old males), "structured" training for speed and strength are not necessary to make meaningful improvements in training.