Updated: Jan 30, 2020
In sport performance, we always want to have metrics to track to show us if what we're doing is working or not. As a strength coach, we are constantly making informed guesses as to what an athlete needs to do to improve certain characteristics or qualities. I say informed, because science is on our side and so is experience. We always have these tools to predict what results our program will yield on the other end, and we track metrics to ensure we're on the right path.
But what about training kids? I don't find doing one rep maxes appropriate, and really only see the value in doing timed 10's and 20's for those closer to their teenage years.
How do you assess a young athlete who isn't quite ready to lift weights and doesn't even have the stamina to run more than a few yards?
A bit more recently (about 8 months ago) I started toying around with the concept of crawling as an assessment or screening tool, and in particular crawling with the knees barely off of the ground. What crawling can tell us about young athletes is a great way to gain insight into their current level of ability in multiple domains. Essentially, it can be used as an insight into coordination, strength, stamina, and stability.
What I tend to look for in an effective crawl is simple: consistent coordination of the opposite arm/leg, total time duration that one can keep their knees off the ground, total distance crawled without the knees on the ground, and overall balance or stability throughout the whole movement. What these keys points can tell us about an athlete can give us great insight that multiple individual tests could tell us, without wasting what little attention span a child has on setup and breakdown.
And here's what those key points of performance can tell us:
1. Consistent Coordination of Opposite Arm and Leg
This is the mirroring of the gait cycle in a slowed down, controlled scenario. When an athlete has to think about moving both the arms and legs at the same time, it gives us insight as to what may happen reflexively at higher velocities such as sprinting. Most often what I see with my younger athletes is that when the legs move first in the crawl and the arms move second, the faster they run the more off balance they get because they lack the coordination in the gait cycle to maintain balance at a higher velocity. It also seems to lend itself to a lack of overall strength, because they don't have the ability to keep the knees off the ground while opposing limbs are not in contact with the ground.
2. Total Time Duration Crawled
This is something I more recently had explained through a podcast with Original Strength founder Tim Anderson, which is the concept of reflexive strength. Essentially, the duration that one can crawl can give us an insight into how genetically prepared their nervous system is to produce force. The longer a young athlete can crawl, the more innate strength they are likely to possess. Realistically, a strong 10 year old will likely continuously crawl for 30+seconds without the knees hitting the ground, and a stronger post-pubescent teen (13-14) will likely be in the 1 minute time frame.
3. Total Distance Crawled
This is one I think reflects more stamina than strength or speed. The distance crawled in the time frame that a young athlete can crawl for often reflects how much stamina they possess. Especially if you allow them to shift into a bear crawl position to rest as the move (I personally don't like to allow this), they may be off their knees for some time but fail to cover much ground. This, in my opinion and experience, generally shows up in a training session when an athlete is strong or fast but doesn't have the stamina to handle much volume in future training sessions.
4. Balance and Stability In Movement
This is a big one in my opinion. As much as I talked about the first three things, this is the biggest aspect I look for. Especially for later speed or agility focused training sessions, this seems to be a good predictor for the ability to hold good positions when learning skills such as acceleration and directional changes. What is common to notice with many kids (particularly those in puberty; between 10-14) is that the hips rise and sway from side to side as they crawl instead of remaining balanced and centered. What I've noticed over time is that it usually indicates weakness in the glutes, hip flexors, and obliques to stabilize the pelvis as the athlete moves a knee forward then pushes off of that foot to continue onward. This usually reveals itself as excessive internal or external rotation at the hip as they move forward when they crawl (though internal rotation is the most common I see). Depending on what is seen with each athlete, you can start to predict what movements they will struggle with and how to strengthen areas that will aid in the speed or agility skills you teach.
Now, are all of these solid indicators of speed, strength, or power? Honestly, I don't know yet. I'm still in the process of figuring out how it relates to other more well known markers such as sprints and Rep Maxes in older athletes. But as I've explored it more, the more I like it for younger kids. It's time efficient, simple in execution, and also doesn't have much fear associated with it. The beauty of it is that you can track the numbers like a metric and set goals for young athletes off of, all while screening for weaknesses or strengths that can help guide your program.
Ultimately, it's a nice assessment tool for kids because of its efficiency and ability to provide some insights into their current abilities, especially if you keep your eyes open and watch.