The Foundation of the Lifelong Athlete

The most important thing we can give our youth is a love of play and movement that will help them create a healthy life.

If you’ve been following my writing, you may recognize a recurring theme: the predominant societal trends of modern youth are failing to create capable, fulfilled humans, and really do a number on their physical and mental health. We’ve rooted out recess, eliminated play spaces, and replaced seesaws and monkey bars with short slides that don’t actually slide. Rather than encouraging kids to play outside, we embrace the quiet and temporary safety offered by hypnosis via iPad. Rather than teaching them to mow the lawn and correcting their mistakes until they are competent, we keep that responsibility, or pay someone else to do it, while we taxi our kid to their hitting coach.

Our kids are more overweight, more anxious and depressed, and weaker than ever before. And on that shaky foundation, we ask them to be more athletically specialized than ever before.

It’s within this context that an intentional, responsibly developed middle school program becomes absolutely essential. Students are immersed in environments that promote immobility, muscle weakness, and loss of movement patterns. Most middle school coaches prioritize “smoke ‘em” workouts without intention or clarity in movement quality. These lead to breakdown when applied on this faulty framework. Never has there been a time when laying a strong physical foundation was of greater importance.

The Sport for Life Approach

A group of Canadian leaders, in an evil plot to increase athleticism and their nation’s health, created Sport For Life. Using the latest research and the experience of top athletes and coaches, they created the Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) model. This impressive guide identifies eight stages of athletic development that respect the nature of the age and emphasize applying the right approach at the right time. The structure, competition, and commitment level are progressed in line with the psychological and physiological needs of the youth. This approach will ensure both the greatest number of high-achieving athletes, as well as the greatest number of people active and healthy for life.

Each sport in the Canadian system has individualized their model, while emphasizing the same tenets appropriate for each age. For example:

  • Through age six, there should be no formal sports, but exposure to tons of active games and informal sport play amongst friends.
  • From ages 6-9, sports should be both unstructured and structured with the latter emphasizing fun. Game and season durations are kept short, to optimize the number of sports kids can play. Of course, kids should only play one sport at a time.
  • Each sport organization recommends participation in multiple sports, one at a time, through age 16 for males and 15 for females. Every sport believes this multisport background is essential to creating the best athletes in their specific sport. They believe that having an athletic population that plays multiple sports translates to more gold medals.
  • At the middle school phase, kids enter the “Train to Train” stage, where they begin more structured practice with more direction in identifying sport positions. Participation in multiple sports is still emphasized.

It’s in this phase that athletes should be introduced to a general physical preparation (GPP) training program. To be clear, this is not sport specific training, and the goal remains long-term athletic development. If we train upon significant dysfunction, these kids will be plagued by injuries and severely limited in their potential.

Don’t Just Make Them Tired

The “wear them out” approach adopted by many youth coaches is lazy and counterproductive. It’s very easy to make kids really tired. The real question is, did you make them any better today? I’ll be the first to say our kids need to be challenged, and that, in general, they are disturbingly out of shape. However, there is far more to be gained from a consistent daily progression, where each day is incrementally more difficult, and there is intense attention to detail. The grind comes from consistency of approach.

With intelligent progression, youth teams can give far higher output for far longer than you’d ever thought possible. Create a progressive sprint program, and four months later, you’ll have a team that could seemingly run 40 yard dashes at full speed with 35 seconds rest between, all day. The challenge is that this takes discipline from all the adults, not just the kids. Human nature is to be fired up on day one, and apathetic by day 50. A progressive, qualitative approach requires consistent attention to detail and a slow, deliberate increase in intensity.

A great deal of time should be invested in demonstrating what each movement looks like, and creating proficiency in that movement pattern. Take your time with middle school athletes. Never fear regressing them to clean up their movement patterns. Coaches who rush a kid forward now are just entrenching bad habits that will have to be cleaned up down the road. Every year I’ve coached at the high school level, our freshmen athletes have more injuries than any other class, despite playing fewer games against less powerful opponents. So many of these injuries would have been prevented in a progressive, qualitative program. When you are injured, you aren’t training. Those injured freshmen fall further behind, while they spend days sitting in treatment, because their middle school coach prioritized mindlessly jogging miles and back squatting without a foundation.

The Essential Athletic Skills

So what must be taught to our middle schoolers?

  • Squat (and unilateral knee-dominant movements)
  • Hinge (and hip dominant movements)
  • Push (horizontal then vertical)
  • Pull (horizontal then vertical)
  • Pillar work (anti-rotation, crawls, and carries)
  • Athletic position
  • Landing, jumping, and sprinting

Teach kids to execute these skills and do a lot of free play, and you likely have the greatest middle school sports program around. Let the other teams make a mockery of exercises too advanced for their clientele. You will thrive by executing the essentials. Let other teams irresponsibly hurry athletes into exercises they do not know how to perform under unsafe loads. Your kids will remain healthy and continue to progress.

The backbone of this approach is a hierarchy of movement priorities paired with an emphasis and clarification of what progression looks like. The movement hierarchy begins with a clear teaching process for each movement pattern that I’ll detail in a follow-up article. First, we must understand the practical philosophy.

For every movement pattern, there is a harder version (a progression) and an easier version (a regression). The back squat is like calculus; you can’t just start most kids there. First you teach wall squats, then counterbalance squats, sprinkle in standing split squats to develop isometric strength, control, and an introduction to unilateral work. Then you can move to light kettlebell goblet squats and weightless Bulgarian split squats.

Progression works in two ways. You can progress to more challenging versions of the pattern (from a goblet squat to a barbell front squat), or simply progress the intensity (weight) or duration under the load in an easier pattern. In this way, you ensure that athletes get progressive overload in whatever pattern they are able to correctly execute.

Training Program Priorities for Youth

Priority #1 is executing the movement with good form. No benefit is obtained without this. In every movement, there are three phases: eccentric, isometric, and concentric. For teaching middle schoolers, just say: lower, hold, drive. These three phases should be the emphasis in everything they do. Beat these into their heads (figuratively!). Students should be hearing “lower, hold, drive” in their sleep. They shouldn’t lift a fork to their mouth without isolating and noting the three distinct phases.

This enables Priority #2: controlled execution of the tempo. Most of my early teaching is done on a 5-5-1 tempo (lower for 5 seconds, hold for 5, drive fast but under control). At the middle school level, I advise a standard tempo of 3-2-1 for everything not explicitly given a tempo.

Before we get to the 3rd Priority, its important to understand that you must have priority 1 and 2 nailed down before all else. They are the barometer that guide all decisions about what to do.

Priority #3 is what I call Goldilocks intensity. You find the most advanced step in the progression-regression continuum that can be executed with acceptable mechanics. Then you find the highest level of resistance that can be completed with those mechanics at the desired tempo. The concentric phase should not be ignored here. Cease the lift when the concentric (drive) speed slows or becomes choppy. The goal is to push the “slow down” rep to a later rep, over time.

For this reason, I recommend recording weights and reps, and using a rep range system. For instance, the kettlebell goblet squat can be programmed at 3×4-7. Reps only count when all levels of the movement hierarchy are executed. Form and tempo, including a controlled yet fast concentric phase, are the emphasis in each rep. Once you are able to maintain concentric rep speed at a resistance for seven reps, it is time to move up the intensity 10 lbs. or less.

This last part is crucial to keep little egos in check. When you introduce resistance, some students (particularly boys) inevitably enter a crazed state. They become only concerned with lifting the heaviest weight that doesn’t immediately shoot a vertebra through their skin. Be brutally persistent in your directives and re-explanations of the hierarchy of movement priorities. Monitor vigilantly, and redirect often. Eventually, the philosophy will win the day and create a mature, focused, strong team.

A Foundation for a Lifetime of Athleticism

At any level, programs must start here. This is the essential approach to effective team or group training. All coaches on staff must adopt this philosophy. It’s a departure from the normal patterns of our society. It emphasizes quality over quantity, awareness, intentionality, and giving students the framework to make informed decisions and guide their own progress.

If you choose to follow this model, set up a parent meeting and clarify your philosophy to them as well. While you’ve got their attention, beg them to set up no-phone zones and teach their kids to set their own alarms. Plead with them to help their kids get to bed with all screens off in time to get eight hours of sleep. And if you’re feeling like pushing your luck, ask that they make it a point of emphasis to have their kid eat breakfast.

At the end of the day, these things matter most: that we teach youth a love of play and movement and that we give them an inclination towards a healthy life.