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Strength and conditioning: Strengthening young athletes

Strength and conditioning programmes for young athletes are growing in popularity. But what are the benefits and is this a trend that is here to stay? Kath Hudson reports

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 2
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Westway’s young tennis champion Andrea Pineda / © richard van loon
Westway’s young tennis champion Andrea Pineda / © richard van loon

At elite level, strength and conditioning programmes can make the difference between a podium finish or just missing out, and this is having a trickle down effect for young athletes. Strength and conditioning programmes are now being developed to give talented children and teenagers the edge.

According to The National Strength and Conditioning Association, there is research to show that strength and conditioning programmes for young people can improve muscular strength and power, motor skill performance, bone density and body composition, which all improve performance, but they can also help to create resistance to injury and ensure the body is in balance.

Even though this trend is in its infancy, programmes are getting fantastic results. For example, in London, the Westway Young Athletes programme has helped to produce a 13-year-old tennis champion: Andrea Pineda has won both the national singles and doubles titles for tennis in the U14 age group, and, at the end of 2017, was ranked in the top 20 in Europe for U14. Pretty good for someone who first came to the centre as a four-year-old for a community pay-and-play session.

Launched in January 2017, the Westway programme is led by coach Mark Sheppard, who has previously worked with the England and Wales Cricket Board, the British Paralympic Association, the Lawn Tennis Association, the Sports Youth Trust and the English Institute of Sport. Open to tennis players, footballers, climbers and other performance players, the programme aims to develop strength, power, stamina, agility, speed and mobility.

A balanced approach
“As a young person grows, their systems are developing and adapting. What they do physically during this time will have a greater impact on their abilities than at any other time in their lives,” says Sheppard.

“Every sport is physically beneficial, but no single sport provides the whole range of development needed to produce a well-rounded and fully developed athlete. Plus, the repeated patterns of a sport can produce repetitive strains which lead to injury and muscle imbalance, so conditioning exercises are needed to manage this.”

“For this reason, our programme is not just about ‘stronger, faster and fitter’ high-intensity training, but also about balancing all of the aspects needed for long-term athlete development. It’s designed to complement the specific training of the sports practiced by the young people, and to give them the tools to be able to take care of themselves and prepare them for specialisation within a chosen sport.”

Two sessions per week are run for each age group: nine to 12 years and 13 to 16 years. In a typical session, each athlete would go through a range of bodyweight and plyometric exercises, learning fundamentals such as how to jump and squat properly. The older group also uses light weights for strengthening exercises, flexibility and recovery.

Transferable skills
Created by former international rugby player Alastair Saverimutto, The World Elite Sports Performance Academy (WESPA) targets 16- to 18-year-olds with the intention of creating more podium stars. Saverimutto has spent two years developing the first programme, in the north of England, but hopes to roll the concept out across the UK, with the intention of widening the net to find more young talent to translate into podium success.

“WESPA’s mantra is simple and unequivocal,” says Saverimutto. “We don’t simply wish to develop athletes who will represent their country at international level, we fully intend to produce winners and podium finishers at local, national and international level.

“Take a look at the Winter Olympics, where we achieved five medals. How many competitors did we send and how many could we have sent if they had been trained at a WESPA facility, with specific strength and conditioning sessions? We enable an athlete to have the ability to transfer their skills to different disciplines, for example gymnasts could become skiers.”

WESPA’s programme includes plyometrics, multi-directional movement, nutrition, psychology, strength and conditioning, education and lifestyle choices. “These programmes ensure that young people develop holistically, with skills that could be transferred to any sport,” says Saverimutto.

Widening the net
In Australia, ESS Performance is achieving considerable success through its Athlete Development Programme (ADP), which offers strength and conditioning, injury rehabilitation and coaching mentorship to athletes from the age of 15.

Many athletes have gone on to achieve national and international success, including Adam Gotsis, who now plays for Denver Broncos in the NFL, Kathryn Mitchell, who has thrown javelin at two Olympics and won Gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and Casey Wright, who has just competed in cross country skiing at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

ESS head of high performance Matthew Taylor says the main aim of the programme is to offer elite services to a broader population of emerging athletes. “In Australia, unless you’re competing at the highest level in your chosen sport, it’s very difficult to gain access to world class training support and facilities,” says Taylor. “ESS offers the same training experiences and services usually reserved for the sporting elite, but makes them available to emerging and developing athletes, elite athletes without AIS (Australian Institute of Sport) representation and clients looking for a results-based programme.

“Our approach is to ensure each individual receives the appropriate coaching and programming to suit their stage of development, address their areas for improvement and complement the sport they compete in.”

Sessions run daily and are tailored to the needs of the individuals. They include corrective exercises to help them move better, as well a skills block focusing on either speed, acceleration, change of direction or jumping skills, as well as flexible recovery exercises. Some athletes also undertake resistance training.

“Our programme enables us to address key areas that may be holding an athlete back from achieving sporting success. For some, this is developing strength or preventing injury and for others it’s simply improving their technique and coordination,” says Taylor.

Issues and challenges
Despite their many successes, all the programmes have the limiting factor of finances. They are private programmes, which do not receive funding and have to be commercially viable. ESS Performance says its programmes cost less than a weekly personal training session, while Westway charges £105 per term for one session a week and £185 for two. Despite being good value for money, this is enough of a financial commitment to prevent some talent from being nurtured.

The other challenge is finding staff who are sufficiently qualified to teach strength training to children.

These issues aside, it’s exciting to see this commitment to helping young athletes to achieve their sporting dreams. It will be interesting to see the future impact, both in terms of talent produced and similar programmes inspired.

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