Should Young Athletes Continue Training During Their Sport’s Off-Season?
Any decisions we make about a young athlete’s sport involvement need to take into account the long-term implications of such decisions. If athlete longevity in a sport is one of our goals (as it is mine) we must take actions to help an athlete avoid single sport saturation at an early age. This must be done regardless of how enthusiastic the athlete is (or we are!) about the sport at a certain point in time.
Avoid “single sport saturation”.
I understand the difficulties caused by the lengthening of youth sport seasons, increasing representative team commitments and the blurring of the summer/winter sport boundaries. But with athlete longevity fixed firmly in my sights, below I discuss some of my most passionate beliefs about how we should handle a young athlete’s “off-season”.
1. The athlete should have a complete break
At the end of the season, I believe that young athletes need a complete break from their sport. This is vital for refreshing the child and avoiding them becoming “stale”. When coaching, I aim to create an environment where an athlete is raring to return to training. I want them energised, excited and enthusiastic at the beginning of a new season. I believe that a complete break from a sport is an important ingredient in achieving this. The length of the break will depend on the age of the child. I suggest between three and six months for most young athletes. Read on for discussion about this.
I suggest a three to six month break for most young athletes.
2. Kids 11 years and under should be “6-month athletes”
I am a big believer in kids 11 years of age and under only practicing regularly for a sport during that sport’s season. Hence my recommendation that they be “6-month athletes”.
Avoid using a traditional periodization annual plan with a young athlete, which suggest only 3-5 weeks away from a sport. Such plans were not written for kids.
I have no problems with young athletes participating in irregular “one-off” athletics sessions during their off-season. This includes things such as a winter coaching clinic or putting in a little a bit of practice in the lead-up to a winter-season school athletics carnival. Further to this I support kids working on broad athletics-related skills and abilities during the off-season. But I believe for athletes aged 11 years and under, that regular weekly sport-specific practice should cease during the sport’s off-season.
Regular sport-specific practice should cease during the sport’s off-season for kids 11 years of age and under.
3. Kids should play another sport during the winter season
Once their athletics season is over, I suggest that a young athlete concentrates on another sport. This other sport should become the primary focus during the opposing season. Track and field training should not interfere with the winter sport. Participation in another sport provides young athletes with a physical and mental break from their summer sport. It also helps athletes develop a broader range of skills and abilities, which is linked with lower injury rates and better all-round athleticism.
Another sport should become the primary focus during the off-season.
4. Don’t stress out about the need for a pre-season
Athletes 11 years and under do not need a “pre-season”. By 12-13 years of age, I think that athletes can do pre-season sessions but during this period their athletics should remain their secondary sport and must fit around their winter sport. If a pre-season is done, it may only involve one session a week, with the aim of getting back into the swing of the summer sport, working on new techniques, or correcting faults that have been identified the previous season.
I usually make myself available to start a pre-season no more than twelve weeks prior to the season beginning. An athlete will start a pre-season after this point in time when they want to return to training and when their commitments allow them to. Full athletics training should only begin once the winter sport has concluded.
Athletes 11 years and under do not need a pre-season.
Do you agree? Let me know what you think.
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Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.