Age Appropriate Sports Development
This spring and summer I had the amazing opportunity to spend three months in Egypt with my husband, who had been recruited to work with the coaches and players of a youth soccer program. The purpose of the program was to train young kids, but also to use sports as a bridge between communities and cultures.
The kids participating in the soccer programs ranged in age from four to 17 years of age. Some of the coaches had coaching certificates, but many had just come up through the program and stayed on to offer this opportunity to the next generation.
My husband started working with the coaches before the season began and it was immediately evident to him that coaching the youngest children posed some of the greatest challenges.
The coaches of these youngest children were assuming the role of a preschool teacher, rather than an athletic coach. Expectations for the children were either low or non-existent and the training time was less training and more hand-holding and waiting in line for the next exercise or skill.
Instead of teaching the children one skill at a time and progressing, they were all over the place, trying different skills all in one training session—a major planning challenge for the coaches.
For my husband and I, this felt like a great opportunity to hone in on soccer and sports education for the youngest participants. Training these youngsters in the right way is the base for building a long-term, successful sports program.
The group from ages four to nine is what world-famous sports conditioning expert, Tudor O. Bompa, calls the Initiation Stage, and this is the age group that many trainers and coaches struggle with.1
The Little Egoists – Human Psychological Development
The first obstacle we encountered at the sports camp was the prevalent and false idea that Egyptian youngsters differed significantly from western children. While there are obvious cultural differences, we spent a good deal of time convincing the coaches that human psychological development is universal and the stages are identifiable in children wherever you go.
The best program for training youth is based on understanding and capitalizing on how people develop and mature: intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. The hallmarks of each phase of development need to be considered when designing a safe, productive, effective, and enjoyable sports experience.
Although Bompa advocates beginning these activities at six years old, the soccer club in Egypt included four- and five-year-old children. This is important to note because, according to Jean Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, children between the ages of four and six are egocentric.
Everything is about them and they cannot comprehend that there are other people to work with and empathize with. However, by the time they are seven, children begin to recognize peer relationships and start working well with others. This major milestone is important to consider when developing a successful sports program.
Children younger than seven also have rather short attention spans, therefore the activities were tailored to meet the needs of two separate age groups, children under seven and children aged seven to nine.
Multi-lateral Training Trumps Specialization for Young Athletes
Tudor Bompa’s work centers on multi-lateral stages of training skills for movement, athleticism, and sports—in other words, general physical skills needed for all kinds of sports.1,2 Bompa demonstrates that to develop children to their utmost athletic potential, the best training follows a model that begins with a broad base of general movement and athletic skills, gradually narrowing into sports specific training as the athlete ages and develops.
The Initiation Stage covers the ages of the youngest children up to age ten. Bompa breaks the program down into developing motor skills as follows1:
- Preparation for skill acquisition
- Simple balance
- Simple rhythm and reaction time
- Simple spatial orientation
- Simple hand-eye coordination
- Skill-enhancing exercises
He stresses that all the training should be varied, gradual, and promote the development of general fitness.
Bompa also stresses, “In these stages [early stages] of athletic development it is essential that a strong vocabulary of physical and psychological attributes be developed.”2
Our Multi-lateral Egyptian Program
For our youngest soccer club participants, we tried to follow a Bompa-approved multi-lateral approach. For example, the progression for the four- to six-year-old children might look like this:
- Holding the ball in the hands and moving around the space within a group.
- Moving with the ball in the hands while consciously avoiding the space of another participant.
- Moving with the ball in the hands and using various turns and other moves to avoid another player—an activity called “drive like an Egyptian” was introduced for this level. The children ran around, narrowly avoiding each other and “beeping” throughout the exercise.
- Moving with the ball in hands while avoiding other players by skipping, skip jumping, and hopping.
- Doing the above while changing speed and direction to avoid another player.
- Playing tag games with one player by using the ball to tap the ball of another player while that player uses evasive movements.
- Dribbling the ball on the ground with the hands.
- Adding other changes of speed and direction to avoid another player.
We introduced dribbling of the ball with the feet only after the children had practiced all of these skills with the ball in their hands. We then progressively added the other movement, agility, reaction time, and spatial orientation maneuvers to the foot work.
Every session ended with a small soccer or soccer-like game using a small net. It included a lot of opportunities to practice the skills introduced during the training, with the added competition—and fun—of scoring goals.
During these multi-lateral training sessions, the coaches were also being trained. They were being trained to be good observers in all aspects of training so they could reinforce the acquisition of skills and facilitate mastery where it was lacking.
Bompa cites longitudinal studies done in East Germany, Russia, and Sweden which suggested the benefits of developing a broad base of athletic and psychological competencies in younger players, ultimately leading to more athletic success in the highest levels of the athletes' specialized sports.3
Bompa summarizes, as follows: Time will be the test of whether this approach will bring more success to these young players with the passion for excelling in football (soccer).
This is especially poignant because the Egyptian sports system excludes specific social groups from developing in their professional programs. The coaching program in which we participated included everyone, including girls (often not included in sports programs). One of the goals of this club, however, is to develop players from the excluded social groups of such caliber, that the power structure of the professional system could not afford to exclude them if they want to create a world class football league and presence.
1. Tudor O Bompa, TOTAL TRAINING FOR YOUNG CHAMPIONS (Champaign, Human Kinetics, 2000)
2. Tudor O. Bompa and G. Gregory Haff, PERIODIZATION: Theory and Methodology of Training 5th Edition (Champaign, Human Kinetics, 2009)
3. Carlson, R. The Socialization of Elite tennis players in Sweden: An Analysis of the Player's Background and Development, Social Sport J 5:241-256, 1988; Colibaba, E.D., and I. Bota, Jocurile Sportive: Teoria si Medodica, Bucuresti: Editura Aldin, 1998; Harre, D. Trainingslehre, Berlin, Germany, Sportverlag, 1982.
Kids need sports and fitness. Physical activity is so important for the physical, social, emotional, and even academic well-being of children, and yet too many of them are not getting access to appropriate fitness or sports opportunities. There is a lot of work to be done here, and we as professionals in the fitness industry have the power to make real change.
Two of the most frequently asked questions about children and strength training are; “Is it safe for kids to lift weights?” And “At what age can kids start lifting weights?” The sad truth is, many doubts surround the safety and validity of weight training for children. Many would even have you believe that kids have no place at all in the weight room.
Youth Fitness Certification
Dr. Hugh D. Allen stated in USA Today that 30 million of today's youth in the US will die of heart disease as adults. Additional health problems have all been linked to childhood obesity and lack of fitness in today's youth. As a result, youth fitness training is one of the fastest-growing segments in the health club and fitness industry.