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Research is not that substantive when it comes to young athletes and injury rates. Some from Sweden indicates that 60% of young elite athletes sustain an injury of sufficient magnitude to require training to be modified across the season.
A fews back year when I attended the European Jumps and Sprints Symposium in Sweden, renowned US coach Dan Pfaff said: “All athletes are injured from birth.” What he meant is that childhood accidents (small or large) can affect athletic development thereafter. To this I would add that play and the development of physical literacy is equally important as soon as a child learns how to crawl, walk and run.
Play becomes crucial in terms of developing balance and body awareness, for example. These are vital attributes for latter life sporting ability. Our teenagers nowadays are potentially less physically skilled than previous generations. Sedentary lifestyles and the rise of the "health and safety culture" have all been determinant factors. If you can’t move well then injury is more likely.
Young athletes’ growth and maturation
Coaches will be aware of growth spurts and maturation rates among the young athletes they coach. We will have had young athletes who suddenly grow a lot in a relatively short time span (or suddenly spurt a beard!) and this can lead to difficulties. Coordination may become one of these as the young athlete struggles to perform movements they previously may have had no problems with months before.
The skeleton of a growing young person does not develop uniformly – the largest increases tend to begin from the bottom up. Thus, a developing young athlete’s skeleton can be out of synch as it were – and because of this coordination can become difficult for a while and injury risk potentially magnified at certain sites.
It’s often during adolescence and these growth spurts when athlete, coach and parent can push for more training. This is potentially counter-productive injurious and could lead to increased frustration on the part of the athlete. All involved need to nurture very carefully the athlete at this time and probably the best strategy is to dial back training and “wait” for the growth spurt to end or at least slow.
To determine growth spurts coaches can simply measure athletes of appropriate age (with parental/guardian) permission every couple of months. Growth spurts generally occur between 8-10 in girls and 10-12 in boys. However, my experience indicates later periods of significant growth well into the teens.
And then there’s maturation which is another form of growth which in my experience is the more significant one and with it hormonal change and the development of, for example, in males in particular and for example, significant muscle mass.
Again, experience tells me that some young boys circa 14-17 can develop muscle that outstrips their skeletal frame to a point where there’s increased injury risk. Adolescent boys can also think they are "invincible" - and with the cocktail of hormones floating around their bodies they can recover from injury quickly on the positive side or try to run through them (without telling coach) on the negative.
When as athlete is going through a period of Peak Height Velocity (see below) then the tensile forces placed on the joints can be potentially injurious. If as a coach you have a “more developed” athlete (usually males but also potentially female, for their age), then care needs to be paramount in terms of training prescription. The athlete may “look” strong but may actually be weaker than their appearance. Very interestingly maturation (see below also) is not uniform even within an individual young athlete – it varies between tissue and organ systems. And as has been pointed out the development of the skeletal system is not uniform either. Some bones may be “weaker” than others at different times of development as an example.
Hopefully this mix of personal experience and sports science will help fellow coaches understand a little better about what happens in those crucial periods of young athlete physical and athletic development.
Young athlete physical development and useful information
Peak Height Velocity refers to the period of maximum growth. It happens in boys from 13-14 and girls from 11-12. This can amount to an increase in height of 7-9cm for girls and 8-10cm in boys per year.
Peak Weight Velocity refers to weight gain. This according to research lags behind PHV by 0.3-0.9 years in girls and 0.2-0.4 years in boys. The gains can be as much as 6-10kg per year.
Maturity Status refers to the timing of maturation – that’s to say it’s within the transition from child to adult. Secondary sex characteristics and skeletal growth are the two key identifying factors.
Chronological age and maturation stage do not display synergy.
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We continue to look at the type of training I recommend for this time of the training year