How to Become a World-Class Athlete | Development from Youth to Pro
Developing into a world-class athlete is a marathon, not a sprint. One of the coolest things about the Absolute Strength Podcast over the years is it has given me the chance to talk with elite performers in many different sports. From NFL players to Olympic Gold Medalists, to World Champions. In talking with these athletes, one of the things you find is, developing into an exceptional athlete later in life starts at the beginning. Many of the best athletes in the world had similar paths to success.
The topic of how to train and develop athletes from childhood through high school and college is something I have thought a lot about lately. My daughter is getting older, and she is starting to take more and more interest in sports. Beyond that, I have twins on the way. I think it’s always a father’s hope to take many of the lessons learned over the years and help your kids pursue their dreams whatever they might be. However, if they show interest in sports and physical activity, I will probably be able to bring more to the table.
There are a lot of misconceptions around how to best develop as an athlete. How many sports should you play, when should you specialize in one sport, should you specialize in one sport, is it safe for kids to lift weights, will it stunt their growth, etc. We will talk about all of that stuff.
In my opinion, long term athletic development should look a lot like a basic periodization cycle. It starts generalized and over time moves toward more intense and more specific work.
We are going to organize everything into four age categories.
- Elementary School: Ages 6–10
- Middle School: Ages 11–13
- High School: Ages 14–18
- College and Beyond: Ages 19+
Before we go any further, I want to point out I am not a doctor. Don’t take anything I say regarding training youth as medical advice. I always recommend seeking out qualified medical professionals if you have any specific questions about your health or the health of your kids.
With that being said, let’s dig in. I want to start by looking at a survey done by the United States Olympic Committee.
In 2014 the United States Olympic Committee put out a survey and organized it into what they called — The Path to Excellence: A View on the Athletic Development of U.S. Olympians Who Competed from 2000–2012. This study mimics the original Path to Excellence survey that was conducted with Olympians from 1984–1998.
The idea was to gain insight directly from Olympians on their achievement of elite-level performance, on factors related to athlete identification and development. They actually had some interesting findings. I want to go over a few topics that apply to our discussion.
Age at first Olympic Games:
“To better understand athlete development, it is important to determine at what age athletes reach various milestones. In this question, athletes were asked at what age they first made the U.S. Olympic Team, in order to place the athlete’s age at first Olympic Games in relation to the Olympian’s overall athletic career. About one-third of the athletes were between the ages of 21–24 years old, and another 33 percent were between the ages of 25–28 years old. The initial survey (from 1984–1998) revealed that on average, males made their first U.S. Olympic Team at 24.6 years old, while females averaged at 23.6 years old. While the current study only ascertained an average age range, it’s apparent that the ages at which athletes made their first U.S. Olympic team are very similar between the two studies.”
This corresponds well to what people infer at an athlete's athletic prime for most sports ~ mid-20s.
Development of the Olympic Dream
“In an attempt to understand the length of time between various mental milestones tied to athletic development, survey participants were asked to indicate the age at which they reached the following stages of development in their sport:
- Introduced to the sport
- Achieved local competitive success
- First dreamed of becoming an Olympian
- Actually started making decisions that would contribute to actualizing that dream
- Believed it was possible to become an Olympian
Results: Using the information that was provided, the average ages at which Olympians reached these milestones were calculated:
- Introduced to the sport: 11.4 years old
- Achieved local competitive success: 14.2 years old
- First dreamed of becoming an Olympian: 14.0 years old
- Started making decisions to make the Olympic dream a reality: 17.5 years old
- Believed it was possible to become an Olympian: 19 years old
- Made the first U.S. Olympic Team: 25.5 years old (calculated based on the midpoint of the selected age-range).
Therefore, the average length of time from when an athlete was first introduced to the sport until making the first U.S. Olympic team was 14 years (11.4–25.5 years of age).”
Regular Sports Participation by Age
“Another question asked the Olympians to indicate the number of sports practiced regularly at each of the following ages: This question sought to better understand Olympians’ participation in sports activity during childhood, adolescence, and adult years. It is suggested that athletes require early skill development in sport to better prepare them for the demands of specializing in one sport, which is referred to as multi-lateral development. Results: The findings indicate that surveyed Olympians were involved in an average of three sports per year until the age of 14. From 15–18 years of age, athletes reported participating in an average of 2.2 sports per year. Surveyed Olympians had decreased involvement to an average of 1.27 sports during ages 19–22 and 1.31 sports after age 22.
Building on that, the next question centered on being a multisport athlete.
Value of Participating in Multiple Sports
“Surveyed Olympians were asked ‘How valuable was playing different or multiple sports in your development as an athlete?’ As previously mentioned, research in the field of talent development supports the notion that a general sports background can prepare an individual for the demands of specialization and advanced training in one sport. While several questions in the survey asked athletes to identify the number and type of sports programs participated in throughout their athletic development, another means of addressing this topic is to get an athlete’s firsthand perspective on whether playing multiple sports was valuable to their athletic development.
Results: 88 percent of Olympians felt that playing several different sports was either valuable or very valuable to their athletic development. This question wasn’t included in the initial survey, so it’s not possible to compare results. “
To summarize finding from the Olympic survey:
- Age at the first Olympic games was the mid-20s.
- On average, athletes were first introduced to the sport at around 11 years old.
- It took 14 years from 1stbeing introduced to sport to make the Olympic team.
- On average they played 3 sports per year until the age of 14.
- On average they played 2 sports per year from ages 15–18.
- On average they played 1 sport per year after high school.
- 88% of athletes felt playing multiple sports growing up was valuable.
According to TrackingFootball.com, this past year, 2020, 217 out of 255 players drafted into the NFL played multiple sports in high school. That is 85%! You see numbers like this every year. Maybe there is something to it?
Elementary School [Ages 6–10]
The Elementary school years are really all about exploration. You want to play as many sports as possible recreationally and formally. It’s important to be exposed to a lot of different sports early on, not only for the development aspects of it but also to find out what sports you are good at and actually enjoy.
As we already discussed, early sports specialization is not the way to go, especially at this age group, but even middle school and into high school as well. The talk about specializing in one sport shouldn’t even enter the discussion until probably around the junior or senior year of high school, but it doesn’t even have to then.
At the elementary level, the sports seasons are typically shorter so you can easily play 4 or more sports per year. I recommend trying at least one new sport per year.
At this age, there needs to be a healthy balance between competition and development. It’s not about winning at all costs early on, it’s more about learning the sport and developing good habits that will lead to future success. Listen, I’m a big believer in competition. I think learning how to be competitive and being in a competitive environment is important, not just for sports, but for life. With that being said, there is plenty of time for that later on. Developing an athlete is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s impossible to peak in elementary school, so don’t even try. The goal should be to learn how to do things correctly. Sometimes that means winning, but it doesn’t have to.
As far as training goes, the question is often asked, how young is too young for kids to start training? Well, “training” is a relative term. If a kid is old enough to participate in organized sports, they are most likely old enough to take part in some form of resistance training. A lot of training in this age group almost has to make up for a lack of outside play. I feel like I was part of the last generation that really played outside a lot as a kid. When I was growing up, I used to get all of the neighbor kids together to play sports outside. We played football in the fall, street hockey in the winter, baseball, and lacrosse in the spring and summer rode bikes all year. I was an active kid. I actually built a BMX bike track when I was in middle school. This was legit. It had jumps, berms, tabletops, everything.
You don’t see as much unorganized activity anymore. Kids are not outside running, jumping, biking, swimming, kicking, crawling, carrying, etc. We need to make up for it.
In a way, I do the same thing with a lot of my adult clients, myself included. As adults, many of us live sedentary lives outside of the gym. We aren’t outside playing pickup games or riding bikes, or even getting up off the couch. To make up for this, we track daily steps and throw in structured walking periods to make up for our lack of general activity.
Kids need to develop coordination and motor skills. Kids need to learn and develop basic human movements. This helps build a strong athletic foundation for later on.
Based on current research, it is safe for youth to take part in resistance training. For the most part with kids, I want to focus on relative strength and learning to move the body through space. There is a reason why gymnastics is such a great sport for young kids. The skill transfers well to many other sports.
When we think of relative strength and moving the body through space, think of: push-ups, pull-ups, flexed arm hangs, squats, lunges, sit-ups, planks, and jumping rope.
Who remembers the Presidential Physical Fitness Test in Elementary School? I still have the little patch they handed out to everyone who won the award! Essentially, it was just a bunch of bodyweight exercises and running.
Keep in mind, running and jumping is more stressful on the body than calisthenics and lifting weights in a controlled environment.
When it comes to any type of exercise, proper instruction is really important. Learn how to do these movements correctly the first time. I’m not opposed to using equipment. Again, having someone who can teach proper technique is critical. Start slow and slowly progress as the athlete becomes more comfortable. Cable work is fine- lat pulldowns, seated rows, curls, press downs, etc. machines (if the kid fits on them) are fine, dumbbells and kettlebells are great, resistance bands, medicine balls, etc. are all fair game. Even barbells are fine to implement if the athlete is able to control them. This might be a good time to use the 1-inch standard bar that weighs only 5–10lbs instead of the 2in Olympic bar that weighs 45lbs.
In my opinion, the most important thing to consider when training elementary school kids is to keep it fun. It doesn’t need to be highly structured and set up as a perfect periodized plan. The workouts can be short and random. We want to avoid burnout right out of the gate.
To Summarize: Elementary School (Ages 6–10)
- Play as many sports as possible recreationally
- Try to play at least one new sport every year
- Formally play 3+ sports per year
- Focus training on improving relative strength, movement quality, and play 2–3 days per week.
The NSCA Position Stand on Youth Resistance Training
Before we move on to Middle School, I want to talk about the NSCA’s Position Stand on youth resistance training. If you have been following along on the podcast for a while, you know I love position stands from reputable organizations.
The paper is titled: Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association
*Note — In the document, youth is broadly defined as both children and adolescents, so essentially the term “youth” encompasses Elementary, Middle, and High School kids.
It is the current position of the NSCA that:
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program is relatively safe for youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can enhance the muscular strength and power of youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve the cardiovascular risk profile of youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve motor skill performance and may contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports-related injuries.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help improve the psychosocial well-being of youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help promote and develop exercise habits during childhood and adolescence.
Continuing in the document, let’s dig into the literature review section.
“During the 1970s and 1980s, one of the reasons that resistance training was not often recommended for children and adolescents was the presumed high risk of injury associated with this type of exercise. In part, the widespread fear of injury associated with youth resistance training during this era stemmed from data gathered by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. NEISS uses data from various emergency room departments to make nationwide projections of the total number of injuries related to exercises and equipment. However, NEISS data are based on injuries that patients state are related to resistance exercise and equipment, and therefore, it is incorrect to conclude that the injuries were caused by such activities and devices. In fact, many of the reported injuries were actually caused by inappropriate training techniques, excessive loading, poorly designed equipment, ready access to the equipment, or lack of qualified adult supervision. Although these findings indicate that the unsupervised and improper use of resistance training equipment may be injurious, it is misleading to generalize these findings to properly designed and supervised youth resistance training programs.
Risks and Concerns Related to Youth Resistance Training
Current findings from prospective resistance training studies indicate a low risk of injury in children and adolescents who follow age-appropriate training guidelines. In the vast majority of published reports, no overt clinical injuries have been reported during resistance training. Although various resistance training modalities and a variety of training regimens have been used, all the training programs were supervised and appropriately prescribed to ensure that the training program was matched to the initial capacity of the participant…
Youth resistance training, as with most physical activities, does carry with it some degree of an inherent risk of musculoskeletal injury, yet this risk is no greater than many other sports and recreational activities in which children and adolescents regularly participate. “
“A traditional area of concern related to youth resistance training is the potential for training-induced damage to the growth cartilage, which is found at 3 main sites in a growing child’s body: the growth plates near the ends of the long bones, the cartilage lining the joint surfaces (articular cartilage), and the points at which the major tendons attach to the bones (apophysis). Because growth cartilage is “pre-bone,” it is weaker than adjacent connective tissue and therefore more easily damaged by repetitive microtrauma. In some cases, damage to this area of the bone could result in time lost from training, significant discomfort, and growth disturbances. A few retrospective case reports published in the 1970s and 1980s noted injury to the growth cartilage during preadolescence and adolescence. However, most of these injuries were due to improper lifting techniques, maximal lifts, or lack of qualified adult supervision.
Although children and adolescents are susceptible to injury to the growth cartilage, the potential for this type of injury may be less in a preadolescent child than in an adolescent because the growth cartilage may actually be stronger and more resistant to sheering type forces in younger children. To date, injury to the growth cartilage has not been reported in any prospective youth resistance training research study. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will negatively impact growth and maturation during childhood and adolescence. “
Middle School [Ages 11–13]
The middle school years are awkward for a lot of kids personally, socially, and athletically. As you know, there can be a big difference between some 11 and 13 years old’s. Before puberty, there is a lot less variation between maturity level, again physically and psychologically between kids of the same chronological age. This needs to be taken into an account.
During middle school, it’s important to continue playing as many sports as possible recreationally. If one took my advice in the Elementary years and tried a bunch of different sports, they should have a pretty good idea of what ones they are proficient at, as well as enjoy. As shown in the Olympic committee survey, there is still a lot of benefit in continuing to formally play multiple sports throughout the year. Middle school is also the time when the opportunity to play sports for your school starts. I think that might play a role in why 11 years old is on average when Olympic athletes are first introduced to their sport. 11 years old is 6th grade. I recommend playing 2–3 sports a year during middle school.
During middle school, the opportunity presents itself to start taking training more seriously, if the athlete wants to. Training can become more structured, and less play. Actual programs can be followed with built-in progression. Heavier weights can be done as long as proper technique is maintained. Use common sense and meet kids where they are physically. Lifting/training is a skill and until the skill is adequate, there are likely going to be challenges.
It has been shown that preadolescents have difficulty increasing muscle mass due to inadequate levels of circulating testosterone. This is not to say preadolescents can’t build muscle, I would assume they can to some degree since hormones don’t drive all hypertrophic adaptation to training, however, the muscle building effects will be much less than expected from an adolescent or adult. This means most of the gains will be neurological therefore, adaptations in strength, power, and muscular endurance will be the primary functions of resistance training.
Puberty will increase in testosterone in boys which will result in an increase in muscle size and strength naturally. In addition, as the nervous system develops performance in skills that require balance, agility, strength, and power go up naturally as well. Resistance training just adds to natural development.
In girls, during puberty, the increase in estrogen leads to increased body fat. Girls still gain muscle naturally during adolescence but at a much slower rate due to hormone differences.
The timing of puberty can vary from 8 to 13 years old in girls and 9 to 15 years old in boys. Girls typically begin puberty about 2 years before boys on average.
Bottom Line: Middle School (Ages 11–13)
Keep in mind, just like it’s impossible to peak in elementary school, it’s impossible to peak in middle school as well. You can’t be at your physical best at 12 or 13 years old. Don’t compromise development for the sake of winning something in middle school. Quite frankly no one remembers or even cares who wins anything in middle school. It’s all about high school and beyond. The goal is to be at your best when it matters. Keep it fun. 70% of kids drop out of sports after age 13 due to it not becoming fun anymore.
- Play as many sports as possible recreationally
- Formally play 2–3 sports per year
- Resistance training can be more structured and programmed 2–3 days per week.
High School [Ages 14–18]
High school is another step up the ladder. People will start to really take notice of how well you do, especially at the Varsity level.
As we talked about early on, it’s a good idea to continue to play multiple sports. However, once you get to your junior year, and it becomes clear of playing a sport in college, I think that is the appropriate time to drop down to only playing 1–2 sports. At this point, it may become a time issue as varsity programs often require some form of offseason participation.
Playing two sports works well. That gives you two sports seasons “in session”, one sport season during school off, and the summer to focus on the main sport. The summer work may just be in the weight room, but it can also be sport specific ie. going to camps, seminars, etc.
A mistake I made in high school was specializing too early. I don’t say this from a physical standpoint as much as I do from a mental standpoint. When I quit playing football, I pretty much put all my eggs in the wrestling basket. That combined with already wrestling for many years contributed to feeling burned out. I think diversifying your happiness portfolio by continuing to have multiple interests and playing multiple sports helps prevent burnout.
The counter-argument is often centered around a chicken or the egg debate. Do the best athletes play multiple sports because they are the best athletes and CAN be good at multiple sports? Or, does playing multiple sports lead to becoming the best athletes? We can debate it all we want but look at the data. Look at what the best athletes are doing. They are playing multiple sports in high school. Even Kyle Dake, the kid who was a wrestling phenom, they call him kid dynamite, played 3 sports in high school.
Bottom Line: High School (Ages 14–18)
During high school, training can become as serious as you want it to be. However, keep in mind, high school kids are still high school kids. It doesn’t matter how good they are at a given sport, they are likely still relatively new to training. Probably still a novice. The training should continue to be fun but productive. There needs to be enough overload to facilitate progress. All of the same training variables and principles that apply to adults, apply to high school kids.
As far as what to actually do, don’t get caught up on sports specific training. In my opinion, that is not the best way to go for high school athletes. Nothing will beat just getting stronger. In my experience that is what most high school athletes are lacking. Plus, strength carries over to so many other things. Getting stronger will make you faster, explosive, and more powerful.
- Formally play 2–3 sports per year Freshman and Sophomore years
- Formally play 1–2 sports per year Junior and Senior year. (can play more if you really enjoy it and/or excel at 3 sports)
- Resistance training can be as serious as the athlete wants and can handle. Keep in mind most high school athletes are still novices in the weight room. Train 2–5 days per week.
College and Beyond [Ages 19+]
At this stage in life, now it’s time to specialize. Unless you are Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders, it’s time to focus on one sport.
The main reason we need to focus on one sport is that in order to maximize progress, we want to break the year up into training phases. This is when you want to have a dedicated off-season, preseason, in-season, and postseason. This goes for team sports, but even sports like powerlifting and bodybuilding as well.
This is when it’s no holds barred so to speak. If you want to truly be the best athlete you can be, everything needs to be optimized, at least to the best of your ability.
Although we want to specialize in one sport as adults, don’t think that means you can’t recreationally play other sports. This is especially true for lifters. The truth is, powerlifting and bodybuilding require minimal athleticism. Doing other activities is a great way to maintain some form of athleticism besides just being able to lift heavy things up and down. I also think having other interests are important as an adult as well. Time is often a limiting factor.
How can we maximize our ability to develop? Even if it’s not in the cards to truly be a world-class athlete, we can still develop ourselves as best we can.
Coaching — Seek out help.
Training — Needs to be individualized to you and your needs.
Technique / Practice — Always look to improve technique and become more efficient.
Bottom Line: College and Beyond (Ages 19+)
Sleep — 7 to 9 hours per night.
Nutrition — Know if you are in a caloric surplus, deficit, or maintenance by keeping an eye on your weight. Aim to consume roughly 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Treat yourself like a professional and be consistent.
- Specialize in 1 main sport. It’s ok to continue to play other sports for fun recreationally.
- Resistance training can be as serious as the athlete wants and can handle.
- At this stage, some athletes will be advanced lifters and be able to handle a high degree of training volume and require intricate programming.
- Can train 3–6 days per week, even utilizing multiple sessions per day if needed.
- Sleep, nutrition, and other forms of recovery need to be optimized.
Referenced in the show:
- APA Faigenbaum, Avery D1; Kraemer, William J2; Blimkie, Cameron J R3; Jeffreys, Ian4; Micheli, Lyle J5; Nitka, Mike6; Rowland, Thomas W7 Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2009 — Volume 23 — Issue — p S60-S79 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31819df407
- The Path to Excellence: A View of Development of U
- USA Wrestling Athlete Development Model (ADM)
Note: This is a loose transcript from episode 270 of The Absolute Strength Podcast. Listen to the episode here.
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Originally published at https://www.kylehuntfitness.com on June 2, 2020.