Finding the optimal windows for sports training

Speed, strength, stamina, skill and flexibility.

I have delivered training programs to thousands of players from a variety of sports with the primary goal of helping players to improve their performance in their specific sport.

In speaking with coaches from these sports, the topic of who the best player is always comes up. Nine out of ten times, the coach will boastfully say "so and so is my best player and the best athlete on the team, he plays rep hockey, rep soccer and he is the fastest kid out here!"

This always leads me to think: if your best athlete is your best player, why wouldn't you spend more time developing your other players' athletic abilities?

This might sound simple, but implementing a plan to develop athletic ability isn't an easy process. This is especially true nowadays when more kids are specializing in a specific sport at a much earlier age, and in many cases, playing that sport year-round.

While early specialization might produce a few champions, it can also lead to overuse injuries and burnout for many young athletes.

To implement a program aimed at developing athletic ability, sport organizations and coaches will need to buy into long-term athlete development planning, aimed at improving athletic ability and not just sport-specific skills.

There are five fundamental athletic attributes required if an athlete is going to be successful: speed, strength, stamina, skill and flexibility.

Research shows there are optimal periods where athletes respond best to training each of the five attributes.

Sport organizations and coaches should have a good understanding of these optimal windows and design training programs geared towards taking advantage of it. If these windows are missed, the athlete may never develop the required stamina, strength, speed, skill and flexibility needed to play at the highest level in their sport.

Where speed is concerned, there are two windows for development. For girls, the initial window is six to eight years old, and the second occurs between 11 and 13. For boys, the initial window is also six to eight years and the second between 13 and 16.

The window for training stamina aligns with the athlete's growth spurt. Coaches need to put greater emphasis on cardio work during this time. Flexibility training should be prioritized between six to ten years old but there should be a continued focus on flexibility during an athlete's entire career to help reduce the risk of injury.

The optimal window for training skill development for girls is between eight and 11, and for boys between nine and 12. Training skill can be very challenging for athletes during their growth spurt because of the sudden growth in bones and muscles. The recommended window for boys’ strength training starts 12 to 18 months after their growth spurt, while the recommended window for girls begins at menarche or their growth spurt.

A well-designed training program with a focus on leveraging the optimal window of trainability for each athletic attribute will lead to the development of better players over the longer term.