Stages Of Athletic Development In Young Athletes

It is well proven that athletes who experience well organised and well thought out training programmes as children and youths accomplish greater athletic feats in the long run.



Impatient coaches who pressure young people for quick results usually fail due to the young athlete quitting or losing interest before ever reaching their true athletic potential.

Dividing training into clear stages of development with clearly defined objectives will always lead to better buy in from the athletes (and their parents), as well as creating a better athlete/coach relationship, something that is super important and could be a whole other blog post in itself!

However, it is important to note that this isn’t always straight forward. Children grow at very different rates. These stages of growth will determine which stage of athletic development the young person fits into regardless of age. One 14 year old may have the athletic qualities of a 16 year old (an early developer), whereas another 14 year old may have the athletic qualities of a 12 year old (late developer). Neglecting such large potential differences may lead to an early developer being undertrained and a late developer being overstressed. 

Moving a young person too quickly through their athletic development can provide a negative expeirence leading to feelings of isolation and insecurity.  No-one wants to feel like a small fish in a big sea. 

So what are the stages?

Initiation stage (Approx 6-10 years)

The aim of this stage of development is to encourage having fun! Most young people of this age aren’t capable of coping with the demands of high intensity training, instead the focus should be on developing well rounded athletic qualities as opposed to sport specific training.

The body is still growing and the cardiorespiratory system is also developing, particularly the aerobic energy system. Body tissues are susceptible to injury, ligaments are becoming stronger but bone end are still calcifying. 

Attention span is short so young people may be unable to sit and listen for long periods of time. Training should be varied and creative and Fun should be emphasised over winning.

The initiation stage is one of the most important stages to develop coordination. 

Athletic formation (Approx 11-14 years)

Training intensity and volume can safely be increased over time during this stage. Young peoples bodies and capacities are rapidly developing at this age. 

Performance differences in children are largely due to differences in growth at this age so focus should still be on developing good movement and skills as opposed to ‘winning’. Individual approaches become more important during this stage with regards to intensity and loading etc. 

The development of coordination slows at this stage and can even regress slightly. 

Growth spurts can be up to 4-5 inches per year and due to limb growth, changes in the proportions between body parts and leverage may alter the ability to coordinate actions proficiently.  This is more noticeable in early developers but with the right stimulus can be quickly regained.

Specialisation (Approx 15-18 years)

Athletes in this phase of development are capable of tolerating greater training and competition demands. The most significant changes in training occur at this stage. Young athletes who have been performing more general training will incorporate more sport specific exercises at a higher intensity. Volume and intensity should still be closely monitored to ensure low risk of injury however. 

Skill level should be high by this stage with few technical problems. Increased physiological and psychological demands from their chosen sports mean things should be monitored more closely. Coping mechanisms will be starting to be developed and over training during periods of stress will lead to an exhaustion and potential burnout.

Involving the athletes in making decisions regarding their training will happen more at this stage as they develop more self awareness.  The athletes may also become more familiar with the theoretical aspects of training, an understanding of why they are doing what they are doing is very important in our opinion. 

The young athlete may also be competing more during this stage than before so training should reflect that and start to include some form of periodisation. 

If we collectively as coaches and parents can all understand the stage of development our Child/YoungAthletes is at we are much more likely to be successful whilst creating a much more pleasant environment for them to flourish. 

These stages of development are merely a rough guide and are not set in stone by any means as each child presents a unique set skills, previous experiences and will be at a different stage of their growth. 

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