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  • Writer's pictureJason St Clair Newman

Training For the Youth Athlete - what stage are you at?

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

In this short article, we will be looking at the different phases of training for the youth athlete from 6 years up to 17+ and help define where you are on the timeline and some brief ideas on key concepts within the different development stages

Stages of Development

For most reading this, you won't be an Elite Athlete, if you were you will already have passed all the following stages and be under the watchful eye of your coaches, performance analysts, nutrition experts, sports psychologists etc etc etc.

However for some maybe it's the start of the journey, possibly you are part way through others you just want to perform well at your level and try to improve.

What's important is understanding where you are on the timeline and what's the key concepts within that stage for you.

I first read about this idea in Vern Gambetta's book "Athletic Development - The Art and Science of Functional Sports Conditioning" and have used it as a guide when developing programmes for youth athletes

Vern talked about the youth athlete, the early high school, late high school to university and adult athlete.

He listed a variety of stages (listed below) of development based on age. There are always outliers and it's also important to remember girls tend to develop physically faster than boys up to around 12-13 years of age, I haven't gone into as many specifics as in the book but have given you a basic overview for understanding.


  1. Fundamental stage

  2. Learning to Train

  3. Training to train

  4. Training to Compete and

  5. Training to Win

Within each of these stages are key concepts based on the athletes' physical development.

6-9 age group

"The Fundamental Stage" is all about learning movement, having fun and participating in a wide range of activities, competitions if any are play-based and informal.

Essentially get moving in as many different ways as you can!

At this stage I personally just want kids to play, often parents start pushing kids into sports, but I love the idea of letting them explore their environment by climbing, swimming, playing a the park, skateboarding, parkour-type activities, and playing with them at the park with different types of balls for example.

Kids often develop a lot of the movement fundamentals this way without any formal coaching on technique and skill development.

8 - 12 age group

"The Learning to Train stage" involves more sports skill learning but still keeps a wide range of other sports in the learning process. There's no specialisation (which I have seen a lot within football at this stage, unfortunately often ending in overuse injury).

Within this stage learning how to train is the main focus - fun is still very key.

Once that fundamental stage is in place, kids can gravitate towards the sports they enjoy the most. Often those with that prior stage in place will pick up and learn skills much quicker as they have better body awareness and natural strength from their play.

This is something that is often overlooked and underappreciated.

One of the best movers I saw at this level in football came from a dance background - he danced around opponents with his footwork.

11-16 age group

The "Train to Train stage" is an important stage often this is when athletes will lean towards a particular sport towards the end of this age group, and there will be more emphasis on sport-specific skills and more exposure to sport-specific training. Within this stage training and developing the ability to train well is the main focus. While competition will be an important factor it won't be the overall driver.

From an athletic development perspective 13+, I like to start introducing low levels of resistance training - NOTE: resistance can be anything from their body weight to a medicine ball or a weight.

As they develop in age this progresses, and I like to give them exposure to many different exercises through different planes of movement.

I am not too concerned about the amount of weight they are using but more about good technique and understanding of that technique.

15 - 18 age group

The "Training to Compete stage" is where the training itself becomes quite serious, where specific training for events, positions and specific physical development work is taking place.

Competition becomes more important as the athlete learns from it and develops within the environment.

16+ is where I will start to challenge athletes more physically - this may not be in terms of load although this can be a factor it could also be in the complexity/challenge of the movement.

It is important to remember an athlete coming in at this stage who hasn't had a history of development could be behind their peers in their ability to move and need a solid foundation built before. Growth spurts and genetics are very evident through these stages where you still see some lagging behind others in their physical growth and genetically gifted athletes well above their peers.


"Training to Compete", this is the final stage where the athlete is looking for further improvement at the highest levels they are competing in or looking to maintain what they have developed prior. Athletes at these levels are generally still getting stronger, faster and fitter and developing often at higher levels of intensity and volume.

At this stage, it is working with the individual, their needs and the demands of the sport to develop a programme of performance that helps them to succeed to the best of their ability.

As I mentioned this is just a brief overview of what Vern talks about and I recommend purchasing his book to learn more, it's one of the most read on my bookshelf and is timeless in its information on training.

What is important to take from this article is that parents, coaches and athletes themselves recognise where they are on their journey, embrace each stage along the way and build a strong foundation through that period and then step up to the next stage.

Don't feel you need to rush to get to the next level, understand what it is you are trying to get out of each stage so you are ready mentally and physically to take on the next.

Very important to note is that this has been set out in stages of age which is key to long-term development, however not all athletes have experienced all stages, and this is where a good coach can recognise this and progress them relative to where they are as an individual and what they need to reach their goals.

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