How a Growth Spurt Changes the Game for a Youth Athlete

Vigorous unstructured play during childhood and early adolescence can help shorten the learning curve, but every child has that 'awkward' phase at some point.

Infants are incredible movers.

Anyone with a little one running around knows the amazing positions they can effortlessly achieve. Their squats and hinges are often a thing of beauty.

How incredible is it that at the time of our lives when bipedal movement is at its freshest, most novel point, we start out with unrivaled mobility and technique?

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Infants are incredible movers.

Anyone with a little one running around knows the amazing positions they can effortlessly achieve. Their squats and hinges are often a thing of beauty.

How incredible is it that at the time of our lives when bipedal movement is at its freshest, most novel point, we start out with unrivaled mobility and technique?

Popular mobility programs preach that most mobility is not specific to the individual, and that there is a full, universal range of motion that every person is capable of. In theory, because we all started from the same ground zero (everyone was a baby at one point), we have the potential to return to our original abilities.

That would lead one to believe that the closer one is to infancy (children, adolescents) the more mobility they would have. It's the older adults we picture being hardened by age, deleterious habits and sedentary lifestyles.

So why, then, are there so many 12-year-olds today who cannot touch their toes, draw their shoulders back, or execute an air squat without looking like they're on ice skates?

They're often simply tripping and stumbling through periods of monumental growth.

Tissues, muscles and bones are all being stretched, built and reconfigured. New, poorly innervated tissue is connected to a growing, poorly coordinated skeleton. Centers of gravity are getting farther and farther from the floor by the week. Combine these factors with poor nutrition and/or a shortage of outdoor free play, and you've got yourself a 12-year-old who moves like a 70-year-old.

But again, they're battling their own biology.

It's entirely unfair to expect your teen or pre-teen to have the same graceful movement patterns of an infant. If you look at the body segmentation of infants compared to that of adolescents or adults, there's a major shift in proportions.

A baby's head serves as its major center of gravity. Its lower extremities have only tiny lever arms compared to those of the adolescents and adults.

So when it comes to projecting similar patterns on to a 6-year-old, 10-year-old or 15-year-old, you need to reconsider what's changed. That is, unless you're dealing with an adult whose head takes up a quarter of their body length!

Furthermore, the singular "growth spurt" associated with puberty does not happen all at once. It happens segment by segment, starting with the hands and feet. Isn't it endearing to see a cute little puppy with comically oversized paws? You think "gosh, that dog is going to be BIG." Well, the same goes for your 11-year-old with size 13s.

The "outside-in" approach comes into effect while growing. Shins and forearms lengthen, followed by the femur and humerus. The spurt lengthens the spine and concludes with the broadening of the chest and shoulders in boys, and the widening of the hips and pelvis in girls.

As a coach concerned with manipulating movement patterns, I have to take these things into consideration. I may have a 12-year-old with the leg length of a grown man, but the torso length of a pre-teen. Squatting to depth is going to look more like a hip hinge than a squat. With the wrong variation, that could mean a sore back and wrecked shoulders.

And the faster the growth spurt, the more time a kid usually needs to adjust to their new body.

It's not fair to judge a kid or estimate their athletic future based on how they move while they're still growing or still adjusting to a new body. "They don't even know how to (insert basic movement)—how are they ever going to be a good athlete!"

Rest assured they most definitely do know how to, Mom and Dad. But let's agree that it's hard to park an F-150 when you've been driving a Tercel the past 10 years. The kids themselves aren't even sure where their center of gravity is, as it hasn't stayed the same since who knows when.

As for muscle development, testosterone levels in teenagers are through the roof. This makes selecting the muscle groups you most want to grow and develop an important choice. If a teen athlete is in a strength training program, should they spend a period where they have rocket fuel in their veins trying to get the biggest biceps on the team? Or should they make sure they know how to use their glutes to power the incredible machine they're about to become?

Choose wisely and understand the consequences for their bodies when development slows and they have to live with the patterns you've engrained.

In short, let the empathy and pity you take on your voice-cracking, too-short-pants-wearing child extend to their training. Their body is growing and changing, and they're playing catch-up. Plenty of vigorous unstructured play during childhood and early adolescence can help shorten the learning curve, but every child has that "awkward" phase at some point.

Be patient and encourage them to keep at it. Entrust their athletic development to someone who can customize a plan and set meaningful expectations that are set to the future when they've got all their upgraded parts. Periods of immense physical growth are also times when it's important for kids to learn life lessons and build good habits.

These are the years when kids' minds and bodies evolve at an astonishing rate. It's up to us to help them grow!

Photo Credit: Stevica Mrdja/iStock

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Topics: STRENGTH TRAINING | SQUAT | YOUTH SPORTS | HUMAN BODY