Within sports coaching and performance, whatever the level, the subject of when and how to implement strength and conditioning, not just for developing players but developing anatomies, has always been a grey area. Stunted growth, overuse injury, early burnout, high demands and pressure on young bodies…the list is endless of reasons given for juniors to avoid this area.
The fact is, strength and conditioning is a vital part of anyone’s program if certain precautions are put in place, and I strongly believe that from ages 8-16 is the time to start implementing exercises. However, strength and conditioning may be misinterpreted and a better title to support this stage may be ‘movement pattern therapy’.
By ‘movement pattern therapy,’ I mean using very low to no resistance and performing all specific exercises such as deadlifts, cleans, presses etc. In the past, with a junior team, I performed these exercises using a…brush handle!
This simple technique and piece of equipment is a fantastic way to develop muscle memory, both safely and effectively. It’s also a great way to build confidence and awareness for future sessions.
So why use this method?
It’s an unfortunate fact that not every kid is going to get the opportunity to turn professional within rugby, and many will never even see a professional academy set up. However, by starting to implement exercise, nutrition, and healthy habits early and instilling that discipline and mindset, it can and will have majorly positive impacts further down the line.
A junior in the under 10s begins occasional ‘movement pattern therapy’ training with his coach and this routine is followed until reaching the U16 age group. This same player then decides to leave the sport in pursuit of another goal. it could be another 5+ years before they step foot in a gym again but the exercises and movements coached during those junior years now give that individual some basic knowledge and ability to confidently join a gym and lead a more active lifestyle long after his/ her rugby days are over.
Now let’s look at the example of a player who is lucky enough and talented enough to join an elite program. The increased demands can be difficult – more intense rugby based training, and the sudden requirement to complete specific lifts in order to perform consistently at an optimum level. The muscle memory and techniques that are now habit will be very beneficial at this point.
Other suitable and highly useful ways to provide strength and conditioning to the junior age grade is through bodyweight based circuits, swimming and plyometric training (to more experienced players)!
Try this little project out with your juniors of all ages – set aside one session per month and dedicate just 45 minutes to lifting techniques, picking one or two techniques to work on. Trust me the kids will love it, and it'll likely be greatly rewarding for the coach!