AGE-APPROPRIATE TRAINING IN SPORTS
Mark Lonsdale, Judo Training Development
In a previous article posted in August, we discussed students’ expectations from judo based on their age and experience. This introduced the reader to the importance of age-appropriate teaching and training methods, so in this article we will further define age-appropriate training as it relates to judo.
One of the foundational principles of Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) in sports and sports coaching is age-appropriate training. In other words, how a sport is taught and practiced should be tailored to suite the age of the participants and athletes. Obviously there is a significant difference in physical ability between a 5-year old entering into a new sport for the first time and an Olympic champion in that same sport. But between those two extremes there are a number of quite clearly defined age groups, each with its own propensity for learning, technical development, training and competing.
Each sport also places different demands on the athlete in terms of technical skills, flexibility, agility, speed, strength, stamina, physical and mental toughness, and strategy. Similarly, these physical and mental attributes change over time within the individual athlete. While some sports such as weightlifting or shot put require primarily strength with some technique, other sports such as gymnastics require tremendous levels of skill, balance and physical ability. Where power-lifters are generally older, gymnasts are generally younger so must begin training at a very early age. From a coaching perspective, a world class coach could take a superb athlete who has never rowed before and turn him or her into a world class rower in two or three years. Why? Because rowing is technically a relatively simple sport that simply requires exceptional strength and stamina. But beginning with that same superb athlete who has never done judo, it would take seven or eight years to turn him or her into a world champion. Why? Because judo is a technically complex sport requiring years to develop the necessary techniques, experience and neuro-muscle memory, in addition to being a superb athlete.
But beginning at the beginning, at 5 to 6 years of age is when most kids are first introduced to organized sports, understanding that the expectations should be quite different to their older counterparts of even seven or eight. At this early age students are not expected to grasp complex concepts or have highly refined motor skills. While some may be more coordinated than others and be able to catch and throw a ball, for example, others will be struggling with elementary balance and coordination. So the primary purpose of all sports for this age group is to introduce them to sporting activities and, in the process, begin to develop their ABCs – Agility, Balance & Coordination.
Before a child can be introduced to the technical aspects of any sport, they need to first gain some awareness and control of their body parts, initially arms and legs. This is where the simple game of playing catch with a child helps them to develop hand-eye coordination, plus basic balance and agility as they move laterally to catch the ball. The child does not know they are developing these skills or even exercising, only that they are having fun doing it.
As a practical example, at my judo club many of the juniors often arrive early so that they can warm up on the crash pads and play games with the medicine balls. They see doing flips and dive rolls into the crash pads as fun not as exercise. Similarly, they have fun throwing and catching the medicine balls without any conscious thought that they are developing coordination, arm strength, and team work. The parents are just thrilled that the kids want to come to judo and to see them away for the television, computers and video games. They see the value of their children somersaulting, cart-wheeling, and tumbling with confidence and hefting the medicine balls around before practice, but the kids just see it as fun.
Moving on…. to best understand age-appropriate training, it is necessary to tie the sport-specific training methods to the physical and mental development of the students and athletes. In most cases, for children under the age of 7 years, sports are considered an “active start.” The goal is to use sports to introduce children into an active, healthy lifestyle designed to balance their other indoor games and academic studies. Some sports and judo clubs accept participants as young as three or four years of age, but these “peewee” and “tiny tot” programs are focused primarily on fun, games and socialization. The games may be built around the particular sport, but the primary emphasis is still on developing basic agility, balance, coordination, manners, and sportsmanship.
Little kids doing judo just want to have fun, but in the process we can impart some basic discipline, respect, self awareness, and perseverance, along with developing confidence through tumbling, falling, rolling and grappling. From six to eight years old, or when the student begins to grasp concepts, the judo training becomes more structured as they begin learning real judo techniques. An informal test of their readiness for technical training is when the student is able to follow and imitate a sequence of four moves. This is typical of a judo technique that requires balance-breaking (kuzushi), placement of the right foot, then the left foot as they turn in for tsukuri, and then the execution of the throw (kake).
In the LTAD system, under 9 years of age is the time for “FUNdamentals” with the emphasis on fun. Kids can still learn the fundamentals of the sport, but we know that if they are having fun, and we can instill in them a love of the sport, we may have them for life. Fun is also one of the key factors that motivate learning in child development. If they are having fun they are engaged.
From 8 to 10 years is when young people begin to grasp concepts and more complex technical skills and drills. If the instructor can keep them engaged, they will begin to learn and progress through observation, imitation, and guided discovery. Instead of having to be spoon fed with every little piece of information, students will begin doing their own research, experimenting through trial and error, comparing notes with their peers, and building on what they have already been taught. In judo we see this when a student switches from a right handed technique to a left side attack without being taught; or begins sequencing their favorite techniques into combinations. Where the instructor may have taught the basic techniques, it is up to the student to develop the necessary technique and timing so that they can be applied successfully in randori. But even at this age, under 12, kids still want to have fun. We attempt to break up the more structured judo training and technical development with judo related games and grappling drills every 20 or 30 minutes.
From 11 to 13 years is when young judoka are learning to training, and from 14 to 16 they are training to train. With a couple of years in judo they may have developed a small repertoire of judo techniques and are now at an age where they can begin drilling these techniques and developing the strength and stamina for competition judo. Repetition through uchi-komi and nage-komi becomes a bigger part of their training.
To appreciate the importance of this age in judo development, it is necessary to leap forward eight or ten years. Based on statistics and on average, Olympic and World champions in judo are 25 to 26 years of age with at least 8 years of judo training and experience. Often times, before medaling at an Olympics, an athlete will have competed and earned experience at a previous Olympic Games. So if athletes are winning in their mid-twenties, they are entering their first Olympics in their late teens or early twenties. Therefore, the long term training plan has them training to win by the time they are sixteen or seventeen and being introduced to the concepts of training to train as early as twelve or fourteen. In other sports such as swimming and gymnastics, development and high level competition begins at much earlier ages, but judo requires a level of physical strength and mental toughness that only comes with age, maturity and experience. In most cases, an eighteen year old athlete is simply not as tough as a twenty-five year old seasoned competitor.
However, at around 12 or 13 years of age, and depending on maturity, young people also begin taking more responsibility for making their own decisions based on what they want, not what their parents or coaches may want. In some cases young athletes may simply decide that they do not want to do a particular sport or activity, and instead switch to something that their friends and peers are involved in. You will see young musicians quitting the piano and taking up the electric guitar, or losing interest in gymnastics in favor of being a cheerleader. This change in interests may also coincide with changing schools and wanting to participate in the new school’s sports programs.
Many judo clubs in the U.S. lose members when their students begin high school, because there is considerable pressure to represent their schools in more traditional sports such as football, baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, wrestling, and cheer. These sports also offer the possibility of sports scholarships to college. So, since the athlete is more important than the sport, the best that a judo instructor can do is to support the athlete’s decision and let them know that they will always be welcomed back at the judo club. However, if the judo coach has already instilled a love of judo in the teenager, and he or she has already experienced some success in competition, then there is a good chance that the athlete will go on to become a future champion.
In judo, from 16 to 20 years is considered the period when the athlete is training to compete and, more specifically, from 18 years onwards is when they are training to win. Eighteen is a great age in judo since you are young enough to have enthusiasm and old enough to be developing good levels of fitness, strength and toughness. You are also in sight of making the national team and representing your country internationally. One of the biggest challenges at this age is balancing school or work with training and travel. It costs money to train and compete nationally and internationally so requires the support of family, coaches, clubs, and sports federations.
This Senior competition group, 18 to 26 years of age, are often wholly focused on competition judo, squad training, making the national team, and national and international championships. Their expectations from judo will run to competitive development, hard randori sessions, training camps, and raising the funds for travel to championships. To meet these needs, the judo instructor will want to develop and hone his or her own high performance coaching skills. But keep in mind that elite athletes represent only a very small percentage of the judo population (1% or 2%), so instructors and coaches must maintain age-appropriate judo training programs for the other 98% of recreational judoka.
In addition to serious competitors, there will be young adults signing up for judo for the first time. The worst thing for them is if they are seen as “fresh meat” by the competitors and brawlers in the club. The head instructor must ensure that they are given the opportunity to learn good judo and enjoy the sport without being thrown to the wolves.
From this age onward, LTAD defines the priority in sports development as being “active for life.” This is to ensure that there is something for everyone at all ages in judo. Over 30 years is also considered the “second life in judo” for retired competitors, as they move into teaching, coaching, refereeing, kata, kata judging, etc. Around 40 years is also where adults move into management positions at work and begin a more sedentary lifestyle. Evidenced by “middle age spread” and beer bellies, men in particular tend to consume the same quantities of food and high calorie drinks, but with considerably less exercise. For them, judo should be seen as a form of exercise and recreation that, if managed correctly, will see them well into their seventies or eighties (we all hope).
To conclude, modern judo training is not a “one-size-fits-all” sport or recreation. Successful clubs and instructors have come to realize that judo students have a wide variety of reasons for taking up judo, and an equally wide variety of expectations as to what they hope to gain from judo. Those expectations may also change as students come to understand and appreciate the full range of judo philosophies and practices. So every effort should be made to make judo training a safe, enjoyable, and all-encompassing experience. It is therefore recommended to divide students into groups and classes to better focus on the various age-appropriate aspects of judo. Having five-year olds on the mat with teenagers can be dangerous, especially if the mat is small. Teenagers also prefer to train with other teenagers, just as adults prefer to train with other adults of a similar level of experience. Competition training development and hard randori sessions should also be separated from nightly recreational judo training, or added as an additional optional half-hour after regular training.
“Judo is for Life”