Why youth strength and conditioning is a failure… (Part 1)

What’s Ghandi got to do with S&C?

This post is an adaptation of a presentation that I had planned to give at a conference some time back. Unfortunately I had to withdraw and it’s never seen the light of day since, so I decided to reincarnate it as a blog post!

If strength and conditioning coaches are to be judged on results – the number of players progressing to elite/professional/senior status, then the profession and we as coaches are colossal failures.

For example, this BBC article suggests…in the top clubs, just 0.5% of Under-9 players get all the way through the ranks to the same club’s first eleven – a 1-in-200 chance”. Meanwhile, research by the Football Observatory suggests  “11.7% of top-flight (premier league) players graduated from their club’s academy (in 2015), down from 13.8% last year. (2014).” That’s just professional football. This post suggest some likely statistics for high school athletes making it to elite level for US sports such as American Football (1/1,010 for NFL) , Basketball (1/8,926 for NBA; 1/12,114 for WNBA), and Soccer (1/5,355 for MLS) amongst others.

How accurate these statistics are is questionable, but the point remains valid – Statistically speaking, most of the youth athletes we coach (regardless of the sport) aren’t going to become professional, never mind a world champion! So if that is the metric by which we are to be judged, then unfortunately we are all failures!! So are we being short sighted if we purely focus on creating athleticism in the athletes we coach?

A Paradigm shift – redefining success

If all we achieve as youth S&C coaches is a decrease in 10m sprint time, an increase in vertical jump or an improved Yo-Yo score, then I believe we have failed our athletes. Every athlete we coach will stop competing at some point. Whether they are de-selected from a program, suffer a career ending injury, or just retire at the end of a successful career, they will eventually stop playing competitively. Just take this recent example from Gail Emms after retiring from Badminton after a successful career: “I don’t know who I am. I can’t call myself Gail Emms, Olympic badminton player any more.” How are we preparing them for this inevitable eventuality? Do we need a paradigm shift? Do we need a new version of success?

Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms
Gail Emms has spoken publicly about her struggles after retirement

In my experience, athletes often find their identity in their physical prowess or sporting talent. For example, their identity as an academy footballer, up and coming tennis star or youth world champion. But what happens when this identity is challenged? What happens when de-selection means you aren’t in the academy anymore? What happens when overuse injury requires you to stop training? What happens when the youth world champion starts to lose their dominance? If your identity is found primarily in your sporting activity, this is a recipe for disaster in the long run. You don’t need to look far to find stories of athletes who couldn’t deal with retirement and developed some sort of negative issue or behaviour because they couldn’t adapt to the new identity thrust upon them

So if the end is inevitable whether soon or far off in the future, how can we prepare our athletes? Should we be actively developing skills and behaviours which will serve our athletes on and off the pitch/court?

Human first, athlete second

We often talk about having an “athlete-centred” approach, but is that really holistic? Should we not have a “person-centred” approach? After all, we can’t exactly separate the human from the athlete can we? We all know how relationship/academic/workplace stress can distract or derail an athlete’s motivation for an individual session – isn’t that an example of how we can’t separate the athlete from the human?

Image result for better people make better all blacks
Can we ignore the person and just train the athlete?

If we truly believe in a “Human first, Athlete second approach” , then we need to acknowledge the other important aspects in the lives of our athletes. Shouldn’t we take account of not only the athletic endeavours, but also the academic journey or career path they may be on? Should we strive only for physical potential, whilst neglecting the academic or career potential?  It’s important that we not only pay this notion lip service but show our athletes that we value what is happening else where in their lives. In doing so, we acknowledge that they are not simply a physical body performing some sporting task but that they are a human being experiencing life across a number of different environments. This means establishing purposeful relationships with our athletes instead of transactional ones. In doing so, we show that they are valued because of who they are (a human being), not what they are (an athlete). We show they are valuable irrespective of their athletic successes or failures, giving greater breadth to their identity than simply being an athlete. Surely, in the long run, this can only be beneficial?

It is for this reason, that I believe we are  in the “human potential” business, not just the “athletic potential” business. As coaches we are perfectly placed to capitalise on the opportunity to develop the person behind the athlete. In doing so our influence will not only outlast our coaching relationship with them, but may extend beyond their sporting career into the rest of their life.  It was Ghandi that said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Well, why don’t you be the coach you wish you had? After all, wouldn’t you have loved to have a coach like that?

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In part 2 of this post, we will explore how we can coach the entire person, rather than just the physical athlete, as well as what models already exist to help with this process.


Author: Athletic Evolution

Providing best practice in the athletic development and coaching of youth athletes.

2 thoughts on “Why youth strength and conditioning is a failure… (Part 1)”

  1. How many likes canbI give to this article? What embarasses me beyond words in elite sports is what this article is all about. We work with human beings, not some kind of half-gods with super powers and no human feelings. I try to teach pro soccer players something to make their lives easier. I see some colleagues in our med.staff who show any sign of interest in the person. They only see an athlete with or without physiotherapists complains.


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