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How soon is too soon? The age range when young athletes should begin strength and speed training

Posted at 3:37 PM, May 30, 2024

HOWARD (NBC 26) — For today’s athletes, the hunger to win starts early. But how soon is too soon? In the latest edition of Youth Sports: Beyond the Score, NBC 26 looks into when young athletes should begin strength and speed training.

“You’re seeing specialization in sports a lot sooner and you’re seeing kids get involved at a younger age,” Alex Tassoul, the Director of Operations at ETS Performance, said. "So it’s really causing a demand for (strength and speed) training because the majority are doing it so if you want to keep up, you almost have to.”

ETS Performance - a sports training facility with locations throughout the Midwest, including Tassoul’s spot in Howard - works with athletes of all ages.

“There’s no true age to start,” Tassoul, a graduate of Southern Door High School, said. "Honestly, I’ve had a couple advanced seven year olds join.”

Tassoul runs a class called Speed Plus, which is designed for athletes aged 8-11. It is a “foundational program” focusing less on strength training and more on things like movement efficiency and running form.

“They’re doing structured sports already, right?” Tassoul said. “So learning how to move properly, learning how to use their body properly is going to help them avoid injuries hopefully in the long run but also just become better at their individual sport.”

Studies, like this one from the Mayo Clinic, say kids can begin strength and speed training around seven or eight years old.

However, it is important for athletes in that age range to come along slowly.

“Don’t confuse strength training with weightlifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting,” the Mayo Clinic writes. “Trying to build big muscles can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons and areas of cartilage that haven’t yet turned to bone, called growth plates.”

The Mayo Clinic goes on to say that, for kids, “light weights and controlled body movements are best.”

What to watch for with young athletes when training

In addition to the physical side, Tassoul adds that kids around eight-years-old are mentally ready to begin training.

“We find that eight year olds have, number one the attention span,” he said. "That’s the first thing that we’re really analyzing. Is the athlete able to lock in to a 45-minute class? Are they able to get the most out of the program?”

There’s a generational different at play, at well. Athletes now are starting to take sports more seriously at a younger age, and their parents are taking notice.

“I think a lot of us wish we would have started a lot earlier,” Melinda Danforth, a mother from Oneida, said.

Danforth recently enrolled her eight-year-old son, Wahalu, in the Speed Plus class at ETS Performance.

"Getting him into performance training was important for us to help build his character,” Danforth said. "To help build his speed and be able to keep up with other kids his age.”

Danforth adds that the social element of training classes is important to her and her family.

“We’re all from all different corners of this community and it’s really amazing the diversity in which he gets to apply himself and see other athletes and how they perform and understand how their bodies work,” she said. "That's really important.”

Tassoul, who has a decade of experience in training, agrees. He said the benefits away from the field of play can be just as valuable.

“They’re just diving into building a solid foundation,” he said. “But also building character, learning hard work, discipline. The things that we hope our athletes take away for a lifetime.”

Tassoul said ETS’s Speed Plus class creates a good base for young athletes before strength training ramps up around age 12.

He also added that ETS recommends young athletes play multiple sports instead of specializing in one and that parents should be on the lookout for “overuse injuries,” saying that if a young athlete experiences pain “they’re overdoing it."