Start 'Em Young: The Best Athletic Progression

Start 'Em Young: The Best Athletic Progression

James FitzGerald Shares The Best Development Plan for Children

Ever since listening to Istvan Balyi at a conference in Banff in 2000, sport and movement development for kids into adults has always greatly interested me. The topic of general preparation versus specialization has always been a hotly contested one – burned out tennis players at 13, overuse injuries in volleyball males at 14, 50% ACL injuries on field in soccer at 16 years of age for females, etc, etc.

My own personal story reflects a passion for various sports due to exposure. Where I was from the ‘talent’ was low, but the opportunity was high. Therefore from age 4-18 I played competitively in basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball, cross country running, and badminton in school. Also, I played soccer, hockey and tennis for the community. Add in hours of street hockey under the lights in winter from age 10-15 and I have hundreds of hours accumulated. I believe that my story and background should help start the conversation surrounding the development of athletes from early ages.

I specialized in soccer at age 17 moving away from home to pursue an NCAA scholarship and an eventual chance at EPL overseas. This was stopped short due to an acute injury. Due to this injury, I had to spend 18 months in rehabilitation from home. Despite this personal setback, the rehab work helped me to finally understand what fitness meant to me. It was a life changing moment. It spawned into my academic career and ultimately, a lifetime career in fitness. Years later it made me understand why I loved CrossFit. It was mixed and it included everything in the domain of fitness. So my obsession began to make some sense.

What pulled me towards it was the initial love for doing a lot of things and the attempt to find the balance between it all. However, this idea does not go hand in hand with current models of ‘fitness’ for young to old. The path is unclear and unfocused for parents who wish to see their children thrive in athletic events and activities.

We have landed ourselves in decisions for kids and movement locked into this idea that sport always dictates improvements in health and fitness. Children are ‘scored’ based on their dribbling prowess instead of their fitness. This obsession with pure performance metrics is simply the wrong path for young children. It has warped our understanding of what fitness is and should be.

Maybe if we had children learn and master the basics of movement, pacing and control we could transform everyone’s thinking on fitness for life. As it stands right now, it’s ass backwards. Many feel inadequate to participate in fitness because they’ve never learned the basics and perceive fitness to be a painful and unfulfilling endeavour. All of this due to the fact that it’s not built into our culture like the fundamentals of reading and math.

There are patterns we can look at that have proven to work in long term athlete models, long term physical development and long term studies on general health measures. If we were to create a plan of attack for the involvement of children in movement development (with all things being equal), I’m going to suggest this pattern:

Athletic Training for Kids

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At 2-3 Years of Age

At this age, the focus should be on introduction to physical skills and movements. There should be swim intro classes once per week as well as playground access without ‘design’ 2-3 times per week. They should also tumble with friends and parents 2-3 per week and have some sort of hand-eye coordination play or exercises 1-2 per week.


Swimming can build appropriate breathing patterns and help the child develop body awareness. The playground is basically unstructured play with gymnastic elements and the rough and tumble associates play with hard work and work/rest scenarios.

At 3-6 Years of Age

This child should be enrolled in gymnastics classes once per week in addition to playing soccer with the friends once per week. They should also start rock climbing and participate in a variety of outdoor pursuits and sports.

gymnastics class 1x/week, soccer with friends 1x/week, rock climbing 1x/week, swim class 1x/week, hand-eye coordination sport (HECS) (not baseball) 1x/week, outdoor pursuit – 1x/week


When it comes to developing total body awareness, gymnastics is king. The rock climbing allows the child to develop upper body strength in a primal and fun way. When it comes to letting your kid choose an outdoor sport or pursuit, try to avoid baseball. It’s honestly low in activity and boring overall. Encourage them to choose hiking or skiing instead.

At 6-9 Years of Age

Once the child reaches around 6 years of age, start throwing in some light conditioning work, while retaining the fun of their daily activities from their past.

conditioning play 1.0 (hang, swing, jump, move and lift light), minor soccer 1x/week, HECS 1x/week, swim 1x/week, gymnastics 1x/week, new sport intro (NSI); outdoor pursuits continued


Don’t worry about getting all these activities in during the course of one week. It’s during this stage that the conditioning (IE training) is first introduced. They can ‘play’ in an adult gym setting with ropes, rings, medicine balls, and light dumbbells. It’s critical during this stage that they be allowed to explore other sport opportunities. Encourage them to find a sport they want to do. It should be something they can develop an emotional attachment to and begin to specialize in.

At 9-12 Years Of Age

This is the time in a child’s life where they should begin to participate in school sports and bump up their conditioning work a notch.

Conditioning play 2.0, track and field -1-3x/week (multi sport), triathlon 1x/week (longer bike and swim over run), outdoor pursuits 1x/week (hike + climb + scramble) – seasonal 1-3x/week [summer – swim, winter – school sport(s)], HECS – 1-3x/week


Conditioning 2.0 now indicates possible planning and progression in fitness. Programming should be broad and emphasis must be placed on fun before scores. Track and Field provides multiple options for developing speed, agility and power endurance. Triathlon and outdoor pursuits are easy to do back to back without stressing out the pre-teenager.

At 12 – 15 Years of Age

As the child becomes a teenager, it’s time to bump up the intensity and direction of their training.

conditioning play 3.0, pre-specialization recruitment, HECS 1-2x/week, outdoor 1x/week, swim 1x/week, TF 1x/week, triathlon style 1x/week


Conditioning 3.0 is quite varied and includes all levels of gymnastics play, the basics of weight training and cardiorespiratory balance. A youth might have some more initiation towards a specialty now and with physical development, the speed, power endurance and endurance traits will be clear in their essence.

At 15 Years of Age +

Now comes the period of time in which the teenager should specialize in their sport as well as pursue wholesome fitness.

specialization + fitness


At this point in their training and life, they have finally found a proper physical balance. Just as well, their physical skills are full developed and investigated so the teenager knows what they are capable of.

In 10 years, 35-38% of the United States GDP will be spent on health care mainly for preventable diseases like obesity and forms of diabetes. In addition, we are seeing a spike in children undergoing surgery to repair the damage caused by lack of understanding around proper movement mechanics. The best way we can fix this is by developing our children the right way, with an emphasis slow physical development and learning rather than a focus on athletic performance in sports.


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