How much should a Child be training for their Sport?

The title above is a common question that is asked, debated and pondered by Coaches and Parents a like.

The short answer is either ‘we don’t know’ or ‘it depends’.

In other words, we seem to have some ‘grey’ answers for a ‘black and white’ question.

Some of the variables that might affect the answer include:

  1. Chronological age (how old are they?)
  2. Training age (how long have they been doing the sport?)
  3. Physical maturation age (do they have adult features or are they yet to reach puberty?)
  4. Emotional maturation age (is their reaction to a situation congruent with their age?)
  5. Mental maturation age (how well can they process information?)
  6. Peak Height Velocity (are they going through a growth spurt?)
  7. Injury history (how has their body responded to their training)

Unfortunately ‘it depends’ doesn’t suffice when we are looking to make actual decisions, so before we explore some answers let’s first acknowledge some of the consequences of doing too much too soon.


Dangers of Early Specialisation

The American Medical Society of Sports Medicine considers sport specialisation “as an intensive, year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sports”.

While there may be some initial gains in performance for the young Athlete by specialising early, there are a range of potential negative consequences that may arise:

  • Increased risk of burn out
  • Increased risks of overuse injuries
  • Decreased performance (possibly due to overtraining)

So looking at the research, what ‘Take Home’ answers can we provide?


1 Hour per Year of Age per Week

No more than 1 hour per year of age per week. For example, an 11 year old tennis player shouldn’t be training for their sport for more than 11 hours per week.

While some Coaches and Federations think of this as an approximation, in my experience, this is the upper limit: ‘No more than 1 Hour per Year of Age per Week’.

This includes every minute of every session that is geared to improve that particular sport: home stretching program, gym training, running, etc.

If, on the other hand, they are running in the school cross-country race because they enjoy it and it’s not to improve their (‘primary’) sport, then go for it.


1 Day off a Week

A mental and physical break, this is also known as a Sport Free Day, this needs to be locked in.

No training, recovery, stretching… Even aim for no sport-specific discussions!

A suggestion is to aim for that day to be a Sunday, however, if Sundays are usually when that sport holds a tournament, race or competition, choose another day.

A second suggestion is to earmark another day during the week that can be used as a ‘Back Up’ sport free day (often a Friday).

The Back Up comes in handy during periods of stress (e.g. school exams), when tournaments, races, competitions or camps are held on the proposed Sport Free Day or if there are any other signs of overtraining.


A 1:2 ratio of Free Play* v Organised Sports

Think of it this way: for every hour the child plays (actively, outside – not with any form of TV, laptop, tablet or phone screen), Earns them the Right to have two hours of adult-led coaching.

For example, if our hypothetical 11-year old tennis player is to have 11 hours of coaching and training per week, they should be accumulating at least 5.5 hours of free play through games like tag & touch football & backyard cricket & skateboarding & red rover & force ‘em backs & hopscotch etc. with their siblings or mates every week!

In fact, there is a suggestion that the tennis players who ‘made it’ spent twice as much time practicing without a Coach than they did with a Coach.

This makes sense to those of us who believe that ‘ownership’ and ‘independence’ may have a role to play in future success.

It also makes sense to those of us who understand the detriments of repetitive movements on young bodies.

So instead of filling your Child’s week with training sessions, apply the Earn the Right Principle: for every hour they practice, play or compete by themselves (note: totally self driven!) they can have a Coach for two hours.

[Please note: this is not a contract with the young Athlete, rather the mindset of a responsible adult.]


Lock in the S&C

This study suggests “all youth should be involved in periodised Strength and Conditioning”.

Depending on the 7 variables above, most children should have between 1 to 3 Strength & Conditioning sessions per week that are included in their weekly workload maximum.

The goal of these sessions should be multifaceted: enhance movement quality; improve resilience to stresses; decrease risks of injury; and decrease ‘imbalances’ and should include jumping, running, pushing, pulling, throwing, hopping, squatting, lunging, bracing and any other movement you can think of!

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Remember the process is 1) Build a healthy Person; 2) Build a healthy Athlete and then 3) Build a healthy Sportsperson.

Too many Coaches are interested in the Sportsperson phase when they should be focussing on the initial phases.

The temptation, especially during or just after stressful periods, (e.g. a National Championships) is to drop the S&C sessions, when in fact, these should underpin the program.


Putting it Altogether

Step 1: Decide on the Upper Limit of Weekly Training (no more than 1hr/year/week).

Step 2: Lock in the Sport Free Day (and pencil in the Back Up day – the one that training on that day can easily be cancelled).

Step 3: Estimate the hours of Free Play (remember the definition?). Double that to calculate the hours of Coached sessions.

Step 4: Prioritise the Strength & Conditioning

Step 5: Give it 6 weeks and Revaluate

And if there was another step: Just make sure you’re surrounded by people who don’t put their egos ahead of any Athlete.

*Free Play is defined as “freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated, i.e. performed for no external goal or reward”.

Grant Jenkins is a Performance Coach who is happy to have the tough conversation with an enthusiastic Coach or Parent for the long term benefit of the Child. For more information please contact him here or follow him on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. 


Further Reading

Myths of Sport Specialisation

One Sport Focus puts Young Athletes at Higher Risk of Injury

Sport Specialisation, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialisation Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Young Athletes?

Sports Specialisation, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early Sport Specialisation in Youth Athletes. 

Sport Specialised intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: a clinical case-control study.

Sports specialisation in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations.

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