Exercise and enjoying sport has various physical, emotional and academic benefits for all children, regardless of their age or ability. For some pupils, their love of sport and athletic abilities may open up exciting opportunities in the future as well. Children capable of performing and competing at a level that’s higher and more sophisticated than average, may be able to enter into professional sport when they’re older.

In order to participate in and prepare children for entering elite sport, careful consideration has to be put into implementing a plan of how to nurture their abilities from primary school. Many pro athletes found their love of sport at a young age and continued to play throughout their childhood.  Household names such as Serena and Venus Williams, Christiano Ronaldo and Tom Daley all started playing their chosen sports as young children.

Peak Height Velocity

All children grow at different speeds and will begin puberty at different ages. Because of this, for sporty children, exercise and activities based on their chronological age aren’t always the most appropriate in helping improve their fitness and skills. There’s a lot of variation between children in terms of their physical and athletic abilities, depending on when they develop and at what speed.

Peak height velocity (PHV) is the time period in a child’s development when they’re experiencing their fastest growth spurt (aside the first year of their life). It’s one of the best ways to measure the physical and athletic maturity of young athletes, as well as map a child’s transition into puberty. This is because a child’s peak height velocity coincides with the onset of puberty.

The peak height velocity (PHV) of a child can be predicted by using simple measurements such as standing and sitting height and weight. Each child’s PHV is influenced by genetics and environmental factors but the average age for reaching PHV is 12 for girls and 14 for boys.

Working out PHV is extremely useful when training and developing young athletes. This is because there are certain periods before, during and after a child’s PHV phase in which training programmes can be adjusted to help athletes make greater improvements. This allows professional coaches to maximise the physical potential of young athletes while training them in a way that’s safe and beneficial for their stage of development.

Long-term athlete development

Although each child’s development is unique, children of similar ages are likely to go through the same phases of maturity at similar times. This means that for all young athletes and budding sport fanatics, there’s a general, long-term athlete development plan which we can follow to help nurture their abilities and skills. Through mapping a child’s PHV, this general long-term strategy can then be adjusted to fit better with each individual child’s own development rate.

Early years

Until the age of 6, the most important type of exercises and activities that a child can take part in are those which involve learning and mastering basic movement skills. Regardless of what sports a child shows an interest in at this stage, children should be encouraged to actively play, explore and learn. This develops independence as well as improving their brain function, coordination, balance and gross motor skills. Active play also helps children develop key social skills, build confidence, learn how to manage their emotions, and of course use their imagination!

FUNdamentals

This phase focuses on refining the fundamental movement skills in young athletes – boys aged 6 to 9 and girls aged 5 to 8. Through unstructured and structured play, children can test their own physical capabilities and develop their agility, balance, coordination and speed. The important thing to note about this stage is that the training and activities should be based around having fun. Through engaging in enjoyable activities, games and sports, children develop their athletic talents without realising that they’re doing so.

It’s all about teaching young athletes how to perform controlled movements and actions, testing their endurance and speed, and developing key movement skills. Through taking part in lots of different sports, specially designed games and teaching techniques such as how to effectively throw, catch and jump, children can improve their movement abilities while still having fun.

Beginning to train

Between the ages of 9 to 12 for boys and 8 to 11 for girls, activities should be focused on developing fundamental sports skills as it’s when children begin to learn how to train effectively for a certain sport (or sports). This phase should correspond with just before a child’s PHV. As well as continuing to develop essential movement skills, young athletes at this stage should develop their strength with exercises that focus on using their own body weight, introducing basic flexibility exercises as well as creating more structured and focussed training sessions.

Because the training at this stage is more sport-specific, it should introduce athletes to the importance of specific activities such as warm-ups, cooldowns, as well as stretching and recovery.

Training to train

The next stage in a young athlete’s training should be focussed around aerobic conditioning. This is exercise that raises their heart rate, which helps to improve their physical endurance. By practising aerobic training exercises, young athletes will be able to train harder and for longer, as their hearts and lungs become better at taking in oxygen and supplying nutrients to the body. As a general rule, this phase is suitable for boys aged 12 to 16 and girls aged 11 to 15, which coincides with the onset of PHV and puberty.

This is also the ideal stage to learn correct weight lifting techniques and, when at the right stage of development, implement strength training. It’s really important to make sure this is done appropriately, for example with the right weights and pressure put on their muscles. We don’t want to overload their joints or put too much strain on growing bones and muscles. At this stage, children will also go through a sudden growth of their bones, tendons, ligaments and muscles. Hence, this phase should also focus on implementing more rigorous flexibility training and correct pre-competition, competition and post-competition routines.

At this phase of development, young athletes should be positively encouraged to learn how to mentally prepare themselves for training and competitions, as well as developing resilience and self-awareness of their strengths and areas for improvement. Sports Psychology is a field that’s grown significantly in recent years with professional athletes such as Andy Murray placing more focus and resources on practices such as mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy. This can significantly affect performance and athletic progress.   

Later on in the road

After this stage, children will be entering their late teens, during which time they can begin to train to compete and win. By now they’ll know which sports they love most. This is when the focus of their training should be to optimise fitness preparation and perfecting sport-specific performance.

At this point, it can be useful to start considering where your child’s sport performance can take them. A lot of UK universities offer sports scholarships and bursaries for top performing athletes. Achieving a sports scholarship can help to merge their academic education with their sporting passion, as well as continuing something they love into early adulthood.

Thanks to our team of professional coaches and specialist staff, Cranmore pupils benefit from a sophisticated sport programme tailored towards each stage of development. With ten Heads of Sport, our team has the expertise and experience to nurture each child’s particular athletic talent. This is headed by our Director of Sport Paul Hodgson, who himself is a former professional rugby player having played scrum half nine times for England between 2008 and 2010 as well as playing for London Irish and Worcester Warriors. Paul is passionate about showing each child their potential to play sport at a high level, which includes educating individual students about injury prevention, nutrition, burnout prevention and balancing academic and sport commitments. All tailored training and education within Cranmore School are complemented by our strong links with various respected sporting partners, such as Chelsea FC, and numerous external professional coaches who regularly run coaching sessions for our pupils.

For both internal and external students, there’s also the opportunity for pupils entering Stage 3 (Form 1) to be awarded a sport scholarship. Not only will this recognise and nurture a pupil’s sporting talents during their time at Cranmore, but after the age of 13 they will progress onto their school of choice following the award of a scholarship. For sport scholarships, pupils can progress onto schools such as Winchester College, St John’s School, Reigate Grammar School and Brighton College.

At Cranmore School in Surrey, we understand how beneficial it can be for budding athletes to nurture their sporting abilities.