Child To Champion

Speed Training for the Youth Athlete – Part 1

Speed kills. 

Whether we are talking crossing the finish line for the marathon, getting to the ball first, or landing a punch quicker than your opponent…there isn’t a sport where being faster doesn’t provide some form of advantage.

But what exactly is speed and how do you improve it?

Speed is defined as the rate of performance of an activity, and in this blog, you will learn:

  • Why developing speed may look different depending on an athlete’s stage of maturation

  • How learning to slow down can help youth athletes speed up

  • The importance of fundamental movement skills and terms of their influence on sprinting speed

Why Maturation Matters

Maturation refers to how biologically old an athlete is.

In the strength and conditioning world, your child’s biological age may be referred to in terms of peak height velocity (PHV).

PHV is the most accelerated growth spurt a child experiences, and for a better understanding of how it might impact your child and their athletic development take a look here.

Athletes can either be:

  • Pre-PHV (the most accelerated period of growth has yet to occur)

  • Circa-PHV (the athlete is going through their growth spurt right now)

  • Post-PHV (the athlete has gone past there most accelerated growth spurt; this does not mean they have stopped growing, simply that they are no longer growing as quickly as they would have been during their peak height velocity

So why is peak height velocity relevant in conversations about developing speed?

Firstly, the mechanisms by which children can improve their speed may be largely dependent on their stage of maturation (i.e. pre-PHV, circa-PHV or post-PHV).

When athletes, especially male athletes, go through peak height velocity, their hormonal profile leads to increases in muscle mass and subsequent improvements in strength, power and speed soon follow (Lloyd et al 2014).

When athletes go through their peak height velocity, it is much akin to an organisation being able to utilise a larger pool of resources to get a task done. Regardless, of the efficiency of your local corner shop…they will never compete in the same leagues as a franchise.  

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Devoid of massive spikes in muscle-building hormones, pre-PHV athletes are not afforded such muscle building luxuries, and therefore any improvements in speed will be largely due to improved coordination.

 Put another way, pre-PHV athletes enhance their strength and power primarily through neural mechanisms; much like an employer being able to recruit the most effective employees for a particular task.

Again, this is not to say that circa-PHV athletes cannot enhance their speed through improved efficiency…they absolutely can. But this also explains why pubertal athletes can compensate for poor mechanics, whereas pre-PHV athletes just cannot put down the required force without an effective running pattern.

Slowing Down to Speed Up

For the sake of this section, we are going to shelf the idea of ‘sport-specific’ speed for a moment and talk very simply about getting from point A to point B (aka sprinting speed in a straight line)

The following analogy I have stolen from an S&C coach who is as passionate as he is practical when it comes to enhancing the athletic performance and life skills of youth athletes, Shane Fitzgibbon:

“If you had your hand on the brakes and you were trying to cycle faster…would you pedal harder or take your hands off the brakes?”

Often times we try to apply a model that has been designed for developing speed in highly tuned professional athletes (with well-developed movement skills!) and apply it to kids who cannot efficiently perform movement tasks that resemble tenants of sprinting.

Enter the skip. 

To paraphrase Youth Physical Literacy Specialist, Brett Kilka:

“If your child doesn\’t have the ability to demonstrate an understanding of left vs right then teaching them to run becomes a lot harder.”

The first step to getting your kids to take their hands off the brakes is to have them master the fundamentals movement skills of:

  • Balancing (any task on one leg)

  • Squatting patterns 

  • Lunging patterns 

  • Hip hinge patterns 

  • Landing 

  • Jumping, hopping (same foot take off to same foot landing) and leaping (landing on a different leg to the one you took off of)

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This is not to say that if a youth athlete cannot perform a deep squat or stand on one leg then they must stop all attempts at learning to sprint until they can…simply a gentle reminder that if you athletes cannot access these positions in slow, controlled movements like a march or a squat, then they will not magically fall into these effective positions when they speed up.

Attempting speed drills without your athlete’s being competent in the fundamental movement patterns mentioned above is akin of an earlier analogy of trying to pedal faster but with your hands on the brakes.

Speaking of brakes…you wouldn’t want to get behind the wheel of a car with masses of horsepower and brakes that don’t work. 

For youth athletes to improve performance and reduce injury risk, the ability to demonstrate effective landing technique and efficient deceleration technique is an essential foundation to getting the most from their speed work.

In part 2, we will be discussing how to design speed training for the youth athlete who has shown competence in fundamental movements and their ability to stop and the 3 P model to help you do this

Key Take Homes:

  • Youth athletes yet to go through their most accelerated growth spurt will get faster simply by improving coordination in fundamental movements (e.g. squatting, single-leg balance, and skipping)

  • Don’t speed up if you can’t slow down…ensure youth athletes have the ability to slow down and stop before you prioritise their speed

  • Take youth athletes’ handbrakes off by teaching them fundamental movements (jumping, landing, decelerating) before worrying about sprinting specific work


Lloyd, R. S., Oliver, J. L., Faigenbaum, A. D., Myer, G. D., & Croix, M. B. D. S. (2014). Chronological age vs. biological maturation: implications for exercise programming in youth. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(5), 1454-1464.

About The Author

Todd Davidson is a UKSCA accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach currently undertaking a PGCE through St Mary’s University, with the longer term aim of introducing athletic development into the national P.E curriculum. Todd\’s current interest on youth athletes was sparked by gaining experience with University, Paralympic and Olympic athletes as part of his internship roles with Durham University, Middlesex County Cricket Club and the English Institute for Sport, with GB Boxing and Paralympic Table Tennis, and speaking to other practitioners as to how this journey can be scaled more effectively to reduce injury risk, enhance performance and improve athletic development in youth athletes.

Todd can be found via:

Twitter: @todddavidson93
Facebook: search Todd Davidson P2P coaching
Instagram: @ToddDavidsonP2Pcoaching

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