Adolescence is the time period in the development where a youth athlete is going to try to emulate the athletes one stage (college) or multiple stages (club or pro) ahead in athletic development. As a youth athlete it is hard to think long term. Working on basic athletic qualities in the developmental stages of an athlete’s growth is important because it sets up the base for all athletic success. A young athlete needs these basic movement skills before focusing on strength, power, and other areas of fitness. The earlier youth athletes invest in a strong base of athletic development the more success they will have long term.
Youth athletes should focus on basic athletic qualities that influence motor development: balance, coordination, running, jumping, and change of direction. Honing in on these foundational aspects of fitness will set up young ultimate players to train smart later in their careers, while building a good athletic base that will both provide gains on the field and help avoid early injury.
The best time to work on basic athletic qualities is in the warmup. The warmup is an essential training component that should be part of every workout, game, and tournament. If you’re a coach, you can counteract a youth athlete’s temptation to train ahead of themselves during the warmup. The key to gradual improvement is continued intentional focus and every warmup is an opportunity to clean up a movement pattern. High school teams practice anywhere from 1-4 times per week and the season lasts, for some teams, from February to May. You do the math. That’s a lot of reps. As C.S Lewis says, “It’s funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different.” Every warmup is an opportunity to be present and put intentional focus into athletic development.
Warmups should begin with self-myofascial release (i.e self-massage with foam rollers, lacrosse balls, softballs), static stretching and glute activation for improved performance and injury reduction. Tim Morrill and Ren Caldwell have great ideas on this topic, which you can explore further on their youtube channels and in articles on this website.
Dynamic stretching and movement patterns come next. All dynamic warm ups should cover these basic athletic qualities: balance, coordination, running, jumping, and change of direction.
Pivoting and faking like elite-level throwers requires incredible balance. Movements like cutting and jumping involve balance too. During a change in direction, an unbalanced athlete will lean far over the outside leg, while a balanced athlete will have a steep shin angle to properly set up for acceleration out of the turn. Many aspects of a good functional training program improve balance. You should start approaching balance training with dynamic stretches which help develop balance as well as warm up muscles for game play.
Dynamic stretches like a knee hug, walking quad stretch, and a zombie kick all require balancing on one leg. Youth athletes constantly struggle to maintain balance during a walking quad stretch or leg cradle. Improving strength will help improve balance, but for a youth athlete performing quality reps of dynamic stretches is more important. Check in with yourself or your players at points during the season to monitor progress.
Here’s a dynamic stretching routine to try out.
Coordination is the ability to use different parts of the body together smoothly and efficiently. Coordination applies to every movement in field sports. Running involves corresponding motions between the arms and legs, as does jumping. Catching a disc requires hand-eye coordination while sprinting to attack a disc. The most basic type of exercise that coaches us to develop coordination is skipping. Skipping uses the arms and legs together to create a smooth, efficient movement pattern. Mastering skipping variations will improve your ability to perform more complex movement patterns that involve challenging full-body coordination in multiple planes. An athlete that can’t skip well is not going to be able to jump well, sprint well, or make challenging catches. You will not reach your full athletic potential until you master the fundamentals, which includes skipping.
Try this sample skipping routine to work on coordination.
Running form is an often overlooked aspect of athletic development, especially with ultimate. Ultimate players that come from track talk about how poorly ultimate players run. The warmup is a great time to clean up sprinting and acceleration form. Mastering skipping variations is the best first step for cleaning up sprinting and acceleration form. Then break down movements into their individual components.
In his clinics, Tim Morrill teaches that acceleration mechanics include three main factors:
Acceleration = body angle + thigh separation + arm action
Extension pushes are a great exercise to teach all three in simple setting while also challenging coordination. Grooving the extension push and jackhammer patterns sets up an athlete for success in improving acceleration. Intentional focus on the most basic components of a movement and mastering them is a necessary prerequisite for reaching peak potential in a specific movement. These two exercises are excellent starting points:
- Extension Push Progression for acceleration mechanics
- Lean, Fall, Sprint for application of mechanics
Sprinting is more complex than acceleration. It is easy to overwhelm a youth athlete being introduced to training with complex movement patterns that are too challenging. Mastering skipping will be the most beneficial exercise. Simple butt kicks and high knees will be challenging enough for many youth ultimate athletes. Focus on the fundamentals and don’t overload an athlete in the early stages of athletic development.
Athletes commonly see the shoulder height layout blocks and don’t realize that the power from that jump is influenced by the body’s ability to absorb and produce force. A warmup should consist of drills that work on the two main components of jumping: the take off to work on producing force and the landing to work on absorbing force. Those drills should also work on the two main types of jumping found in sports: double leg and single leg.
Teaching a youth athlete to land is key for long-term development. Landing efficiently will also enhance force production on the takeoff. For a youth athlete, every warmup should include at least one drill that works on landing in a balance position.
Jumping from an approach is a skill that needs to be practiced with repetition. Teaching a youth athlete the basics of approach jumps off of two legs and off of one leg will help with long-term development. High school basketball players get really good at jumping by practicing it in every practice. Add 1-2 approach jumps of off each leg during each warm up to see progress over the course of a season.
Want more air? Here’s a vertical jump routine.
Change of Direction
More efficient change of direction increases separation on cuts and shutdown capabilities on defense. Change of direction includes three categories, based on planes of movement, that often overlap: forwards to forwards, sideways to forwards, backwards to forwards.
Forward to Forward
This type of change in direction is most commonly performed on offense. Two examples of forward to forward turns in drills are 5-10-5 sprints and serpentine patterns. In both of those movements the athlete is transitioning from moving forward to moving forward in a different direction.
Sideways to Forward
This type of change in direction is most commonly performed on defense. Two examples of sideways to forward change in direction are shuffle to sprint transitions and crossover to sprint transitions. Defenders move laterally when an offensive player is setting up a cut then transition into a sprint once the offensive player commits to one direction.
Backwards to Forwards
A pure backwards movement would be backpedaling. Chances are that if you get caught backpedaling on defense the offensive player is going to easily create separation. Transitioning from a pure backpedal to a sprint in any direction is too slow for success on the ultimate field. Backwards to forwards change in direction refers to transitioning from movements that require sideways and backwards components into a sprint forwards to a degree. Transitioning from a defensive shuffle or a defensive under into a sprint in any direction is more specific to ultimate.
As a coach or captain you have the opportunity to influence the athletic development of your team. At your next practice analyze what the team is doing to warm up. Make sure it covers balance, coordination, running, jumping (landing), and change of direction!