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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Coaching talented juniors and expensive urine!

Earlier this week, I came across a troubling example of a coach talking ‘science’ to justify training programme content for a 16-year old junior boy. Put simply, the coach had told this young man he needed to ‘bulk up’ (a meaningless scientific concept if ever there was one). A concerned parent then asked me about what brand of ‘whey’ she should use.

Experienced coaches will recognise the three points of concern and the wider issue of developing age-appropriate training programmes. I’ll make brief comments on all these matters, and then where to go for more fulsome information.

First, this sixteen-year old is still growing. Girls, generally reach physical maturity in their early to mid-teens, whereas boys keep growing for longer, many until 19 or older. There are exceptions, but most experienced coaches will recognise the still-growing ‘gangling’ male as opposed to the early maturer.

Amongst many other challenges of growing up, a boy’s teenage years mostly feature the skeleton growing faster than the musculature which catches up later. Skeletal growth involves cartilage, bony and fibrous components, which act together to achieve longitudinal bone growth. Much of this growth takes place at the epiphyseal plates sited at the ends of long bones (e.g. the femur or thigh bone). And even girls in their mid-teens and who appear to have stopped growing, may still have active epiphyseal plates.

In a nutshell, over-loading the epiphyseal plates while they are highly active presents a serious risk. The simplest recommendation is that children, especially adolescents should not perform activities such as plyometrics or engage in heavy weight lifting and should concentrate mainly on such activities that encourages high repetitions at low weights. Skeletally immature junior athletes given extreme or high intensity training can sustain repetitive trauma that can cause the epiphyseal plate to widen.

Second, ‘bulking up’ assumes that the coach has an excellent knowledge of the young man’s future height and weight (usually done through a crystal ball or lottery tickets!). In other words – guessing. Some medical professionals use the Turner-Whitehouse (TW) technique when dealing with abnormal growth. But as far as we know, reports show that the adult height estimation through skeletal age assessment may vary over time, between ethnic groups and between children in different geographic locations. Specifically, the highest accuracy of final stature prediction by TW method was reported when skeletal age was above 16 years in sample of normal children.

Third, parents and athletes (sometimes the same) are drawn to dietary supplements, primarily because they claim so much. A couple of points. No standard definition exists for what we mean by a supplement. Basically, it’s just part of your food! But like good food, you do expect it to contribute positively to health and well-being.

Unfortunately, many supplements are a source of illegal substances. I do not endorse a specific supplement with my athletes, as there is no practical way to know what quality assurance sits over each batch, OR under what conditions the supplement was manufactured. The anti-doping agencies will warn you that some supplements:

  • contain banned substances

  • can be contaminated during the manufacturing process

  • list ingredients on the label differently to how they appear on the Prohibited List

  • present the risk of counterfeit (fake) supplements, especially when purchased online.

More importantly, however, for growing teenage athletes, little evidence exists to suggest that beyond a well-balanced diet, supplements are worth the expense (and they are expensive). Sufficient vitamins, minerals and trace elements exist in our normal diet to meet the needs of most hard-training athletes. Should you check? No reason why not. An annual blood workup for a young elite athlete is a useful check point. Only at that point should supplements be entertained i.e. under medical supervision.

And as for whey, think on this. Most off the shelf, mass market protein powders are designed and marketed towards big, fully mature (and probably muscular) men or women – all of whom are over 18. And protein powder does not automatically induce muscle gain or fat loss.

And as for all those vitamins: many of your athletes have the world’s most expensive urine! Maybe there's a new race to be run - the ‘Vitaminurea stakes’.

[for more information or contact details, go to the Sport and Exercise Science New Zealand website and Drug FRee Sport NZ ]

(photo source: nationalnetworkinaction)

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