How to develop excellence in lifters (or any sports really) can be tricky – but a common sense-based approach and progressive method is the prerequisite. A sporting background in another sport is not necessary in order to become one of the best lifter around. Contrary to popular belief, many international-ranked lifters have no background in gymnastics, sprinting, figure skating, swimming or any other popular kids sport you might think of. Weightlifting is a sport of itself in which young kids can develop the required athleticism to lift bigger weights later on.
Playing other sports certainly helps increase coordination, spatial awareness and general athleticism. Playing other sports is, however, different than competing or seeking performance in other sports. You don’t need to be an ex gymnast or ex-basketball player to be good in weightlifting. In many cases, great weightlifters were sometimes not as good in other sports. There is a limit to which your background will translate to your own/new sport. You may come in with a bit more experience from a motor learning stand point – but after a while, you will still need to focus on sport specific experience and motor learning.
It is a common tradition for lifters to play another sport once week – usually on Thursday. In weightlifting camps, these sports tend to be basketball or swimming or ping pong or soccer. The idea is that the body moves in different ways and it is used to create team bounding as well as increase competitiveness amongst lifters. Moreover, most of these sports have an aerobic component to it which also helps with recovery. It is a good idea to play another sport on the side while learning weightlifting.
Young lifters need to develop technique and associated physiological capabilities such as flexibility, stability, coordination and ultimately power. It is a wrong route to prevent young lifters, who lack one of those capability, from working technique on the basis that they need to focus on one trait only (because it is lacking).
Put simply, technique work enhance flexibility, stability, coordination and power. This is especially true in the beginner stages because the novelty of the movements will create a high demand on the body and nervous system and create rather quick adaptations. Training one trait only – without the context of technique – might improve a little bit technique, but will mostly improve the trait you are training.
For example, stretching for hours every day, weeks in weeks out, without doing anything else has a point of no return. Flexibility for the sake of flexibility (ie : not matched with equal stability capacity) does not make you a better lifter. Great technique and flexibility makes you a great weightlifter. Many people have seen how flexible athletes like Klokov are. Could Klokov be as good without the ability to do a split? Definitely. The international stages is filled with athletes that can’t do a split – yet they have enough sport specific flexibility (and tightness 😉 ) to be great.
A common sense approach is to do the things that give the most bang for the bucks. Technique work is thus more important than approaches focusing on a single physical trait in young developing lifters. This is not to say that flexibility, or stability, or coordination and power training don’t have their place in weightlifting. Of course, they are important components of weightlifting methodologies.
However, such training must be done in the context of technique work (in context of the sport) and not in place of technique work. However, many strength and conditioning coaches think other wise and this is why we see talented kids get stuck in their teens. At that moment, they don’t have enough sport specific experience and training and get passed by others.
Technique work, in weightlifting, will open up the shoulders and hips quicker than any stretches. Playing with a light barbell will increase stability quicker than any core training (Some studies even state weightlifting activate the core more than most exercises). Playing with the barbell with increase sport specific coordination more than anything else. Finally, lifting a barbell above your head will increase power more than anything else (Studies have shown that weightlifting is better at improving power than plyometrics).
The common sense approach for kids training is the approach in which the base of the pyramid is technique work and the top of the pyramid is whatever is problematic at that time (add extra strength work or flexibility work, etc. – or a bit of all of that). If a young beginner kid is lifting for a 1 hour session, after a general warm up (dynamic stretches and general movements like lunges or squats), 45 minutes should be spent on developing the technique of the snatch and clean and jerk (I include pulls and overhead squats in the section of technique work of kids). The remaining 15 minutes should be spent on jumping, strength work (calisthenics like hyperextensions, barbell movements like squats), core strength and stretches for specific problematic regions.
As with any sport training, the methodology needs to be logical and progressive. It is a good idea to not prescribe heavier weights for kids and use a lot more work sets and reps. Your technique sessions should be educative – you should teach the concepts and positions. Never let them get away with anything that is not perfect. Over time, increase carefully the work load and weights and keep hammering the physical weaknesses in the context of weightlifting technique work.