Throwing in track and field is a skill, and like any other skill in sports, it requires a certain degree of strength. Stronger, more powerful throwers can handle a greater amount of force (GRF) as they try to convert linear and/or rotational speed into speed or release, one of the most important aspects in throwing mechanics. To a certain extent, strength – muscular strength – provides the necessary stability to create optimal separation between lower and upper body, hips and shoulders rotation, so that athletes can better overcome inertia and release the implement with speed in excess of 30 m/sec.
There is, however, a certain degree of skill in strength training that makes the difference between improving strength as a way to improve performance in sports rather than improving strength for the sake of lifting heavier weights.
Squatting, for instance, is not a skill. Younger, less experienced athletes know, intuitively, how to squat. Squatting, like many other heavy strength training exercises, is just one of many fundamental motor patterns (FMP) that athletes learn at a very young age. The pull in Olympic-style weightlifting, on the other hand, is a skill and like any other skill in sport it can be taught and learn at a very young age. How young is not a question of physical maturity – strength is, as matter of fact, a physical attribute that improves with time, as weights progressively become heavier – but, instead, a question of cognitive development.
Abilities such as strength, speed, power, and endurance differ from skills in the sense that skills are learned, whereas abilities are a product of both training and genetic factors.Fleishman, 1964.
Young and adolescent athletes can benefit from strength training as soon as they are capable of understanding and relate proper lifting mechanics with some of the basic skills in sports. This stage is also known as “formal operational stage” – see Jean Piaget (1896-1980) and his theory on cognitive development – and it precedes by few years the onset of puberty. Between the age of 7 and 12 years old, young athletes are capable of processing information at a higher level (organized and rational thinking), developing logical connections between different experiences. The same way young athletes learn how to throw a shot put from the power position before learning the art and craft of gliding and spinning, they can also learn how to snatch, clean and jerk after they practice pulls and high pulls. Their ability to relate these similar experiences represents a necessary pre-requisite for them to be able to learn and master sport-specific skills (SSS).
This positive carry over between similar movements – lifting and throwing, but also similarities between many different fundamental motor skills (FMS) – is also known as positive transfer of learning and it represents one of the most valuable assets in the training of young athletes. By learning skills that are so similar in nature – the mechanics of the pull in Olympic weightlifting share important similarities with throwing mechanics in terms of joint angular displacement, peak power output, peak vertical velocity and rate of force development – young and adolescent athletes can improve performance in sport to a much greater extent than what numbers seems to suggest. Transfer of training only takes into consideration the quasi-algebraic relationship between strength, speed, power, and performance in sport. However, the positive carry over between similar drills and exercises can further support the development of sport-specific skills, creating a solid foundation of general athleticism.
Male and female athletes between the ages of 7 and 11 years old become capable of developing more complex and coordinated movements by rationally assembling fundamental motor patterns into more sophisticated skills. A 14 years old thrower who has already learned how to snatch, clean and jerk and has been squatting – back squatting and front squatting – for over two or three years has, therefore, much better chances of becoming a stronger, more powerful thrower after the onset of puberty. Today we consider this carryover between fundamental and sport-specific skills as the most elementary example of transfer of learning. Piaget’s formal operational stage, the circa-pubertal phase that immediately precedes and follow peak height velocity (PHV) also known as “the golden age of motor learning” – represents, with no reasonable doubt, the most appropriate time to introduce young and pre-adolescent athletes to “the skill” of lifting weights.
Propaedeutic exercises such as squatting and jumping can, therefore, be incorporated from the age of 9-10 years old in a well-assorted, well-rounded strength training program with the intention of building proper lifting mechanics before introducing snatch and clean pulls and high pulls. Explosive in nature, Olympic-style weightlifting exercises display important similarities with throwing mechanics facilitating the learning of more advanced, sport-specific skills needed to compete in throwing events.