Friday 19 July 2013

What Young Athletes Really Need

Do you know a young athlete looking to take his/her game to the next level? Perhaps you are a parent, teacher, coach or trainer of a promising young star. There are countless books, DVD's, websites, "experts" and training toys all promising to make young athletes better. But how do you know who you would listen to and what is really the best way to improve a young athlete's sport performance?

This a post I wanting to write for two reasons. The first is that I am a parent of three children. I know what it is like to love your kids like crazy and want the very best for them. The second is that I am a university Strength & Conditioning coach. As a result I see first hand and have to deal with the mistakes that are made (with the best intentions) in the preparation of young athletes. I get new athletes with 80 year old posture, excess body fat (by athlete standards), low relative strength, poor movement mechanics and a host of injuries and issues. Here is a list of things that will give a young athlete his/her best chance to succeed. 

Screen for health problems and movement dysfunctions
A thorough medical evaluation is a great place to start. I also recommend something like the functional movement screen to catch movement dysfunctions and asymmetries. Playing a lot of sports or training with a body that has imbalances and does not even move properly is begging from an injury. This screen also helps to catch orthopedic problems with can then be referred to a sports-injury specialist.

Learn to move well
Most young athletes these days are not what I would call athletes. They are sports specialists, but they lack fundamental athleticism. Sure they have highly developed sport-specific skills, but they lack body awareness, motor control and athleticism. Basic gymnastics movements (e.g. rolling, tumbling, etc) can be very helpful for building athleticism. A popular trend among young athletes are jump programs (and most are not very good). However before an athlete does jump training he/she had better know how to land safely. In my experience, most do not. Also, while team-sport athletes don't need the precision of a track sprinter, correcting major sprinting mechanical errors will really help. In my experience, the running form for most team athletes is very poor and this unnecessarily slows them down.

Techno time outs
Less of this = safer, better athlete
I know you know this, but it is too important not to include. Endless hours spent playing video games or hunched over the computer, cell phone or tablet is not healthy for anyone. However and important note for the young athlete is that extended time in these positions will create imbalances and dysfunctions which will impair performance and increase their risk of injury.

Free play
Free play has huge benefits. Children need time to play and have fun. Play is an activity that is engaged in for fun and is free of limitations, structure and rules. This allows kids to be kids. Too many kids have their lives so tightly packed with programs and activities that they have no free time. This is not a healthy way to live for anyone. Free play recharges your batteries and that is important for everyone, but especially for youngsters.

Balance training
In addition to these benefits, free play is one of the best ways to learn to move well. As a child, I did not have a coach teaching me landing mechanics. Rather, I went to the park with my friends, found the highest thing in the playground and jumped off of it. I doing so, I learned to land in a way that did not hurt. I rode my bike, ran, played tag (one of the best things you can do for agility), played catch, played street hockey (after all, I'm from Canada - eh), climbed trees, built forts and walked across beams at the play ground. Not only did I have a blast doing this, I also naturally learned jumping and landing mechanics, how to fall, body awareness, agility, balance and improved my overall athleticism. As a teenager, this movement foundation allowed me to safely enjoy a variety of school sports. 

As a parent, I have the same fears of free play as any parent has. I do not want my kids falling out of a tree and suffering a traumatic injury (the best way to minimize this risk is for you to join them so you can easily step in with wisdom as needed). However, I would rather let my kids play and get a few bumps, bruises, scrapes and scars along the way to have a fun childhood and teach them how to move their bodies. I have scares on my shins and knees from falling and tripping, but I'll take those any day over scares from  ACL reconstructive surgery. 

A wide variety of sports & movement activities
With children, you want to expose them to a wide variety of sports and physical activities. This gives them a wide variety of sport and movement skills and general athleticism that provides a solid foundation for being a great athlete and later sports specialization. 

Later sport specialization or at least safe specialization
The Russians had a great model for this. They would place kids in sport school and expose them to a wide variety of sports, gymnastics and movement activities. Then, after making them into athletes they would turn them into sports specialists. In North America, we tend do to the opposite. We take young kids and try to turn them into specialists without first helping them to become athletes.

I know this is not popular to write - especially with popular new books such as The Talent Code and this whole concept of getting your 10,000 hours of experience in a sport as soon as possible. However, early sport specialization can lead to an early end to an athlete's career. You see, sport specialization creates dysfunction. This is why I get so many athletes that are already an injury mess by the time they get to me in university.

If you choose to ignore this advice, at least do three things to make early specialization as safe as possible. First of all, give your young athlete some time off his/her chosen sport each year. Second, make enough time to participate in other sports, recreation and physical activities - even if they are not done at a highly competitive level. And third, do some resistance training to help balance the body out and work the muscles that are not as involved in the sport (e.g. soccer players would benefit from extra hamstring work because the sport is heavily quad-focused). 

Basic barbell weight training
As athletes get older and more advanced, they will benefit greatly from the power and strength that can be built through barbell & body weight training. However, they will only get these benefits if they have put in the time to learn to do these movements correctly. Many of the athletes I work with have never done real strength & power training with barbells. Also of those who have some background, many received poor coaching and have to re-learn key movements. Learning to do basic barbell exercises as a young athlete is a huge investment for future athletic performance. Once technique is mastered, gradually adding weight to the barbell will improve strength and this is important for injury prevention as well as performance. (Note: I will expand on more details on youth resistance training in a future post). 

Real food
Junk fuel for athletes
I cringe every time I see parents cramming fast food into their kids as they rush them children from one sporting event to the next. How you can you expect young, growing bodies to stand up the stress of sports while feeding them nothing but sugar, caffeine, bleached flour, transfats, antibiotic and hormone-saturated meats, genetically modified potatoes, preservatives, additives and other frankenfoods that will bring back memories of high school chemistry class? If you are too busy to eat properly then you are too busy!

A positive sport and exercise experience
In my experience with university students, I have found that those who had a positive experience with sports and exercise continue to be active as adults. I have also found the opposite to be true. First and foremost PE teachers, coaches and parents of young children need to create a positive physical activity experience. In doing so, you will help them reap the physical, mental and social benefits of sport and physical activity. In addition, you will do what you can to help set them up for a for a long, healthy life. 

A chance to follow their dreams and passions
I am truly blessed to have fantastic parents. They let me play sports and do things that I enjoyed and let me stop doing sports and activities that I did not enjoy. Even as a young adult when I told them I wanted to go into the strength & conditioning field, they were supportive and encouraging despite the fact that neither of them really new anything about it. Now, as a parent, I am committed to helping my kids discover their dreams and passions. I do not want to live vicariously through my children, but rather support and encourage in what they want to do. If that is not sports or training, I am totally cool with that.

In conclusion, young athletes need to:
Move well
Learn proper technique and get stronger
Practice their sport, but not too much

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