What's in a Name?
Decoding some of the rhetoric surrounding youth sports conditioning.
There's no arguing the fact that youth sports have gotten waaaaay out of control in recent years. Things like early specialization, ridiculously demanding practice and competition schedules, and well-meaning, yet overly invested parents have turned something that was once supposed to be fun, into big business.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the number of kids who now participate in "sport-specific" fitness programs, or attend "speed and agility" classes several times per week. In fact, this whole notion of "strength and conditioning" for young athletes has gone from something of a novelty a mere decade ago, to one of the biggest and most lucrative trends in the entire fitness industry.
And therein lies the problem.
Any time people start to see dollar signs, you're going to get unscrupulous individuals looking to claim their share of the pie. In this instance, throwing around buzzwords like, "strength and conditioning" or saying that they offer "speed and agility", or "sport-specific" training. When in truth, many are no more qualified to deliver such services than the local little league coach.
Combine this with motivated young athletes who are looking for every possible edge over their competition and parents who may not necessarily be educated in the finer points of athletic conditioning- especially as it pertains to proper growth and development- and you end up with a potentially dangerous situation.
Now don't get me wrong, as a "strength and conditioning" coach myself (and yes, I am actually certified as a strength and conditioning specialist- it's not a self appointed title) I applaud the idea of kids training to become better athletes. I just hate when I see them being guided through exercises they're not yet physically ready for, by individuals who lack the proper credentials and experience to be administering such programs.
So, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at some of these terms (which seem to get young athletes and parents frothing at the mouth), in an effort to give people a better understanding of what they actually mean. And as a result, make more educated decisions as to whether or not programs carrying these labels are truly suitable for their children.
1. Sport-Specific: Do young athletes really need sport-specific training? Or, in other words, should their fitness efforts necessarily attempt to mimic the same movement patterns and train the same energy systems they're already often overusing during sports participation? Let's see....umm, how about NO!
I won't start to introduce any type of sport specific training emphasis until my athletes are at least 16-17 years old; and even then I don't do a whole lot of it. By that time, they're of an age where specialization in a single sport is more appropriate, so adding a little resistance to certain sports based movements, or getting slightly more focused on a particular energy system makes more sense.
That said, I'll still lean towards more generalized efforts in terms of building strength and power, while also attempting to restore their bodies to a more balanced state to help prevent injuries (more on this below). The main focus, however, is trying to improve their overall athleticism and allowing them to use those skills as a means of becoming more proficient at their sport.
Bottom line: The idea of a kid being labeled as an 11 year old "soccer player" is silly. The idea of he, or she doing "soccer specific" fitness training is utterly ridiculous and in many instances, downright irresponsible.
2. Strength and Conditioning: Probably one of the most bastardized terms in the industry. I literally cringe when I hear this terminology being used in regards to youth fitness programs- especially as it pertains to the middle school set. That's because there's a lot more to a successful strength and conditioning program than just randomly having kids do a bunch of exercises that may, or may not be appropriate for their particular level of physical development.
I constantly have new athletes enter my program that tell me they take "strength and conditioning" in school, only to be unable to execute a proper push-up, or even do a simple body weight squat correctly. The fact is, just because a workout contains lifts like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, or Olympic lifts, doesn't make it a strength and conditioning program.
It's a program when the exercise prescription makes sense, the drills are properly taught and executed and the primary objective is to help progressively improve athletic performance and reduce the likelihood of injury.
So coaches and trainers, please stop saying that you "do strength and conditioning" when your approach involves little more than having young athletes run through a battery of physically demanding exercises with little rhyme, or reason.
3. Speed and agility: If strength and conditioning is one of the most bastardized terms, say hello to the leader of the pack! Want to get a coach, a young athlete, or their parents to pay attention? Simply sprinkle these two words into the mix and you'll have their undivided focus for the next several minutes.
That's because more and more people are beginning to understand the importance of these two qualities in terms of their potential to improve athletic performance. Unfortunately, there is far less understanding about exactly how to go about achieving these improvements and that's where the waters start to get a little bit murky.
True speed and agility training involves more than just having kids run endless sprints, or having them dart around a bunch of brightly colored cones until they become fatigued. At a minimum, coaches need to be able to teach kids the basics of proper sprinting mechanics so they can run more efficiently.
They also need to be able to convey the importance of how to properly decelerate going into, and then accelerate when coming out of a direction change. This involves everything from showing an athlete proper foot spacing, to how to get into their hips to change their center of gravity, to achieving the right angles needed to effectively apply force into the ground.
So in essence, teaching speed and agility requires a thorough knowledge of biomechanics, along with an appreciation of how athletes must first strive to improve strength and mobility in order to adopt the proper positioning and be able to apply the required amount of force.
Translation: There's more to it than a coach having played a sport in college!
4. Injury Prevention: The unprecedented rise in youth sports injuries over the past several years has spurred a movement towards including this phrase in much of the advertising surrounding sports performance training for young athletes. And why not- it's trendy, it sounds good and lends a certain level of credibility... at least to the untrained eye.
Take it from someone who's been stressing the injury prevention angle long before it became fashionable to do so- many of the programs that go out of their way to highlight it, often give it nothing but lip service.
Simply including things like foam rolling, and/ or a dynamic warm-up for example, will do little to prevent injury if athletes aren't performing the drills properly and also lack a thorough understanding as to why it's important to do so. Likewise, touting the ability of lifts like squats to promote better knee stability, or planks to improve core strength will do nothing of the sort if the drills aren't executed with proper form.
I can't tell you how many times I've seen trainers allowing kids to squat with their arches collapsed and knees pinching together, only to add more weight on the next set! Or timing them as they do a plank with their lower back area caved in like a hammock and head hanging like a bowling ball! Really? Exactly what are we trying to accomplish here?
If injury prevention is truly the goal, coaches and trainers must first take the time to assess their athletes in order to determine their specific areas of weakness. Only then can steps be taken to eliminate, or at least minimize said weaknesses by helping to offset some of the strength and flexibility imbalances likely created by chronic sports participation.
We need to move away from this practice of just haphazardly throwing certain exercises, or stretching protocols at young athletes under the guise of injury prevention.
5. "Get him into the weight room" : Sorry ladies, but this is a term that is almost exclusively used in regards to male athletes. It's usually uttered by the father, or coach of a young athlete, typically around the age of 14, or so (because after all, we all know that's the time a boy is supposed to start lifting weights, right?).
They'll tell me how he needs to "bulk up", or start "hitting the weights" as if doing so will somehow miraculously correct his glaring postural imbalances, knock-kneed stance, or apparent lack of anything that could be even remotely mistaken for flexibility.
You see, it's not as simple as just "getting kids into the weight room". There needs to be some sort of plan in place prior to them getting there; a plan determined by an analysis of their individual needs. Granted, this can be hard to do for large groups, but there needs to be at least some type of rudimentary assessment done before simply allowing kids to hit the weight room with reckless abandon.
I understand that "back in your day" you were thrown into the weight room and "nothing bad happened". Although the chronic low back pain and limited range of motion you now have in your shoulders may beg to differ a bit. The point being, the world has changed dramatically since then.
For one, we are a much more technologically dependent society and kids are understandably some of the worst offenders. Take a look at the posture of the average teen when they text, or play video games. Do you think just allowing them to make a b-line for the bench press (and don't kid yourself, that's exactly where they're going), is going to make the situation any better?
Or how about trying to put up massive poundages on lifts like squats, deadlifts and cleans, despite often having massive restrictions in hip and ankle mobility? In actuality, all this doing is stacking the deck further against them by increasing their risk of injury!
We need to squash this old school mindset and stop treating the mere act of "pumping iron" as some sort of panacea for athletic success. While it's true that a well designed and executed strengthening program can be extremely beneficial to young athletes, care must be taken to make sure kids are going about things the right way.
Sorry for the long read, but this is a topic that I've been meaning to address for a while now and I had a lot of frustrations to get out! Be sure to keep an eye out for future bog posts where I promise to be more succinct, but no less passionate about my views towards youth athletic development.