The Olympic Games are over and parents everywhere are motivated and eager to get their kids out there training, with the hopes of watching them on tv one day hanging medals around their necks for their home countries. There is nothing wrong with this practice, until it becomes such an egoist pursuit that makes everyone but the children happy. First, you ask your child what he/she likes for a sport, then you search for a club and enroll him/her and take her everyday to practice. Fast forward a couple of years and your kid is now out of the team, stitched to his Iphone or ps4 and totally reluctant to any physical activity. They burnt him out & the dream is over. Why does this happen? Next I’ll discuss current children training practices, explain developmental needs, offer my suggestions on how to make the process enjoyable for all and provide data to validate it all out.
With all due respect what I’ve seen around is that many youth ‘’coaches’’ and clubs focus on the wrong things. They’re elitist, they are winners that lack passion and have very little vision on what their purpose should be. Maybe because this is a business, a part-time job easy enough to do after work or during weekends. I’ve notice they focus too much on winning, they crave the product and totally neglect the process. Children participating in these know their personal best by memory and might even tell you which time mark they HAVE to do and by when. They are marked. Directors make their clubs such prestige institutions (empires) that it might even scare away possible newcomers. They’re famous for winning, for having the best facilities or for having a former great athlete as a resource. Please excuse me, they might have potential but there is no development or any real growing taking place anywhere around these places. We need to understand that whenever we get to oversee underage people our undisclosed mission is to make them better human beings.
Also, more specifically I’ve noticed they treat kids as adults. They expect and demand a certain amount of performance and effort that manifest their lack of pedagogical prep. They probably don’t even recognize in how many ways a child can learn or if he is even ready for it. Training is the same for everyone on the same discipline, very little individual attention is given and parent-coach communication is lacking. Let’s do a little experiment, go to your local pool or track, and notice how many youth coaches you see randomly blowing whistles, shouting splits and aggressively encouraging effort. Now tell me, how many did you saw playing games? Addressing fundamental movement skills? Did any of them look like they were having fun? Next point.
I’ve seen the studies HERE, HERE, & HERE that suggest endurance improvements on kid’s performance because of training and I can say 3 things. They’re old, they’re odd and they are inconclusive.I guess that my opinion is that training can wait. Don’t make such a serious issue out of it so soon. I will always carry a conservative scope on the issue because I know the risk of overdoing-it is serious. I would rather just focus on physical activity, have them live happy and be a little bit underdone than burned out and forever dull.
Youth training should be implemented very carefully because of how naive, delicate and innocent they are . For this reason, I believe there are several factors a coach needs to take into consideration when designing any structured training program for kids. It’s your responsibility as parent to oversee the process and make sure this are being taken into consideration before you let your kids participate.
– Genetics plays a huge role in endurance level. Many times the training outcomes claimed by studies are not direct results of stimulus but rather a product of natural growth or natural talents. A person will naturally improve his endurance level ( at a reasonable rate when not performance oriented ) as he matures and grows older whether he/she trains or not. The same way, many coaches claim improvements on their athletes that are just not there. That particular the student-athlete may just be naturally more skilled than others. I see it all the time at my school, a 4-year-old kid shows up and jumps a foot further than everyone else. The same kid will still jump better that most at the end of the year after all the training, Can I say that my program made him jump higher/further?
– Consider body size. Children body size is a major factor for their physiological performance. Endurance will be affected because more weight/size requires more energy for the same amount of work. Workout prescription cannot skip this fact. Again, coaches should not attempt to have ALL athletes do the same practice. It’s not fair or healthy for bigger/smaller sized persons. Overweight could also increase the risk of injury because of how it interferes with good mechanics.
– Boys vs girls developmental differentials. Puberty with all its process and changes happen at different times for girls and boys. This makes them susceptible at different stages to stimulus such as training. Younger males could be able to sustain a higher training load than girls of the same age. Equally, later, older females may be stronger and more durable than males. Coaches need to grasp this concept. The whole club can’t do the same workout day in and day out.
– Psychological aspects /mental toughness. Kids are not ready to suffer. Workouts should be easy enough for them to understand and complete. They lack the mental toughness and maturity to understand how effort will pay off later, that will come with time and experience. One of the most delicate issues at this stage is that children don’t perceive exertion levels. A child can go to exhaustion without even realizing it because of growth related factors like lactid acid accumulation and tolerance. Our job is to present them to concepts of pace & effort administration, not to demand maximum efforts. Lets prevent injuries and encourage long-term development!
Based on my experience and knowledge, I believe all children -endurance- training program should be based on the following principles.
- It should be fun above all.
We need to have this very clear. At this point the only thing that should matter is for children to be physically active and have fun. Everything else can wait, times, records and trophy will come later. Take it easy, patience is a virtue.
- It should have a pedagogical focus
We are talking about young children that have very little knowledge of what they’re doing and that are probably getting their first experience, so learning has to be a focus. They should get to explore the sports nature, their fundamentals skills and more importantly values.
- Don’t choose based on your likes, let them decide
As a parent or guardian avoid putting your likes before your child’s. Let them decide what they want to do and you supervise the whole operation. Children will get through many phases, their ideas, likes and habits will change constantly during youth. Pay attention to their attitudes and establish communication, which is the magic glue to all success stories.
- Quality over quantity
This is key, as stated before at this phase all children need to do is learn. With that in mind we as coaches should prioritize that they commit to do things correctly. I don’t want students swimming 2,000 mts per session and just get through it to make numbers. I would rather have them swim 500 mts with perfect form and call it a day. If not addressed at this stage they will probably drag a lot of their technical (mistakes) throughout most of their careers. Let’s do it correctly know, we can go longer/faster later.
Additionally, frequency at this stage should be taken with a grain of salt. Going to practice 5 days a week and competing on weekends with 7 years of age doesn’t sound too great for me. I’ll say 3x week, quality sessions focusing on the fundamentals is more than enough.
- physical activity over sports training
Kids need to be physical active to support their human development process. This doesn’t mean they should train like professional athletes! Their bodies don’t even recognize what kind of activity their doing, all it does is make their hearts work faster/harder, put some stress on their lungs & muscles and sweat . Swimming, jogging, playing hide & seek, hiking, cycling, kayaking should be good enough.
- Reinforce the importance of education , values, active lifestyle
Lets never forget that kids are students first and then athletes. Education should remain the main priority always! As national physical education standards state we want our kids to: “The physically literate individual recognizes the value of physical activity for health, enjoyment, challenge, self-expression and/or social interaction “. “The physically literate individual exhibits responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others.” Whatever club or team they are in should be in sync.
At the end of the day let your children decide what kind of sports activities they like and keep constant feedback on their emotions and feelings towards physical activity. Facilitate an environment where they can explore many options, including being at more than 1 club or team at the same time. One of my main philosophies as a teacher is – exposure over perfectionism – and you as parent can do the same. Provide opportunities for them to discover the world, they’ll get good at something later. Lastly, you need to embrace the whole process! Enjoy every single moment, take thousands of photos and create touching memories. Make it a priority of yours and treat it as quality time; it will be over before you know it. Time flies and so will your kid!