This blog post is being written as I reflect on all the recent articles I have read about youth obesity spiralling out of control in Ireland, as well as the reports on young athletes being burnt out at ever increasing rates from exhaustion and/or injury. While these are opposite extremes of the scale, I believe they are opposite sides of the same coin. The issue is lack of education (or perhaps even lack of caring) on what exercise professionals can offer. While both are pressing issues, this feature is aimed at why active children need some amount of professional attention, even in amateur/hobby sports if they are to minimise injury risk.
While it is essential that children engage in regular exercise for numerous health benefits, it is also important to recognise that exercise and sport is not necessarily the same thing. One key difference is that sport is, by its very nature, competitive and therefore more demanding and rigorous than exercise for its own sake. It is also not realistic to expect a local, unpaid, volunteer, amateur coach (no matter how well-meaning) to be an expert in nutrition, injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, strength, speed & agility, etc… His/her expertise is in the game, not in determining the physical capabilities or limitations of the players (unless they also happen to be a professional trainer). Let’s consider the benefits of children participating in structured strength & conditioning, should their local clubs or parents be forward-thinking enough to provide it.
Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS)
Children are entering sports with less physical literacy than ever before due, amongst other reasons, to the amount of time spent indoors instead of out playing and the massive reduction of P.E. and free-play in schools. This has huge implications on children’s competency of fundamental movement skills, such as object manipulation, hopping, jumping, squatting, etc… not to mention hand-eye coordination and more. When a child joins a new sport lacking competence in essential FMS, is it asking far too much of the child to develop competency of intrinsic sport-specific skills?
Take a good look at the image above… This is the situation coaches have to deal with due to the increased amount of time children are spending sitting at school, watching TV, commuting, etc… Humans aren’t designed to spend long hours in the seated position. It drastically alters the tone of our muscles – shortening and tightening some, while lengthening and weakening others, to the detriment of posture. Ask someone to run or jump with poor posture and he/she will certainly make an attempt, but will lack efficiency due to the inability of certain muscles to fire in the correct sequence, if at all. At best, performance is reduced. At worst, the child eventually gets injured. A professional S&C coach recognises these issues with the squad and is able to intervene with appropriate corrective exercises, thereby dramatically reducing the risk of injury.
ONE CHANCE to get it right….
Prior to puberty is the best time for children to develop many of their fundamental movement skills, such as locomotion. Given that these FMS are the building blocks for athletic skills, then the strength of this foundation is linked to athletic success later in life. You may think that they have plenty of time to learn this… WRONG! If a child is not exposed to various movements in the early developmental stages, the brain undergoes a process of synaptic pruning, whereby apparently unneeded motor pathways in the brain are trimmed away. Exposing the child to these movement patterns later in life provides no guarantee of learning them, as it means that all new motor pathways need to be created in the brain. Children literally have ONE CHANCE to effectively learn fundamental movement skills well. “Parents – you have one chance to do this right” Dr. Greg Rose, Functional Movement Systems
“Conceivably, if a child is ready to engage in sport activities, then he or she is ready to participate in resistance training,” Rhodri S. Lloyd, PhD & Jon L. Oliver, PhD. The benefits of resistance training are numerous. These have been documented extensively in my free eBook on Youth Conditioning, so I won’t revisit them here. If you want to pick up a copy use this link: http://www.connachtfitnessandperformance.com/enquiry.html Knowing that resistance training for children is both beneficial and, indeed, recommended, then why should parents or sports coaches seek a strength coach to teach the children? The answer is because children should not be treated like adults when it comes to ANY kind of training. A suitably knowledgeable coach understands what various modalities of resistance training, e.g. body weight, resistance bands, dumbbells, etc… are appropriate for a child depending on experience, age, etc… The Youth fitness coach understands that there are differences in approach needed for boys versus girls, and that a growth spurt changes the rules.
A special note for parents of teenage boys: boys involved in sports will eventually join a gym and lift weights. You must decide if you want them to learn good technique that will stand to them for life, or if you want them copying friends or other members of the gym, who may not be qualified to teach. A coach can help ensure that the ego never outweighs common sense. The younger they learn to lift correctly, the better.
One of the most important roles a strength and conditioning coach performs is that of the assessment. Poor posture, previous injuries all affect the readiness of young athletes to participate in sport, often leading to injury. An assessment early on can identify risk factors which can be mitigated by intervention from the coach. Experienced S&C coaches are also adept at spotting fatigue and overtraining symptoms in young athletes. Frequently children get overtrained from participating in multiple sports, each one with a coach who may fail to realise that the child has little left to give. And naturally, every coach expects the best from each child in the squad. One area requiring particular mention is anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in field and court sports. Teenage girls suffer five times more ACL surgeries than boys (Kelvin Giles, Movement Dynamics). There a few potential reasons for this, e.g. weak hip stability, quadriceps muscle dominance, etc… It takes a specialist to know these risks, to identify them in players, and intervene to reduce the likelihood of such injuries occurring.
I hear from many parents about the fitness activities that their children are doing as part of their particular sport. Frequently these are random, inappropriate and sometimes just make no sense whatsoever. They may be age inappropriate, and have no bearing on what was done the previous years, or to be done in the following years. A youth S&C coach plans for the future, and designs age-appropriate and experience-appropriate programmes for the young players, with a plan for where they are going and need to be.
A child’s age isn’t necessarily his or her age
Children should be prescribed exercise and have expectations based not on their chronological age (age since birth), but on their biological age (developmental or maturation age).
Case study: John and Michael both join the U12 soccer team. John is 11 and is an early bloomer. Michael is 10 and is a late bloomer. Because children can seem up to three years younger or older depending on whether they are early or late bloomers, John can have a biological age of 13, with Michael having a biological age of only 8. In this scenario you have two boys with biological ages of 13 and 8 on the same team. Should they be expected to have comparable levels of strength? Speed? Cognitive awareness? Of course not. Specialist youth S&C coaches will have a whole sequence of progressions and regressions that are suitable for the more or less advanced child.
Any team fitness activities must take into account the difference between biological and chronological ages. To determine your child’s biological age, visit http://www.growmetry.com/app_v3/index.asp?lng=2