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Training Our Youth: What Happened?

 One of the big questions in the strength and conditioning community is "Are good athletes born or made?"  I think the answer depends on how you define the words "good athlete".  If you mean an individual who performs flawlessly at the top of his or her sport with tremendous strength, power, grace, and determination, well, that's mostly genetics.  If you simply mean someone who is dedicated and performs reasonably well under pressure, then we can cast a wider net.  I gave birth to one natural athlete and two others who are more like me, ie, can be improved with focused training.  All three benefit a great deal from the training we do at home which primarily takes the form of play and a little bit of work.  However, I think that if we are interested in raising a generation of healthy active people, we need to focus less on turning our children into great athletes and go back to focusing on general fitness.  This will serve both our athletes and our general population much better in the long run.

Kids develop skills such as balance and agility simply from
exploring their surroundings.  
Children, when playing, are doing the most fundamental and important sports training of their lives.  Hopscotch, playing tag, climbing trees, etc., builds strong agile bodies capable of performing a variety of tasks.  When children transition into playing sports, some will exhibit abilities that make them better suited for their sport of choice.  The natural inclination is to then to get the child to focus on one sport.

As a coach and a fitness trainer who has worked with kids of all ages, I find the focus on early sports specialization and the effect it has on children a little unnerving.  I see burnout and higher injury rates in the participants and I also see kids who try very hard to perform well being cut from teams because they aren't "good enough".  If the purpose of youth sports is to give kids a way to stay active and healthy, why has it it resulted instead in high injury rates and a focus on outcomes and not performance?  Winning is great and all, but its not everything.

According to the experts at Stop Sports Injuries, over 3.5 million children under the age of 14 receive medical treatment for sports injuries every year.  More than half of these are preventable.  More disturbing is that 70% of children drop out of youth sports by age 13 with the top three reasons being adults, coaches, and parents.  In high school athletes, 62% of injuries are from overuse.  The statistics are rather disturbing.

I have parents ask me regularly why there is such a high rate of sports injuries, particularly ACL injuries these days.  It didn't seem to happen when I was a kid.  I don't have any recollection of any noticeable sports injuries except for maybe one or two soccer or football players in high school.  But now, its rather commonplace.  I think there are two factors at play.  One being early specialization without proper strength development and injury prevention practices.  The other, is that in our digital age, kids aren't building that base of strength and conditioning by simply going outside.  I attended a lecture given by a track and field coach who stated that in his observation over the past 25 years, there has been an obvious decline in basic athletic skills of children including basic running mechanics, overall strength, and agility.  Kids are more delicate, less coordinated, and easier to break simply because they no longer go outside and play.

I read Dan John's new book Easy Strength this morning and in it, he talks about a concept of training quadrants in which athletes are characterized by the kind of training they need.  According to his model, children should be doing general strength and conditioning and learning a broad variety of sports and skills.  Calisthenics, bodyweight exercises and simply running are more than adequate for this accumulation phase.

In Verkoshanksy and Siff's book, Supertraining, they talk about the time it takes to begin playing a sport and to develop into a high level athlete.  This happens over decades, not years.  Furthermore, early specialization in the young athlete rarely results in a long athletic career in that sport.  It is recommended that children spend up to 3 years developing a base of strength and endurance with simple bodyweight exercises and calisthenics.

Jumping rope is an easy exercise
with a lot of carry over to other skills.
You can probably begin to see now the problem with children's training.  Here in America, we do the exact opposite of what the Russian sports scientists recommend based on their decades of research and observation.  Our kids aren't physically active and if they are, they are specializing too early and too intensely.  It would be nice if physical education programs at our schools could provide this general training base, however, kids may go to PE once a week these days, if at all.  I volunteered at my children's school to help with the Presidential Fitness Test and was a bit troubled by what I saw.  I had to teach fourth graders how to jump.  More than half of them couldn't even jog an eighth of a mile, that's 200 meters, without walking.  Half of them didn't know how to jump rope.  More than half of them were overweight.  I won't even get into the fact that there were first grade girls showing up to run wearing high heels.

Based on my own observations, I believe that the training base we establish as kids stays with us our whole lives.  One of the questions I ask my adult clients is what kind of sports did they play when they were younger.  I find that those are the energy systems and movement patterns that I can tap into first to get them started.  It might take a little waking up, but its there.  What if our youth today never get the opportunity to develop those qualities when they are young and easy to develop?  What is going to happen when they are adults? What is going to happen to all these young people who have had one or more joint surgeries in their teens?

I'm still pretty good at climbing trees.  
As a completely uncoordinated kid, I was lucky to have played soccer, softball, and flag football.  I had a passion for hurdles in high school, but since I periodically wiped out at least 2 or 3 of them every other run, the coach didn't tap me for the track and field team.  I can't really blame her, I imagine it was frightening to behold.  In addition, I was lucky enough to grow up on 3 acres of fields and woods to run in and long dirt roads to ride my bike.  And, I had a father who was very fond of teaching kids to do things like push a lawnmower as well as split, load, carry, and stack firewood.  Although I'm actually scared of heights and uncoordinated, I am also a champion tree climber.

I was never a terribly good athlete, but with all the work and play at home and school I had the opportunity to develop a solid base of strength conditioning.  Although I'm still not a good athlete, it has helped me a lot in my athletic pursuits as an adult and I'm in pretty good shape for a woman about to turn forty.  With my own children, I've made an effort to get them moving whether it be with me in the weight room (age appropriate of course), helping out with yard work, going for long walks around the neighborhood, or playing games in the back yard.  Unfortunately we don't have any good climbing trees, but we're about to remedy that with an outdoor structure for rope climbs.

I'm not going to single-handedly solve the issue with sports injuries, but I'm going to try and do my share with the kids and parents I coach.  I encourage all of you to think about how often you go outside and get moving.  Going outside to play and work is about the best form of exercise we can have.  Its not just good for our kids, its good for us.  Its free, its fun, and its a great way to spend time with your children.  You're not just spending quality time together, you're giving their bodies an invaluable advantage for staying whole and healthy as long as possible.  To me, this is far more important than winning a few games.

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