Youth Athletics: Put Excitement Back Into Play

by Mike Bracko, EdD on Apr 14, 2015

Shift your focus from the negative connotations of obesity to the positive life force of nontraditional sports training.

Health and fitness professionals often focus on how many kids are overweight. However, a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that not exercising is a higher risk factor for all-cause mortality than being overweight or obese (Ekelund et al. 2015).

This is encouraging news for kids, adolescents, parents and fitness professionals because it indicates that overweight kids may not be as unhealthy as we think they are. It also suggests that kids who are obese and who exercise or play sports can be healthy. This is strong motivation for parents to involve their obese kids in sports training, or to encourage them to stay involved if they already are. 

Children glean many benefits from playing sports, including improved fitness, better social and verbal interaction, increased self-esteem and confidence, improved physical self-perception and academic success (Lloyd et al. 2013). Organized sports are also associated with improved body esteem, healthy weight and quality of life (Sabo & Veliz 2008). This article challenges fitness professionals to ameliorate the positives (exercise and behavior modification) and focus less on the maelstrom of bad news about childhood obesity. Read on to find out more about how you can not only get kids off the bench and into the game of life but do so in fun, new ways. 


In spite of the negative news regarding the health of America’s youth, millions of children and adolescents are involved in organized sports (Kelley

Carchia 2013). The Physical Activity Council’s latest report indicates that there are 290 million Americans aged 6 and older, and 80 million of them are classified as “inactive”; that leaves 210 million people who are taking part in a wide range of activities (Physical Activity Council 2014). Moreover, 98.3 million individuals aged 6 and older are active to a healthy level—a 3.9 million increase from 2012. Generation Z (aged 6–14) prefers team and outdoor sports, with more than half participating in these types of activities (Physical Activity Council 2014).

In its 2013 outdoor participation report, the Outdoor Foundation (2013) stated that approximately 141.9 million Americans aged 6 and older participated in some form of outdoor recreation in 2012. Of particular interest to trainers is that the outdoor participation rate among adolescent boys aged 13–17 rose by 3 percentage points (66% to 69%) from 2010 to 2012. 

Children are also becoming a highly targeted market for fitness facilities and health clubs (Fusion 2015). Health club memberships are increasing among Americans over 50, children and teenagers (Franchise Help 2015). For the 6–11 age group, gym membership increased dramatically from 2002 to 2009 (Bee 2009). These numbers indicate that the market is ripe for fitness professionals to up their game and reach out to young people as potential clients. 


There’s a demand for personal trainers who specialize in helping young athletes of all types to improve their fitness and performance. In many cases, parents are willing to pay substantial fees. While soccer, football, baseball, gymnastics and many other traditional sports are still viable choices, there is also a growing opportunity with “nontraditional” sports. A prime example: Participation in adventure racing grew by 211% in 2012 (Outdoor Foundation 2013). Look outside the box when it comes to youth sports training. Personal trainers and strength and conditioning coaches can tackle many “unordinary” sports opportunities, including (but not limited to) options like these: 

  • snowboarding
  • BMX bike riding
  • skiing
  • mountain biking
  • aerial and mogul skiing
  • surfing
  • cross-country skiing

Consider the attendance at the 2015 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado, as an example of the popularity of nontraditional sports. There were 16,000 spectators watching the men’s snowboard SuperPipe final competition (Hendricks 2015). In 2009 the top 10 action sports athletes (three skateboarders, three snowboarders, an extreme motorcyclist, two surfers and a BMX cyclist) each made between $1 and $12 million a year. With salaries like these, it makes sense that many young athletes would aspire to be competitive in these activities (Voskinarian 2009). 

In addition, there are many sports clubs and teams (both traditional and nontraditional) that need strength and conditioning coaches. Since youth teams usually practice in the evening, this might be a worthy moonlighting job. Spring ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada are one example. Parents are organizing spring leagues in addition to regular winter leagues. The motivation for the parents, and some players, is simply to allow for more play and greater improvement. Many of these teams have budgeted money for a trainer.


An understanding of pediatric exercise science is essential before taking on kids and adolescents as clients, regardless of the sport. Personal trainers need to understand the following: 

  • kids’ psychosocial uniqueness
  • correct exercise methodology
  • exercise error detection
  • athletic mechanics
  • the sport in question
  • how to make training fun

Fitness professionals must also know how to train kids and adolescents for their appropriate developmental level (Muth 2006; Lloyd et al. 2013). Avery Faigenbaum, EdD, a pediatric exercise scientist and professor from The College of New Jersey, says, “The trainer is the most important part of any youth training program [and is] a great teacher who must spark an interest in different types of physical activity and get kids excited about training. He or she must teach the proper biomechanics of every strength training exercise, and base progression on resistance training skill competency, not the amount of weight lifted” (Faigenbaum 2015). 

Lloyd et al. (2013) indicate that a youth resistance training program must be appropriate for the athlete’s “training age,” biomechanical competency and maturity. Faigenbaum adds: “In order for youth athletes to be successful, they must be able to accept and follow instructions. This is also when they can begin specific resistance training” (Faigenbaum 2015).

To illustrate the significance of specialized training for youth, specifically resistance training, Faigenbaum and Myer (2010) reviewed literature that focused on the epidemiology of injuries related to the safety and effectiveness of youth resistance training. Several case studies and questionnaires about resistance exercise and competitive weightlifting and powerlifting showed that injuries do occur in young lifters. Most are accidents, but some may be caused by lack of qualified instruction, which bolsters the case for educated fitness professionals to step in and train tomorrow’s athletes correctly.


One of the most important aspects of program design is understanding the goals of each child—as well as those of the parents. Let’s narrow the focus to nontraditional sports training. The following points review how to address general program design as it relates to kids who are interested in pursuing sport skill development, coordination and other goals for nontraditional sports such as BMX biking, mogul skiing and surfing. 


Before young athletes start resistance training, they must have basic movement skills and proper static and dynamic postural mechanics. These abilities will need to be developed, especially for activities such as surfing and skiing. Proprioceptor developmental movements and postures build a foundation for future training. 

For instance, young and very young athletes who are interested in surfing need to learn and feel the proper technique for “foundation” exercises such as squats, push-ups and planks before moving on to more dynamic compound movements. It’s therefore important to help these clients develop static stability with balance positions on one foot and two, with arms still and moving. The next step involves developing dynamic balance with combinations of jumping, hopping, bounding and other locomotor movements (including transitioning from prone to a staggered stance squat). 

Because success in most sports is based on the ability to move in multiple directions in a smooth and coordinated manner, young athletes must feel and learn various locomotion movements:

  • running, jumping, hopping, galloping, skipping, side-stepping, carioca, leaping
  • vertical jumping and landing
  • horizontal jumping and landing
  • hopping with one foot and two feet
  • side-to-side hopping
  • body rolling

In addition, young athletes need to learn acceleration/deceleration, speed, reactivity, agility and general body awareness. And for snowboarders, for example, it’s also important to learn how to balance on unstable surfaces (and how to fall correctly). 

Anaerobic Versus Aerobic Training

Many kids and adolescents dislike continuous endurance exercise and find it boring. Conversely, interval training is very well tolerated and much more fun (Baquet et al. 2010). An added bonus of interval training is that most sports are either anaerobic in nature or have a “fast/slow” component. When training a young athlete, don’t rely on the standard interval training found in adult fitness classes. Instead, focus on tag, running, skipping, hopping, galloping, side-stepping, carioca and leaping relay races. An example that’s appropriate for most sports is a fitness relay where the athletes sprint 20 yards, perform an exercise for 10–30 seconds, and sprint back. Then they rest and repeat the sequence. You can tailor drills to suit the sport. For instance, if you are training a child who is interested in skateboarding you might emphasize off-center deceleration.


Once the foundation is properly set for the sport in question, it’s appropriate to add load (if relevant to the program design and progression). Resistance training does not necessarily mean “weight training.” Start with basic body weight training and give very specific instructions. Next progress to medicine balls, and then weights. For example, if you’re training a 12-year-old boy who is a BMX enthusiast and wants to improve his reaction and control, focus on a total-body-weight strength program first and then progress to a lower-body and core-focused regimen with dumbbells or medicine balls. With this strong foundation, you can then move on to drills that are more specific to his sports of choice, pulling from his newfound strength and body awareness. An advantage of body weight training is the visual reinforcement and quick feedback athletes receive when they see and feel they can do more repetitions as the weeks go by. 

Sets and reps. Lloyd et al. (2013) suggest that young athletes with no weight training experience do 1–2 sets with low to moderate resistance and 3–6 repetitions of ≤60% predicted 1-repetition maximum. When children are first exposed to exercises like squatting, multiple repetitions may be counterproductive for motor control development. It’s therefore recommended that children perform 1–3 repetitions and receive immediate feedback to ensure correct movement. Once they have perfected the exercise technique, they can progress to doing 2–4 sets of 6–12 repetitions at approximately ≤80% of predicted 1-RM. This progression prepares athletes, while giving them sufficient stimulus to improve strength and power. 

As training age and athletic ability improve, athletes may try lower repetition ranges (3–6) and more resistance (>85% of predicted 1-RM), assuming technique remains the same. “Young athletes have to earn the right to lift more with resistance training skill competency,” says Faigenbaum (Faigenbaum 2015).

To maintain a young athlete’s interest in the program, and to vary the stimulus, alter sets and repetitions based on the exercise. For example, an experienced adolescent athlete can do 3 sets of 3 repetitions of a power exercise (e.g., clean and jerk, or snatch); then perform 3 sets of 3–5 repetitions of a compound exercise (e.g., squat); and finish with 2 sets of 6–8 repetitions of a unilateral exercise (e.g., dumbbell lunge). 

Rest between sets. Lloyd et al. (2013) indicate that young athletes recover quickly from resistance training, so rest periods of about 1 minute are good for most young clients. However, lengthen rest periods to 2–3 minutes as intensity increases or if exercises require high levels of skill, force or power production (compound lifts or plyometric exercises). 

Training frequency. Regarding frequency, Lloyd et al. (2013) suggest two to three sessions per week on nonconsecutive days. It’s essential that growing and developing athletes be given enough time for rest and recovery. Training frequency may increase as kids move through adolescence and approach adulthood, especially if they play a competitive sport. Depending on the demands of the sport, it may be appropriate during the playing season to complete anywhere from one to three resistance training sessions per week to develop and/or maintain strength and power. 


Once you’ve set the proper strength and conditioning foundation for a young client, the stage is set for specialized sport training. However, while you may be the best baseball sports and conditioning trainer in your area, that doesn’t necessarily mean you understand the nuances of skateboarding. If you wish to expand your repertoire to include nontraditional sports, the following guidelines provide a good starting point:

Do your research. If you’re interested in offering programs for young surfers, make sure you fully understand the sport itself, its culture and the many elements related to training a young person to excel safely. 

Obtain the requisite education. Staying current with your continuing education is crucial when you decide to provide a new service to a fresh client base. Seek out educational workshops and learn everything you can about the most recent research on your sport of choice.

Study the equipment. You may understand how the body works, but do you know the difference between a mountain bike and a BMX bike? Take the time to handle specialized equipment and familiarize yourself with the history of the product, how it is engineered and how it is meant to interact with the human body. 

Learn the lingo. Each sport has its own lexicon. Study it, and know how to use it correctly in context.

Know the key players. For example, in the same way you’d study the masterful moves of ice hockey’s Sidney Crosby or soccer’s Lionel Messi for pro tips, seek out footage of snowboarding’s Shaun White at his finest.


While it may be tempting to get on the childhood obesity doomsday bandwagon, it’s more crucial than ever to streamline efforts to promote exercise. Health professionals suggest young people are growing up in a “toxic” environment with too much access to junk food and little or no physical education in school. Parents do not understand the importance of exercise for their kids, and kids spend too much time in front of screens of all types. These are legitimate arguments that underscore the need for kids to get involved in sports—particularly nontraditional ones with cachet—and for fitness professionals to recognize this unique market. n

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Almquist, P., et al. 2015. University of Minnesota Extension. Keys to quality youth development. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

Baquet, G., et al. 2010. Continuous vs. interval aerobic training in 8- to 11-year-old children. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24 (5), 1381-88.

Bee, P. 2009. Gyms for juniors. The National. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

Campos, P. 2004. The Obesity Myth. New York: Gotham.

Ekelund, U., et al. 2015. Physical activity and all-cause mortality across levels of overall and abdominal adiposity in European men and women: The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition Study (EPIC). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.114.100065.

Faigenbaum, A. 2015. Interview with the author.

Faigenbaum, A., & and Myer, G. 2010. Resistance training among young athletes: Safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44, 56-63.

Franchise Help. 2015. Fitness industry analysis 2015--cost & trends. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

Fusion, J. 2015. What is the target market for fitness gyms? Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

Hendricks, H. 2015. Danny Davis X Games 2015 winning pipe run. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

Kelley, B., & Carchia, C. 2013. “Hey, data data--swing!” The hidden demographics of youth sports. ESPN The Magazine. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

Lloyd, R.S., et al. 2013. Position statement on youth resistance training: The 2014 International Consensus. British Journal of Sports Medicine. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092952.

Muth, N.D. 2006. Training kids & adolescents. IDEA Fitness Journal, 3 (5), 46-53.

Outdoor Foundation. 2013. Outdoor Participation Report. Accessed Feb. 21, 2015.

Physical Activity Council. 2014. 2014 Participation Report. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

Sabo, D., & Veliz, P. 2008. Go Out and Play: Youth Sports in America. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation.

Voskinarian, L. 2009. Powderroom. Just how much does Shaun White get paid? Accessed Jan. 28, 2015.

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About the Author

Mike Bracko, EdD

Mike Bracko, EdD IDEA Author/Presenter

My passion is working with hockey players to improve their skating performance. I do this with on-ice and off-ice training. I work with male and female players 8 yrs old to pro players. Another passion of mine is presenting at fitness shows. In particular IDEA shows - IDEA World and IDEA PT East & West. IDEA is a remarkable organization lead by two remarkable people - Peter and Kathie Davis. I love playing ice hockey, x-c-skiing, mt biking, and being in the mountains. Also love all water sports especially surfing and body boarding. Also one of my favorite things to do is taking my dog, Bailey (Black Lab) for trail runs, swimming, and just walking.