Youth Athletics: Put Excitement Back Into Play
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.
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.
GOOD NEWS ABOUT PARTICIPATION
In spite of the negative news regarding the health of America’s youth,
millions of children and adolescents are involved in organized sports
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.
A NEW APPROACH TO SPECIALIZED TRAINING
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:
- BMX bike riding
- mountain biking
- aerial and mogul skiing
- 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.
SPECIALIZED TRAINING FOR KIDS AND ADOLESCENTS
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”
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
BASIC MOVEMENT SKILL DEVELOPMENT
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,
- 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
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.
GAME-INSPIRED PROGRAMMING IDEAS
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
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
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
KEEP IT UPBEAT
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
Almquist, P., et al. 2015. University of Minnesota Extension. Keys to quality youth development. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015. www.extension.umn.edu/youth/research/keys-to-quality-youth-development/#toc01.
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. www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/well-being/gyms-for-juniors.
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. www.franchisehelp.com/industry-reports/fitness-industry-report.
Fusion, J. 2015. What is the target market for fitness gyms? Accessed Jan. 28, 2015. http://smallbusiness.chron.com/target-market-fitness-gyms-3354.html.
Hendricks, H. 2015. Danny Davis X Games 2015 winning pipe run. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015. http://snowboarding.transworld.net/videos/danny-davis-x-games-2015-winning-pipe-run/#rPAbihbokQDZ9yzd.97.
Kelley, B., & Carchia, C. 2013. “Hey, data data–swing!” The hidden demographics of youth sports. ESPN The Magazine. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015. http://espn.go.com/espn/story/_id/9469252/hidden-demographics-youth-sports-espn-magazine.
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. www.outdoorfoundation.org/pdf/ResearchParticipation2013.pdf.
Physical Activity Council. 2014. 2014 Participation Report. Accessed Jan. 28, 2015. www.physicalactivitycouncil.com/PDFs/current.pdf.
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.