Sports were canceled, and the world has flipped upside down. Zoom trainings on a glowing screen have been replaced practices on a lush grass field. Skills training phone apps have replaced creative, technical work within a youth team. Playing one versus ones against family in the front yard has replaced battles against teammates in the penalty box. Team virtual HIIT circuits replaced applicable, small-sided conditioning. Bodyweight Instagram workouts have replaced progressive, smart strength training (well, at least I hope that is not the case for many). While these are all okay substitutes, they are far from being able to the full match’s physiological and cognitive demands.
Some kids dialed into their training during the COVID-19 lockdown, focusing on movement quality, coordination, balance, strength, and speed, while others plopped on the couch, catching up on Netflix and social media scrolling. Rest and recovery were needed for all of these kids, mainly because they plunged into year-round sports with no real off-season.
If they were not working on moving, playing, and being kids, that first game back when they go against an opponent or have to make a decision in a split second or have to withstand a rough tackle, they will suffer.
A Healthy Return to Play
Let us dive in on how to make the transition back to play a smooth and enjoyable one:
1. Proper Warm-Up
Easing kids back into playing a full practice and game starts with the warm-up. What I love most about warm-ups is that if they are done correctly, they expose each athlete’s movement quality and fitness level.
For example, take skipping, a movement that must be a requirement in every young athlete’s warm-up. This simple exercise lets coaches know if they have posture, rhythm, and coordination – all things needed to the dynamic movements in the game, such as sprinting and changing direction.
The warm-up must be an extensive 10-12 minutes that elevates the heart rate (aerobic), take kids through a full range of motion dynamic stretching, hones in on athletic abilities – coordination, balance, and excites the nervous system with short decelerations then re-accelerations).
When observing players during this time, coaches will be able to discern who is huffing and puffing, get out of shape, and move awkwardly, or not accelerating with explosiveness.
Let the warm-up be the first assessment when everyone comes back to practice, not the timed two-mile.
2. Fun Games
There has been an immense amount of duress going on in the world, so the last thing kids want to do is an intensely structured drill where they’re being barked at for an hour.
Keep it light. Keep it fun.
Kids were exposed to online school and virtual training for the past few months on a screen, in addition to the fear of the news, their nervous systems are still on overdrive.
Fun games calm the nervous system and inspire kids to be creative and think spontaneously when they’ve been told what to do the entire lockdown.
Less orders, more free play.
Too, fun games can encompass a plethora of fundamental movement skills like balance, coordination, stability, and mobility, such as this Break Dancing Game:
3. Ditch the immediate conditioning
I understand everyone’s urge to run kids into the ground their first practice back, out of fear they’ve gotten out of shape. Instead of programming practice out of fear, why not program out of care?
Care means progressing the child athlete slowly from the general (aerobic) to specific (alactic and anaerobic energy system).
The good news is that kids who play year-round sports have a strong aerobic base already, so it is unlikely it drastically wanes in a few month’s time.
Adding on, we have to continue to keep the nervous system in mind. Putting kids into an intensive conditioning drill only spikes the central nervous system response, so is there a way to make conditioning lighter for a few weeks? Is there a way we can go at a moderate intensity with longer rest time while sharpening sprinting mechanics?
When games and tournaments gradually approach, we can progress to more specific conditioning in a small-sided, heavy change of direction and contact setting.
4. Keep strength and power training in the mix
Strength training is easy to sprinkle in at team practices, and all coaches need is ten minutes to hit every muscle group.
To better prepare kids for the eccentric muscle actions of change of direction, cutting, and twisting, we have to ensure their muscles can handle the load in games.
Are they working on gluteal strength and pelvic stability to better stabilize their knees and lower extremity?
Are they working on quadriceps strength to take the stress off of the patellar tendon?
Are they working on better core stability and upper body strength to control their center of mass and re-position for a more efficient change of direction?
Are they working on horizontal and vertical power for better acceleration and speed?
It is worth mentioning that power is one of the first things lost from time off. Ensure players that are getting in workouts to improve the rate of force development and recruit fast-twitch muslce fibers, whether through speed work, or short duration, rapid plyometrics.
5. Recover hard.
Kids are going to be extra anxious and excited when they play their first game again, and this has its way of elevating the nervous system response even more.
I urge everyone to chill out and give kids credit for having a strong foundation of fitness already. Truthfully, this lockdown was a blessing for them as far as rest, and all we needed to do during this time was to approach the basics with care and common sense.
Here is a sample recovery workout that is relaxing, but it allows kids to move lightly, get the waste out of their muscles, and work on general movement:
It is exciting to return to play after several weeks off. I see kids having a renewed energy for their sport, eager to see their teammates, coaches, and play games when the whistle blows again.
It is critical to take them through the gradual steps before hitting the pitch with intensity – from proper warm-up to exuberant drills, to gradual conditioning, to progressive strength and plyometric training, to relaxing recovery.