Youth sports are bigger now than they’ve ever been.
With that follows more competition to make varsity and travel teams and slimmer odds of earning a college scholarship. Those who rise above the rest have talent, drive and a willingness to go the extra mile in their pursuit of success.
As a youth sports performance coach, I’ve noticed several common mistakes holding back many youth athletes. Can you make the team despite committing one of these mistakes? Maybe. But if you’re truly interested in making your sport more than an after-school hobby and are committed to achieving success, you’ll gain an edge simply by avoiding these mistakes and implementing smarter strategies. With that in mind, here are three simple strategies that can help a youth athlete separate themselves from the competition.
1. Understand Overtraining
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, overtraining is, “a sharp increase in training volume, intensity or frequency, up to near max capacity for the individual, that can be endured for only a short time (i.e., < 1 month).” If you Google overtraining, you get a more simplified definition: training too hard for too long.
To be clear, overtraining is not being tired after practice and it is not defined only by muscle soreness. Overtraining not only affects the athlete’s performance, but also their mood and ability to recover, which we will discuss later.
As a sports performance coach, I often have parents sign their child up with the goal of improving athletic ability without accounting for their other activities. Scheduling quickly becomes an issue when they’ve already had an offseason lift for football, batting practice for baseball, and conditioning for basketball all in the same day. By the time the athlete makes it to our session, they’re completely drained and gaining nothing from our time together.
All of these activities have their place and this is not to say young athletes should have to put all of their focus on only one sport. Variety is positive, but so is ensuring that the athlete is making gains from their activities and not getting burnt out.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly 30 million adolescences participate in youth sports each year. Of those athletes injured between middle school and high school ages, nearly half are caused by overuse injuries. In addition, since 2000, there has been a five-fold increase in elbow and shoulder injuries among baseball and softball players, largely due to overuse.
So, how do we begin solving this issue?
Put communication first! Communication between the athlete/parent, athlete/coach, and among various coaches for multi-sport athletes should be of the utmost importance. The more everyone communicates, the better coaches can program accommodating workouts, and the better the athlete can perform without risking injury and lack of motivation. Athletes may feel they’re in a position where they can never let on to a coach that they’re feeling worn down or exhausted, which is the exact opposite of what we want. For youth athletes to avoid burn out and overuse injuries, transparency is key.
Know your athlete. Temporarily stop all activity if they are showing signs of severe soreness, lack of focus or unusual mood swings. Take advantage of offseason time, don’t forget to have fun and finally, spend extra time on these two subsequent points.
2. Actually Do Some Recovery Work
When I use the term recovery, I am referring to intentionally taking action to help your body repair itself after intense activity. Recovery is often overlooked by young athletes simply because they “bounce back” quicker than those older than them.
Young athletes often warm up less or not at all, rarely cool down afterward unless directed by a coach, and that about covers everything they think about recovery. Let’s look at a few additional methods, including stretching, that can be added to an athlete’s daily routine in order to help them recover properly and stay in the game longer.
Stretching is usually the first thing that comes to mind when talking about recovery. To achieve the most benefit from stretching, save it for after practice or the game. Dynamic or active stretching is best used for a warm-up, with static stretching saved for a cool down post activity.
Another method for recovery can be found in both ice baths and hot baths. While warm water increases blood circulation to the muscles and joints, cold water does just the opposite. Use ice baths to reduce inflammation right after intense activity. This will help dull the pain of muscle soreness. Hot baths can be used pre-activity, which much like dynamic warm-ups, to help warm the muscles and increase flexibility. They can also be used in general to relax tight muscles. Try it in conjunction with 1-2 cups of Epsom salts for an added benefit.
Added carbohydrates and hydration for on-the-go athletes, especially around the time of activity, can be of extra benefit. Carbohydrates found in fruit or sports drinks can be used to refill depleted glycogen stores, allowing the athlete to avoid fatigue and keep energy levels up for an extended period of time. Getting plenty of water, not just during activity, but throughout the day, can prevent dehydration and muscle cramps. A good baseline is an ounce of water per pound of body weight (100 pounds = 100 ounces of water) each day. This is a general recommendation and will vary with each athlete.
Finally, athletes need plenty of sleep to optimize recovery and increase energy. Adequate sleep is often lacking in young athletes as they stay up late to study, play video games, etc. Most muscle recovery occurs when sleeping, not to mention performance rapidly decreases when athletes are tired. Cognitive function is not at its peak, their mood worsens, and reflex speed slows. The best place to start is 8 hours of good quality sleep, but more may be beneficial the younger the athlete.
3. Upgrade Your Diet
Young athletes seem to get an “eat whatever you want” pass because they are active with high metabolisms. Unfortunately, while poor nutrition may not have an effect on their body composition, it will have a major impact on the quality of performance.
I cannot count how many times I have had an athlete walk into the gym before training with an empty fast food bag and cup full of soda, then not understand why they feel sluggish. This point is not a debate on which foods are “good” and which are “bad,” but rather to make both parents and athletes aware better decisions are available. It is also not to say that young, non-professional athletes should have to track or worry about every bite they take. However, following a few simple tips will help to balance their diet and improve their performance.
Get a variety of fruits and vegetables. This is lacking in the diets of a majority of young athletes. Work fruit in around practices and games for quick energy-boosting carbohydrates. Add in 1-2 servings of vegetables at each meal and prioritize the green ones (e.g., broccoli, spinach). Fruits and vegetables are powerhouses when it comes to micronutrients. They are full of vitamins and minerals to keep athletes healthy. If adding vegetables is not an option due to a picky athlete, try at least adding a daily multivitamin.
Add plenty of protein, with the majority coming from lean meats such as chicken or fish. Other good sources of protein include red meats, dairy, protein powders, etc. Protein helps to rebuild muscle that athletes are constantly breaking down. Protein is vital to the recovery process so shoot for a serving at each meal, about 4 ounces or so. Shakes are best taken around the time of activity to quickly begin the rebuilding process, but they don’t necessarily have to be ingested the moment after stepping off the field or court. Athletes should eat at least .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day, and closer to 1 gram per pound of body weight if they’re actively looking to add muscle.
Avoid processed foods and added sugars as much as possible. I say as much as possible because avoiding them entirely is nearly impossible in our modern society, as convenient foods tend to be both highly processed and high in added sugar. The best way to avoid them is to prepare your own food. Pack snacks from home and try to buy fresh foods when available.
Remember to enjoy nutrition. No, stopping by the local fast food chain before practice probably isn’t the best pre-workout meal, but there is nothing wrong with sitting down to enjoy a good burger every now and then. Just prioritize nutritious options and the difference will be noticeable.
Young athletes often overlook these seemingly small details when training. Unfortunately, these mistakes can be detrimental to performance and ruin chances for advancement into more competitive leagues. Perfection isn’t necessary, or even possible. However, taking small steps to slow down, make the most of training, increase recovery and improve nutrition will make a world of difference. Overall, remember that the goal is to stay healthy in order to take full advantage of the athlete experience.
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