As youth academics and sports become more competitive, parents are looking for ways to separate their children from the crowd. As a result, supplementary youth training is becoming more popular, and children are starting younger and younger.
A generation ago, kids didn’t even begin structured weight training until high school. Now, I occasionally receive phone calls from parents inquiring about my services for their eight- and nine-year-olds. I have politely turned away children who, in my opinion, were too young, explaining to parents that I would rather have them explore and develop their athleticism and love of fitness though moving, running and playing as many sports as possible—and in a few years they can come back and talk with me.
From what I’ve observed, 12 or 13 years old is the appropriate age to start a proper strength and conditioning program. Young athletes’ attention spans are not great, and they too often end up doing things they shouldn’t be doing and getting hurt.
Younger athletes are also less in tune with their bodies than their older peers. The under-12’s have a harder time understanding how to move their bodies properly and how to make adjustments. Early teen athletes may not perform the movements correctly initially, but they usually have a better ability to understand a trainer’s cues and make adjustments.
Even when athletes are 12 or 13 years old, they should still meet a few other prerequisites before they start a strength and conditioning program.
1. The Kid Must Want to Train
What coaches or parents want can be a lot different from what a child wants. Young athletes may be indifferent in the beginning, when the idea is first proposed, most likely because they don’t know what to expect. They cannot give a definitive answer to the question whether they want to train. Coaching a disinterested athlete is fruitless at best.
I like to offer a trial session so the child can better understand what’s involved, and I can get to know the child a little better. Parents: if you let your kids decide whether they want to train, you will avoid a lot of heartache down the road.
2. Don’t Add More to a Full Plate
Just like with anything else, proper technical execution and repetitions produce better results. However, adding physical training as one more expectation in your child’s already full schedule is not a great idea. It can lead to poor recovery and potentially more injuries.
Find a down time, either between seasons or in the summer. Training during an off-season for a few weeks or months, even once a week, is a good way to help build an athlete’s foundation without overwhelming him or her.
3. Find a Program that Focuses on Success
Look for a positive environment. The weight room should not be a place where your child is beaten down mentally or physically. Yes, every kid should be challenged from time to time, but the most important things they can take away from the gym when they are young are a sense of accomplishment and a feeling of confidence.
The trainer should teach the proper foundations of movement, making the program appropriately progressive but not moving up too quickly with movement difficulty and weight. Most importantly, the trainer should always provide positive feedback.