If you surveyed youth athletes, asking what their least favorite part of practice was, most of them would probably say the warmup. Warmups take a lot of unexciting effort. Young athletes usually don’t have stiff muscles, achy joints, or any kind of injury history. Most youth athletes can jump out of their mom’s minivan and run straight into a game without any problem. Oh, to be young again.
Given that, most young athletes don’t see or feel the point of warmups. Even at young ages, though, we know that a proper warmup helps reduce the likelihood of injury, improves performance, and is beneficial to their long-term cardiovascular health.
With that, warmups are a must. But the kids kind of hate it. So how do we make them fun yet beneficial? I’ll highlight two very different methods to safely and effectively warm up the athletes in a fun(ner) way.
It’s Not a Warmup. It’s Strength and Conditioning
Youth athletes have a hard time buying into the idea of a warmup. What they may warm up to (pun intended) is the concept of strength and conditioning. Kids know the value of exercise. Most of them have aspirations to be bigger, faster, and stronger to succeed in their sport. So change the name of it. Don’t call it a warmup. Call it strength and conditioning. Make sure they know that these exercises WILL make them better athletes. It will make them stronger, faster, develop bigger muscles, and help beat the other team’s butts (make it fun!).
The secret is with you, the coach. It’s a warmup, but it doubles as strength training. And you really aren’t lying. A dynamic warmup entails all the strength training a child needs. And yes, children of all ages benefit greatly from proper strength training. The best way to strength train a team of athletes is through a dynamic warmup. Set up two cones roughly five or so yards apart from each other. Form however many lines of athletes you feel are necessary and have them perform these exercises from one cone to the other.
Some dynamic exercise options for young athletes:
- jog a few laps from cone to cone
- jog backward cone to cone
- jumping jacks
- reverse lunges
- forward lunges
- diagonal lunges
- side lunges
- single-leg RDLs
- high knees
- butt kicks
- forward high kicks
- side shuffles
- bear crawl
- side bear crawl
- crab walk
There are endless other exercises and variations of them. The most important thing is to not exhaust them and make it fun. It’s also a good idea to make it sport-specific. Use their equipment when you can, such as dribbling a ball.
Here is one of the many good examples of dynamic warmups that can be found on the internet. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2KCmzbZtak
The prepubescent ages are not appropriate for high-level strength and conditioning, especially before a practice or a game. However, just 5-10 minutes of a dynamic warmup will provide an excellent boost of improved motor control and strength and conditioning over the long run that will greatly benefit the athletes.
Small Side Games
The traditional dynamic warmup should be the primary method of warmup. However, a great coach knows when to properly stimulate their athletes. No matter how “cool” the strength and conditioning at the start of practice is, it can often get pretty stale for the kids. There are also instances where the kids get pretty nervous before a big game. That’s when it’s time to shake things up with side games.
Every sport is different, but they all have condensed forms of competition that can be played. We often played pepper, pickle, or some bunting games in baseball. Basketball has many options with knock-out, dribbling competitions, or even different races. One-on-one or two-on-two soccer is a great idea too
The point is that small side games can create competition without exhausting the athletes. This gets camaraderie and adrenaline going, which can be very helpful in an upcoming competition. Best of all, it’s proven to reduce pre-game anxieties and boost performance.
Empower the Athletes
The warmup is a great time to empower the athletes. Once the athletes have the normal routines down as the season progresses, the coach should pick an athlete to lead the warmups at each practice. This puts the power in their hands and is usually fun. Having each kid lead the team in a warmup will also develop their leadership and speaking skills. Sports teach much more than how to be better at a sport. It empowers them to be successful in life. Letting the kids take ownership of being the coach once in a while develops skills they’ll carry into adulthood.
Warmups are very necessary for athletes of all ages. However, they don’t need to be boring. Describe the benefits and let the athletes know why they should do it. Make them buy into the system. Once they are comfortable with the standard approach, let them take over and lead the team in a warm-up. Throw in side games every now and then. I guarantee you’ll have a great practice after adding a side game the first time. Use these tips to research new and relevant dynamic warmup ideas for your team and given sport.