Want to give your child an edge over the competition? How about helping your child reach his or her full athletic potential? As a parent of four children, I know what it’s like to truly love my kids and earnestly desire the very best for them. As a university strength and conditioning coach, I know the mistakes parents make with their children’s athletic preparation because I see and have to deal with them every year with our incoming athletes. If you want your children to have the best chance for athletic success, provide them with a proper strength training program.
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5 Things You Need to Know About Your Kid’s Strength Training Progam
1. That it starts with movement quality
Today’s athletic programs spend all their time teaching athletes the specific skills of their sport and ignoring fundamental movement skills. The result is a generation of non-athletic sport specialists.
Ignoring movement can have devastating consequences. For example, an athlete who is never taught how to land or stop without his or her knee collapsing in at a high risk of a season-ending ACL tear.
As a result, a strength training program for kids should include movement skill coaching. When I work with new athletes, I start their training sessions with movement skill practice. Here are some essential movements every athlete needs to learn:
To build movement quality, young children should have lots of time for free play. A few cuts and scrapes are a small price to pay for learning proper movement mechanics, which could save your child from a career-ending injury in the future. Many important movement lessons can occur naturally if given the opportunity. For example, as a kid I loved to go to the playground and jump off high things. It didn’t take me long to figure out how to land properly.
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Entry-level gymnastic classes are another fantastic and fun way for your kids to improve general athleticism and body awareness.
If you hire a trainer or sign your child up for a strength training program, make sure they do some type of Functional Movement Screen, address any movement dysfunctions and teach the movement skills listed above.
2. Make long-term investments in your child’s athletic future
Too often, parents go for quick fixes. They sign their kids up for some special jump program, during which the kids do a crazy-high volume of jumps. All that jump practice provides a small, quick spike in a kid’s vertical jump, but it is short-lived. These programs often leave kids beat up and stuck at a level far below where they need to be.
Besides teaching your kids how to safely and effectively move, the next best thing you can do for their physical development is to provide them with opportunities to learn how to safely and properly execute important strength training exercises. A kid’s strength training program should include exercises such as appropriate Olympic weightlifting, squatting, lunging/split-squatting, deadlifting variations, loaded carries (e.g., Farmer’s Walks) and upper-body pushing and pulling.
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These exercises are amazing for building athletic strength and power. However, they have two significant disadvantages: They are high-risk if done incorrectly, and they require an investment of time and coaching to learn how to do them correctly. As a result, you want your child to start with no weight (e.g., using a piece of PVC pipe or a wooden dowel) and then move on to light barbells. Their lifts should be carefully coached. This learning investment can start as soon as your child is psychologically mature enough to handle lifting. Their movement skills will not instantly transfer into athletic performance; however, once your child is past puberty, loads can be gradually progressed so your child can get stronger.
Basic strength training is not sexy—especially compared to the cool-looking training toys that over-promise and under-deliver. Getting stronger and more explosive in the weight room and practicing their sport are the components of the secret mix for athletic dominance.
Quick note: hard work is vital to training success. However, during the initial learning phase, don’t expect your kid to get smoked. Mixing fatigue with motor skill development can cause your child to learn faulty movement mechanics, which will set him or her up for injury. Having your child collapse on the ground in a puddle of sweat and vomit is not the goal. Getting better in the long run is the goal.
Before you sign your child up for a trainer or a youth strength training program, do your homework. Ask for testimonials and talk with the trainer about his or her training philosophy.
3. Never underestimate your role in your kid’s strength training success
As a parent, you play a huge role in your son’s or daughter’s strength and conditioning program. Even the best strength program will fail without your support. Signing up for, paying for and driving your kids to training sessions is the easy part. Helping them with what they do the other 23 hours of the day is the hard part. However, that is where the magic really happens.
If you are trying to turn your child’s body into a high-performance machine, you need to give it high octane fuel. Just as no race car driver would put cheap gas in his race car, your kids need to eat lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats and unrefined carbohydrates. Too many parents race their kids around from one practice to the next while shoveling drive-thru fast food into them along the way. If you are too busy for proper nutrition, then you are too busy.
If you are really serious about your child’s success, block out time during your week to shop for healthy food, chop veggies and prepare meals in advance for those busy days. Also, don’t do this for your kids—do it with them. Help them to understand the importance of proper nutrition. Kitchen skills, planning and healthy eating habits will serve them well for life.
Along with proper nutrition, rest is extremely important. Your child must have rest and recovery to engage in athletics—on top the already high demands of growing. Make sure your kid gets a little time each day to rest. Also, as often as possible, let your child have one day a week to just relax.
Lots of quality sleep is a secret weapon for Olympic athletes. One of the best things you can do for your child’s athletic success is to help him or her get regular, high-quality sleep. Set early bedtimes, and keep their room dark, quiet and free from electronics. Help your kid establish a bedtime wind-down ritual (e.g., reading a book, foam rolling, hot bath, deep breathing) so they can fall asleep quickly and sleep deeply.
4. Protect your child from early specialization
You need to be the guardian of your child’s schedule. We all want the best for our kids, and it is easy to over-commit. In a desire to help their kids, many parents sign them up for extra camps, lessons and club teams. Before long, they are busier than pro athletes and have no off-season. Intense specialization results in a quick spike in athletic skill development, but it can have devastating results. Specialization comes at a price in the form of dysfunction and overuse injuries.
I have seen too many athletes who have specialized early. They come into their university program beaten up and broken down. Instead of peaking in college, their best sporting years are already behind them. Their college careers are often filled with frustrating injuries, and some are cut short.
To prevent this, make sure your child plays a variety of sports. Even if he or she has a real talent and passion for one particular sport, make sure that sport is not played year round. Enforce a break to play other sports. They don’t have to be organized, highly competitive sports. A great way to take a break from a competitive sport is to do another sport at a recreational level. Casual pick-up games at the local park and free play are fantastic for this. By playing a variety of sports and working on the movement stuff discussed above, your child will develop into a well-rounded athlete.
Breaks from one sport are also important psychologically. In addition to physical burnout, mental burnout is another price you pay for early, excessive specialization.
This does not mean that children should never do extra work, take lessons or go to camps to help them in their favorite sport. However, these should be chosen carefully and added sparingly. Be picky and choose only the best ones.
A proper strength training program for kids can also help with the problem of dysfunction created by sports. A strength program should not only address the needs of a particular sport, but also what the sport does not take care of. For example, if your kid’s sport uses the quads a lot, his or her training program should emphasize the hamstrings. If a sport involves a lot of partial range of motion (e.g., soccer), the training program should include mobility work.
5. Model a healthy athletic lifestyle for your kids
Always remember that your kids don’t just inherit your genes, they also inherit your lifestyle. It’s important for you to teach your kids about proper exercise, nutrition, rest, sleep and healthy lifestyle habits. However, your modeling these things in your own life will have a far greater impact than anything you say. Your healthy lifestyle will serve them well not only during their athletic career, but long after they retire from competitive sports.