As a physical therapist, coach and parent of teenagers I understand the challenge of getting kids to embrace the importance of training and conditioning. Over the years I have figured out that there are a few ways to encourage them to participate and some keys concepts to keep in mind when designing a program. These ideas can make conditioning and training more enjoyable and at the same time develop physical attributes that will enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury.
Most kids want to know why! As a parent how many times have you heard “This is dumb!” or as a coach you have seen the eye rolls and heard the sighs? I try to help kids understand that training and conditioning are ways to prepare their bodies to be able to meet the rigors of their sport. Proper preparation will enhance their performance and allow them to compete at their highest possible level as well as reducing injury risk. I also try not to use conditioning as punishment. This sets a negative tone and instead I present conditioning as an opportunity to improve and get better at their sport.
Conditioning during the season should be sport specific. Football and volleyball for example are short bursts of high intensity activity followed by short rest periods between plays. Our conditioning program should mimic this with working on agility and explosive power. Why would you do endurance training, such as running a mile, for sports that require entirely different sets of demands? Off season conditioning should incorporate more cross training activities to prevent overuse injuries. I also encourage kids not to specialize too early and to compete in multiple sports. This promotes overall athletic development and reduces burnout. It also exposes them to more of the benefits of sports that will last them a lifetime such as developing relationships with teammates and learning life skills from a variety of coaches and mentors.
I have found that to keep your conditioning from getting stagnant within the season it is helpful to vary your conditioning drills and try to turn them into a competition. Kids love to compete, and they will work harder and have more fun if your conditioning drills are competitive. Often, I will divide the group into several smaller teams for conditioning. The kids have more fun and cheer each other on promoting camaraderie and team chemistry.
It is imperative that you incorporate core, hip, and thigh strengthening activities into any youth sports conditioning program. The athletic stance or ready position for almost every sport is very similar with feet about shoulder width apart, knees bent, and head up. This position is utilized across many youth sports including football, basketball, softball/baseball, lacrosse, wrestling, and soccer. In order for kids to be able to get into and maintain this position they must have adequate core, hip, and thigh strength. It has been my experience that many kids lack these important components and as a result end up bending forward at the waist while keeping their legs relatively straight. In some sports this puts them in a dangerous position and in all sports this puts them in a position that reduces their speed and agility, consequently compromising performance.
Another benefit of conditioning during practice is that it teaches kids to be able to concentrate and perform while they are tired. Shooting a free throw or serving a volleyball is a whole different ball game when you are fatigued. Practicing these athletic skills when you are tired at practice will carry over to better performance during crunch time of the big game.
Conditioning in youth sports is an important part of the game and needs to be incorporated during practice and in the off season. A properly designed conditioning program will improve performance and reduce injury risk. While all kids may not love it, hopefully they will embrace it and make it a priority as it can build a foundation to benefit them through their lifetime.
Seth Halverson, DPT, OCS