As the release of my youth soccer fitness eBook approaches, I’m gathering all of the resources to deliver a quality resource on how to train kids and inspire them to be better people both on and off the field. Moreover, I’m thrilled I can motivate coaches to get kids creative and carefree through exercise. After all, kids should be kids. They should move. Have fun. And love sports.
Today’s guest post comes from a guy I look up to as a specialist in the youth training and mindset world. I met Rick Howard at the Long Term Athletic Development Summit back in May, and was impressed with his knowledge on working with kids, as well as sparking a movement of physical literacy. This stuff is important, so if you’re a coach, parent, or athlete, make sure you’re all ears:
I got thinking when I read Erica Suter’s blog on 5 things school didn’t teach you: If schools are letting us down, what else isn’t serving the needs of kids? These topics came to mind immediately: school itself (lots to talk about), youth sports, fitness centers, and physical activity. We can trace the issues to giving adults too much control but not enough interaction.
Let’s face it, the main reason youth sports is a mess is because it was designed following the adult model. Think of Little League Baseball- in 1938, Carl Stotz was presumably disappointed that his two nephews did not know how to play baseball. Did he say, “This is my chance to create a youth-centric game, complete with play, challenges, and kids’ rules (maybe we could run in either direction like mat ball, for example!)? Hell no! He tinkered with the dimensions of the field, the size of the ball, etc. until he felt he had it just right (it took him and his partners the first year to make it walk like a duck).
You’re probably thinking to yourself, but don’t we always say, “Kids aren’t miniature adults!”? Yes, we do, but when you look at how baseball was formed, that’s exactly what he did!
Other sports were formed the same way, so if we really want to make sports youth-centric we need to give them back to the kids. Who needs innings? Why can’t we combine sports into one game (we used to play kickball/basketball in PE class)? There are so many ways to make sports more fun, more engaging, and more active for kids. One program registers kids for hockey and lacrosse, nearly doubling the number of kids in the program (if we’re going to change the early sports specialization model, we need to create a solution to the cash cow that is youth sports). This program also cross trains officials, providing additional officials in each league, and offers kids fitness activities year-round.
What about uniforms? Uniforms are a limitation to the number of kids that can play on a team, which leads to local companies sponsoring community programs, but public schools, especially in urban areas, do not often have that luxury. One of the best ideas I’ve heard was in CO where kids just showed up to the field for games in their favorite costume! Teams were chosen based on whether they were a superhero, a Disney character, etc.
We created a similar mess with school. In our agrarian society through the turn of the 20th century, “necessity” dictated that kids helped on the farm, then had time for the classroom, then had to go back home to help with chores. Someone decided that there was not enough time to get all the work done, so why not give 8-year-olds homework? (I always ask my college students if they are going to bring their laundry to class—I know it sounds absurd, and that’s the point—why bring school work home if we don’t bring home work to school).
And research supports me—homework does not help with academic achievement. Neither does block scheduling or starting the school day at 7:52 AM (precise times do supposedly increase punctuality, though).
So if we want to out-Finland Finland, we need to really figure out how kids learn and design learning around that information. We might learn, though, that classrooms are not the best structure (some research suggests this), kids need to follow their own line of inquiry (Socrates and Sir Ken Robinson were right about that), and not all 10-year-olds should spend 7+ hours together at least 180 days per year. Just rearranging how kids eat lunch could drastically reduce bullying, encourage conversation, and reduce the need for lunch duty.
Muscle strength and motor skills are inexorably linked. Why is it then that schools combine muscle strength and endurance into muscle fitness, but only focus on muscle endurance?
Note from Erica: More PE teachers should be adept in teaching strength training to children, both for physical (resilience) as well as mental (confidence) reasons. It doesn’t just have to be the job of the strength coach. Or, PE teachers should be required to obtain a CSCS, and be able to teach accordingly. Learning pull-ups, for example, has had a profoundly positive impact on the girl athletes I coach:
So back to PE teachers…
Maybe they can’t explain the difference? Why do fitness centers exclude the very population that desperately needs quality instruction in fitness, especially muscle strength? The notion of increased insurance cost is BS—properly trained staff and well-coached kids are not only an asset to the fitness center but become lifelong customers (McDonald’s knows how to capture the youth market). We have seen how sports don’t necessarily improve fitness or athleticism.
Since helicopter/bulldozer/overprotective parents would never think of letting the kids play on their own, how will kids develop fitness?
Note from Erica: I couldn’t agree more with this. When will we make it a priority to teach kids a variety of movement and let them play, or at least, urge them to get outside and inspire that play? Here’s an article I wrote on How to Make Youth Training Fun. I would also check out the book The Athletic Skills Model.
We’re on a roll now. What else can we change to be youth-centric? How about our value system for physical activity? Let’s build kids’ lives around play! Kids drastically reduce their level of physical activity by age 6, the age they get drawn in to a school day that does not meet their needs. We pump our fists when research shows that play helps the brain as a justification for play, recess, and especially physical education. Yay, us. If we set school so that physical activity, exploration, and interaction ruled the day instead of scheduled periods of academics with intermittent (read almost nonexistent) bouts of activity, academic performance would flourish. (Holy Shiq! sounds a lot like the mythical desire for elite sports performance from 7-year-olds)
Let’s consult with the industry that many think is the bane of childhood physical activity- video games. Video games check with kids to see what will encourage them to keep playing, to get to the next level, and to get their friends involved (or at least be part of a group playing the same game). Interestingly, boys are more physically active at every age than girls and spend more screen time than girls at every age. Maybe it’s not the screen time, maybe it’s the lack of value adults place on physical activity, and kid-focused fun.
Certainly, this can’t be adults’ fault, can it?
Here’s a thought. Since children are heavily influenced by their parents, show your zest for fun and activity by playing with your kids. Give the kids a (gasp!) day off from summer sports camps and travel teams so that you can play with them! My realism gets in the way a little here when I think of the Volkswagen commercial where the dad that can’t throw is “teaching” his son. It seems like some parents have thrown in the towel (pun intended) since their own skills are subpar- so why not sign the kids up for one sport season after season after season after season?
This is a real problem with the lack of fundamental movement skills kids have. Who is going to teach them? Not PE the way it is going (teaching to a test is not a good strategy for being physically educated). Not youth sports (too easy to cherry pick the early maturers and not worry about making sure all kids develop skills).
Looks like parents have to take their kids back. Play with them. Read with them. Have fun with them. Stop handing them over to someone else to do it. When you do, be certain that they truly have your son/daughter’s interests at heart, not their own.
About the Author
Rick Howard is a doctoral candidate at Rocky Mountain University in Health Promotion and Wellness. Howard is the Director of Fitness at Wilmington (DE) Country Club and is an Assistant Professor in Applied Sport Science at West Chester University (PA). He presents nationally and internationally on youth training, LTAD, and strongman and has contributed several articles to peer-reviewed journals and blogs on the topics.