At age 5, my brother threw me into a wall.
He tackled me so hard, its corner edge sliced my knee open, and blood poured onto the floor. It gushed out of my wound like an uncontrollable faucet that wouldn’t shut off no matter how many times I tried to apply pressure. Splashes of red crept through the crevices of my hands, as I tried to stop the flow of crimson.
I struggled to heal myself, but instead of waving my surrender flag, and running to my mom for comfort, I clenched my fists, gritted my teeth and thought, ‘I’m going to get this jerk back.’
And I did.
What started as a light-hearted, sibling-to-sibling fight, turned into an tenacious, monster-to-monster battle similar to Stone Cold Steve Austin versus The Undertaker.
Basically, it was the WWE.
To say I’m nostalgic of my childhood of movement, play, physical contact, and exposure to various feats of strength is an understatement.
We wrestled. We fought. We tackled. We grappled. We played dodgeball. We threw each other. We bled. We cried. We climbed trees. We played tug-of-war. We maneuvered on monkey bars. We fell off monkey bars. We scraped our knees. We did it all.
Though we were bruised, wounded, and scarred, we could still go home, eat a Domino’s pizza, and watch Hey Arnold in peace at the end of the day.
Maybe you think all of this childlike play is messed up.
Maybe you think it’s belligerent.
But a bellicose message is not my intent.
Rather, my mission is to inspire kids to play, to love movement, and to become stronger.
In order to do so, I have to put kids in environments that are an itty bit uncomfortable – ones that encourage them to problem solve, be creative, and compete.
As youth strength coach Jeremy Frisch has mentioned before, “there are kids who’ve never learned how to fall. They haven’t played outside enough, scraped their knees and tripped and fallen and wrestled with their friends enough to learn those skills. I want to make sure when they’re here, they learn those things. We integrate that stuff right away. I feel like the younger you are, the closer your base of support is to the ground. So kids feel more comfortable doing that stuff when they’re younger than when they’re older.”
Contact sports are rigorous, so what are we doing to help kids go into tackles, 50-50 battles and air balls with confidence?
Coming back to wrestling with my brother, I didn’t see anything wrong with it. Not only did I find out what I was made of, but I also got comfortable with contact with another human, losing fights, and battling back to come out on top, which all served as the impetus for my fierce soccer career.
Adding on, I owe it to my brother and his friends for my fearless tenacity because all we did was play dodgeball, tackle football, wrestle each other and play tag in the neighborhood.
Fast forward to my college career, I became a warrior goddess who stepped onto the pitch with conviction, started every game since freshman year, and became an Academic All-American and USA Midfielder of the Year:
Accolades aside, I blossomed into a young woman who now leans into challenges with excitement and passion. Every morning, I jump out of bed, pumped to attack the day.
‘Oh, I have to write a 3,000 word blog on a Saturday?’
Let’s freaking do this.
‘Oh, I have to put my body through duress to stay strong for a lifetime?’
Let’s freaking do this.
‘Oh, my website crashed?’
Let’s freaking problem solve.
And this is my personal story with loving adversity and becoming better because of it.
Pain is inevitable and it’s up to kids to choose their response. Hopefully, one that takes an empowering direction.
So how can we set up a training environment that exposes kids to fun, play, and competition all while teaching aggression?
Too often parents ask me, “can you make my kid more aggressive?”
Or they complain, “they hesitate too much in the game!”
Or they exclaim, “they need to get in to 50-50 balls more!”
And the funny thing is, these are the same folks who give me crap for my grappling, wrestling, and competitive drills. For getting kids comfortable with contact. For exposing kids to a more uncomfortable stimulus than the game. For showing kids what losing feels like.
Remember this: some degree of discomfort is needed to get better. And no amount of barking, “go harder!” or “get in there!” or “be aggressive!” orders will suffice.
Let’s dive in to a menu of creative drills you can use to elicit more aggression:
Why I Like It
– Improves reactive agility
– Improves spatial awareness
– Improves competitive spirit
– Improves upper body power
2. “Capture the Cones” Shielding
Why I Like It:
– Improves ability to shield
– Improves ability to go into body contact situations
– Improves core stability and base of support to protect cone (or ball in a game)
– As Andy Ryland from USA Football says, “improves confidence they can handle the situation – confidence in contact, with pressure, with personal space. Confidence in their skills-they believe they can get the job done. This confidence often results in players going into contact situations with and enthusiasm or at full speed.”
– Improves teamwork and problem solving.
– Increases smiles and laughter exponentially.
Don’t believe me? Listen:
3. 1v1 Races
This one is self explanatory.
Competing is king:
4. Strength Training
It flabbergasts me youth athletes still don’t strength train enough. If you want them to feel weak and timid going into a contact scenario, then avoid the gym.
So let’s ensure they build total body strength not just to be able to withstand the forces of the game, but to be able to jump into these forces without hesitation.
5. Free Play
At the end of the day, let kids play.
Take them to that vacant playground down the street. Let them wrestle with friends. Let them climb trees. Let them set up their own obstacle course that encompasses the basic movement skills of balancing, jumping, landing, climbing, scrambling, and rolling.
And these are just glossing over the tip of the iceberg. There are a plethora of drills much more challenging than this (I will write a Part 2 later, as I tip toe and ease my way into this topic).
So start with these first. If kids can’t handle these controlled training environments, then what will they handle?
Don’t you dare say, “wrestling and dodgeball are too dangerous!”
For one, I can think of several things that are more dangerous:
1. Listening to Justin Bieber’s Despacito.
2. Driving in your soccer mini van at 100 mph because you’re late to a game.
3. Drinking a six pack of beers while tuning into Shark Tank.
4. Hitting up the Burger King drive-through with your kids post soccer practice.
Okay, let me back up.
It’s worth mentioning that after all of these competitive drills, my athletes are amped up. They exclaim things like, “that was fun!” or “can we do that again!” or “wow, that was the best practice ever!”
Too, this is what fires me up as a coach. Not only do I want kids to build their athleticism, but I want them to make each other better through fun.
Smiles and laughter from them are absolutely contagious.
And seeing kids pumped about goal post pull-ups, though a scary feat of strength, was amazing to see.
Especially because girls were actually lifting other girls up (and yes, the goal was cleared by the county school system to be secure in the ground, just like a set of monkey bars is cleared to be safe at a playground). This is important to know beforehand.
You’re probably thinking, ‘wow, Erica, this all sounds really hardcore.’
Or, ‘wow, Erica, you’re an inspiration in the youth fitness world and this all is a big no-no.’
You’re right. It is hardcore. And it is inspiring.
My vision is offbeat and pushes the envelope when it comes to helping kids develop athleticism. But this much I know: we live in a growing sedentary world. A protected one, to say the least.
Personally, I’m grateful for every ounce of discomfort in my life.
The truth is, compliments, awards, and praise are great, until we become drones.
I crave the discomfort because I don’t want to stagnate.
I’m pushed to evolve into a better coach, sharper writer, and stronger, more enlightened woman.
Let’s do the same for our kids.