As someone who’s coached football at the youth and high school levels, and who’s served as a high school strength and conditioning coach, I’ve noticed that exercise and physical activity opportunities for kids have lost the middle ground. On one hand, many schools are reducing or eliminating physical education and recess as budgets shrink and class time becomes a priority. On the other hand, I’ve seen parents who believe their child should train like an adult and coaches who openly promote sport specialization at an early age. It’s time to return to a middle ground, as each of these scenarios does our kids a disservice.
With a greater emphasis placed upon meeting tougher academic standards, time devoted to physical education and recess has been stripped away. School budgets are also shrinking, which means that PE teachers are often the first to go. When this happens, it’s not uncommon for classroom teachers to fill the gaps at the expense of planning time. Naturally, we see PE standards fall as a result. PE departments also have slim budgets, with a median budget of just $764.
However, if you’d like your children to succeed in school (who wouldn’t?), they don’t need more testing and seat time. Research shows that success in school is strongly correlated with more play. Additionally, recess represents an opportunity for kids to play, socialize, think and move without structure. But its available time has been severely cut into or removed in favor of more classroom time.
Finally, when kids go home they don’t play as often, as video games, social media and the latest smart phone app keep them indoors and sedentary. Add it all up and you’re left with a child population that is sitting more, moving less and eating higher amounts of processed foods. Consequently, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled in the last thirty years.
Away from school we seem to have the opposite problem. With the advent of AAU, club sports and other opportunities to play a single sport year-round, kids are now pushed toward sport specialization at an early age. It’s not uncommon to see a weekend “showcase” that tasks a child with playing 3-4 full length games in just a couple of days. This after a full week of school-organized games and practices.
While it’s great to see kids up and active, the pressure to play a single sport at an early age is disheartening. Usually this pressure is applied by coaches of “pay for play” teams or organizations who have a vested interest in ensuring your dollar is spent with them. Parents and kids alike may also be fooled into believing that specialization is the path to a college scholarship. Of course, none of these coaches ever reveal that just 2% of all high school athletes receive a college scholarship, and only 6% play in college at all. They also won’t tell parents that kids who play multiple sports possess improved athleticism and burn out less often than those who focus only on one sport. NFL star JJ Watt aptly sums up my thoughts on sports specialization:
If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child's best interests in mind.— JJ Watt (@JJWatt) March 7, 2017
Parents must also share the blame. Some believe that their child is a superstar in the making, pushing for more practices, games and special coaching. They jump the gun on developing a solid athletic foundation, which hurts their child down the line. Others love telling their friends and neighbors that their second grader is on the “under-8 special elite super fall league team”. These parents need to check their ego and remember that it’s not about them. With a little luck their son or daughter will still be playing sports as a senior in high school. They would also be well served to recognize that “elite” is usually defined by the parent’s ability to cough up a couple thousand dollars, rather than a very particular set of skills possessed by their child.
Physical activity has an important role to play in helping our kids develop, improve and mature. Some even argue that physical activity is essential part of raising successful children.
To that end, we must create avenues for kids to play, explore and improve. Ultimately, this means more PE, more play time and more exposure to different sports. Here are some things we can do right now to help our kids:
1. Encourage them to play: Without an adult around to impose rules, kids must create, problem solve and think for themselves. As a kid, we created games in the yard on an almost daily basis and we had a blast doing it!
2. Keep organized games and sports fun: Tag, dodgeball or the sport they’re playing allows them to compete and move in different planes and directions. As long as the adults don’t ruin it, they’re great avenues for developing athleticism. If we strip the fun away, they’ll be less engaged. There’s plenty of opportunity to take things seriously at higher levels.
3. Encourage them to play multiple sports: Growing up, the fall season was football or soccer, winter was basketball and spring was baseball. Summer was swim lessons and play time. Once a season was done, I put it away until it came back around. Along the way, I gained skills and abilities that transferred to the next sport season. I also learned what I liked and didn’t like. Let your kids try everything and filter it out on their own as they age. Participation in multiple sports also helps to avoid overuse injuries that can occur through the repetitive motion and action of playing a single sport.
4. Allow them to fail: If we’re not failing we’re not trying and if we’re not trying we’re not getting better. Sports help kids develop confidence and character as they mature because there’s always a new challenge to overcome. A couple skinned knees along the way are a sign of progress.
5. Find an outlet for strength training: This is an article unto itself, but strength training, when done correctly (fun, safe, age appropriate) is perfectly fine for kids. It affords kids an opportunity to enhance their athleticism, improve motor learning and work out imbalances that may develop.
In working with athletes of all ages, I’ve learned just how important it is to emphasize the points discussed above. Following through on these action steps will help your child to develop a solid athletic foundation and healthy habits that will stay with them for life. You’ll also increase the likelihood that they stay engaged and avoid burn out by the time high school rolls around.
I’m here to help! If you’d like to learn more about my coaching and training philosophy for young athletes or have questions please contact me to discuss. If you’re in the Atlanta area and are interested in strength training for your child, I’m currently accepting clients at Excellence in Exercise, the private training studio where I coach out of.