“Time to stretch!”
Many of us as young athletes and physical education participants remember the above phrase as the universal signal for “we’re done.” All parties involved would treat this portion of our training as such. Coach was done coaching. We were done learning. Time for everyone to check the “we stretched” box.
This “check the box” convention of post-exercise static stretching continues today. This is despite the fact that research is inconclusive on the safety and effectiveness of directed static stretching with children prior to transitioning into puberty. Significant amounts of time spent with this type of training for young children is trivialized due to their poor body awareness, immature proprioception, and low levels of focus and enjoyment with the activity.
Learning the basic movements and mindset involved with static stretching should be part of a youngsters athletic education. However, the end of a training day can also be used to introduce and reinforce other essential aspects of athletic development.
Proper breathing drills, obstacle courses focusing on joint range of motion, and nutrition education are just some of the options that deliver better long-term results than static stretching for pre-pubescent athletes.
The way we breath impacts a variety of functions within the body and brain.
When helping kids calm down or focus during stressful situations, we tell them to breath. The reason is that proper deep nose and belly breathing can improve parasympathetic tone. That means we can help them override “freak out” mode. This not only aids in improving mental, emotional, and physiological performance during sports, it’s essential in other aspects of life as well.
Additionally, proper breathing aids in mechanical force production and posture. These aspects of athleticism become progressively more critical for performance and injury prevention as children age.
Lying on their back with a cone on their belly, watching it rise and fall as they breathe through their nose is a simple and effective drill I’ve done with kids as young as 4. Have them put a hand on their chest to make sure the cone moves before their hand does.
For breath control, I have utilized a “breath ball.” This is a colorful novelty ball that can be expanded and contracted. The kids breathe at the rate and depth that I expand and contract the ball.
A light 2-3-minute low-intensity movement series with a mouthful of water teaches kids to use their nose and diaphragm to breath during recovery.
These activities and more are great ways to take a few minutes to improve this essential athletic (and life) skill.
Obstacle Courses for Joint Mobility
While research doesn’t suggest any significant amount of static stretching prior to the onset of puberty, improving joint range of motion through natural movement is highly recommended. Stepping over high barriers, crouching under low barriers, crawling, lunging, and other large range of motion activities develop both joint mobility and stability.
When mobility is developed through “real world” activities, muscles don’t merely become more “flexible,” they become smarter and in tune with the surrounding structures.
It isn’t necessary to make this an “end of training” activity. If training is done correctly, this type of work is being done the entire time and even highlighted in circuits. Try the below simple mobility course during training:
- Hands behind head, lateral high steps over cones or higher barrier 20 yards
- 4-point crawl (knees 1 inch off the ground) 20 yards
- Sit to stand (no hands) 5 times
- Prone swimmers (lie on stomach, feet stay on ground, “swim” arms) 30 swims
- Lateral crab walk over line of cones (hips stay up over cones) 20 yards
- Run, crouch through a hula hoop or other small barrier
Depending on the equipment and facilities available, the possibilities are endless. It’s important to remember however, the goal is not fatigue. The goal is to help kids improve stability, strength, and mobility around their joints.
Kids develop their nutrition habits at a young age. The sooner athletes discover the link between nutrition and performance, the sooner they have the accelerated potential to perform.
After working with kids for over 20 years, I discovered one of the most significant lasting impacts I had was on their nutrition. One of the tenants of my youth training programs was that they had to bring a post-workout snack with a carbohydrate, protein, and fruit or vegetable. We didn’t have to specify fat, as it was usually naturally included.
At the end of training, they would have to show what they had brought and how it “complied” with the “rules.. Years later, these kids would come back as adults, talking about how this helped them learn how to eat properly.
Doing short, simple, visual demos or giving them simple nutrition homework works well too. Try the following at the end of training:
- Discuss what proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and fruit/veggies do for athletes.
- Bring three “Athlete Superfoods” that (insert sports star) uses to get big and strong (spinach, rice, meat, whatever parents want their kids to eat more of).
- “Vegetable a day.” At the end of training when parents are there, go around and ask each child what vegetable they had already eaten that day. They start asking for veggies in their lunch.
- Do a quick demo of a peanut butter/banana/tortilla wrap. Or send home a smoothie recipe, “The Muscle Monster” (Yogurt, frozen berries, coconut water, handful of spinach). Have one with you and drink it in front of them.
- Rule: Before they leave training, water bottle has to be empty. Talk about what water does for athletes.
As a coach, you have a tremendous impact on kids’ behavior outside of when you train them. They will emulate what you do and say. This is a great vehicle to create basic athletic nutrition habits.
While the last few minutes of training may seem inconsequential, this time adds up. Let’s say you usually take the last 5 minutes to sit and reach, touch toes, etc. At two training sessions a week, that’s 40 minutes a month that could be used teaching skills that actually improve athletic performance and prevent injury.
Again, there is nothing wrong with pre-pubescent kids learning the basic movements of static stretching. However, with a little knowledge and know-how, an educated coach can turn this trivial “check the box” time into an important aspect of a youngster’s long-term development.
Brett Klika is a youth performance expert and regular contributor to the IYCA. He is the creator of the SPIDERfit Kids youth training program and has run successful youth fitness programs all over the country. Brett is an international speaker whose passion for youth fitness has helped thousands of people learn how to create exceptional training experiences for young athletes.
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