If you’re a sport parent or coach, chances are, you enroll your kids in strength and conditioning programs so they become stronger, faster, and more resilient.
Of course, you want kids to perform at their best physically, whether that is by scoring goals, blowing by defenders, shooting three pointers, outrunning opponents, bodying off defenders, or making the audience “ooh” and “ahh” with sharp agility jukes. Expounding further, you want your kids safeguarded from injury and able to enjoy their sport, instead of being sidelined.
While performance and injury prevention are the backbone to youth strength and conditioning programs, I’d argue mental development is just as important.
Most of us have heard that physical activity improves cognitive function, but what exactly is going on at a neural level? How exactly does movement enhance memory, learning, and creativity? How can physical activity maintain or enhance brain function for a lifetime?
Without going into too much of a neuroscience discussion, here’s what you need to know: the brain establishes neural networks based on our experiences, from learning to roll over as a baby, to building the core strength to lift our heads up, to walking on different surfaces, to connecting the two hemispheres of the brain to perform sport-specific movements.
Movement, then, is the impetus for the expansion of new neural pathways in our nervous systems. Looking back to our elementary school days, we were able to learn skills in school because of the integrative dance of the muscles and brain.
When you learned cursive, your eyes moved to look at the chalkboard to see the letters on the board. Then, your brain sent a message to your hand to write what you saw on the paper.
Or how about learning a musical instrument? Your eyes followed the notes on the page, and the dance of your fingers and flow of your breath brought music out of your instrument.
Movement is a miracle. A gift. And something we should not take for granted. Movement leads to tremendous skills and rebuilds the plasticity of the brain for a lifetime.
Unfortunately, kids are being pulled away from magic of movement. Schools are cutting recess, video games are on the rise, phone and TV distractions are endless, strength and conditioning programs are not prioritized by sports clubs, physical education teachers are being laid off, and street pick-up games are waning. Because of all this, kids are becoming sedentary drones of society whose brains remain stagnant, close-minded, and distracted.
It’s sad because as we know that the brain is capable of restoring itself and rebuilding new pathways so long as we keep moving and challenging it with our movement.
Alas, to provide hope, there are several solutions to get the most out of your kids’ fitness and boost their brain power.
Let’s dive in:
1. Give them movement autonomy.
More often than not, physical activity for kids nowadays is under an organized setting. While some structure is needed for kids learn, I’d argue that free play is just as beneficial.
This doesn’t mean you should let kids run around with absolutely no guidance, but it’s totally okay to sprinkle in activities that give them autonomy. In fact, it’s highly encouraged.
As an example, for my middle school soccer players (ages 11-13), I will teach them a skill, then design a fun game around it where they have to problem solve on their own. My favorite game is “Soccer Break Dancing.” I give my kids a diverse menu of flashy soccer skills, then I tell them to get a partner and create their own dance together. Eventually, we all get in a circle and have a “dance-off.”
Not only is this activity one that inspires creativity, but it also allows them to create on their own and tap into the right side of their brains. Find more conditioning games here.
2. Do cross-body movements daily.
Speaking of brain hemispheres, it is important for kids to activate both the left and right sides of their brains. The integration of the hemispheres allows humans to be optimally proficient in every life activity. Many people will argue, “oh, well they are a creative. They are just right-brained.” While some people may tap into one side an itty bit more, the left side is needed to analyze, sequence, and plan to jump-start the the creative process.
To give another soccer example, Messi is a “creative” player, but he needs the foot coordination and technique (left brain) in order to spontaneously (right brain) execute his skills. This is just one example of optimal interplay of both hemispheres.
With that said, research shows that cross-body movements maximize the functioning of both hemispheres. These movements are special because they cross the mid-line of the body, and allow the muscles of each side to work in concert together. Here are a few examples of cross-body movements you can perform daily to keep building neural pathways (adults included):
3. Make fitness fun.
In order to inspire kids to be active in the digital age, fitness must be fun. The less of an obligation and chore it is, the more they develop a passion for movement and play.
Whether you are a parent, sports coach, or strength coach, there has to be a nice balance of structure and free play. However, for kids under age 8, free play is your best bet. Want them to get stronger? Take them to climb some trees. Want them to become more conditioned? Play tag. Want them to become agile, balanced, and aware? Take them to the playground.
Taking the conversation back to the “Break Dance” competitions I use for my athletes to hone in on autonomy, this is also a drill that allows kids to have fun and be carefree to come up with their own flow of movements:
Oddly enough, yes, coaches are there to instruct, but at the same time, we are also there to set up our kids’ environment so that it elicits certain physical results. Set things up properly, and let the drill do the work. Over-coaching might look good from the outside (especially to over-bearing parents), but it doesn’t produce great results. Kids need to learn and explore on their own.
Give these pointers a try and I promise the results will be nothing short of amazing. Your kids will not only have increased energy and focus, but also, increased confidence and creativity. And last I looked, these are things we want kids to have even outside of sports. After all, their sport careers will be over one day, and all they will have left is their brain power.
To that end, their mental development extends far, far beyond their athletic endeavors. It permeates into friendships, relationships, academics, career achievements, and creative pursuits.
Erica Suter is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and soccer performance coach at JDyer Strength and Conditioning in Baltimore, Maryland. She works with youth athletes across the state of Maryland in the areas of strength, conditioning, agility, and technical soccer training. Besides coaching, she is a passionate writer, and writes on youth fitness as well as soccer performance training on her blog www.ericasuter.com. She also is the creator of the Total Youth Soccer Fitness Program, which is a comprehensive guide for coaches and parents on how to train youth soccer players both safely and effectively. Her mission is to inspire a love for movement and play in kids, and motivate them to stay active for a lifetime.