I have hope for kids.
Sure, we can complain that playgrounds are vacant, physical education teachers are being laid off, and recesses are becoming shorter, and kids are doomed, but I beg to differ.
There is a glimmer of light in the youth athletic development world.
Since kids spend most of their time with their primary sports teams, team coaches have the opportunity to incorporate skills into practices that build athleticism.
But why is this important?
Kids are not getting enough movement variety at team practices to develop the totality of their bodies, from coordination, to flexibility, balance, strength, and speed. Without a diversity of movement patterns, kids run the risk of overuse injury due to muscle weakness and asymmetries in their bodies. Moreover, they hinder their potential for improved speed, agility and endurance.
While there are some kids who get outside to sprint, play Capture the Flag, Four Square, and Flag Football with the neighbors, it’s few and far between.
More often than not, kids go to school, come home, stay inside, do homework, go to school again, then go to their primary sport practice.
Rinse and repeat for years and years.
Let me ask you this: if your child is a single-sport athlete, are they getting enough movement outside of their team practices?
Because this much I know: youth athletes are at their team practices a lot. And during this time, they get the same, repetitive movements that target just one aspect of developing athleticism.
Take the single-sport soccer athlete, for example: they perform movements with the same muscle groups every week – the quads, hip flexors, and calves – from all of the shooting, tapping their feet on the ball, and jogging. And this goes on from age 6 until high school, given the way travel clubs are structured today, and how much parents push kids to specialize early.
It is concerning, to say the least.
Not only is the accumulation of the same muscle movements a recipe for overuse injury, but it does our kids a disservice when our aim is to develop them into strong, well-rounded humans. And to optimize their speed and agility potential, we need to get them strong in areas that do not get as much love at their team practice.
Do you think doing toe taps on the soccer ball will improve speed and force production?
Now, let me ask you this: are your kids getting outside and climbing, picking up rocks, building tree forts, or doing anything to develop upper body and anterior core strength outside of this team practice time?
It’s important to put the athlete first, before the sport. If you are a parent, it is critically important you take your kids to the best gym out there: the playground. Here, kids can gain a plethora of basic motor skills like running, hopping, jumping, climbing, and balancing.
And taking the conversation back to team coaches, you have immense power to impact your youth players by adding athletic skills into your warm-ups.
If you execute these movements before every session and game, it adds up into something magical over the years. Think of the basic motor skills like putting pennies in a piggy bank: the more we compound them, the more athleticism we have in the end.
Adding athletic skills to your warm-up will not only develop kids into their strongest selves for the long-haul, but it will serve as a good warm-up for physical game readiness, and mental focus by exciting the nervous system. It is also easy to do and takes less than 10 minutes.
Here are several drills to add to your dynamic warm-up to help your kids become beasts:
Coordination is one of the first things kids should work on to better develop speed and contralateral movement of the arm and legs. Here are two drills to try:
Perform 2 sets, for 20 yards.
Perform 2 sets, for 20 yards each.
This much I know: kids need to stretch more. What I like about the two drills below is they give you a bang-for-your-buck with the ankle and hip mobility, as well as balance components.
Plank Cross Crawl Inchworm
Perform 2 sets, 5 each leg.
Knee Tuck Holds
Perform 2 sets, 15 seconds each leg.
The strength and balance of the itty bitty feet of our kids plays a huge role in performing movements on one leg efficiently. Sprinting at top speeds, for example, is only possible if kids can handle the forces placed on their feet. Changing direction and being agile, too, calls for balance and stability on one leg without rolling an ankle.
Perform 2 sets, for 20 steps.
Perform 2 sets, for max time.
Kids as young as 7 can begin strength training to some degree. Even using their bodyweight and holding themselves up is enough to develop a solid foundation. You would be surprised how difficult these two drills are for kids, so let us start building them up now:
Perform 2 sets, 20 steps.
Perform 2 sets, 20 steps.
The best way to develop speed in young ones is to have them sprint fast and often. Small-sided practice games and having them stand around is not enough to develop their running. I urge you to add sprint variations to your warm-up, especially as a competitive chase drill or race:
Reaction Roll To Sprint
Perform 2 sets, sprint 15-20 yards.
Circular Cone Reaction Speed Drill
Perform 2 sets, sprint 15-20 yards.
Navigating through the frontal plane is a movement kids are not exposed to enough. The Lateral Squat Stretch helps with their hip mobility and be more comfortable with moving sideways and preparing for agility. The Side Shuffle with Hold is great for reinforcing “athletic stance” with the knees slightly bent, and hips back. This position is powerful to better help kids change direction safely and quickly.
Lateral Squat Stretch
Perform 1 set, 10 each side.
Side Shuffle with Hold
Perform 1 set, 5 each side, with them holding athletic stance on your clap or cue.
Start with these movements in your warm-up and you are on your way to developing more coordinated, stronger and faster youth athletes. I urge you to use these as a stepping stone to create your own variations as well. After all, the sky is the limit as far as helping our young players and ensuring they make the most of their time at practices.
We want to provide them with as many tools in their athletic toolbox as possible, so they get better at their primary sport, but also they open up other opportunities to excel elsewhere as healthy humans.
When it comes to young kids, develop the human first, and the player second.
Erica Suter is a 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.
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