by Shane Fitzgibbon, B.Sc., NCSC, FMS, YFS, HSCS, YNS, YSAS
Taekwon-do Instructor & Strength & Conditioning Coach
This blog post is being written as I reflect on all the recent articles I have read about youth obesity spiralling out of control in Ireland, as well as the reports on young athletes being burned out at ever- increasing rates from exhaustion and/or injury. While these are opposite extremes of the scale, I believe they are opposite sides of the same coin. The issue is lack of education (or perhaps even lack of caring) on what exercise professionals can offer. While both are pressing issues, this feature is aimed at why active children need some amount of professional attention—even in amateur/hobby sports—if they are to minimize injury risk.
While it is essential that children engage in regular exercise for numerous health benefits, it is also important to recognize that exercise and sport is not necessarily the same thing. One key difference is that sport is, by its very nature, competitive and therefore more demanding and rigorous than exercise for its own sake. It is also not realistic to expect a local, unpaid, volunteer, amateur coach (no matter how well-meaning) to be an expert in nutrition, injury prevention, injury rehabilitation, strength, speed & agility, etc. His or her expertise is in the game, not in determining the physical capabilities or limitations of the players (unless they also happen to be a professional trainer). Let’s consider the benefits of children participating in structured strength & conditioning, should their local clubs or parents be forward-thinking enough to provide it.
Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS)
Children are entering sports with less physical literacy than ever before due to, among other reasons, the amount of time spent indoors instead of involved in free play at home. This is exacerbated by the massive reduction of P.E. and free-play in schools. This has huge implications on childrens’ competency of fundamental movement skills, such as object manipulation, hopping, jumping, squatting, etc…not to mention hand-eye coordination and more. When a child joins a new sport lacking competence in essential FMS, is it asking far too much of the child to develop competency of intrinsic sport-specific skills?
Humans aren’t designed to spend long hours in the seated position. It drastically alters the tone of our muscles – shortening and tightening some, while lengthening and weakening others, to the detriment of posture. Ask someone to run or jump with poor posture and he or she will certainly make an attempt, but will typically lack efficiency due to the inability of certain muscles to fire in the correct sequence or with optimum force production. At best, performance is reduced. At worst, the child eventually gets injured. A professional strength and conditioning coach recognizes these issues with the squad and is able to intervene with appropriate corrective exercises, thereby dramatically reducing the risk of injury.
ONE CHANCE to get it right….
Prior to puberty is the best time for children to develop many of their fundamental movement skills, such as locomotion. Given that these FMS are the building blocks for athletic skills, then the strength of this foundation is linked to athletic success later in life. You may think that they have plenty of time to learn this. WRONG! If a child is not exposed to various movements in the early developmental stages, the brain undergoes a process of synaptic pruning, whereby underutilized motor pathways in the brain are trimmed away. Exposing the child to these movement patterns later in life provides no guarantee of learning, as it means that all new motor pathways need to be created in the brain. Children literally have ONE CHANCE to effectively learn fundamental movement skills well1.
The benefits of resistance training are numerous. These have been documented extensively in my free eBook on youth conditioning, so I won’t revisit them here. (If you want to pick up a copy use this link: http://www.connachtfitnessandperformance.com/enquiry.html).
According to Lloyd and Oliver “ if a child is ready to engage in sport activities, then he or she is ready to participate in resistance training2,”. Knowing that resistance training for children is both beneficial and, indeed, recommended, then why should parents or sports coaches seek a strength coach to teach the children? The answer is because children should not be treated like adults when it comes to ANY kind of training. A suitably knowledgeable coach understands what various modalities of resistance training, e.g. body weight, resistance bands, dumbbells, etc… are appropriate for a child depending on experience, age, etc… The youth fitness coach understands that there are differences in approach needed for boys versus girls, and that a growth spurt changes the rules.
One of the most important roles a strength and conditioning coach performs is that of the assessment. Poor posture and previous injuries can both influence the readiness of a young athlete to participate in sport, often leading to additional subsequent injury. An assessment early on can identify risk factors which can be mitigated by intervention from the coach. Experienced strength and conditioning coaches should be adept at spotting fatigue and overtraining symptoms in young athletes. Frequently children get overtrained from participating in multiple sports, each one with a coach who may fail to realize that the child has little left to give. Naturally, every coach expects the best from each child on the squad. One area requiring particular mention is anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries in field and court sports. Teenage girls suffer five times more ACL surgeries than boys3. There are a few potential reasons for this, including weak hip stability, quadriceps muscle dominance, and other factors. It takes a specialist to know these risks, to identify them in players, and intervene to reduce the likelihood of such injuries occurring.
I hear from many parents about the fitness activities that their children are doing as part of their particular sport. Frequently these are random, inappropriate, and sometimes just make no sense whatsoever. They may be age inappropriate and have no bearing on what was done the previous years, or to be done in the following years. A youth strength and conditioning coach should plan for the future and design age-appropriate and experience-appropriate programs for young players, with a plan for where they are going and where they need to be.
A child’s age isn’t necessarily his or her age
Children should be prescribed exercise and have expectations based not on their chronological age (years since birth), but on their biological age (developmental or maturation age).
Case study: John and Michael both join the U12 soccer team. John is 11 and is an early bloomer. Michael is 10 and is a late bloomer. Because children can seem up to three years younger or older depending on whether they are early or late bloomers, John can have a biological age of 13, with Michael having a biological age of only 8. In this scenario you have two boys with biological ages of 13 and 8 on the same team. Should they be expected to have comparable levels of strength? Speed? Cognitive awareness? Of course not. Specialist youth strength and conditioning coaches will have a whole sequence of progressions and regressions that are suitable for the more or less advanced child.
Any team fitness activities must take into account the difference between biological and chronological ages. To determine your child’s biological age, visit http://www.growmetry.com/app_v3/index.asp?lng=2
Given the evidence available, it seems prudent to offer active children a variety of movement-exploration experiences, whether through sports or structured physical education classes. In the early developmental stages, children should be encouraged and given the opportunity to develop physical literacy to the maximum. Parents and sports coaches can only expect their children to massively benefit from availing of the knowledge of the specialist youth fitness coach.
- “Parents – you have one chance to do this right” Greg Rose, Functional Movement Systems
- High Performance Training for Sports, Joyce & Lewindon, Human Kinetics, 2014
- Kelvin Giles, movementdynamics.com
Shane Fitzgibbon is a Strength and Conditioning coach, based in Galway, Ireland. He is a professional martial arts instructor and, as a retired athlete from this field, is a 6-time World Champion in Taekwon-do & Kickboxing. Representing Ireland in European, Intercontinental, and World Championships, Shane has competed all over the World, e.g. Ghana, South Korea, Nigeria, Canada, Croatia, Germany, etc… amassing an impressive twenty World-medal tally. The 6th degree black belt in Taekwon-do has coached numerous Irish, British, European and World champions to success.
Holder of a B.Sc. from National University of Ireland, Galway, Shane has always had a passion for exercise and qualified as a gym instructor with ITEC in 2001. In the years that followed, Shane has been busy coaching his martial arts students as well teams and individuals from other sports. As well as obtaining National Certificate in Strength & Conditioning, Shane is Functional Movement Screening (FMS) certified and a member of the prestigious Register of Exercise Professionals Ireland (REPS Ireland). Shane is a also a member, in good standing, of the Irish Sports Coaches Institute (ISCI). Shane came across the IYCA two years ago while researching educational sources to further his knowledge in the area of youth coaching. He is currently a Youth Fitness Specialist Level 3, Speed and Agility Specialist, Kettlebell Instructor, Olympic Lift Instructor, Youth Nutrition Specialist, Resistance Band Instructor, and High School S&C Coach, as certified by the IYCA. Not one to be satisfied with his current level of knowledge, Shane has enjoyed attending seminars and learning directly from two key IYCA contributors, Mike Robertson and Wil Fleming, as well as Mike Boyle, and others.
As well as teaching martial arts classes, Shane coaches young people from a wide variety of sports. He is very diligent in improving their fundamental movement skills and physical literacy, as this has a direct bearing on all movement capacities and sporting attributes.
In 2012, Shane authored the highly acclaimed book, “Training and Optimal Health for Sports”, which is available from Amazon, and the dedicated site www.trainingandoptimalhealth.com In it, he has shared twenty years of experience training and competing at the highest levels of his sport as well as the secrets of his longevity, not having retired from competition until 38, a double World Champion that year. Shane’s dedication and skills have recently come to the attention of, not only the IYCA, but also the NSCA, who have invited him to present at a symposium in 2016.