In the context of sports, I define “Strength & Conditioning” as weight training along with speed, agility, plyometric, and/or conditioning work for the purpose of improved athletic performance. In my mind, this is different than working out for health and wellness purposes, though strength & conditioning training has health and wellness benefits. My job at Westminster Christian Academy is to implement the above definition of “strength & conditioning” each day for our high school student athletes. And while it’s physically safe for kids younger than high school age to begin working out as long as certain protocols are followed, the focus of this piece is not on the physical effects of starting strength & conditioning training before high school, but rather on the mental and emotional effects.
When pre-teens are told they need to begin strength & conditioning AKA “sports performance” training, either at their school or at a local training facility, it’s my belief that the perception of the work the kids are asked to do changes, even if it’s similar content as basic fitness development. In other words, telling a 12 year old he/she is following a certain workout program to make a team now or get a scholarship 6 years down the road, increases the pressure on them immediately. Not that pressure isn’t a fact of life or is even beneficial at times, but there is an
appropriate stage of life for it. So, my question to a parent in this case is “Is
it really necessary for a 7th grader to start some sort of strength
& conditioning or sport performance training?” Or better yet, “By making the
choice to put them into this type of program now, are you putting your
son/daughter at risk for burnout later on?”
My personal philosophy on this topic has evolved over time. I used to think kids should start as soon as mom and dad said it was OK. But because of what I have witnessed over several years as a coach, my philosophy is far different: Wait
until the summer before the freshman year of high school to start strength
& conditioning or sports performance training. Until then, just let them
play the sport or sports they love for the simple sake of playing it/them.
They should certainly exercise, but keep it in perspective…..for creating good
health habits. Parents and coaches have bought in to completely unrealistic
expectations about what their kids should be doing to keep up with other kids
or teams. They have lost sight of why we all began playing sports to begin
with……for FUN. Not that adding speed and agility work or weight training when
you get older takes the fun away, but expecting a kid to start it too soon will
take the fun away eventually. I could add to this discussion the idea of
parents and coaches feeling the need to push their kids towards year round
participation in one sport as another symptom of the unrealistic expectations
they put on kids to perform in sports, but that’s really its own discussion.
It’s been my experience that part of the reason parents and coaches get their kids involved in strength &conditioning or sports performance training at too early of an age is because they feel a pressure themselves from the parents of their kids’ friends, parents of the kids they coach, other coaches, kids’ club coaches, or from what “personal trainers” and sports performance facilities are telling them. It’s almost like a parent feels that they don’t love their kids if they don’t get them lifting weights or involved in some kind of “jet propulsion” sprint training academy
before middle school ends. Parents, coaches, AND kids may also feel that they
will fall behind athletically and hurt their chances of making a club or high
school team or miss out on a scholarship (yes, while still in middle school), if
they don’t get on a program right away. I used to believe all of those above reasons. But in my time working in the private sector and now in a school, being a scholarship Division I athlete, playing at the professional level and having been both a college and high school coach, I’ve been around a lot of athletes at a wide variety of levels. I have been witness to the good, bad, and
ugly of sports participation at all levels. So parents, coaches, and kids believe me when I say: IT’S OK. STRENGTH & CONDITIONING OR SPORTS PERFORMANCE TRAINING CAN WAIT UNTIL HIGH SCHOOL. JUST PLAY RIGHT NOW AND HAVE FUN. I GIVE YOU PERMISSION TO LET YOURSELF OFF OF THE HOOK.
Again, I’m not advocating kids not exercise until high school, the opposite in fact. Add to that, many elements of strength & conditioning training (i.e. weights, intervals, plyometrics) can be used in general fitness training, which makes the elements of this topic a very delicate, if not confusing, balance. But what I’m saying is that the motive parents and coaches of youth athletes, have for training needs to be considered.
There will be coaches and trainers that will strongly disagree with me on this and be very persuasive in laying out reasons why I’m wrong. But I don’t have anything to gain by communicating my philosophy and perhaps more to lose if for some reason I WAS wrong. So I must be pretty sure of what I’m saying. I just don’t want anyone to ruin the athletic experience for themselves or their kids, before it even starts.
About Dave Schall: Dave has been the Head Strength
& Conditioning Coach at Westminster Christian Academy for the past 6 years.
He is a former Division I and Professional Soccer player and holds a Bachelor’s
Degree in Physical Education and Health and a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology
and Physical Education. Dave earned a Certified Strength and Conditioning
Specialist credential in 2000. He has been married to Stephanie for 7 years and
has a 4- year old daughter Madeline and a 2-year old son Colton.