Working with young kids in sport can be one of the most rewarding roles as a coach; they often make huge progress quickly, have a thirst for learning and the desire to get better that isn't always the case with adult athletes. The biggest pillar of support the kids get to the training you prescribe is from their parents. Sometimes though, an obstacle standing in the way of training effectively is the misinformation or beliefs that the parents already hold when it comes to physical training.
Hopefully as a profession we can work together with parents to educate them better about these issues and get them to be valuable assets who help reaffirm some of the messages that we try to send to the young athletes on their journey of athletic development. Here are some of the biggest myths around training today and what we can do to help eliminate them.
Lifting Weights Will Stunt My Child's Growth
This is the biggest and hardest-to-shake myth in all of youth athletic training. It stems from the fact that parents are worried that weight training may limit or stunt their child's growth. This often leads to the parent pushing for weight training only to be done when they are 15-16-plus and have finished the bulk of their growing.
On the face of it, it makes sense—children and adolescents have growth plates at the end of most bones. These growth plates regulate the length and shape of bones. The growth plate is the last part of bones to harden. This makes it more vulnerable to fractures which can cause problems like unequal bone length. It can be quite easy as a parent to conjure images of a poor kid struggling to lift a weight recklessly too heavy and think that might cause their kid some damage. However in practice this isn't what happens; most good coaches scale back movements to make them age and ability appropriate.
When you think about what kids get up to just being an average kid it makes you think what all the fuss is about. For example, when your kid runs around in the park and jumps out of trees, the body can get upwards of 3-5 times their body weight in forces going through it. You would need a lot of weight on your kid's back to even try to replicate those forces! So as long as the coach is smart and does everything with good form, you won't run into any issues.
Avery Faigenbaum a Professor of Health and Pediatric Exercise Science and Resident expert in Child Resistance Training has said that despite it being brought up so often by parents, there actually haven't been any studies showing that lifting weights stunts or inhibits growth.
In spite of all of this lack of evidence, some parents are harder to convince than others. Parents I have dealt with before have argued that weightlifters, who spend all their time lifting weights from a young age are all really small and use this to justify why weight training can affect growth. However this is simply natural selection for the task at hand—it pays to be short as an Olympic weightlifter, because you don't have to move the bar as far to get it over your head! With that same logic they should be getting their kids to play basketball as this would make their kids really tall, as everyone is tall in the NBA!
Lifting Weights will make me slow
When parents think of weight training athletes they tend to think of big muscled-up bodybuilders. Bodybuilders who can be best compared to a cumbersome 18 wheeler that struggles to turn and accelerate when what they want for their kid is for them to be nimble and fast like a sports car. The reality is, to get that big it takes an awful lot of time and training investment—and in the case of some bodybuilders, some pharmaceutical assistance as well!
Putting on muscle is a slow process, so you won't just wake up one morning having put on 25 pounds of muscle after training. In the same way as someone dieting doesn't just eat one salad and suddenly wake up skinny, it takes a lot more time and hard work to achieve those goals. Weight training works exactly the same way. If someone is getting too big you'll have plenty of time to see it happening and change what they do in their training.
Research has shown that weight training actually makes people faster, and in some sports like rugby, being bigger while maintaining your speed (known as sprint momentum) determined who made it at international level and who was just a club player. All of this makes sense: Sprinting fast is about putting force into the ground. How do you develop force? By lifting weights! In fact in my own experience of working with elite level youth rugby athletes I have seen the exact same thing:
Fig. 1 – An athlete who over time improves his lower limb strength (the green line) and size (15kg of mass gained in a year which is quite a lot!). Yet despite all this added size, he actually can accelerate much faster (the red line) in part probably due to that increase in strength.
I Need to Go on Long Runs to Get Fitter
This myth probably comes from the Rocky films and parents thinking that their kid also needs to hit the pavement with "Eye of the Tiger" playing in the background. Often parents will suggest their child needs to go on long drawn-out runs to improve fitness much like how Rocky did and how many professional boxers still do today. However with most kids playing team sports, the demands of the game don't match up well with spending lots of your training doing long runs. Remember, when physically preparing for a sport you have to think, what is the game? What are the demands? Then you can best work out what training you should do to best prepare for it.
There's nothing wrong with a steady state drawn-out run, in moderation, to build someone's aerobic base. But as an integral part of their training all the time? That doesn't make much sense. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is likely to be more specific as it gets kids to sprint, stop and change direction like they do in their sports. Anyway, with the amount that kids play nowadays the games themselves can probably provide enough fitness in the first place!
My Child Needs to Train and Play all the Time to Make it
Kids are specializing earlier and earlier nowadays and it has led to kids training and playing all the time and regularly being involved in showcase tournaments. This is probably influenced by the so called "10,000 hour rule" which suggests that to develop talent and to become an expert you need a huge amount of time investment in the sport. This "rule" actually has been disproven and although a tremendous amount of investment does need to be put in to get to the top, it can often lead to kids falling out of love with the sport and getting burnt out before they even progress out of their teenage years. This creates false pressure on both the parent and the kid. Often the kid is only playing because of pressure from adult coaches or talent scouts. Taking a more holistic view of development ensures the young athlete is playing for the right reasons.
Due to those talent development programs having selections earlier and earlier, it can cause an emphasis on early specialization. As a parent it can be quite easy to get swept up in this and contribute to the pressure, as you fear them missing the boat when it comes to selection. From my perspective with young rugby players, we are interested in them being a Leicester Tigers 1st team player in 5-plus years' time, not on being the best regional u14 player now.
My Child needs to be Taught Toughness and to Train Like an Adult
This myth stems from watching too many military training videos and clips of college football coaches running their programs like you see on "Last Chance U." Discipline and learning to be a professional are key habits on the road to them fulfilling their potential. However, remember they are kids and so things should still be fun, they should be allowed to play while learning and explore movement to find solutions themselves. You want a kid to stay curious and engaged rather than being in big organized lines doing Push-Ups on a whistle and then shouted at for not running hard enough.
Often if things are kept fun, you will develop a passion for training within the child which means they want to keep training and pushing themselves. Over time they learn to enjoy this challenge. This is the rocket fuel that shows itself as grit and toughness when they do get exposed to really tough sessions down the line.
My Kid Needs Supplements to be Successful
This is another myth that comes from a good place but unfortunately can often do more harm than good. It is understandable that a parent wants to give their child every opportunity to succeed by ensuring they aren't deficient in anything regarding their diet. However, supplements are there to do exactly what they say—to supplement the diet!
Far too much of an emphasis is often placed on supplements, where in fact a food-first approach would serve someone far better and should be employed pretty much all the way to adulthood unless there is a specific medical need. Instead of focusing on supplements, a parent would be far better off helping their kid to eat large amounts of vegetables and natural sources of protein like meat, fish and dairy products than giving them creatine powders and vitamin supplements. Ensuring their kid eats enough carbohydrates to fuel their training and games is a better use of time than trying to take shortcuts with supplements. Rather than buying your kid some supplements invest time into teaching them how to cook for themselves and spend the money on stocking your cupboards with real food!
Hopefully as strength and conditioning coaches we can help to educate parents better so we move toward dealing with parents who have a better understanding of physical training and how it should be done with their kids. If that happens these myths will be less prevalent, and conventional wisdom will no longer be that young kids shouldn't do weights, or that they all need supplements to succeed. But in that they can have fun while still developing physically and enjoying that process toward greater athletic achievement.
Faigenbaum, A.D., W.J. Kraemer, B. Cahill, J. Chandler, J. Dziaos, L.D. Elfrink, E. Forman, M. Gaudiose, L. Micheli, M. Nitka, & S. Roberts (1996). "Youth resistance training: Position statement paper and literature review." Strength Cond. J. 18(6): 62–75.
Azeem, K., Al Ameer, A. (2010). "An Effect of weight training on sprinting performance, flexibility and strength." British Journal of Sports Medicine 44:i22.
Barr MJ, Sheppard JM, Gabbett TJ, and Newton RU. (2014) "Long-term training-induced changes in sprinting speed and sprint momentum in elite rugby union players." J Strength Cond Res 28: 2724- 2731.
MacNamara, B.N., Hambrick, D.Z., & Oswald, F.L. (2014). "Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis." Psychological Science, 25, 1608-1618.
Macnamara, B. N., Moreau, D., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2016). "The relationship between deliberate practice and performance in sports: A meta-analysis." Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 333–350.
Photo Credit: SDI Productions/iStock
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