Using Athletics and Strength and Conditioning Programs to Keep Kids Active for Life

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Sarah Applegarth M.Sc, CSCS, CSEP-CEP, R.Kin

With daily public school-based gym curriculum diminishing, and the allure of screen time, the incidence of obesity in Canada has our country receiving a failing grade on our physical activity report card. In 1978, 14% of Canadians were considered obese (1). This obesity number rose in 2015 to 25% in adults and 24.5% of 15-year-olds were reported as overweight (1). This number is projected to rise to 30% by the year 2030 (1). This will create a significant burden on our healthcare system. 

Participation in sport and supplementary strength and conditioning programs are necessary to help kids minimize the occurrence of obesity, and provide them with a platform to develop physical literacy skills. However, at times through sport, we are running into challenges of kids specializing at an early age to try to achieve elite status. Hockey is a common example of this with 8 and 9-year-olds playing as many as 70 hockey games through the fall, winter and spring. This is potentially setting kids up to miss windows of opportunity to develop and optimize other crucial skills through participation in typical summer activities like soccer, tennis, baseball and weekends at a cottage near water. Before the age of 12 years old, physical literacy skills may be optimized if they are introduced to sport participation in unstructured and/or structured play. Physical literacy skills consist of gross motor skills like running, jumping, twisting, kicking, lunging, throwing, swimming. Also important are the ABC’s of movement (agility, balance, coordination, and speed), and the KGB’s of athleticism (kinesthetic sense, gliding, buoyancy, sliding)(2).  

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee made a bold statement on youth athletic development noting “Empirical evidence shows that a diversity of activities in early development is an indicator of continued involvement in more intense activities later in life, elite performance and continued participation in sport” (3). 

Our Canadian Sport for Life long term athlete development model has broken down potential physical requirements of athletic development into the 5S’s: Suppleness, Speed, Skills, Strength, and Stamina. 

In this model, there are suggested windows of trainability in childhood where these physical skills may be optimized to reach genetic potential if introduced at the right time. The suggested windows of trainability are based periods, before, during and after the onset of a growth spurt. Additionally, strength coaches need to be mindful of the fastest rate of growth or Peak Height Velocity (PHV). Sport For Life offers an excellent resource that outlines in detail a process for movement development from an early age to active participation through adulthood. Click HERE to see their Physical Literacy: Building a New Normal for all Canadians document.

Being involved in activities like gymnastics, tennis and track and field are great for exposure before the PHV as they encompass the basic movement skills and the ABC’s of athleticism. 

Similarly, participating or competing in cardiovascular activities like swimming, soccer rugby, cross country running and mountain biking at PHV will allow for aerobic system training during the window of opportunity to reach genetic potential in that system. Post PHV athletes need to consider starting to build on their strength capabilities and power as there is a window of trainability 12-18 months post-growth spurt where this is very sensitive to training.

As strength and conditioning coaches this is crucial information to keep in mind when designing team and youth programs. Beyond an understanding of their capabilities, emotional intelligence, and their needs, you can assess what stage your athletes are in by plotting their physical growth monthly to determine when a rapid change is occurring and they are in their PHV. Alternatively, the University of Saskatchewan has a great online resource (5) where you can plug in simple anthropometric variables and get a print out of when an athlete is going to reach PHV and what their adult stature will be. As the training age advances, a coach needs to prepare proper exercise progressions and regressions to adjust for the differing needs of athletes within the same training group or team. This information can be utilized to design an educated plan for growing athletes and educate parents on the types of supplementary activities they can get involved with to assist in becoming a well-rounded athlete and maximizing their potential.

It is key to point out that these windows are suggested, and should not be treated as firm programming necessities. At our facility, we may use these guidelines initially as we begin the learning process of assessing the needs of the kids we work with. However, over time we create programs based on the specific abilities and needs of the individual which may vary from the suggested windows of development. We do this with specific testing and assessment.

Regardless of the sensitive periods, all fitness attributes can be improved (to varying degrees) at all ages. Degree of improvements and focus will be dependant on needs and goals. When designing a program for any developing athlete is it important to know both their physiological stage, their current fitness, skill level, and psychological maturity. A small battery of field tests can give you a sense of where your athlete is and help to direct your exercise selection and priorities. 

At our facility, we use the following guidelines as we learn about the athletes we are working with.

For the kids we work with, kids typically start with programs we focus on the technique of basic strength movements like squats, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups and progress to introducing power movements like kettlebell swings, DB snatch, Olympic bar hang cleans and various DB strength movements for those who are capable and competent. We then progress those who are ready to speed and coordination drills like Hex Rail, shuffles drills with cones. At times we also use coloured cones with specific instructions to move to a specific colour and/or direction.   

We next progress kids towards more challenging programs that build off the exercises they have practiced in the earlier phases of training and increase volume and intensity with supersets and trisets. Table 2. Shows a sample program of this.

Systematically through an organized, thoughtful approach to child sport activity participation and complementary training programs, we can ensure children are exposed to physical literacy and 5S of sport performance to help reach their potential. This will have them more apt to participate in physical activities through adulthood. The impact of this will resonate with a healthier mental, emotional and physical society.

References:

Sarah is the owner and an exercise physiologist at Active Life Conditioning, a 5000sq ft multidisciplinary training centre in Collingwood Ontario. She has been working with youth and elite athletes for over 20 years and works with Provincial sport bodies such as Alpine skiing, Snowboarding and is the lead strength and conditioning coach for the Grey Bruce Highlanders AAA hockey organization. Her clients include various professional and semi-pro hockey players, and other aspiring developmental, provincial and varsity calibre athletes. Check out Active Life Conditioning at www.activelifeconditioning.com or contact Sarah@activelifeconditioning.com

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