Post No.: 0201
It’s vitally important to get children doing the right – as in healthy, safe and productive – habits and practices right from the very start because the good and bad habits we build when young are likely to carry over when we’re older. This is not guaranteed because predicting the future can be complicated (e.g. we cannot realistically account for everything that life might throw at a person) but we should rationally want to increase the chances of a child growing up with healthy habits for life.
So those who are regularly active when young are more likely to remain regularly active when older. Children who love playing sports and being active are more likely to remain active in some way when they become adults.
But if a child is looking for a competitive career then, for young athletes – it’s better to under-train than to ever over-train. Over-training is serious – it occurs if one starts off going too hard or too fast too soon, does too much at once, or does something too frequently.
Adequate nutrition and recovery time are critical for young athletes – as a general rule, if a young athlete cannot recover within 24 hours to produce the same or a better performance the next day then he/she is over-training. If his/her performance dips and stays dipped or worse over a period of time then he/she has been over-training. Elite adult athletes can do sessions that leave them needing more time to recover for a greater supercompensation training effect, but for young athletes who are still very much growing and physically developing – the potential risks outweigh the potential benefits.
Fewer children are sadly participating in sports nowadays but of those who are, more are doing so for competitive reasons and are therefore training at higher intensities, rather than playing these games for pure fun and leisure. But one must be careful and be sympathetic to a growing child’s body and current development phase before pushing him/her to excel in a sport.
Note that, especially in this context, ‘age-appropriateness’ isn’t so much about a child’s chronological age but biological age, because different children mature at different rates and ages. For example, two children can be exactly the same chronological age yet one has biologically started puberty and the other one has not. And because of these differing rates and developmental stages, one cannot usually truly assess the innate talents of young athletes for a specific sport until they have almost fully matured into adults – when the biological playing field has more-or-less levelled out and settled.
Yet attention, effort and other resources are often placed on those children who reach and finish puberty earlier, and therefore physically mature earlier and likely show greater performances earlier, whilst those who mature later get wrongly neglected. A year is a long time, especially when one is young, and the difference between the youngest and the eldest within the same year/grade in school (i.e. those born late and those born early in the academic year) can be up to 12 months in difference apart. These children will be playing and competing against each other for being in the same class in school but they’re really at different chronological ages, and more importantly, possibly at different biological ages and developmental stages.
And if resources are continually allocated to those who have the early advantages then this creates a ‘Matthew effect’ of accumulated advantages (those who show early promise are given more coaching relative to those who are yet to show their potential, which improves their relative performance even more, and so they are given even more resources to advance their potential sporting career). Those who are younger or develop later may also end up becoming discouraged against playing sports or being physically active altogether because they’re competing against those who are older or develop earlier, even though they’re all technically in the same school year/grade. But those who mature later, who show their full potential later, could actually be the elite sportspeople of the future and so must not be neglected! And this is also overall even more reason to empathise fun and involvement rather than competition at a young age, unless a child specifically and personally makes the decision to want to compete against other children who also want to compete.
Therefore it should be about a child’s biological age and development stage, not his/her chronological age. And one should not try to over-read into the head-to-head results of e.g. one 12-year old child with another 12-year old child; particularly boys with girls (girls start puberty on average 2 years earlier than boys), and those born earlier and later in the academic year. It’s not accurate to judge a child’s relative abilities amongst his/her class year until they all more-or-less reach adulthood, when all their true potentials will be revealed and any unfair advantages/disadvantages will be much smaller (although the field still won’t likely be completely fair e.g. some parents can afford to take their children to extracurricular lessons while others can’t).
Coordination can take a step backwards during the rapid growth phase of furry puberty. Between the ages of 7 and 12 may be the optimal time to learn coordination skills for a particular sport, yet coordination will not stabilise until around 16 or the end of puberty. One must also bear in mind the maturity of a child’s thermoregulation and respiration systems, which will not be as developed as an adult’s.
‘World champions’ in sports very often started their careers when quite young, so for youngsters to find their niche when young may lead to sporting success in the future. But although early specialisation in a specific sport can be advantageous, it can risk burn out, injuries and less free play time – probably the best approach is for children to play a wide variety of sports before they reach adulthood, then let them specialise as an adult. (This may be relevant advice for children regarding all types of interests, not just sports.) Some activities, like gymnastics, may require early specialisation though. Resistance or strength training is fine for pre-adolescents but many experts don’t recommend bodybuilding, weightlifting or powerlifting at this age.
It’s not recommended for young athletes to weight-train with the goal of growing larger muscles before the fluffy tail end of puberty – it puts too much demand on the body’s limited resources, especially during a time when the body is already naturally growing and bodily resources would be better spent on simply developing and maturing. Reinforcing this caution could be inadequate nutritional knowledge, and in particular inadequate sleep because of the typical phase delay in sleep for adolescents, who naturally biologically tend to want to sleep a bit later and correspondingly get up a bit later – even though school times in most parts of the world still (inconsiderately!) remain too early for teenagers; and we know that sleep is incredibly vital for bodily repair and growth, as well as for consolidating cognitive skills.
Other subjects in school must not be neglected either – the reality is that most young athletes never make it to professional level, and even for those who do, most sports careers are relatively short careers even if they’re not cut short by injury, so it’s best to have backup career options. A common cause for depression in athletes who retire, especially way before they really wanted to, is a sense of ‘I was only good at and focused on one thing but my best days are behind me now, I’ve lost my identity, the limelight and the buzz – what can/should I do with my life now that can possibly be just as good or better?’
Woof. Rather than wing it – it’s highly recommended to complete a coaching course or to utilise the services of a trained coach for young athletes if one wants to train a young athlete or coach a young sports team because there’s far more to it than yelling from the sidelines and being one of those embarrassing parents!
(How are you finding this blog? Your feedback is very much welcome via the Twitter comment button below. Cheers.)