A year or so ago as I was waiting to give a presentation entitled, “A Balanced Approach to Navigating Youth Sports” to a group of preschool and elementary parents, a mom approached me and asked if it was okay if her kids’ “trainer” attended the session. This was a new one for me—4 and 5 year olds with an athletic trainer. I had visions of little kids doing boot camp-style exercises, but it turned out the trainer was a recent college grad with a sports background who was, according to the mom, “teaching them fun games that were sports related so they could begin developing a good fitness foundation.”
Hiring athletic trainers is all part of the “earlier is better, more is better” arms race that pervades youth sports, just as it does academics (think Kumon, academic camps, tutors, test prep industry, and private college advisors). Now at seemingly any age, opportunities abound for parents to provide “additional support” for their kids’ athletic development. But parents should be aware of the hidden costs of trying to get an athletic “leg up” for their kids.
Don’t waste your money on trainers at early ages. Left to their own devices, preschool and elementary school kids do just fine managing their own athletic development. Observe activities on the school playground and you’ll see they gravitate naturally to activities that fit their developmental capabilities, like climbing on play structures, jumping rope or playing handball against a wall. Activities like these form the foundation for more discreet, sport-specific athletic skills. Here’s what Lee Taft, a nationally-renowned fitness trainer, had to say about the game of tag:
“Tag might be the greatest game ever invented. There is linear speed, lateral speed, angular take-offs, moving backwards, avoidance skills, body control skills, balance, flexibility, coordination, raising and lowering of center mass, setting up opponents, strategies, team work… Basically, tag will force you to reach deep into the movement bag of tricks your body has stored.”
When your kids start playing youth sports, make sure the focus is on fun. If your kid does have talent and interest, they need to fall in love with the sport in order to want to endure the rigorous training it typically takes (10 years, 10,000 hours of practice) to compete at elite levels. Too serious too quick—be it year-round club teams or “performance enhancement”—often leads to burn-out or injury. In fact, 70 percent of 13 year olds drop out of sports altogether. The number one reason? “Because it’s just not fun anymore.”
Be judicious in considering employing an athletic trainer. There are lots of options for individualized performance training, especially as kids enter adolescence and start getting serious about their sport. If your kid is really into a sport, asks for specialized training, and finds a trainer whose approach aligns with your values and fits your budget, then it may be worth considering. But make sure your kid is driving the bus on this one. Many kids resent the pressure they feel from parents who push for more or who are fulfilling athletic dreams through them.
Jim Lobdell, M.A., is a Challenge Success Co-Founder, educational consultant and publisher with expertise in curriculum design, school reform, parent education, and youth sports. Mr. Lobdell co-founded Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, widely regarded as the nation’s most innovative publisher of K-12 social studies curriculum. He has authored several teaching methodology books, including "Bring Learning Alive! Engaging All Learners in the Diverse Classroom" and advised school districts nationwide on teacher-training and site-based reform. A former NCAA athlete and high school social studies teacher, Mr. Lobdell currently advises the Positive Coaching Alliance, working to transform youth sports by helping to create a more positive and character building experience for young athletes.