After the unprecedented break from organized sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, youth sports teams will soon resume play. While there will surely be a mix of emotions and safety concerns, a return to youth sports is exciting for many of us.
As a mom, youth soccer coach, and college professor, I’ve been researching and planning the return to organized sports for my family and my teams. There is a plethora of return to play guidance, including this valuable Return-to-Play Guide from the Aspen Institute: https://www.aspenprojectplay.org/return-to-play.
I’ve compiled some recommendations for parents who want to help their children get ready to return to play organized sports. These 10 tips can be implemented during the month of August and into the fall season. Each tip is based on the most current research on athletic development, with practical strategies or resources for families. For best results, combine training efforts with a healthy diet and enough quality sleep. With your help, when your community gets the green light to restart sports, your children will be ready to go!
1. Make the most of time off
For many of us, these last few months are the first real break we’ve gotten from the rat race of youth sports in years. Experts report a reduction in overuse injuries in kids and recovery rates that are better than ever. Why? Because kids are actually taking time off! This respite from organized sports has been valuable for many young athletes and their families. Take advantage of this time for rest and rejuvenation both physically and mentally.
I’ve emphasized to my teams and my own children the importance of making the most of this time off. Now is a great time to focus on development over winning. Spend time with your children helping them to: (1) improve athletic weaknesses, (2) try new skills, and (3) practice with a purpose. In my work on Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD), my recurring theme is to “Build Good Habits Over Time.” There has never been a more opportune time to develop new and better athletic habits with our children.
2. Embrace a fresh start to fall sports
With time off comes the opportunity to reflect on our children’s youth sport experiences. Many experts have called for a reimagining of youth sports that is more child-centered and less dependent on travel, expenses, and scheduling demands. I couldn’t agree more. While my focus is on what parents can do to help their children restart organized sports, I highly recommend embracing a fresh start in the fall. For more, go to the Aspen Institute to read Tom Farrey’s article on How Sports Can Rebuild America: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/how-sports-can-help-rebuild-america/.
Perhaps the startup of youth sports doesn’t have to mean the end of family dinners and bike rides. And just maybe, there could be less travel, fewer tournaments, and a greater emphasis on community sports. In my family, we’re already talking about a return to sports that doesn’t cause us to be as overextended as we were pre-COVID. Talk with your children about what they want their sports participation to look and feel like. And better yet, talk with your local youth sports coaches and administrators about any changes you’d like to see. The Positive Coaching Alliance has some valuable resources that can easily be implemented in our communities.
3. Develop intrinsic motivation
My husband and I have four sons who play a combination of soccer, hockey, basketball and lacrosse throughout the year. During the quarantine, it has been interesting to observe how they play at home and which sports they gravitate toward on their own. We are fortunate to have a big family, with cousins next door, so the pick-up sports have been plentiful. Interestingly, our kids have played a variety of sports in waves, including non-traditional sports like tetherball, mountain biking, and skateboarding.
By observing kids during free play, parents can gain some insight about where their children’s passions really lie. Research suggests that free play improves both creativity and intrinsic motivation in athletes. Help your athletes cultivate a love of the game, whatever game that may be. Encourage creativity, deep practice, experimentation, and fun. Over the course of the summer, gradually add in some structured practice. One of the best life skills derived from sports is intrinsic motivation. Athletes who are intrinsically motivated generally go farther with their athletic careers (as do intrinsically motivated professionals in other fields).
4. Communicate with coaches
As you embark on more structured at-home practice or small groups in your community, try to focus on a few key areas of improvement. To begin, reach out to your children’s coaches. Ask for their opinions on skills your child can improve on. Also, ask the coaches for sport-specific resources. There is an abundance of content out there now. Try to narrow the options and focus on topics your children can really benefit from during their pre-season practice.
In general, I advise athletes to combine fitness with sports skills. This form of functional training keeps practice fun and purposeful. For older children, ask coaches about pre-season fitness assessments or target goals. Use the month of August to train toward those specific benchmarks.
5. Create a 4-week plan
In order to successfully accomplish a pre-season to do list or meet target goals, develop a game plan suitable for your child. August is the time for action! Now is the time to create a routine – focused on your children’s needs and interests – and get them ready for a competitive season ahead. Establish a routine that includes fitness, sports skills, and foundational athletic skills. Like a good summer reading program: keep a journal, set goals, and use incentives.
My kids are using shared google documents and spreadsheets to create, edit, and share workouts within our family. Developing and sharing workouts across friend groups can also be fun. For instance, my sister, who is also a coach, started a daily fitness challenge with a group of kids. Over text, the kids report in about their 50 push-ups or 1,000 jump ropes a day challenges. Planning, logging, and sharing fitness plans is a great way to get in shape and stay motivated. At SHAPE America there are many printable, monthly calendar-style resources to use.
6. Learn the FITT principle
When planning the August training routine, be sure to teach your children about the FITT principle. It’s a commonly used acronym in the exercise science field which stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type of exercise. Most children can do cardiovascular exercise 3-6 days a week, muscular fitness exercise 2-3 days a week and exercises for flexibility 5-7 days a week. Intensity should be moderate to vigorous. Time can be 20-60 minutes (or more). The FITT principle provides an outline for a well-rounded fitness routine. Add sport specifics to better prepare your children for fall sports.
Also note that the research on youth strength training and conditioning is incredibly positive if done properly. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) provides supporting evidence and debunks common myths.
Specifically, children should follow the principle of progression. Start simple and build to more complex exercises. Additionally, children should follow the principle of overload by gradually increasing training volume over time (about 5-10% a week is the recommended norm). A progressive increase in training volume over the course of a month or more will have your children ready to take the field this fall.
7. Focus on the ABCs – Agility, Balance, Coordination
Parents should focus on their children’s athletic foundation, as much, if not more so than specific sports skills. An athletic foundation starts with the ABCs: agility, balance, and coordination. Learning to move efficiently is necessary for all sports. Children can build their physical literacy with locomotor skills such as galloping, sliding, skipping, hopping, and jumping. Use these skills in fun games of tag, capture the flag, or even obstacle courses. If you don’t have exercise equipment such as hurdles or ladders, improvise with anything children can jump over or run around. I often use sidewalk chalk for an “agility ladder” or even creative hopscotch patterns. Dust off your jump ropes and get a family competition going. These games and challenges can help children across a variety of sports and development levels.
These classic movement skills have not gone out of style! More than ever, children need to build a strong athletic foundation to avoid injuries and boost performance. A well-established athletic foundation also allows children to pivot between sports over time. Our youth sports system generally rushes into sports skills instead of focusing on the basic building blocks. Use this break from organized sports to focus on doing the basics well. It’s as easy as ABC.
8. Improve Cardiovascular Fitness
After a spring of virtual everything, hopefully summer provides a much needed transition for children to get outside and play. Children will likely need to improve their cardiovascular fitness to be ready to compete in full-length games. While aerobic activities like bike riding or jogging are helpful, it is better to focus on running as it relates to sports. Younger children will need parental guidance to determine distance and speed, but children middle-school age and older can begin to learn how to train themselves. Introduce interval running, with a combination of jogging and sprinting. Children can sprint between driveways, mailboxes, or telephone poles and then jog between a few, creating their own pattern of sprints/jogs/walks. Of course, a community track is another useful alternative. Using a track to run fartleks (yes, that’s a real word for alternating faster springs and slower jogs) is a beneficial way to train for most sports.
Whether your child is running in your neighborhood, on a track, or eventually in a gym, instead of running at the same pace for a distance, be sure to change speed and direction. The best way to be ready for the cardiovascular demands of organized sports is to play small-sided pick-up games. While this is safer at the moment for non-contact sports like baseball or tennis, soon we should be able to safely engage in small-group contact sports.
9. Build Muscular Fitness
Children of all ages can safely build muscular fitness, provided they follow the principles of progression and overload – and focus on safety! Start with body resistance exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, planks, squats, lunges, pull ups, toe raises, and more. Pay close attention to technique and form. Provide feedback and encouragement. Using a mirror or video will help children learn to self-monitor. With children, the emphasis should always be on quality over quantity. Have children begin with single sets of 10 and gradually increase training volume. Help children to understand what a set and repetitions (reps) are and how to progress over time. In our family, we do sets of push-ups to match our age with our younger children (e.g., our 6 year old does 6 push-ups). Meanwhile, our teenage son is ready for more advanced challenges like a push-up and sit-up pyramid (10 of each, 9 of each, all the way down to one push-up and one sit-up).
Eventually, children will be ready to use small free weights and learn basic weight lifting techniques such as: bench press, bicep curls, triceps extensions, and overhead press. Children can also safely add free weights to exercises like squats, lunges, and toe raises. August is an opportune time to workout with your kids. If you need ways to be creative with equipment or exercises at home, here is my previous D.I.Y. advice.
10. Check in on mental health
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen families demonstrate resilience, especially those with essential workers. Helping our children learn a variety of mental health skills, like resilience, will bode them well in sports and in life. Now is the time to get gritty. Expert , Dr. Angela Duckworth says parents can teach children grit by being supportive yet demanding. Her Tedx is well worth the six minutes: https://youtu.be/H14bBuluwB8. Encourage children to work toward what they want to accomplish. Define performance goals and create a corresponding workout plan to reach those targets.
As previously suggested, a return to play will bring a medley of emotions. Many children may feel anxious about being rusty or keeping up with their competition. As an expert in motor development and behavior, I can assure you that your children’s sports skills will come back to them. Children have a powerful ability to catch up and get back on trajectory. Reassure your children that their worries are normal and to focus on what they can control about their own return to play. There is plenty right now that none of us can control. While you may not be able to create game-like intensity in your backyard, you can help your children be fit, focused, and ready when more realistic opportunities strike.
If nothing else, for many of us this gift of unstructured quarantine time is an opportunity to cultivate both the physical and mental skills that will enable our children to be successful long-term athletes. Use these tips to maximize pre-season time while it lasts.
Dr. Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is an Associate Professor at Westfield State University in the Movement Science Department. She is also a licensed soccer coach with the United Soccer Coaches. Her current research is on LTAD and youth sport specialization. She thanks Paula Leahy Welch for her editorial support. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org or https://www.lynnpantuosco-hensch.com