"My child is bad at sports!"

TS_3_thumb.jpgTEAM sports at early tweens (ages 7 to 11) facilitates development of cognitive and psychomotor skills, says an educator and a former top athlete, a view shared by two other experts in sports education. With generally higher levels of obesity and a tendency to small families offering fewer socially appropriate interactive contexts for the early primary school child, team sports offer him/her significant health and developmentally appropriate social benefits. They get a chance to make new friends and have good fun at the same time. In this concluding installment of a story on tweens and team sports, the experts discuss how parents can provide appropriate support in helping their child to cope with likely challenges.

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Team sports and your primary school child: Experts speak

TS_Thumb2.jpgUNLESS a family is outdoor sports-oriented, it is likely that a child gets his or her early introduction to team sports via their school CCAs. In the primary school, the common ones would be netball and football with greater participation by those in the upper primary (late tweens, ages 11-12). And since 2007, there's a new team sport CCA, floorball. Some experts may argue, based on developmental criteria, that the early to mid tweens (7-10 years) may be too soon for team sports participation. Others may disagree citing other benefits. But the existence of such team sports CCAs in our primary schools underscore the value(s) a child can acquire if the participation is under proper guidance. Former athletes (individual and team sports) and educators provide their perspectives in this two-part article.

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Guidelines for strength training

Earlier we explained why it would help to have some form of strength or resistance training for tweens/teens. We also examined the validity of possible concerns that parents might have about starting their child with a strength training programme.

In this final instalment to this series on fitness for life, we discuss important guidelines that must be understood and adhered to when starting such a training programme.

Understand this first

By the time children reach their tween years (7 to 8), balance and posture control skills mature to adult levels. This is the best time to start on a resistance training programme – meaning it should not start before achievement of those skills. For reaping the best value from such a programme, the child should ideally have advanced to a certain level of skill proficiency in their sport.

Strength gains can be acquired through various types of strength-training methods and equipment; however, most strength-training machines and gymnasium equipment cater for adults with weight increments that are too large for children.

Thus it’s better for them to start with free weights. These require better balance control and technique but are small and portable, provide small weight increments, and can be used for strengthening sports-specific movements.

However, remember that strength training is different from the sport of weightlifting (Olympic lifting) which involves explosive and rapid lifting of weights, such as the "snatch" and the "clean and jerk". Children should avoid this because safe technique may be difficult to maintain and young body tissues may be stressed too abruptly.

Starting on a strength training programme

A child’s strength training program should not be viewed as a scaled-down version of an adult programme. So note the following key pointers:

Seek instruction. Start with a coach or personal trainer who has experience with youth strength training. The coach or trainer can create a safe, effective strength training program based on your child's age, size, skills and sports interests. Or enroll your child in a strength training class designed for kids.

Warm up. This is vital to avoid muscle strain. Five to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity, such as walking, jogging in place or jumping rope warms the muscles and helps reduce the risk of injury. Gentle stretching after each session is a good idea, too.

Keep it light. Begin with low-resistance exercises until proper technique is perfected. When 8 to 10 repetitions can be performed, it is reasonable to add weight in 10% increments.

Sources of resistance. Remember that the resistance doesn't have to come from just weights. Resistance tubing and body-weight exercises, such as push-ups, can be just as effective.

Optimal gains in strength. Stick to eight to 10 repetitions. Workouts need to be at least 20 to 30 minutes long and take place two to three times per week, and continue to add weight or repetitions as strength improves. Any increase in such frequency seems to have no additional benefit and may instead increase the risk for an overuse injury.

Endurance training. If endurance is an objective, increase the repetitions but with lighter resistance.

Stress proper technique. This is more important than focusing on the amount of weight lifted. Your child can gradually increase the resistance or number of repetitions as he or she gets older.

Supervise. Adult supervision is an important part of youth strength training. If your child lifts weights, act as a spotter — someone who stands ready to grab the weights — in case the weight becomes too heavy.

Rest between workouts. Make sure your child rests at least one full day between exercising each specific muscle group. This is a basic principle to optimise the benefit of any training. It also helps to reduce injury through strain. Thus two or three strength training sessions a week should be sufficient.

Finally, remember that your goals when exercising with children are simple: Be safe, have fun and help kids learn to love physical activity. Results won't come overnight. But eventually, your child will notice a difference in muscle strength and endurance. This would be the key motivation to establishing a fitness habit that lasts a lifetime.

Strength training: Myths and misconceptions

IN a previous article on why have strength or resistance training, we touched on the physical softness of today’s youth due to increasing sendentary pursuits and less than ideal diets associated with an urbanised lifestyle that expects food delivered fast. Citing pertinent examples from the recent Beijing Olympics, we noted the importance of muscular development to the growth and self-esteem of the tween, and introduced the idea of having a strength training programme.

In this article, we examine the concerns parents may have of such a program that would involve some form of weight training.

Some misconceptions

Two of the most common misconceptions are that strength training may stunt the growth of children and that children should not lift weights until they are 12 years old.

However, there is simply no evidence to support either of these statements. In fact, all of the major fitness and medical organizations in the US recommend strength training for youth, assuming that basic guidelines are adhered to and that appropriate leadership is present.

When can a tween begin strength training?

During childhood, kids improve their body awareness, control and balance through active play. As early as age 8, however, strength training can become a valuable part of an overall fitness plan — as long as the child is mature enough to follow directions and practice proper technique and form.

Benefits of strength or resistance training

Guidelines issued by the world famous medical institution, the Mayo Clinic lists the following advantages for children when strength training is done properly under qualified supervision:

a.  Increase their muscle strength and endurance

b.  Help protect their muscles and joints from injury

c.  Improve their performance in nearly any sport, from dancing and figure skating to football and soccer.

Even if your tween isn't interested in sports, strength training can:

a.  Strengthen their bones

b.  Help promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels

c.  Boost their metabolism

d.  Help them to maintain a healthy weight

e.  Improve their self-esteem 

Improvements in muscular fitness, bone mineral density, body composition, motor fitness performance and injury resistance should be compelling evidence for all parents, though children will likely focus on things like enhanced sports performance and the social aspects of exercise. 

In fact, children don't usually have the ability to comprehend long-term concepts until they are in the tween years, so abstract ideas like healthy bones and disease prevention will do little to motivate them, and may in fact demotivate instead. 

Stick with ideas like self-improvement and individual success, and always make sure everyone is having fun. Fun is the number one motivator in almost every aspect of a child's life.

In the next and final instalment of this series, we will discuss some guidelines for strength training.

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