THE 5 MYTHS ABOUT YOUTH FITNESS
A youth fitness article by Mindes Dorlean, Fitness Director of LA Galaxy San Diego and owner of Mindes ABC Fitness, where he trains kids and adults. Mindes is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach with 10+ years of experience and has played and coached soccer at all levels, including youth,college and professional soccer.
Youth Soccer News: An athlete is an exceptional human being. Their bodies face higher demands than the average person. This is especially true of soccer players who run an average of 3 to 5 miles every game. While we expect an adult athlete to have unique fitness and nutritional needs, for some reason, many people ignore this area for youth players.
A competitive youth soccer player trains 2-3 days per week plus 1-2 game days on weekends where we often demand they play 2-3 games in a single day! This is an exceptional task for anyone, let alone young kids with underdeveloped muscles and cardiovascular systems. I see lack of youth fitness and nutrition as one of the biggest contributors to the “epidemic” of overuse injuries in young players today.
You wouldn’t fill a race car with poor quality fuel and substandard parts and expect it to consistently outperform the competition, would you? The same holds true for young athletes. They need proper nutrition for performance at a high level and strong bodies are the core of a sustainable and solid foundation.
Until kids are old enough to be responsible for themselves, parents have to commit to helping their young athlete be successful. For example, when you are grocery shopping, you need to think of the athlete under your roof. Also, when your son has an early game on Saturday morning, you need to help him by preparing the night before with a good dinner, an early bedtime, and proper nutrition before the match. If you let him sleep over at a friend’s house and stay up late eating junk food, don’t be surprised or hold him accountable for his poor performance in the game.
Here are the 5 most common myths I see in youth fitness today:
#1 Speed is Genetic
This is absolutely not true. Just like any other muscles, you have to correctly strengthen the ones necessary for running. This includes your lungs and your heart, not just your leg muscles. Anyone can train to be faster.
One of the main problems in youth sports is that many coaches will have kids doing sprints and endless laps. When they don’t see a kid getting faster, they think that kid “isn’t fast,” that they’re not genetically capable.
Sprinting is NOT speed training, and running alone is NOT how you get faster. More importantly, kids should not do endless laps because their cardiovascular system isn’t mature enough to handle it without proper development. You’ll see symptoms like side cramps, dry and itchy throat, and pain in their lungs that indicate too intense of an exercise.
#2 Kids Don’t Need Fitness Training, They Get Enough in Team Training
Wrong. Especially for soccer players, this is absolutely wrong.
An athlete’s lungs and heart work three times harder than the average human in every day of life. If not trained at an early age, these muscles will not be built up to the capacity required of a player at age 17 and beyond. The body will break down through exhaustion, dehydration and injury.
In seven years of training kids, I’ve worked with hundreds of young athletes and I can honestly say that the kids on my teams have not suffered a major injury on the field. Some may say it’s luck, but I know proper fitness is the #1 thing for injury prevention and just as important as technique in soccer.
Many people also don’t understand how important muscle memory is in soccer. There are some physical skills that just can’t be taught overnight. You would never take a kid at 16 and tell them they could become an Olympic gymnast would you? No, because everyone knows a gymnast’s body and skill is built gradually from a very young age. It’s the same with soccer.
For example, a young soccer player’s hip muscles should learn very early how to open properly; we call this “opening the gate.” You can see an 11-year-old capable of striking the ball at 60-70 mph, something a 17-year-old without proper training can’t achieve.
This level of fitness isn’t something that can be achieved in an hour and a half team practice held two days a week. I believe this myth to be the reason we see so many overuse injuries in kids today.
#3 Speed of Play Means My Kid Needs to Be Faster
This is a common misunderstanding. Parents get their kid’s evaluation, which says little Johnny needs to ‘increase speed of play’ and think, “but my kid is the fastest one on the team?!” Johnny can be the fastest kid, yet still have the slowest speed of play.
Speed of play is about speed of decision-making, awareness, and engagement BEFORE you receive the ball. It’s about anticipation and fast decision making so that once you receive the ball, you already know what you’re doing next. Again, this comes from muscle memory that begins at a very young age, a sharp mind and a fit body capable of extremely quick movements.
One of my favorite players, Zinedine “Zizou” Zidane, is legendary because he was always in the right place at the exact right moment and knew exactly what to do with the ball. You rarely ever saw him making 20-yard sprints up the field, yet his speed of play was incredible. He may not have been the fastest runner, but he was the quickest player.
#4 Diet Isn’t that Important for Kids
Eighty percent of game preparation begins the night before the match. What you eat and when you eat it will have a HUGE impact on your performance. After a big meal, do you feel like you want to take a nap?
Eating too heavy of foods too close to training or game time could make a young player feel nauseous and dizzy. Your body needs time to digest food – at least 2 hours before any intense activity. Otherwise your body is still working on digestion instead of focusing on pushing oxygen to your legs, heart and lungs for the activity required.
I tell my players to load up with complex cards the night before a game and simple carbs the day of. For those early 8 a.m. games, I’d recommend only oatmeal, cereal or a muffin and a piece of fruit like a banana or apple. Protein is not good before games because it takes too long to digest. I’d rather them play on an empty stomach than feel too full.
Also, starting the night before a game, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! I tell my kids, “your pee should be clear in the morning.” But stop drinking water an hour before the game.
Finally, REST is important. Especially in between tournament games – kids need to stay out of the sun, give their legs a rest, and allow their muscles to recover. Which brings us to the last myth in youth fitness …
#5 Kids Don’t Need to Worry About Recovery
This could be the biggest myth in youth fitness – recovery is almost completely ignored for kids because everyone is in a hurry and on to the next thing. Professional athletes have people who make sure they ice sore spots, stretch tight muscles and eat proper meals after training and games. Since kids don’t have a staff of experts, this leaves it to mom and dad.
Proper recovery includes cool down stretching, post match nutrition (carbs, veggies, fruit, chocolate milk), and ice on any sore body parts or bruises. If your daughter’s heel is hurting, just give it a quick 5-minute massage. Muscle clean up is critical to injury prevention and recovery before the next game.
Unfortunately, a lot of the responsibilities I’ve laid out above fall on parents because many coaches are either not trained in proper fitness and nutrition or just don’t have the time to pay attention to it. We also have to understand that kids today, especially in Southern California, aren’t growing up the way we did – they aren’t spending hours each day playing soccer at the park or in the street with their friends. They are in organized training. 7-year-old players have private coaches. 10-year-old players are on elite teams playing six days a week. If we are going to demand this level of performance from kids, we have to commit to teaching them proper fitness and nutrition, and help protect their growing bodies for the future.