Thursday, May 13, 2021

Can Lifting Weights Actually Be Fun for Kids?

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Every once in a while, the topic of strength training with children and adolescents boils up on social media. The other day on Twitter, a strength coach posted a video of young athletes doing squats in an amazing-looking school gym. The comments on the tweet featured the usual myths: Strength training at an early age stops growth, there’s a high risk for growth plate injuries, and it is generally harmful for bones, tendons, and ligaments.

I don’t think I need to go into any more of this nonsense; these myths have been debunked for well over 15 years, probably longer. The benefits and effectiveness of resistance training for young athletes, especially in regard to motor development, are well known in the S&C world.

I’m a huge supporter of resistance training and teaching kids lifting techniques at an early age… I have also wondered if that’s actually fun for them and how I can make it more fun.

However, one argument against strength training with kids is also often mentioned in the discussion, for which we as strength coaches often don’t really have as clear and convincing an answer as we do for the myth around growth plates.

“Kids should have fun and play games. Lifting weights is certainly not fun for kids.”

I’m a huge supporter of resistance training and teaching kids lifting techniques at an early age, even the complex ones like the Olympic lifts, because of all the benefits for athletic development. However, as a strength coach I have also wondered if that’s actually fun for them and how I can make it more fun. I think, to give a thoughtful response to that, we have to reflect and discuss what “fun” in the context of youth sports actually means.

We use this word very often to describe how we expect training for young athletes to be and what our primary goal in youth sports is. “Fun” is named as the main reason why kids participate in sports; therefore, not having fun (anymore) is the reason kids drop out of sports, very often at an early age. The dropout statistics in youth sports, as well as the decline in physical activity among children and adolescents in general, is alarming, so the fundamental question is why can’t we seem to establish fun in youth sports? And let’s be provocative: If we can’t do that, why are we even thinking about putting kids in a gym and having them lift weights?

When I scroll through social media, where coaches share the content of their programs or drills, it seems like the common association with “fun” is playing games. The weight room is portrayed as the place for hard work, sweat, and grind—doing what’s necessary to play the game. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it doesn’t really help us to figure out if lifting weights is fun and enjoyable for young athletes. Luckily, the majority of strength coaches already understand that kids should not be treated and coached like small adults.

Social Factors and Child Training

The concept of fun in youth sports is hard to grasp and even harder to characterize. We as coaches tend to think that we know what’s fun for kids in sports, but do we really? In a mixed methods study from 2015, a group of researchers used a social research method called “concept mapping” to collect data from kids, parents, and coaches to identify all the elements that make participating in sports fun for kids (Visek et al., 2015). Afterward, those fun determinants were rated and quantified in regard to their importance to fun, frequency of occurrence, and feasibility of implementation.

For the study, only participants from soccer—as one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and one with easy socioeconomic access—were surveyed. Anyway, I don’t want to get too deep into the complexity and beauty of mixed research methods and will instead jump to the results, the theoretical framework, and why this paper made me evaluate my view and approach on the whole aspect of fun in coaching kids, not only in the weight room.

The study identified 11 dimensions of fun in youth soccer, which were ranked based on the ratings.

  1. “Positive Team Dynamics”
  2. “Trying Hard”
  3. “Positive Coaching”
  4. “Learning and Improving”
  5. “Game Time Support”
  6. “Games”
  7. “Practices”
  8. “Team Friendships”
  9. “Mental Bonuses”
  10. “Team Rituals”
  11. “Swag”

Let’s get a bit deeper into the dimensions, their fun determinants, and especially the importance rating. Playing well together as a team, being supported by my teammates, and supporting my teammates, all had the highest importance rating (Positive Team Dynamics). That’s not really surprising. What did get me thinking were the determinants of the second dimension (Trying Hard): trying your best, exercising and being active, and working hard had a higher importance rating than, for example, competing, setting and achieving goals, or making a good play (scoring, making a big save, etc.).

The highest ratings for Positive Coaching got the determinants when a coach treats players with respect, encourages the team, and is a positive role model with clean, consistent communication. Getting compliments, a coach joking around, and participating with the players during practice got the lowest importance rating.

The participants also rated being challenged to improve and get better at the sport, learning from mistakes, and learning new skills with much more importance than going to sports camps or copying the moves and tricks that professional athletes do (Learning and Improving). Determinants that seem to be of less importance for fun in youth soccer are earning medals and trophies, staying in hotels for games/tournaments, traveling to new places to play (Swag), or doing team rituals. Keeping a positive attitude is of way more importance than winning (Mental Bonuses). Getting playing time was rated much higher than playing in tournaments or playing on a nice field (Games).

So, what do we take out of this study? . . .

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