Coaches & Parents Working Together for Youth Sports

This week, I attended a mandatory coach certification meeting (lecture) for the local school district. The presenter was the athletic director and softball coach at a local high school with years of experience.

The nugget of wisdom from those years of experience that he shared with the coaches – really the only time he deviated from reading the prepared script – was in regards to parent meetings.

He suggested (implored) that coaches have a parent meeting and tell the parents that they refuse to discuss playing time with the parents. He insisted that if the coach is firm in the meeting, he will not have issues with parents. He even said that when a parent comes to talk to him, his first question, in a stern voice, is: “You’re not here to discuss playing time, are you?” He warned coaches not to waffle on this issue.

I could not disagree more. Personally, when coaching high school athletes, I prefer that parents encourage their child to approach me directly so we can discuss any issues that the player may have, as parents rarely attend practices (all my practices are open).

I also use the 24-Hour Rule: I will not discuss playing time issues with parents or players until the next day, as I do not want the emotions of the game to impact the discussion. Once we have a chance to take a deep breath and remove ourselves from the game, I am more than willing to discuss playing time with parents.

Why? Because we want the same thing.

When I listen to coaches like this speak, they make parents (and often the players too) into adversaries. Parents have the same goals for their child as I have for all the players. The difference is that I have to balance the goals and desires of 12 players, while the parents are laser-focused on one player. Sometimes this causes parents to lose some perspective, but we still want the same thing.

What do parents want? Here is what I wrote earlier this fall:

They want their child to have a great experience, and they feel a great experience is one where the child wants to go to practice and games and where the coach emphasizes sportsmanship, keeps it fun, teaches the skills and communicates openly and honestly with the players.

Are a coach’s goals any different? I hope that all players have a good experience, and I hope that all players want to go to practice. The worst thing that I can hear from a player is for a player to say, “I have to go to practice.” I don’t want players to feel that they have to do anything – I want them to play because they enjoy practices and games, like the competition, and want to learn something new.

There is nothing to gain from avoiding conflict by refusing to speak to parents and players. Parents simply want to ensure a positive experience for their child, and coaches should want the same. Nobody wants a player to have a bad experience. By meeting with parents and working together, as opposed to creating adversaries, coaches and parents can enhance the players’ experience.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

12 thoughts on “Coaches & Parents Working Together for Youth Sports

  • The AD, based on what you have presented to us, never said he wouldn’t discuss playing time with the ‘player’. You are correct in stating having an open dialect with players is necessary and should even be encouraged by a coach. But, while parents have nothing but best intentions for their child, the coach has best intentions for the program and that may or may not include more playing time for ‘Johnny’. As a college head and assistant coach, I welcomed dialogue about the great sport of basketball, but I too wouldn’t discuss playing time, or even individual player talents with a parent. I would discuss what their son/daughter needed to work on to become better players of the game but as the coach I know the best rotation to help the program succeed.

  • I don’t understand why coaches are unwilling to explain to a parent why his or her son or daughter does not play. At the college level, I understand. The player should take care of his business and not rely on his parents. However, for a high school freshman? What does a coach have to lose by having a civil discussion and informing a player or parent what he needs to do to play more? Why can’t all three parties work together for one goal? I am not saying to change your rotation; but, why not explain what you see to the parents.

    I also dislike the arrogance of coaches. Maybe you know the best rotation; maybe you don’t. If the head coach sees things one way and the assistant coach sees things another way, is the head coach automatically correct because he or she is the head coach? Why can’t the assistant be right or at least have a valid point? I think it is arrogant to assume that I as a coach know everything and the parents don’t know anything. I see things the way that I see them, but things like this are fluid, not absolute. Maybe I am missing something. How many coaches even in the NBA totally ignore players who the stats say are very productive in favor of those the stats say are unproductive? Are these coaches definitely correct? Are the statistics wrong? They may not tell the whole story, but it is a bit arrogant to dismiss the statistics totally in favor of one’s opinion.

    I kept +/- stats at a game this summer. The player that the coach clearly favored was -15, while the other player at her position was +11. The team lost. I am not at practice, so maybe the coach has a valid reason, but I could see no reason for favoring the player that he did ahead of the other two girls at the same position. If he told me that he was correct despite the evidence, I would tell him that he is wrong. FWIW, the two players play on the same high school team and the player who was +11 starts ahead of the girl who was -15. So, is the AAU coach right or the high school coach?

  • B, I realize you are very experienced, but your position here seems quite naive at best. Things have gotten worse over the past several years. Too many parents have a delusional opinion of their own childs ability, and ridiculous expectations for their future to match. For every 1 parent who will listen to reason and logic and facts, there are probably 2-3 who are insane. They may be rational in every other area of their life, but not about their own child. They make it personal, they bad mouth you in front of your players. They try to rally support from other parents. They go after your job to get you fired. They look to turn anything they can into ammo for their vendetta.

    Discussion of playing time is OUT OF BOUNDS! PERIOD, EXCLAMATION MARK. Invariably what these types will do, is they will always look to compare their kid with other kids on the team. And they will do that in derogatory and demeaning ways. If they would stay rational, and stick to discussing their own child I wouldn’t have a problem.

    While you are a prolific writer, it remains to be seen if you’re smarter than everyone else. There is no correlation between simply owning a platform to communicate from and being correct. The fact is, coaches want to win games, we are going to play whichever elgible kid gives us the best chance to win. Even if they aren’t our favorite kid. As for “favortism,” sure you bet, you perform and coach will favor you. Stats are not a good indicator. We can use stats to show anything we want.
    Stats are often misdleading. I’ve had parents try to show me stats to back up their opinions. The response is always, ok, now lets examine how those numbers hold up when minutes played are introduced into the equation. You tell me I don’t play your kid enough and he is only averaging 3.5 turn over a game, meanwhile the starting point guard is averaging 5. So you think your kid should play more. Parents have actually try to show me things exactly like this! When I won’t hear it, they will go to the AD, them to the Principal. But usually by then they have tried to make it into something else. I can point out, “look the starter is playing 24 minutes a game and averages 4 turnovers, while your kid plays 6 minutes a game and averages 3.5 turnovers. If they played equal minutes by your statistics, your child would average 14 a game.” I can point out these observations and they fall on deaf ears with these delusional types.

    And here is the problem with these one-number linear weight (where you assign a value to each kind of production and kind of sum them up) systems: who determines what action is worth how much, and why? Why is a free throw missed carrying the same negative weight as a turnover? Why is an assist worth as much as a point? Why is a block worth as much as a rebound? Why is a rebound worth as much as a point? Etc. It just seems very arbitrary to me, and not overly helpful.

    No, discussing playing time is off the table because the bad parents have ruined it for the rest. I will not put up with it.

  • I’ll go a step further on this topic. I coach kids, I don’t coach their parents, and I’m seriously not interested in anything they have to say to me unless it’s concerning the health and welfare of their own child and I need to know about it. I personally don’t have any desire to be the parents friend, or to have conversations with them about basketball or even the weather. If I’m already their friend outside of the game, that’s one thing, but the sad fact is that parents have proven themselves to be the worst thing about coaching kids and I’m loathe to leave the door cracked open so one bad apple can get in. As far as I’m concerned, a parents place is in the stands, and the only thing I want to hear them say is positive words of encouragement toward their kid, or any kid they speak to.

    I know that sounds kind of harsh and closed minded, but I want the kids to come to me with their concerns, not their parents. I constantly tell players that if they come and talk to me about a concern, I promise that I will speak with them with respect and kindness, and while they may not recieve the response they desire to hear, I will not dissapoint them with my attitude and demeanor.

  • George:
    I don’t see the need for the personal attack, but whatever.

    Naive? What’s naive about showing people respect? Look, maybe I am lucky with the parents who I have dealt with and the schools where I have coached, though I have coached at a broad cross-section from Jewish schools to Catholic schools to poorer public schools to wealthier public schools.

    I haven’t had a problem with a parent since 2001, and that was a one-time incident at AAU Nationals with an u-9 when we decided that we would play to win at Nationals, and therefore two players did not see much playing time. Up until Nationals, everyone played in every game. Nationals created the problem, plus I was immature.

    I don’t see a reason not to talk to players or parents. As I said, I want everyone on the same side – the parents are not the adversaries. When treated with respect, I haven’t had issues with players.

    Of course, I also play everyone in every game (cost us a league championship in volleyball this season), so maybe I am naive.

    However, I disagree about coaches. Sure, I’d like to win every game, but that’s not my first goal. I played every player in every game in basketball and volleyball this season. In volleyball, I benched my best player for the first game because he was disrespectful to the bus driver in a game that decided the league champion. Some things are more important than wins.

    As for favorites, if you don’t think that coaches play favorites, you’re naive. Everyone has biases whether intentional or not. Your style of play is a bias. I rarely watch a team that does not appear to have an inexplicable coach’s favorite.

  • First off, I owe you an appology. This has been a hot button topic for me recently, but that doesn’t mean I can lash out at you over it. So, I am sorry B. As of right now, I’m actually stepping down from HS coaching for the upcoming season. If I do coach next season, it will be at the Jr High level. One parent who won’t allow his kid to have their own HS experience and has meddled at every opportunity has taken the wind out of my sails. I am sick of it.

    You’re clearly doing something right if you haven’t had problems beyond the one in 2001. I’ve had exactly two in 10 years, 2nd currently on going. But both were so uncalled for that it was very disturbing to me. Maybe I’m not thick skinned enough for coaching.

    Haven’t you moved around a lot in your coaching experience? You’ve been all over the place, even over seas, right? What’s the longest stint you spent at one location? I admire that kind of experience, but it does seem as though it would be difficult to have any problems if a person keeps moving. That’s not another attack either, trying to make a serious point there. If people know a coach never stays long anywhere, they might just wait it out instead of complaining to admiistration.

    I try to play every kid in every game too. But it doesn’t always happen. I played them all last year in 26 of 28 games. The two games I didn’t play them all were both for 1st place in league. I feel like I usually do a better job of playing them all than most of my peers do at playing the whole bench. However I’d take issue with the concept that it’s a good idea at the HS level to play everyone just for the sake of playing everyone. It’s not Rec ball, it’s not Jr High. I feel like if my team actually has a chance to win an important game, I owe it to the kids to give them the best opportunity to win that game. After all, the best players are the best because they are the most talented, and usually because they have worked the hardest.

    I’ve always felt that good (generaly speaking) players win games, and poor coaching loses games at the HS level. If we lose because I played a weak line up too many minutes, that’s just bad coaching and the kids who have worked so hard (all of them) have a right to be dissapointed in me.

    The only “side” that I think parents should be on is the parent side. Be their parent, and that’s it. I’m the coach and they need to let me be the coach. If a parent comes to practice, that’s fine, they are welcome, but I don’t want to hear from them unless I need to know something about ther kid. Stay the hell of the court! When they come to games, I expect them to sit in the stands and cheer for our team, to never try to coach their kid from the stands, to never yell at referees, to not speak to other teams kids except to say something like, “Nice game 23.” I haven’t always felt so strongly, but coaching 10 years (actually this next would be my 10th) in the same town has brought me to this point. I used to go sit down with parents in the stands if their was a game after mine. Now, I want them to feel like I’m not very approachable. Maybe that’s my problem- I’ve become jaded.

    I didn’t say winning is my first goal either. It’s definetly not. As you well know, winning is the result of doing things well. It just happens without being the goal when you have good players and they are well prepared. I just stated that it’s a fact that every coach wants to win games, not that it’s my priority. There is a very distinct difference between the two. No reading between the lines here, just the words in black. Coaches want to win and we play the best lineup we can because those kids have earned it, and it gives the team the best chance to win. Sometimes we have to maqke a stand that shows some things are more important than a game like sit a kid, or bench a kid for moral or ethical reasons like breaking a team rule. That’s not at all unusual, I’ve done it, and I’m sure most coaches do that.

    Taking your favorite/bias example, how does this unintentionaly or not factor into your own starters and your own rotations? I mean if EVERYONE (I agree) has these biases, then you and I do too, right? It’s my contention that the simple act of having a bias doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s not the best choice. The word “bias” is not a bad word. I think I can answer the question I asked of you B. Nobody knows your team like you do. Nobody knows the day to day and game to game physical and mental condition of your players like you do. Nobody has figured out which of your kids work best together on the court as well as you have. Anybody can sit in the stands and be an “arm chair quarterback.”

    This is not to state that I believe I never make mistakes, or that you never make mistakes, of course we do. But we usually know it afterwards if we are any good, and if we are honest with ourselves and listen to our assistants if we have them. I’m one of those coaches who usually has an inexplicable starter every year. If it doesn’t seem right, well then I guess the kid must be a “coaches favorite.” Is that the idea? Last season (JV girls) this player was a kid who was a hard nosed hustler. She defended real well, naturally wanted to come over and help when someone got beat, rebounded bigger than her size, didn’t score much, but took great care of the ball when she had it, and overall played with an intencity that was amazing. Yeah, I favored her, you bet I did. She made us better. I could put her on a quick guard, or a post player. She beat the heck out of opponents (soccer player) without fouling them. Varsity hated practicing against her. Now if you came in my gym and watched us play, you’d probably wonder what’s up with that. Particularly when it appears that there were better basketball players who came off the bench.

    I probably rarely watch a team who does not have an inexplicable coaches favorite either. Honestly I haven’t ever given it much thought beyond giving that coach the benefit of the doubt that he or she must know something about their team that I don’t know.

    In any case, please accept my appology. I hope you see that as out of character for me. I guess I need a season away. Keep up the good work Brian. Your energy and commitment is truly amazing and I have a lot of respect for how consistent you’ve been over what’s starting to become a good number of years.

    George Atwood (Willits)

  • I actually had a friend watch my team play to see if she could pick up on any biases that I may have and if it appeared that I treated any players differently. She thought that I had less patience with one player. I agreed. The player was the oldest girl on the team and one who I had challenged from the first day of try-outs to be a leader and to work harder, as she should have been on the varsity instead of the junior varsity but the varsity coach did not think that she had improved in her first two years. I was harder on her because I wanted her not to rely on the easy way, but the way that would help her on varsity.

    When I coached a pro team, one player complained that I favored another player over her. I explained to her that she had had her chances. She started the season as a starter and was supposed to be our defensive stopper and best shooter, according to my assistant. However, she was shooting 22% on the season, and when I reviewed tape, she couldn’t stop anyone. The “favored” player went from a non-player to a rotation player by being in the gym more, practicing on her own, practicing with a boy from the u-18 team and becoming a great defensive player. She earned her playing time from nothing, while the one-time starter had plenty of chances and did not produce. Ultimately, this led to my ouster as she was such a popular player with my starting PG and my assistant coach/general manager. Off the court, I was closer to the younger player, but I do not believe that it clouded my judgment. I knew that she could not shoot, but she was a very good defensive player who was the only player on our team who could defend big guards. We tried to hide her on offense. The one-time starter simply couldn’t stop anyone and she wasn’t shooting well either, with multiple opportunities. Could I have handled it better? Probably. Some things were lost in translation and I was not as proactive with some players as I was with others or as I am now. Live and learn.

    I don’t think having a favorite player or a favored player is necessarily bad unless it blinds the coach. When a coach blames other players in the huddle or post-game for the favored players mistakes, then it is a problem. When the favored status interferes with playing the best line-ups, then it is a problem. As for being there every day, I agree to an extent. However, I also have been an assistant and completely disagreed with the favored status of a player. Does that mean the head coach is right and I am wrong? My criticism is that many coaches mistake activity for achievement.

    I coached with a lady (junior college) who blamed all our mistakes on our forward because of her personality. We were in a tournament playing against a press and our point guards panicked and threw the ball back to the forward. Over and over, the guards wanted no part of the ball and deserted the forward to bring it up under pressure. The forward committed some turnovers, but she was the only one to advance the ball up court. Without her, we would have been killed. However, every mistake that she made was magnified by the coach because the coach never liked this player, while the other forward was her favored player. She was so negative to this girl that she nearly quit basketball and all the negativity stemmed from the girl being a little flirty and ultra confident around school and the clothes that she wore. It had nothing to do with basketball.

  • Awesome dialogue!
    I googled the topic “best coaching practices and working with parents” for the purpose of getting information to write a description/outline of how a track coach can convey his/her expectations with participants and parents. Here are some points I can write down and have a dialogue with the coach about:
    In a team sport often parents want to know why their child does not have more playing time
    -This question needs to be looked at from several angles
    -The coach knows/is getting to know his/her team’s playing abilities
    -Favorites and biases are not necessarily a negative thing. All humans have favorites. Used appropriately these can produce a team that plays well together
    -Addressing a parent’s question of their child’s abilities should be done at the appropriate time
    -Avoiding a conflicting parent/player can cause one to believe they are not valued

    Parents do have a job to do and a place to support their child
    -Parents can cross lines and often do as they only see their child as being slighted. They usually have good intentions but are often bias toward their child
    -Boundaries need to be established right away
    -Let parents know in the beginning what you believe are the best practices for discussing their issues
    -Let the players know they can approach their coach about anything
    -Approach (by parent or player) and timing can make all the difference in the coaches reply or anyone for that matter

    A coach’s job is to produce a winning team
    -This doesn’t mean the team will win every game
    -This doesn’t mean winning means everything!
    -Winning is important in several aspects
    -It affects the coaches job
    -It affects the morale of the players and parents
    -Parents want their child to have fun
    -Consistent losing is not fun

    Competition can be a good thing
    -Kids need to be taught to compete properly

    Hard workers advance
    -There is a level of competition among players on the same team
    -Positions have to be earned. Players who don’t get the position need to understand what the coach is trying to do, set up the best playing team.

    What I got out this dialogue is that a coach who wants cooperation from the parents will need to acknowledge their concerns in a way that show the coach values their input, questions, and concerns. If you want cooperation from parents in connection with the plan you come up with for your team, you must build a platform that says you’re approachable. I stress the two words “YOU MUST”. It’s the coach’s job to coach but it’s better to coach with the parents on your side than against you right from the get. It doesn’t look like you can separate the parents and their issues from the coaching position. The question is how will you deal with them?

    Does anyone have any additional information on coaching the individual sport of track and field and how to handle middle school and high school parents?

    Thanks for the dialogue!

  • Information in terms of what? You offered a good summery. What is the problem with T&F? There isn’t as big of an issue with playing time, which is the main contention in team sports. What type of info for T&F do you want/need?

  • Wrote the following on twitter in response to a young coach’s questions when I wrote these comments:

    “Not all parents are insane. Coaches need to do a better job of embracing parents. COMMUNICATION.”
    It’s not about defending playing time. It’s abt managing parents better.Think coaches should generate a weekly e-mail to parents. Issues surrounding playing time should be addressed with parents in a group forum/parent meeting at beginning of season.”

    My son @DaRealCT plays club soccer. I’m not coaching him. I have a good relationship with the Director of coaching (J) for the boys. My son is not coached by him. I’m including an e-mail that I sent him after one of my son’s practices. We eventually had a phone conversation.

    What J said to me in our phone conversation is what I want to communicate to any coach who reads this. J said when he was a young coach he didn’t want to have anything to do with the parents, so he tried to create a wall between himself & the parents. Some coaches will express it by saying “I don’t coach the parents, I coach the kids.” After a few seasons he realized that wasn’t working and realized he had to change his mode of operation.

    Now the club model is different than coaching high school. Parents pay a lot of money to have their kids trained and coached in a club. A high school coach is paid by the high school/school district. When a parent is putting out money, you’re going to have to answer to them one way or another. J finally figured that out and changed his mindset towards parents.

    I believe that all youth and high school coaches need to find a way to manage (coach) and educate the parents. I think a parent meeting (players included) is mandatory. This is the coach’s first opportunity to set the tone for the season, to talk about your philosophy of coaching and other matters. A discussion on playing time is a must in this meeting, as well as how concerns should be addressed for those that have issues during the season.

    Parents get a good sense of who I am & what I’m about in this first meeting with me. However, some parents do not attend the first meeting. Maybe only one shows up. Sometimes one of the players parents can’t make it. That’s where my e-mails come in. Whatever I say in a parent meeting will be e-mailed to all parents. I continue to pepper them with e-mails throughout the season, so they can understand what I’m doing with their child and how I see the game and life. Parents start to understand me & my reasoning by what I write and communicate.

    The main thing that they come to know about me is that I care & that I’m trying to create a unique sports experience that will be a part of their child’s DNA for the rest of their life. I go above and beyond the call of duty, because I have selfish intentions. I want that child to remember the sports experience they had with me.

    The responses that I get from parents during and after the season would blow your mind. Most,not all respond favorably to what I’m doing because I’m teaching them something besides sports. If you’re coached by me, your child and you (the parent) are going to be exposed to any quote or reading that I hand out. I actually want the parent to discuss quotes and handouts with children. I want them to reinforce at home what I’m doing & trying to accomplish in practice on the psychological front.

    If you communicate with parents, you can squelch a lot of the issues they may have with your coaching style or decisions. I believe that I’m not only coaching the kids, but that I’m indirectly coaching the parents and opening their minds about issues revolving around sports and life.


    Sending you this e-mail because I was not happy with the practice L conducted on Monday, September 26. I’m including CC in this correspondence because he was at the entire practice; I only saw parts of the last 45 minutes. Feel free to contact CC for full details. I can be reached at xxx if you need to talk to me directly.

    Leo conducted conditioning, plyometrics, body weight strengthening exercises, etc. for over an hour at Monday’s practice. I pulled Garrett at exactly 8PM because I thought what he was doing was ridiculous. Practice was supposed to end at 8PM and what Leo was doing was punitive & not beneficial to the psyche of his young troops or relevant in terms of developing technical or tactical skills. When I told Leo it was 8PM, EM, who has been injured for nearly two weeks clasped his hands together and said thank you. Did Leo stop. No, he continued to run the entire group & told Garrett to go with me. VE also pulled Alex from the line.

    I wrote a blog in June entitled “Do No Harm:”
    My opening sentence: “Do No Harm is an axiom in life that should be a guide post for those who are in leadership or authoritarian positions. ‘Doing no harm’ to those who are under one’s tutelage or supervision should be foremost in a leader’s mind when determining policy and procedure.” I will add that “doing no harm” should be Rule #1 for all coaches in constructing and implementing a practice plan.

    I asked Garrett what prompted Leo to engage in this type of behavior. Garrett said (paraphrasing) “Leo was upset that 7 balls were relatively flat so he had us run 7 ups and backs. Then John Paul arrived late without a ball and he made us run 2 more. Then he said to the boys (according to Garrett) that since we didn’t have enough good balls, that we can’t have a regular practice and we’ll just run.” Is that a good reason to conduct a marathon condition and strengthening session with young soccer players. Hell no and it’s not something a coach should ever do with a team of any age or level. Petty and sophomoric.

    Garrett came out of practice saying his knee & achilles hurt. Eddie, who has A-team level talent and is one of the most important players on this team has missed two games and two weeks of practice because of pain in his right hip or groin area and Leo subjects him to this type of training. Not only is that harmful, but it’s stupid. Young boys at this age are susceptible to overuse injuries and coaches have to be aware of this fact. Many are doing other sports, which provides additional stress on their growing bodies. Do no Harm!

    I think you have enough information from me. I’ve had conversations with Leo about his training philosophy (conditioning side) and have sent him numerous e-mails to enlighten him on the subject. Leo prides himself on having teams that are well conditioned. In his first ever meeting with the parents in March he emphasized conditioning more than the technical/tactical side of the game. I have a simple philosophy when it comes to conditioning. If you train/run slow, kids are going to stay slow; so train/run them fast; with a caveat, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.” I believe that you can get conditioning in practice if you properly design & implement drills and games in practice. This was best exemplified last Monday, September 16 when Leo Guerra conducted practice with the boys. Boys got tons of touches with his ball drills, shooting drills, and small sided games. Guerra finished practice off by conducting a fun & competitive team running drill that impacted the anaerobic capacity of the boys. It was a tough, beneficial and comprehensive practice. Conditioning is important, but it needs to be done with a purpose and integrated as much as possible in drills and games that are designed to impact the technical & tactical level of the players and team. I call it Functional Conditioning.


    Clarence Gaines

    P.S. I’ve sent both of you this article before, but I’m sending it again because it’s relevant to this discussion

    Aerobic Capacity and Training Ability in Children
    Aerobic capacity refers to a child’s ability to sustain a certain level of aerobic activity for a certain length of time. An aerobic activity is one that requires oxygen exchange in the blood to a greater degree than other activities, such as running versus strength training. Being able to sustain aerobic activity for longer periods of time depends on the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the tissues and muscles of the body and then use it efficiently once it gets there. In the scientific world, our aerobic capacity can be measured and is called VO2 max.

    In a broken nutshell, VO2 max is the maximum level of the body’s ability to effectively take up oxygen, transport it, and use it for sustained exercise energy.

    Normally, in adults, this ability to use oxygen can be improved with training and exercise. Improvements can be made with as little as 15 to 20 minutes of exercise 3 times a week. If you exercise more, your aerobic capacity can continue to improve to a certain point before it levels off. The interesting point about children is that even when recommendations for adult exercise are used, only small improvements (approximately 5%–10%) in aerobic capacity are seen until your child reaches puberty. Additional improvements can result simply from their ability to do the movements more easily, more efficiently, and with more motivation.

    On the other hand, some youngsters do not show any improvement with the amount of training that often leads to predictable gains in adults. Don’t despair! Once your active youngster goes through puberty, aerobic capacity can blossom. So let me reemphasize—training kids as adults does not necessarily lead to adult results and can often lead to adult injuries. Training kids as kids within their bodies’ boundaries can lead to their best potential results. Another important concept is that your child may genetically have a better ability for aerobic activity, but she still has to have the motor development and motivation to use it for a positive effect on ability and the sports experience.

    Acceptable levels of training will accomplish many good results and allow your child to progress nicely when the appropriate levels of development have been reached. I feel you tapping me on my shoulder.

    Yes, there are kids whose development is so progressed that they can train as adults even when they are young, and I have seen many of them. Think about teenagers in the Olympics, for example. It was very exciting for me to be one of the Olympic doctors and see some teenagers produce stellar performances. I realized that they had been able to train at significant levels even at younger ages because their bodies had matured earlier and were ready to handle such training, and also because of genetic influences. The timing of puberty obviously has a profound effect on gaining aerobic improvement, among other things. Sports readiness such as this will be significantly different among youngsters of the same age. Some will be ready a lot earlier than others because they develop and reach puberty more quickly. In some cases, their motor development is already capable of responding to the early maturation of aerobic development, as was the case with those young Olympians. In other cases, youngsters go through puberty early, but still need their motor skills to catch up with their new and improved aerobic abilities. Each athlete is different.

    Some improve at an early age; some improve much later. Some improve a lot; some barely improve at all. How far and in what direction these improvements occur still depend on the genetic makeup of your child and where along the genetic spectrum she lies—anywhere from pure strength and power sports, to medium strength and aerobic sports, to very aerobic sports and anywhere in between.

    The general concepts still apply—until puberty, there is a limited ability to improve aerobic capacity just by training alone. Once puberty is reached, improvements in your child’s ability to use oxygen occur rapidly and progressive gains can be made. Although it appears that there is a certain unseen upper limit to improve aerobic capacity before puberty, this does not reduce or lessen the need to train aerobically.

    This is a very important distinction. There is strong evidence that young athletes with a good foundational base of aerobic exercise can have even better improvements in aerobic ability once they reach puberty than those who start aerobic training at a later age. For example, a swimmer or runner who has already had some years of moderate training before her growth spurt has a better aerobic base from which to improve once puberty arrives. Kids who train in aerobic sports also better their performance because of improved technique and efficiency of movement, advancing skill level, maturing coordination, and growing motivation.

    Understanding the place of aerobic development in the bigger picture is important in the younger years to take the focus away from competition, time or speed qualifications, and excessive training schedules. This understanding allows your child to focus instead on having fun, improving technique, learning different sports skills, and developing a strong base level of aerobic conditioning.

    Hopefully this is clear. Read my lips—there is no need for elaborate, excessive, and exhaustive training programs for children and pre-pubertal athletes. This does not suit their needs or interests.

    Parents, coaches, and kids who are not informed about this process may be the victims of discouragement when children do not get significantly faster as their level of training increases. Unfortunately, in those circumstances, increased training continues to be enforced with the thought that more is better and necessary to get the desired effect. When these training loads increase beyond a certain point, young bodies and minds start to break down. On the other hand, when training is kept at the right level and combined with positive reinforcement, support, emphasis on technique, opportunities for participation, new skill trials, and a focus on having fun, young bodies and minds can develop and accomplish their maximum potential ability more successfully.

    What’s the “right” level of aerobic training, you ask? Every child will be different because of stage of development and chemical makeup. The important thing is to pay attention to your child’s development. If puberty has not started to show signs of its debut, maintaining moderate aerobic training loads is adequate. Your athlete can still improve by perfecting technique, consistent training, and maintaining good nutrition. When the chemical bonanza of puberty arrives, then ta-da! At that point, increased aerobic training will have much more potential to add to motor skills and enhance ability if there has been enough patience in you, your child, and the coach to avoid the temptation to over-increase training.

    This is an extremely important concept to grasp. Consider the following 2 scenarios. Julie A has more genetic talent for aerobic sports and easily achieves some wins at an early age, but has a coach and parents who feel that the only way for her to get faster is to continue to increase her training load. When her improvements start to level off (as she reaches that upper limit of aerobic ability before puberty), she is pushed harder and subjected to heavier and heavier training loads. She gets hurt with an overuse injury and then loses her desire. Once she reaches puberty, she lacks the motivation to train hard enough to take advantage of her increased physiologic ability. She does not have enough wins to consider herself successful (or to be considered successful by her parents), so she suffers from burnout and eventually quits the sport.

    On the other hand, Johnny B has less genetic ability, but is fortunate to be trained by a coach who spends more time refining his technique, building his confidence, and maintaining an adequate conditioning program. His parents encourage him to be patient for puberty while his teammates are growing all around him, and they show great support by showing up to his events and cheering his improvements whether he wins or loses. He concentrates on doing his best and uses his better form and technique to challenge his competitors. When he reaches puberty, he is ready to respond to the aerobic challenge of harder training sessions with dramatic improvements in performance, leading to many years of achievement in his sport. Who had the most talent? Julie A. Who achieved reality success? Correct answer—Johnny B. I know, because that was me.

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