Developing Healthy Young Athletes

At Kick-It! Training we’re focused on developing healthy young athletes, which begs the question what is a healthy young athlete? In his book Athletic Development, Vern Gambetta, a pioneer in the field tells of being at a sports medicine symposium where a speaker referred to the term “ healthy athlete” as an oxymoron.

There certainly are times when that seems true. We hear about the epidemic of ACL injuries among female athletes, about concussions in football and hockey, and problems with obesity and weight related issues with football players both during and after their playing days. Recently in one of my training sessions with a group of 14 year old soccer players one of the girls asked me, “How come so many of us have knee problems? I mean look, she said, pointing up and down the line of girls, 75% of us.” Her math was right.

In each case one of the physical therapists at the clinic could explain the pain and how to treat it. And, while their participation in sports wasn’t necessarily the cause of that pain it was a contributing factor and perhaps what is more important it was the place in their lives where it was starting to show up and have an impact.

Like many of us who have played or coached sports I have a good friend who, in her forties, is biding her time and dealing with serious pain untill the time is right for a knee replacement most likely the result of two ACL reconstructions and the removal of most of her cartilege during her career as a college soccer player. Is this what we want for our kids either now or down the line? The answer of course is no.

So what’s a responsible parent or coach or administrator to do?  We have a lot of options, from giving up sports altogether to developing better ways to help young athletes prepare for and recover from the stresses and injuries associated with athletics. Somewhere in the process of making those choices though I think it might be helpful to step back and ask the question I raised at the beginning; what is a healthy athlete?

First let’s distinquish between health and fitness. Fitness has to do with the ability to perform a given task and how well and how long you can do it, as well as how long it takes you to recover afterward. Think of playing a tennis match or a soccer game, playing it well and being able to do it repeatedly. The qualities that go into that are usually what we mean when we talk about or train for fitness. Most of what is done today in training young athletes focuses on improving their fitness.

Health is something different. The World Health Organization defines health as “ A dynamic state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.”  Developing and maintaining that dynamic state of physical, mental, spiritual and social well-being is a much broader consideration than just developing fitness for an activity. Improving a soccer player’s fitness is a fairly specific task. Developing and maintaining that soccer player’s health means working in a bigger arena.

A healthy athlete is more than simply a fit athlete. A healthy athlete isn’t just free from injury or illness, as in the coaching mantra, “We seem to be pretty healthy going into this week’s game.” A healthy athlete is living in and drawing on that dynamic state of well being. Their health is the fundamental resource they draw on in developing their fitness.

So, where do we start when comes to developing and promoting the health of young athletes? What can we do?  Let’s start by keeping a few key words in mind and maybe ask ourselves a some key questions.

WHOLE-The word health comes from the Old English work hale, meaning “wholeness, a being whole, sound or well.” Whether as a parent, coach or administrator are you focused on the whole person or just the athlete? When an athlete comes to practice or a game the whole person shows up, not just some of the pieces and parts. The experience they take from the training session or competition goes with them as well. Let’s learn to recognize, value and work with the whole person and not just the role of athlete.  Working with the whole person also means coming together as parents, coaches, administrators and athletes to work on shared goals and keep the big picture in mind.

BALANCE – Consider the value of the different aspects of a young athlete’s life.  Beyond the physical, how are they doing mentally, socially and even spiritually? Are they connected, being supported and growing in all those areas and how is their experience in athletics contributing or at the very least not working against that balance? We don’t need to play therapist, or social worker or pastor. That work is best left to the experts. Just  pay attention. Most of the time great athletes are also great people who have a sense of balance in their lives. Eventually the imbalances show up on the field or in the locker room.

DYNAMIC – Physical or athletic balance isn’t static it’s dynamic. It’s about the systems of the body constantly working together to adapt to changing stimuli. Are those of us who work with the young athlete working together, communicating, adapting to help them grow as athletes and as people? Are we able to respond in our programs, practices, and relationships or are we more focused on having the athlete adapt to our system? Dynamic means there’s a give and take.

CAPACITY – Sometimes we focus only on increasing a young athlete’s physical capacity. How are we helping to develop their capacity mentally, socially, and spritually as well? Remember that when they show up on the field, in the gym or on the ice they bring  all of that with them for better or worse. As a coach or administrator I might not be the one primarily responsible for their development in those areas but, am I contributing to it, ignoring it or even working against it in some way?

Despite the stress that is inherent in training and competition the healthy athlete needn’t be an oxymoron. In fact, the healthy athlete, living out of that state of dynamic well-being, has much more to draw on in developing their fitness and pursuing their goals. Athletics can contribute to that healthy life if we’re focused on making it happen.

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