How to Teach Your Kids Athletic Skills at Home

By Alex Hoffmann on August, 5 2020

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Alex Hoffmann

Dr. Alex Hoffmann is the President of the College of Exercise Science. He earned a doctorate in Sports Management from the United States Sports Academy, a master's degree in kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton, and a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Central College. Prior to his career in academia, Dr. Hoffmann worked as Master Fitness Trainer course instructor for the United States Army, and as a strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer, and nutritionist.

Watching your child learn new athletic skills and grow as they do is rewarding and exciting—your child is becoming stronger and smarter with each sport they play. 

However, in light of COVID, spring youth recreation leagues, traveling sports, and specialized training (I.E. gymnastics) have been canceled. Summer camps may also be nonexistent or limited depending on your geographical location. Thus, physical education and sports skill development have fallen squarely on the shoulders of parents. 

I have learned many valuable lessons that corroborate with available research as a health professional who has led after school physical preparation programs for municipalities and coached youth sports since 2004. My goal is to share my tips for delivering exercise options to your kids that are beneficial, age-appropriate, and engaging.   

Encourage more healthy habits in your kids with these simple tips and ideas.

 

First: Understand Your Child’s Mindset

The most important thing to remember is that children, especially young kids, have short attention spans, are egocentric and selfish, have little margin for others' beliefs, and tend to be mediocre teammates (8). They also struggle to process information/instruction logically and sequentially (5). 

Keep this in mind as you help your kids stay active. When you can approach it from a mindset  of understanding, you can be more impactful with your support.

 

Keep it Fun and Simple

Children need high-quality repetition to learn how to accomplish tasks well. In other words, they need to execute something correctly many times over. That’s why you have to correct and coach mistakes time and time again, or you allow harmful motor patterns to develop, resulting in awkward movement. Awkward movement may lead to isolation on the playground and loneliness on the playground may lead to sedentary preferences. So how do you coach the mistakes? Here are three tips.

 

Use Simple Language

Use the same cue and the same exercises each week until progress is made. Variety is not your friend. Kids are little people and enjoy what they are good at, so keep the words and exercises the same. Sentences should be short, so the children do not overthink instructions (9).

 

Consider Mental Health Processing

Mental processing and reaction times are limiting factors. Admittedly, this is the most difficult fact for me to accept. As an old-school coach, I want to see hustle and grit, yet effort cannot always be gauged on the speed of movement or intensity of facial expressions. 

Each nervous system develops uniquely. Some children move slowly because the brain and body are not yet able to self-organize and adapt to the environment swiftly (2). Reward progress, not perfection, and make sure the activity is a planned event. 

As movement competency grows, decision-making games and activities can and should increase.

 

Don’t Underestimate the Value of Games  

Always start and end activity sessions with a game. Remember, children are self-seeking and want what they want—and what do they want? They want to be entertained and have fun. Keep the games short and encourage teamwork but give them grace when they do not exhibit what it means to be a good teammate—it’s not their nature, they have to learn that.

 

Speak Their Language

Balance, spatial awareness (understanding of where the body is in space), mobility, coordination, and the synchronization of movement are all essential physical qualities to improve in children. The most crucial part of any coaching session with children is the warmup. This is when healthy motor patterns are forged. 

Children are typically not particularly fond of stretching or warming up. To overcome ambivalence, stubbornness, and the inertia of young children at the start of a session, create a contextual framework. 

What do I mean? Think animals, superheroes, bad buys, and princesses. For example:

  • Rather than command a walking RDL stretch, tell your child to act like superman and soar through the air. 
  • Instead of asking your child  to do a walking toe touch, have them walk like a bear with arms extended and legs straight. 
  • Instead of 10 single leg hops, tell them to jump to an imaginary lily pad. 
  • Exchange deep squats for duck walking, jump squats to frog jumps, and high knee hugs to flamingo poses. 
  • Instead of walking quad stretch with opposite hand reach, instruct your child to pose like a ballerina. Speak their language and get more out of warmups.

Do Less to Get More

With children, practice makes perfect. The key: less is more. Focus on one or two sports skills a week, month, or season—and no more. The cognitive function of children is not sophisticated enough to recall previous training and specific technique standards (3). 

Here are some ways to stay focused without doing too much:

  • Let your child choose the two sports they want to do that week or month.
  • Theme each month and choose sports and movements on those themes. 
  • Follow the natural sport seasons to connect their learning with the sports professionals  they may look up to. I.E.  Baseball in the spring and football in the fall.

Prioritize Plyometrics

This research is compelling: plyometrics could be a more beneficial activity for building athleticism in children than any other activity. Just 12 weeks of plyometrics with low amplitude hops, skips, shuffles, and jumps improved speed by 3 to 5 percent and vertical jump height by 16 to 23 percent in 10-year-old soccer players (7). 

Similar results were found in prepubescent soccer players (~13 years) in an eight-week (2x weekly) study of jumping, bouncing, and skipping activities. Ten-meter sprint time (-2.1 percent), agility test time (-9.6 percent), and height (+10.9 percent) significantly improved (6).

Further, a systematic study examining plyometrics to running and jumping outcomes in children ages 5 to 14 concluded that "plyometric training had a large effect on the improvement of the ability to jump and run" (4). Anecdotally, I cannot think of a better method of exercise to almost instantaneously improve a child's athletic ability. 

Now that we know the usefulness of plyometrics in young populations, how do you integrate them into training? Keeping the child's contextual framework in mind, use imagery, animals, characters, and whatever you can to get the children to jump, hop, or bound. 

Don’t forget, less is more applies here as well. Focus on 50 contacts (each time the feet land after a jump) each session and work up to 100. Two to three sessions a week is all that is needed. 

Note that I encourage you to avoid box jumps. Box jumps are not as effective as people think they are. What I observe when watching people do this on social media videos is significant hip flexion, not necessarily excellent jumping height.  

 

Remember, They’re Not You and That’s a Good Thing

We all want our children to make the hometown newspaper's sports section. The reality is that may not happen. What may happen is that their self-esteem improves because movement competency improves; or life-long healthy habits develop and obesity is avoided; or motor learning causes an increase in brain matter, unlocking other talents. 

The worse thing that can happen is that a child is made to feel inept because of an unmet goal that looms heavy on the child as the parent attempts to live vicariously through them.

 

Teaching Athletic Skills at Home

Remember, this is not about grooming a superstar athlete. It’s about building self-confidence, instilling positive associations with exercise, and perhaps avoiding a life of sedentariness or obesity. The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the responsibility of the physical competency of children to the parents, so if you’re new at this focus on keeping it simple, speaking their language, doing less, getting them to jump, letting them be who they were made to be.

 

Sources

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Bright futures: Guidelines for health supervision of infants, children, and adolescents (2008). American Academy of Pediatrics. Elk Grove Village, IL:
  2. Branta, C., Haubenstricker, J., & Seefeldt, V. (1984). Age changes in motor skills during childhood and adolescence. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 12:467–520
  3. Dyment, P. Neurodevelopmental milestones: When is a child ready for sports participation. (1990). In: Sullivan AJ, Grana WA, editors. The Pediatric Athlete American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, pp. 27–29.
  4. Johnson, B., Salzberg C., & Stevenson, D. (2011). A systematic review: Plyometric training programs for young children. J Strength Cond Res 25, 2623–2633.
  5. Kushner, A., Kiefer, A., Lesnick, S., Faigenaum, A., Kashikar-Zuck, S., & Myer, G. (2015). Training and developing brain part II: Cognitive considerations for youth instruction and feedback. Curr Sports Med Rep, 14(3), 235-243. 
  6. Meylan, C., Melatesta, D. (2009). Effects of in-season plyometric training within soccer practice on explosive actions of young players.  Journal of Strength Cond Res, 23(9), 2605-2613.  
  7. Michailidis, Y., Fatouros, IG, Primpa, E., Michailidis, C., Avloniti, A., Chatzinikolaou, A. (2013). Plyometrics’ trainability in preadolescent soccer athletes.  Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(1), 38-49. 
  8. Piaget J,and Inhelder B. (1969). The Psychology of the Child. 
  9. Ren, J., Wu, Y., Chan, J., & Yan, J. (2013). Cognitive aging affects motor performance and learning. Geriatrics & Gerontology International 13, 19–27.
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Alex Hoffmann

Dr. Alex Hoffmann is the President of the College of Exercise Science. He earned a doctorate in Sports Management from the United States Sports Academy, a master's degree in kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton, and a bachelor's degree in exercise science from Central College. Prior to his career in academia, Dr. Hoffmann worked as Master Fitness Trainer course instructor for the United States Army, and as a strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer, and nutritionist.

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