A little while back I was at the gym on a weekday afternoon when I noticed a tall, trim and extremely cut teenager leaping back and forth over stacks of high steps (basically steps you can stack to make them as high as you like). Not only was he leaping over what looked like a stack at least five or six feet high, but when he jumped in a certain direction he landed squarely on a Bosu ball (a stability ball/balance trainer), only to steady himself, step off and head right back into the high jumps. I asked him what he was training for and he said he was a college Tennis player at The University of Virginia, simply working on his power and balance during the off season. I remember walking away and shaking my head at the ease with which he did these ridiculously difficult exercises and imagined him jumping seven feet in the air to slam a tennis ball in his poor opponent’s face.
The thing is, though, that while the kid I saw that day was no doubt an elite athlete competing at the highest college level, he was not only making his workout look easy but he moved in a way that looked effortless, like he was completely in sync with the capabilities of his body and he had such incredible confidence that he was able to pull off some really difficult moves. Unfortunately I see a lot of teenagers in the gym, athletes and not, who have no business doing these certain types of exercises. They really have no idea what they need to do to meet their goals, either to get in shape or do sport specific training. In this era of specialization, where teenagers play the same sports year round, injuries and burnout are more prevalent then ever. By the time I start to train some of these teenagers, I see bad habits, poor posture, and awkward body movements and it becomes necessary for me to halt the bad habits and rebuild better ones from the ground up. That said, if you have a teenager playing a competitive sport or one that you think might have a future in college competition, here are a few tips and things you should look out for:
- Body weight, then weights, not the other way around. Can your teenager do a pushup without collapsing to the ground? Can they do a sit up just using their core? When they do a body weight squat do their knees and/or ankles shake and wobble? These are just a few things to look for, but I’m always stunned by how many high level athletes I come across that can’t perform simple body weight exercises without some part of their body literally caving down to the ground. I use very few weights when I train my teenaged clients, not only because they don’t know how to use them but also because they have no idea how to use their own body. The problem here is when I get to these kids they are already 15, 16, 17 years old, not too late to help them by any means, but it certainly makes it more difficult to make changes. Which is why all athletes, regardless of age or ability, needs to be put through some sort of …
- Movement test. Find a trainer, or coach, or physical therapist, someone that can put your teen through a series of movement tests. I’m a fan of the Functional Movement Screen but the most important things to look for are imbalances, deficiencies, asymmetries and muscle weaknesses. Last year I trained a high level varsity Soccer player who couldn’t touch his toes. When I put him through a series of movement tests he could barely raise his leg halfway off of the ground without some form of pain, more evidence that doing the same thing over and over again for years and years can lead to major problems. He was essentially one bad movement away from tearing something in his leg, but because of the movement test I was able to provide him with a series of exercises and stretches that allowed him to move better and function more properly on the field and he ended up having a successful season.
- Have them cross train in some way, shape or form. Most teens that I meet play the same sport year round, and have been doing so since they were little kids. This means that they are performing the same movement patterns over and over again, over-emphasizing certain muscle groups and under-utilizing others, which can lead to imbalance and injury. The athletes that I meet that play more than one sport are not only more balanced physically but they also seem more rested mentally because they don’t have to do the same thing every day. This is important not only in the short term but for teens that might have a future athletic career in college as well, because once you get there it’s 24/7, all sports, all the time.
- Food matters, even for teenagers. I asked one of my current teen clients what her diet was like and she responded, “Well, I eat like a teenager.” Fair enough, but that most probably means a diet rich in sugar, carbs, and soda and lacking in protein, vitamins, minerals and nutrients. For an athlete, this doesn’t work, no matter how easily you can burn off the crap and eat whatever you want from meal to meal. This is a tough sell because no teenager wants to bust out a protein bar and celery sticks when his or her friends are chowing down on pizza, but if your teen is serious about performance and making it at the next level, everyone, from coaches to parents, maybe even a nutritionist, need to be involved to make it work.
- Rest! Impossible, right? Teens have school, homework, tests, papers, exams, college applications, prom dates, SAT prep AND practice and games? One of my former teen clients was a hockey player and she would sometimes practice at crazy hours (9:00, 10:00, 11:00 at night), leaving almost no time for sleep or homework at any point during the day. I suppose the debate about overworked teens can live for another day but like I tell my personal training clients all the time, “Rest as much as you need, then you can get back to work.” If this means shutting your teen down for a few days in between seasons or pulling them from a commitment, maybe that’s what needs to be done. As I’ve read many times on many different blogs, “Rest is where the magic happens.”
If you are the parent of an aspiring high school or college athlete, hopefully some of the tips above will help further their endeavors, lessen the chances of injury, and, perhaps most importantly, deter that burnout from ever happening.