Can We Turn Couch Potato Kids into Athletes?

There isn’t a summer conditioning program better than a summer spent at the playground.

I was recently contacted by one of the regional managers for Pop Warner football to help them create programs to offer parents. This gentleman had seen a presentation I gave on the challenges of training today’s youth, and shared a similar vision for youth development. He’d seen his fair share of elementary school kids whose parents obsessed about weight lifting and paying skills coaches to give their kid a leg up. He’d also seen droves of kids suffering from the typical maladies: terrible nutrition, immobility from sedentary habits, and delusional entitlement.

When we talked, he expressed a hope that I could offer common sense, progressive, training programs built on the block zero model I use with our district’s middle school and new high-schoolers. His hope was that parents of Pop Warner players might temper their unhealthy training practices if given a plan created by someone at the next level.

Today’s Kids Need More Than a Training Plan

While I wished to help, I was baffled by where to start. Everything I could offer would be a drop in the ocean; a band-aid for a gushing wound. I would only be able to treat symptoms, while ignoring deeper causes that would continue to fester. The problem, as we discussed, was that global change must happen in the way parents approach their kids’ physical health and their role as parents. The best training program in the world won’t make much difference, otherwise.

Without full-scale philosophy change, we’ll continue to raise the least healthy generation ever, constantly plagued by physical limitations and the mental anguish of superficial entitlement. We have taught our kids to expect everything in life to come easy, and youth athletic development trends compound that expectation. Cultural norms doom them to chase comfort and quick fixes on the road to unfulfilling outcomes.

Making our youth into better athletes should come as a pleasant side effect of proper youth development. It is not the goal. We must rethink our expectations and roles to best prepare our youth for athletics, work, and life.

Can We Turn Couch Potato Kids Into Athletes?

How do we approach the very real concerns of this Pop Warner coach? Let’s start with the idea of conditioning. Each summer, I create detailed training plans for our athletes. By rule, I can only be present for six weeks of optional workouts. As summer has nine weeks before football starts, I write up conditioning to fill in the off-weeks. While our football program has produced some successful athletes, I’d estimate less than 15% actually do the conditioning on days where we don’t offer organized training. I’d expect far less willpower, attention to detail, and general ability to keep themselves on a schedule from Pop Warner kids. And that’s okay; they’re only in elementary school, and honestly shouldn’t be occupying their summers with strict training regimens anyway.

The fact that elementary school kids need a conditioning program is a monument to the disturbingly soft, sedentary lifestyle most kids lead. However, the solution is not structured training plans. It is to remove the phone from their hands. Sell the video games, ban the TV for 23 hours a day, and get their butts outside and playing! Their days should be spent playing basketball, soccer, and Wiffle ball. They should be at the park all day, playing tag, climbing, running, chasing, fleeing, and partaking in a million other active explorations. The parent’s job is reapplication of sunscreen, bringing them water, fruits, and lunch, and setting up the sprinklers when they want to cool down.

This is the childhood that creates great athletes who enjoy their sports. When this becomes the cultural norm, we’ll stop having problems finding kids in good enough shape to play Pop Warner football.

Kid’s Conditioning: Go Play Outside

Parents, you must be the agents of change. There are significantly more roadblocks, nowadays. We have seen a significant reduction in our available play spaces. Despite evidence to the contrary, incessant media saturation has convinced us that the world is more dangerous than ever; that kids can no longer ride a bike to their friend’s house, and that every third person is an abductor. To hear some people tell it, making your kids go outside in the summer without air conditioning is akin to child abuse. So parents opt to keep their kids safely coddled inside the house, and reserve their movement for sport coaches and adult-supervised play places.

Rather than create children’s conditioning plans, I recommended that the Pop Warner coach organize community free play times, where coaches and parents show up with a Frisbee, a ball, and a field, and let the kids go. They’ll figure it out. They might even scrape their knees playing king of the hill. Don’t interfere! It’s all good training. My high school athletes play weekly, and I build it into our training programs. Football is a violent form of tag, so we emphasize tag variations. We do relay races with fireman’s carries, bear crawls, cartwheels, and wheelbarrow runs. Let them be kids. Let them be human. Let them go play, and the conditioning largely takes care of itself.

Build Better Human Beings

The bigger issue in youth sports is in the over-pageantry and removal of values. We have a “what’s in it for me?” culture, which is destroying education and all human development arenas. It’s damaging to individuals, and society at large. We emphasize instant gratification and the immediate outcome, and obsess over how cool we look. If the kids aren’t doing it, the parents do it for them, badgering coaches and educators about why their kid isn’t getting special treatment.

The values of sport include delayed gratification, teamwork, and contribution. People thrive when they focus on process adding real value. We must praise and affirm values that will bring contribution and fulfillment. For Pop Warner, or any youth athletics organization to really make a positive impact, development of character must be as important as athleticism.

This should be what you market to parents. Many of them are looking for it. Leave the names off the back of the jerseys, skip the participation trophies, and stop it with the third-grade all-star teams. Decisions must be made based on values and from the perspective of human development, not propping our kids up like a professional sports franchise just to say we’ve given them more.

What Are We Preparing Them For?

The great irony in all this is that this same culture that is causing our kids to be so out of shape they can’t play little league sports without conditioning is pushing sedentary middle school and high school athletes into overspecialization and a nightly barrage of skills coaching (and then we wonder why they suffer overuse injuries). Parents believe that their kid deserves all the best coaching money can buy, even at the cost of academics. They’ll spend the equivalent of a year’s tuition annually to different “experts.”

The vast majority of our kids will be done with competitive athletics by age 22. What then? Are they ready for post-athletic life? Will they look back on athletics as a place where they learned invaluable lessons and had a great time, or was it eternal drudgery that convinced them they were god’s gift to the world, only to leave them forgotten and crashing back to reality. The only antidote to entitlement and extremism is for our parents and developmental institutions to doggedly stand up against this insanity. We have to be willing to ruffle some feathers.

We want so badly to give our kids the good life, that we forget the good life is only possible through struggle, growth, and maturation. The whole point is to create a values-driven, growth-oriented, contributing, autonomous member of society. Providing and protecting are roles, especially early in a child’s development. But they must be balanced by a willingness to let them experience difficulties and setbacks.

The complete lack of physical and nutrition literacy is the source of some of our biggest problems today. This lack of education enables our culture of youth exploitation. We think getting tired is training, and more is better, so we force our kids into hours of private coaching, and perpetuate a world where kids don’t play enough to develop athletically or personally, yet compete constantly. Parents spend thousands of dollars to burn their kids out, while refusing to spend a few dollars more per week to provide nutritious food or education that awakens the child to a desire for deep growth. The answer to these problems isn’t a clever conditioning program; it’s a shift in the culture.