The Lessons I’m Learning on Raising an Active Child
Coach Matt here. If we’ve met, then you’ll know that I co-coach our Rookies class for 10–13-year-old athletes alongside Coach Andy. That, and you’ve likely seen or met my son, Van. He’s the 10-year-old somehow keeping up with adults through a 40-minute hero WOD or casually banging out several dozen unbroken double-unders at a time. These are not exactly skills or abilities of a typically child in this age range and so inevitably, I get a range of questions from other parents such as: How do I start with my child? Van can lift HOW MUCH weight? Kids can’t get strong, why lift any weights? Are you a drill instructor at home? My kid doesn’t want to do anything; is it OK if I sign them up for Rookies and make them workout?
I can’t address every question nor point you to all the relevant literature on these subjects in a short newsletter. However, I can tell you that what my generation was taught about youth athletic development was mostly based on poor research standards. Kids can do much more than we think. That said, there are still limits and precautions one must take with ‘coaching’ (as a parent or otherwise). I want to take a moment to share with you some of the lessons I’m STILL learning as my child grows, and as I have hit roadblocks and made mistakes of my own towards his development as an athlete and my own as a youth coach.
1. Kids Model YOUR Behavior – There is no more important piece of advice I can offer you as a parent. If you really want to encourage a behavior or activity for your child, your chances of success skyrocket if you step up to the plate yourself. Van has been coming with me to the gym since he was three years old. In between moments of looking at a book or an iPad, what do you think he saw? He saw his dad working hard, talking to friends, and having fun. He saw his dad exhausted and sweaty but happy. This went on for years. It continues to this day. Going to the gym regularly meant normalizing this behavior. Likewise, my son plays lacrosse. He wanted to play when he was just four, but I wanted it to last. I picked up a stick of my own and learned to throw and catch. Now he has a partner to play with. Six years later, he’s a stand-out player and I found a new sport I love. YOU must do what you’d like your child to do.
2. Do NOT Punish with Exercise – This is my newest, personal rule because I did exactly the opposite for longer than I’d like to admit. I made a promise when my son was born that I’d never hit him…no spanking or otherwise. Instead, as he got to about the age of five or six, if he did something that I felt necessitated disciplining, I’d make him do push-ups. Or run. Or sit-ups. Or run some more. Really, really stupid of me. I thought I was practicing tough love AND making him stronger at the same time. Nope. I was teaching him to associate exercise with a negative experience. Believe me, at 10 there are still moments where I bite my tongue b/c the old-school coach in me wants to make him run a lap. Don’t do it.
3. Kids CAN Get Crazy Strong — Go look up @roryvanulft or @jb_figure on Instagram and then come back to this once you pick up your jaw off the floor. You’ll find a couple of girls under 10 that weigh about 70lbs and can deadlift, squat, clean, and snatch more than many adults. They aren’t riddled with injuries, nor will they experience stunted growth. This does not mean kids SHOULD train this hard or seriously at this age. If anything, athletic burn-out is a concern I’d have for each of these amazing girls. But in terms of risk of injury, what happens to kids in a weight room tends to be accidental (such as dropping a plate on their foot) whereas the injuries they experience on a sports field have more serious consequences. Weight-training prepares and protects kids for other athletic activities. HOWEVER, THIS ASSUMES PROPER GUIDANCE AND SUPERVISION. Those two athletes I mentioned have sets of very experienced coaches that are pushing them and holding them back at the same time. If you don’t know where to begin, throwing a loaded barbell in front of your child is a recipe for disaster. Bodyweight movements are AWESOME and perfect for getting started. I started doing ‘real’ CrossFit with Van when he turned 7 and most exercises involved nothing other than bodyweight movements and occasionally having him carry moderate plates or med balls across a room.
4. Routines Should Be Encouraged, Not Enforced – This Summer, one of my best friends asked me if I could help to begin training his two sons. One was 15 and just about to start high school. The other was 12, and a bit under-sized for his age. My friend had a weight training program for beginners he researched off the internet. For the most part, the movements and rep schemes were fine for both boys. I just came in, taught the movements, monitored the initial loads, and then came back a week later to make sure they were doing things correctly. Satisfied, I left their dad to supervise and keep them on track. The older boy, through a lot of initial coercing from dad, managed to stick to a 3-times-a-week schedule, including the consumption of an additional daily protein shake. He entered high school with the hope of playing on a sports team and was pleased to find out that strength-wise, he could keep up with most of the sophomores AND he was one of the few freshmen not hesitant to join the older boys in the weight room. The younger son? He would go out and train when dad joined him, but he could not begin to adhere to a tough, set schedule for a whole summer. Dad was very frustrated, but my advice was that the child needed time to develop the emotional maturity and desire to do more. He WAS participating. He WAS getting stronger. He WAS on the track to a lifetime of fitness. I have run into this often with Van. My son is super motivated but there are days where he just wants to go out and play with friends and not hit the gym to do squats. As a coach, I have to think about long-term progress and not get upset by the day-to-day or week-to-week routine I set in my head.
5. There Is Nothing Harder Than Coaching Your Own Kid – Ask any youth coach that’s ever trained their own child. It is routinely infuriating (if you let it be.) Personally, I am soooo much easier with other kids. I’m friendly, upbeat, and I am good at finding hooks to help get a child moving and not grumbling about exercising. With Van? I’m routinely tough and I bark at him when he doesn’t give me his focus. As parents, our expectations are set high, and we expect our child to perfectly follow our directions. It’s ridiculous and I know it and I’ve gotten way better about just taking a breath and staying calm. Even better, I have Coach Andy work with Van in our classes. If you need help, just do something with a coach that can hold your child’s attention better than you can and you’ll be on your way.
6. It’s About Being the Best Version of Themselves — It’s not about making them into what YOU want them to be. We all want our kids to be happy, healthy, and strong. What’s the more important piece of that puzzle? It’s happiness. Kids from all backgrounds can find particular things about exercise, sports, and general play that brings them real joy. You have to be open to spotting those things and encouraging them to keep doing them. It can be hard, especially when they are young because you may find yourself at 5 different activities a week, hoping to find something they’ll like. Have patience and always ask them what THEY like. Do THAT first.
Those are just some of my experiences. As I said, I’m still learning. If you have questions or want chat, please feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the meantime, look out for Van. He’s coming to beat you in a future WOD.
Rookies is Second Wind’s introductory fitness class for 10-13 year-olds. For more information, check out https://www.secondwindcrossfit.com/rookies/