Advice For Parents of Young Athletes

Hello everyone. Happy Friday. I would like to thank you for your kind words and support regarding my blog posts. My “One For The Marines” post was very popular, and the feedback was all positive.

I just finished reading “The Sports Gene” by David Epstein. The book deals with the nature vs. nurture issue when it comes to creating athletes, and superior athletes. Are great athletes born or created? I am very satisfied with my decision to read the book. It is well researched and well written, with plenty of great information.

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I will use some of what I read in the book to address young athletes. Parents, do you want to know if your son or daughter will grow up to be fleet of foot? If you do, the eye test will give you a good idea. When little Johnny or little Sally runs around in practice and sprints against his/her peers, who is the fastest, or close to the fastest? If your son or daughter is fast now, chances are, they will be fast teenagers and fast adults. In a nutshell, humans that can run fast are born that way. And that is part genetic, regardless of race. It basically revolves around the muscle composition of the legs. If your legs have more fast twitch muscle fibers than slow twitch muscle fibers, you have a higher propensity to run fast.

So the thought process of some parents of children that are not the fastest, or even the 10th fastest on their team of twenty, may go like this sometimes: I will just train my daughter or son to become faster. I will even pay one of those “High Performance Training Academies” to make my kid faster. Parents, before you spend your hard-earned ducats, read the following quote from Justin Durandt. He is manager of Discovery High Performance Centre at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He is in the business of testing for speed, as he scours the country for fast youngsters. “A sixteen year old boy who came from a rural area and NEVER had a day of professional training in his life” was the fastest runner he ever tested. The 16-year-old boy ran forty meters in 4.68 seconds. “That doesn’t sound very fast” you may be thinking. Until you translate it to a 40 yard dash. Then it’s about a 4.2 seconds, on par with the fastest NFL players ever. Hold on parents of aspiring athletes, it gets better. Durandt goes on to say “We’ve tested over ten thousand boys, and I’ve never seen a boy who was slow become fast”. Please do not shoot the messenger. And I promise parents, I will have good news for you about your child’s athletic future, even if he’s not the quickest now.

Ok, parents, you have to be honest with yourself on this one. Is your child consistently the fastest or second fastest when he sprints against his peers in practice? If he or she is, consider yourself lucky, and thank some ancestor of yours who could run fast for passing on that “fast running” capability to your offspring. It’s one of evolutions gifts.

For parents with the not so fast child, yes, speed can be improved, but a kid who is fast, will always benefit more from speed training, not cardio training, than a kid who is not fast. Remember I told you that fast humans have more fast twitch muscle fibers than slow twitch? Well, guess which muscles respond to weight training for speed, and track training for speed, better? Yep, fast twitch muscles. So a kid who is fast will almost always be faster than the slower kids, especially if they train together.

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Furthermore, a person who can run fast, can probably jump higher than his peers, and stop and accelerate faster than his peers too. Why? Because people who can run fast can do so because they can generate tremendous amounts of leg velocity and force in a short distance. Generating powerful and rapid leg force is key to jumping high, running quick, and stopping and accelerating on the playing field. So what sports benefit from speed? I will give you a hint: It is not equestrian, NASCAR, or golf. (I know, I know, Tiger Woods is an athlete. Relax.) Off the top of my head, some of the sports that benefit from explosive running capabilities are rugby, soccer, American Football, baseball, lacrosse, and basketball, just to name a few. The 100 meter Olympic sprint is probably the ultimate demonstration of fast twitch leg and butt muscles at work, for men and women alike.

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In tennis, someone with a good amount of fast twitch muscle fibers will be able to run all over the court faster, hence, getting to balls and returning them faster, which slower players cannot. If a tennis player has a good amount of fast twitch muscle fibers in their upper body, they will probably hit the tennis ball harder too, because they can generate more racket velocity. And if one if these players starts to play tennis at a young age, even if they are trained by someone with little training experience if any, you’re in a world of trouble. Hello Serena. She’s blessed with a great body, and trains her ass off too.

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In American football, speed is paramount because you are either chasing someone with a ball in their possession, and they are probably fast as a whippet. Or worse, you might be the one running with the ball, being chased by a bunch of fast and strong dudes who want to tackle you, and concuss you in the process. Below is one such person. That is Brian Urlacher doing the tackling. And yes he is white. Fast humans come in all colors, and he was fast as shit probably his whole life. He played 12 years in the NFL as a middle linebacker. That means he was the one chasing around fast athletes of all colors. What is impressive about Urlacher is that he was big and fast. He was 6’4″, and 260 pounds. Yes, all muscle.

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And guess what good ol Brian Urlacher was in high school? He was fast as a runaway baby with poop in his diapers. Maybe my new test for knowing if your child is going to grow up to run fast is “How fast can your baby run in shitty diapers?” Anyways, back to Urlacher. In high school Urlacher played running back, wide receiver, return specialist, and defensive back. All those positions require speed. That’s how I know he was fast his whole life.

And again, it is not a white vs. black thing. It is true, as I learned in “The Sports Gene”, that the fastest humans on planet earth descend from certain parts of the world. But have you ever seen Wes Welker, a wide receiver in the NFL, play football on a Sunday. Or last night for that matter. I think he scored two touchdowns last night. He is very difficult to catch, and he’s white. This is him below. Wide receivers are very fast because first, they must separate themselves from a fast defender to even catch a ball, and then when they do catch the ball, they must separate themselves, through raw speed, from the all of the opposing team’s players to gain some yards, or score a touchdown.

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Guess what Welker was in high school? Fast has as a whippet. In a championship game in high school Welker scored 3 touchdowns, had over 200 all-purpose yards, got an interception, and even kicked a 47 yard field goal. Damn!

“Ok, ok, Healthy Homeboy, we get it. You have made it clear that kids who can run fast have an innate advantage in certain sports, and you have belittled my genetics and my child’s prospects of getting an athletic scholarship and maybe even going on to the professional ranks” is what you’re probably thinking as a parent. You are right, and you are wrong. If your child is not the fastest or the strongest, he may not excel in explosive sports. But maybe he or she is blessed with slow twitch muscle fibers. And that, my hard-working, take kids to every practice possible parents, would make them excellent endurance athletes.

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That is correct. The opposite of a football player, a soccer player, or a tennis player, just to name a few, is the long distance sports. Maybe when your child gets in high school, they can try track and the longer distance events where endurance, training that endurance, and the will of the athlete to win, is the key to winning events. This “talent transfer” has been used by Australia very effectively to win Olympic medals left and right. They identify fast athletes, strong athletes, endurance athletes, and place them where their bodies will flourish under specific training, and in specific athletic events.

In 1994, Australia took Alisa Camplin and converted her into an aerial skier. Camplin had experience with gymnastics, track and field, but she had never even SEEN snow. The ride was bumpy at first. On her first jump, she broke a rib. On her second jump, she hit a tree. But at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City she won the gold. She was a great aerialist, but still a bad skier. On her way down the ski mountain to the winner’s press conference, she fell, crushing her victory flowers. Someone who watched her win the gold said that “Even after victory, watching the sparsely experienced Camplin on ski’s was like watching a giraffe on roller skates”. But in the air, she was awesome!

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So, parents of aspiring athletes, this is what I recommend. Let your children play all sports, even the ones they do not excel in. It will teach them team work, work ethic, and that in life, they will not always be the best at everything they do. Then, as they enter high school, see if there is something they played in their youth that they excelled in, but more importantly, enjoyed partaking in. You might have a great swimmer, water polo player, long distance track star, sprinter, cyclist, football player, baseball player, or tennis player under your roof. And once you find what they like and they enjoy doing it, they must practice. For success in any sport, repetition is also very important.

The conclusion of the book was that nature and nurture go hand in hand when it comes to athletic excellence. A person can be born with great athletic potential, but they also have to train that potential, endlessly and vigorously, to become great. There is also some chance, beyond genetics, that is involved in superior athletic performance. Somehow, a great athlete with great potential, has to be exposed to the sport he will most excel in, at some point in his life.

Usain Bolt was born fast, to parents who had the perfect gene combination to make Usain tall, 6’5″,  lean at 190 pounds, and explosive with the perfect muscle make up. But what if he wasn’t born in a country, Jamaica, where sprinting is a national pastime? If Bolt, perfect name for a sprinter by the way, was born in the US, he could have played football, baseball, basketball, or said “forget this physical stuff, I am going to excel in academics”. Bolt was born with the perfect body for sprinting, in a country that loves sprinting and nurtures sprinters, he was exposed to it in his teens, and he enjoyed it.

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Children, play everything. And parents, encourage them.

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