In many of my parent talks, I emphasize how genetics plays a significant role in determining where an athlete will ultimately compete – the higher you go, the more genetics becomes a factor. If you lack significant fast twitch muscle fibers, you can’t be an Olympic sprinter. If your wingspan is less than your height (or even equal to it), you are incredibly unlikely to play professional basketball.
As sports have gone global and become increasingly competitive, athlete bodies have skewed toward the shape and size that is able to take advantage of the sport. With this in mind, our goal as parents should be to develop athletes. Children that are active do better in school, have better mental health, and are more likely to be physically fit later in life. Plus, as I half-jokingly like to say, it’s a national security risk to ignore long term athletic development. What efforts can a parent undertake then to help their child reach their genetic potential in the athletic arena? Besides picking an athletic partner, the following are some ideas.
Outdoor Play Challenge
Children need tons of hours outside, climbing trees, playing on playgrounds, jumping into leaf piles, etc. In a given year, I recommend a minimum of 500 hours outside. This comes out to just under 90 minutes outside per day on average. According to the National Recreation and Parks Association, children only spend 4-7 minutes per day in outdoor unstructured play. Outdoor play in an unstructured setting helps children become confident as they learn to maneuver through, over, and around nature and playground settings. Putting kids into structured activities might be easier, but ultimately, they need tons of outdoor free play, especially prior to age 10, to build an athletic base and learn a variety of physical literacy skills.
Every parent should buy their child a balance bike. The bike develops posterior chain strength in an impressive manner. Kids learn to bike without the peddles with the balance bike and then transition to a real bike without deliberate instruction or training. They learn implicitly. The joy kids get from playing on the bikes is amazing! They don’t need training wheels! Learning to bike doesn’t need to be a stressful process for parents and kids.
Screen Time Limits
Prior to age two, children should have zero hours of screen time. After two, less than an hour per day on average outside of educational screen time requirements. Screen time hinders athletic development. You can’t stare at a screen for 8 hours, then play an hour of sport, and then return to screens for another 2-3 hours and expect long term athletic development to work well. As kids get older, screen time with video games and social media is probably a significant detriment, causing mental fatigue and poorer decision making .
Be an Active Parent
It’s much easier for your child to be active, to go hiking, skating, sledding, and to play a variety of games and sports if the parents are also active. Being active in cold and crummy weather isn’t easy, but there are many options. Get the right cold weather gear and nearly any temperature is tolerable. There are also plenty of indoor playground options too. Kids that have parents that bike with them, toss frisbees with them, and go explore nature together are more active.
Play a Variety of Sports and Games
Play as many sports and games as you possibly can in an unstructured free play format. This goes beyond playing pick up soccer, basketball, hockey, etc. Young kids love to play catch, tag, and a host of games that aren’t really sports. They’ll use whatever they can get their hands on so make sure your house is well stocked with balls, frisbees, baskets, and sticks of as many different varieties as possible. We want to have an environment at home that nurtures athletic exploration.
We are still learning so much with nutrition and the impact nutrition has on gene expression and long-term health. I find it highly likely that nutrition prior to conception, prenatal nutrition, and the quality of food a young child eats impacts athletic abilities and adaptability later in life. This is hard. Eating lots of quality whole foods and shunning easy processed and sugar packed snacks is hard. It’s a daily grind to fight back but doing so probably is more important than the hockey or soccer camp you choose to do in the summer when your athlete is 12 years old.
Josh Levine brings over a decade of experience training and coaching youth, high school, and college athletes. Josh founded the Fortis Academy and has trained athletes in all sports, including football, hockey, cheerleading, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, and rugby.
Coach Levine grew up in Bloomington, MN and played high school hockey and ran the 100 meter sprint in track & field. After high school, Josh played one year in the United States Hockey League (USHL) for the Green Bay Gamblers. Josh then attended Princeton University where he earned a degree in International and Public Affairs with a certificate in Near Eastern Studies.