The Youth Epidemic: Alarming Observations from Working with Youth Athletes
I would like to start this off by prefacing that I am not a parent, caretaker, or guardian of a child. I have no blood-related nieces or nephews, and I am fairly inexperienced in the grand scheme of things being just 24 years old. That said, I personally believe I am above average at observing and noticing trends. Additionally, I have been working with youth athletes for over two years now in performance training, and I coached youth basketball for five years prior to that. Most importantly, though, I love having the opportunity to work with this population of athletes for many reasons.
In comparison to older, more seasoned athletes, youth athletes are creative, positive, energetic, transparent, and always work hard if put in the appropriate environment. They are social, non-judgmental, and just want to do whatever it takes to get positive praise and attention. They always compete and rarely tire out. They are an awesome group to try new things with, and love anything that adds a game-like or competition-like element to it. This keeps things from being monotonous and boring, and most importantly, it facilitates an environment that is infinitely unpredictable. This is why I love working with this group. It is definitely different than working with more serious populations, but that is part of the fun in it. It forces you to be creative and come up with objective-oriented tasks as opposed to mindless drills. They are always authentic and never afraid to speak their mind, which helps you learn to be more creative and spontaneous as well.
With all of that said, over the last two plus years I have noticed some sub-optimal trends that lead me to believe that as a society we are not putting children in optimal environments or ideal conditions for long-term learning, growth, and fun. This includes everything from: improper lifestyle habits, unusual movement patterns, awkward social behaviors, and an obsessive reliance on technology. Again, I am not a parent and the goal is not to shame those who are parents out there. I just feel I am in a unique position because I have a slightly more objective opinion as an observer who is outside looking in. And I feel like as a society we can all contribute to positive changes in youth for generations to come if we just increase our awareness of these things. I will provide more specific examples below.
I often ask the athletes I work with about their day, weekend, vacations, school, sporting events, and life in general. In response to these questions, I regularly get answers that include something along the lines of:
· I forgot.
· I can’t remember.
· I sat on the couch and watched TV.
· I played video games all night with my friends.
· I got no sleep last night.
· I did homework and school-related tasks.
· I had multiple organized tournaments, games, and practices.
I normally follow the initial questions up with responses that will provide more detail about whatever information they provided me, but the answers typically are very similar to the ones above.
The themes are:
· They are sedentary.
· They don’t get outside and play much.
· They don’t experiment with new and creative games or tasks.
· They use technology a lot.
· They don’t spend meaningful time with friends or family in-person.
· They spend a majority of times doing school-related tasks, or organized, competitive activities with adult supervision and guidance.
These are just a few examples, but I feel these alone do a great job of illustrating my point. When I was a kid (which was not that long ago at all), I would spend hours upon hours playing outside with friends and family. I definitely spent a lot of times playing video games and board games as well. But all in all, there was rarely any parent intervention, we made games up with our creativity, and it was unorganized and spontaneous. We did whatever the creative, innate person inside of us wanted to do. This is one huge red flag that I do not see as prevalent in today’s kids.
This type of play provides an opportunity for kids to learn. They learn how to move, learn how to communicate, learn how to be adaptive, learn how to be creative, and they learn how to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. Without this, kids will have a much harder time feeling comfortable taking ownership for themselves, they will rely on adults to make decisions for them, their movement strategies become manufactured and rigid, and they limit the amount of movement variability they are experiencing in a time where their brains are highly plastic and constantly acquiring new information. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
Other lifestyle issues I have noticed based on the observations and conversations I have had with athletes are: inadequate nutritional habits, lack of quality hydration sources, erratic sleeping habits, unnecessary psychological stress, excessive reliance on technological devices, distaste for learning and educational experiences, spending too much time indoors, and sub-optimal relationships with friends and family. This is not a comprehensive list of every observation I have made, but it is definitely the issues that I believe to have the most profound impact. This is a societal issue in general, and no one person is going to make a substantial enough impact to change everyone’s life in the blink of an eye, but the key is to first take responsibility for yourself, and do everything in your power to educate those around you to make better decisions regarding their health by assessing their daily habits. Hopefully by changing yourself, those around you will take noticed and begin to make changes to their own lives.
Some practical behavior changes that I have found to be beneficial for myself regarding lifestyle habits are:
1. Bring ice water around everywhere with me to increase the amount I drink regularly.
2. Prepare meals that are structured around protein sources, vegetables, and fruit rather than going out to eat at every opportunity.
3. Go for a walk outside every morning regardless of weather conditions.
4. Spend less time “training,” and more time moving throughout the day, even if only for five or ten minutes at a time.
5. Find subjects that I find interesting, and immerse myself completely until I feel I have a grasp on it.
6. Assess myself daily, find something that went well, and come up with actionable plans to address anything that I feel did not go well.
7. Minimize technology use before bed, attempt to fall asleep and wake up at the same time daily, and have a nightly routine that I go through prior to sleep.
8. Be present when spending time with friends and family to the best of my ability.
Obviously it is impossible to make kids listen to every bit of information you feed them, and it is hard enough to get them to wake up on time and brush their teeth before school. But the one thing I have noticed about kids, and really all people in general, is that they are incredible at mimicking behaviors of those around them. The purpose of this is not to make anyone feel bad about their lifestyle habits, because I also have a ridiculous amount of things I need to improve to get my life the way I would like to. However, if you just take one practical piece of information away from this and apply it to your life in your own unique way, I am sure you will see a positive change happen within yourself, and if you’re lucky, you will influence those around you to make positive behavior changes as well!
Influence of Unusual Movement Behaviors
I can’t remember who I originally heard speak about this, but if I had to guess it was probably a discussion I had with Dr. Tommy John, a chiropractor out of San Diego, who’s life’s mission is to help humans elevate their physical capacity, specifically with regard to youth injury rates across modern sports. He spoke about how children who demonstrate strange movement strategies often are those who also have difficulty with: social interactions, educational success, facing adversity, experiencing new environments, and learning new skills. This is something I definitely did not notice at first glance, but after being around a diverse population of athletes, I absolutely agree with this theory that those who struggle to move well also struggle in other aspects of their lives.
I could provide specific examples, but do not want to cross the line of revealing private information. To sum it all up:
1. The worst athletes who struggle to coordinate contralateral movements, have poor hand-eye coordination, cannot crawl, hang, or perform push-ups, and cannot balance on one foot or hold a stable lunge position often are those who tell me that they spend a lot of time indoors and will randomly breakdown and cry without a true reason as to why. They often struggle to communicate effectively, and do not handle challenging situations well. They do not seem comfortable expressing their authentic behaviors, they often mimic the behaviors of those around them regardless of if it is right or wrong, and they are the most likely to take a long time to learn new skills.
2. Contrarily, those who can run and jump well for their age group are almost always involved in a diverse number of activities. These individuals seem to make friends easily, they love competitive and challenging situations, and they are always looking for ways to get better and improve. They typically tell me stories about playing games outside at all hours of the day, and rarely talk about time spent watching TV or playing video games. They also demonstrate traits that illustrate creativity quite frequently, and are not afraid to express their true personality. They are the most like to come up with games or new ideas most often, and are constantly talking about exciting aspects of their lives.
The overall themes here are:
1. Those who struggle to move well often: limit their activities, use technology frequently, sit indoors a lot, do not communicate well, struggle in school, have a difficult time learning new tasks, constantly look for external validation, and don’t do well with any sort of adversity.
2. Those who move well often: are involved in many different activities, spend countless hours outside, have a supportive peer group, perform well in school, love new challenges, are creative and expressive, and pick up new skills rather quickly.
This is obviously not black and white, and I have seen kids who move well that struggle with the other qualities and vice versa. If anything, it is more of a spectrum, but the alarming trend I have noticed is that a majority of young kids seem to be much closer to number one than number two, and with the way society is heading, this is an alarming trend moving forward.
he good news is much of this is reversible, and with the right actions can be addressed rather quickly, especially in youth populations. Kids’ nervous systems are very plastic, meaning they pick up new things much quicker than adults. Think about a kid who is learning to swim or learn a foreign language for the first time and how little time it takes for them to become competent in these skills. On the other end of the spectrum is adults that take a much longer time to pick up new things because their brains have less capacity, or “storage space,” to grasp and hold onto new information. In simple terms, kids are much more adaptable, so it is essential to take advantage of this time to introduce them to as many new stimuli as possible to allow for a broad base that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. This is not just true for movement principles, but also for life.
My general recommendation for kids is to get involved in as many different activities of interest as possible to expose them to new and unfamiliar situations when they are still fast adapters. When it comes to movement, I traditionally recommend getting involved in some combination of:
1. Team sports like basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, football, or lacrosse.
2. Individual sports such as tennis, golf, and track.
3. A sensory-dominant activity like dance, swimming, or skating.
4. A hands-on, combat-oriented activity such as martial arts or wrestling.
5. Somewhere trustworthy where they can get exposed to and learn basic movement principles either in gym class, a performance facility, American Ninja Warrior training, or on a playground with friends and family.
This is a broad recommendation that illustrates a starting point that can be taken in any unique direction based on previous experiences and interests. Ultimately, as long as kids are enjoying themselves, learning, and experiencing new things that is all that truly matters. This can be accomplished in an infinite number of ways, but these are just some suggestions I have come up with based on my experiences and observations.
Children are designed to experience as many new things as possible when they are young in order to create a broad base that can get more specific as they mature. This is why babies are constantly looking for ways to move and touch things. Think about when a newborn first learns to make noises, crawl, and walk, and they get themselves into ridiculous amounts of mischief just so they can create new experiences and facilitate novel learning processes.
In today’s “civilized” society, we have convinced kids that they are fragile and behave more like adults. Think about how much you or your parents used to play outside when you/they were young compared to today’s youth. Think about how much more independent kids were before technology made life so convenient and easy. This convenience has created an environment where rather than worrying about actual stressful situations like finding food and water for your family, we are worried about doing well on a test or making a sport team. Not that these things do not matter, but this is the ultimate illustration of first world problems in a civilized society.
Technology absolutely serves its purpose, and generally speaking, we have definitely taken monumental steps forward as a society, but when it comes to moving, performance, and wellness, I feel like we are devolving as a result that life is almost what I would consider “too easy.” It is time to reconnect with the natural cycles of the world and channel your innate child. Adults are designed to enjoy themselves too, we have just created a society where fun and play are viewed as if they are exclusively appropriate for kids, whereas adults should simply focus on work, money, and professional endeavors. Release your inner child, and set the example for those around you. Future generations will thank you.