Do you have a young daughter who has been playing sports at the recreational level and is considering playing high school and possibly college sports? Is your daughter ready to meet the extreme physical and emotional demands of playing on a high school or college team? These are important questions to ask yourself as your young athlete makes her way up the ladder of competitive sports.
Years ago, almost any high schooler could go out for a sport and plan on having fun and becoming an integral part of a team. But times have changed, and because many of our children have been playing team sports since they were in kindergarten, high school athletics is now much more intense and demanding. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a natural progression due to the fact that the sooner sports are introduced to our children, the more likely they are to advance in skills and competitiveness. Unfortunately, this natural progression is also marked by an increasing rate of injuries- both acute and chronic- as well as burnout and feelings of inadequacy in adolescent and preadolescent children. As a parent, I have seen this first hand with my children, and as a high school coach, I deal with these issues every season.
So what can you do to insure your daughter makes an easy transition to high school sports?
On an emotional level, there is much you can do, even at a very early age. First and foremost, do not expect your daughter to live out your own athletic dreams. Just because you played soccer in high school and college, does not mean your child will have the same interest. Do not push children towards a sport they do not enjoy. This will come back to haunt you in the form of poor performance and burnout. While I do believe kids need to finish a commitment they’ve made to a season, if your daughter begins to express misgivings about the sport mid-season, you may want to explore why this is happening. Does the coach degrade or yell at the players? Are other teammates kind to your child, or critical? Again, because our children are engaging in sports so early, behaviors such as this that normally might not occur until high school, are now seen much earlier.
Secondly, as your daughter approaches high school, be ready to discuss the possibility that she may not get the playing time she is used to in recreational sports. Teach her patience and perseverance of course, but, most significantly, teach her that ALL members of the team are important to the overall success of the season, whether or not they start at their favorite position. Many young girls and boys may be used to being “the star” of their team. High school and college sports are filled with “stars”. Discuss what it would feel like to not play in a game at all- this does happen! Is she OK with this? Can she be mature enough to handle this situation knowing that the reality of high school sports is that not everyone gets to play in every game?
On a physical level, parents and students can work together to be best prepared for the rigors of high school sports. High school sports are much more demanding than recreational sports- daily practices, several games weekly, daily vigorous conditioning- all of this can seem overwhelming to younger athletes. We thus need to be physically prepared for this increase in intensity and commitment.
In general, sports psychologists, coaches and strength and conditioning specialists now agree that it is not wise to force a child to play one single sport throughout the year. It is still recommended that children play many sports, as well as have time off from sports altogether. Children who are pushed into a year round full-time sport are often quicker to get overuse injuries, and certainly burnout faster.
Having play time as well as other sports in their lives promotes a more well-rounded athlete. And, since most athletes do not peak until late in high school, you may be limiting your child from a secondary sport that, in the long run, is really where he/she will excel. Several young ladies at my high school turned to cross country track after burning out from soccer. One now holds the school record for the 2 mile as well as for cross country. Who knew?
More specifically, physical preparation both pre-season and off-season has become increasingly important for high school athletes. In my opinion, the most important reason for pre-season preparation is to reduce the risk of injuries among my athletes. Of course, as a coach, I want my athletes to come into season in good condition, as we have very limited time to build up their fitness levels. This allows us to work on game skills earlier than if we must spend the pre-season on conditioning. But, injuries are my biggest concern.
Women are at twice the risk for knees injuries as men, and conditioning to prevent knee injuries is a must. There is a tremendous amount of superb sports performance conditioning for all sports, and parents can easily access this information with a little research. Some things to consider:
- Your daughter should build up a baseline fitness level off-season by running, biking or even walking. Although this may not directly help speed in stop and go sports, it is wise to have some baseline established before the season.
- If your daughter is playing a stop and go sport such as soccer, field hockey, basketball, etc, it is essential that she build up the strength of her leg muscles with some type of strength training. Lunges, squats and variations of these bodyweight movements can really help a child reduce injuries and build speed. Strong legs= speed and safety!
- Have your child practice moving in varying directions to mimic movements of their sports. Start at slower speeds, and once they move well and with good agility, build up to sprinting at top speed through the drills. Setting up an obstacle course with cones is a fun way to teach agility and speed to your daughters.
- Make sure she has good “core” strength- abdominals and back muscles, and try and encourage bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, squat thrusts, sit-ups, crunches, bicycle crossovers for abdominals and more. Many back, knee and ankle injuries are related to a weak core.
- If your child complains of pain in the knees, shins, hips, or has frequent ankle sprains, take these complaints seriously. See a doctor specializing in adolescent orthopedics and consider physical therapy. I have seen many young athletes with major biomechanical imbalances, as well as chronic overuse syndromes, merely because they have not been taken seriously by their coaches, parents or doctors when they complain of pain. Pain means something is wrong!
Finally, encourage your daughters to exercise and play because it is good for their health, and to eat well, never skipping meals or filling themselves with sugary junk foods. Help them make the connection between good nutrition and good sports performance. You are what you eat ! Be very careful when discussing eating habits with young girls and women. Restricting foods, berating them for eating junk food (all teenagers do!) or making negative comments about their bodies can set things up for eating disorders. Adolescents mature at very different rates; some young girls will store excess fat on their bodies as they grow- so do expect this may happen. Most importantly, YOU, the parent, must be a good role model by serving healthy foods and encouraging love of self, regardless of the shape of their growing bodies.
High school sports can be the most rewarding aspect of your daughter’s teenage years. They can provide a foundation for a future in college sports, or can be excellent lessons for life in general. As parents, we have the responsibility to be great role models for our children, exercising and eating well, but we can also be their best ally. For more information on sports performance conditioning for high school and college athletes, contact me, Kathy Ekdahl.