“He’s slow. Other kids are running by him.”
“Her coach says she’d play more, but she’s not fast enough.”
“He used to be faster than all the other kids. I’ve done everything I can do, now I need help.”
“She needs to be faster. We have the hurdles and ladders, but I can’t get her to use them.”
If I had a $100 for every time I heard something like this from the parent of an athlete, I’d be writing this from a villa on the beach on some remote island. Sadly, I don’t get $100 each time I hear this kind of thing.
Too often, I hear these kinds of things right in front of the athlete! Oy!
There are reasons why your pre-teen is slow. Let’s look at them.
1. Your Pre-teen isn’t “slow,” except compared to peers – Many athletes spend a significant part of their lives being “naturally” faster, stronger and/or more coordinated than their age-group peers. Then, “suddenly,” they’re just not anymore.
In most cases, it happens sometime between 9 and 12 years old. Here’s why.
Most younger athletes with “natural speed” are blessed with a neural system that developed ahead of their peers. The parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating the motor control plans for speed, agility and coordination and then executing them developed early and more fully than in their age-group peers.
Early neural system development and refinement wouldn’t do it alone, though. Opportunity to explore movement and do the things related to running, sprinting, multi-directional movement and coordination activities had to be available early and often.
In other words, the athlete in question either played multiple sports or was allowed to “free range” and play. Free play has a profound impact on the development of coordination, motor control, movement patterns, balance and speed, agility and quickness in younger athletes and kids.
Early sports specialization, i.e., committing a child to a single sport at an early age, dramatically reduces the development of cross-over athletic skills. The reason is simple. To be good at one sport, an athlete by default must narrow down the skills on which she focuses. For young kids, this is done “for them” by well-meaning sport coaches who think they’re doing these kids a favor.
They aren’t. When we reduce the breadth of athletic skills for children by narrowing them to match the skills needed to succeed in one sport, we actually hurt our kids. Early sports specialization:
- Reduces physical literacy – The number of movements at which they are proficient is reduced. This means they lack the motor control needed to perform those “missing movements” efficiently. This doesn’t bode well for them as they get older. People who aren’t good at movement tend not to move much. So if you want to increase the likelihood of raising sedentary adults, specialize your kids into one sport nice and early
- Increases the risk of injury – Don’t take my word for it. There are numerous studies like this one and this one and this one. So specialize in one sport early if you want to increase your kids’ risk of injury.
- Encourages early burnout – Again, studies back this up, like this one. There are so many reasons why this is true and sad. Studies cite parental pressure to perform, poor coaching interactions and a lack of team friendship/comaraderie. But one of the biggest reasons given for youth sports burnout is that it stopped being FUN.
- Fails to lead to sport mastery – Shocking, right? But again, studies back this up. (Here’s one!) Just because you start pounding on your kid with tons of training and practice in one sport early on, there’s no guarantee he/she will have a better shot at “the next level.”
So maybe your athlete got a “jump” on the development needed to be very athletic early in life. More than likely, this had everything to do with “winning” the neural development lottery and having lots of diversity in movement opportunity.
As the nervous systems of age-group peers begin to catch up, some of those peers will be enjoying the same movement opportunities as your early athlete. As a result, the “speed gap” will begin to narrow, making it look like your kid is slow or getting slower.
As Einstein once said (maybe,) “It’s all relative.”
2. Your Pre-teen is weak – Weak is slow. Strong is fast. Period.
Really, I could end this part right here. But I’ll explain.
Who’s faster? The woman who won the 100 meter dash at the last Summer Olympics or the guy who won the marathon?
Which one would win a race of say, 200 meters?
I’m putting my money on the sprinter. Now think about what that sprinter looks like. Muscular, strong, powerful…FAST! Now how about the marathoner? Skinny, weak, slow.
So much of speed is about horizontal force production, or the ability to push the ground away from you hard and fast. If you’re stronger, you can do that.
Sending your kid to “speed camp” to make her faster is akin to putting a Ferrari steering system in a Prius. Great steering, weak engine and no horsepower.
Strong is fast. Period.
3. Your Pre-teen trains slow – Unless your kid is a cross-country runner, he or she plays what is primarily a sprint-based sport.
I hear from soccer and lacrosse coaches all the time that their sports are “endurance sports;” that they run yada yada distance every game. Wrong. Players MOVE a lot during the game. That movement, however, is a combination of walking, jogging, backpedaling, sprinting, shuffling, changing direction and even hopping.
What kids need to do for success in most sports is be conditioned to be able to perform all movements needed at full energy when called on.
So why do so many coaches use “conditioning” that looks like cross-country? If you want a kid to be able to respond well to the demands of the game, train in ways that look like that demand package.
How often have you seen baseball player start their practice with 3-4 laps around the whole field? How many coaches think running distance is a great warm-up? And how many make their players run so many “sprints” that everyone ends up jogging?
To be fast, train fast! That being said, good training has progressions that allow the athlete to become more proficient at movements at progressively higher speed.
When kids sprint, the ground force reactions are incredible. 4-6 times their body weight will strike the ground on each leg, on each stride. That requires a remarkable amount of strength and a system trained to decelerate those forces and to stabilize joints well.
But to bottom line this, if your kid’s coach loves distance running for training, but your kid’s sport is NOT cross-country, his/her speed is in jeopardy.
4. Your Pre-teen is exhausted – Too often, the statements above are spoken by parents of a kid who has no concept of an “off-season.”
Just about every youth sports coach, from 5 year old rec leagues on up, thinks theirs is the only sport that matters and their players should yearn to work it like a full-time job. If they don’t, they’re not “committed.”
True story: A mom brought her son in to see me. She told me he was getting “banged up” and it was slowing him down. Literally.
She said he’d been getting slower “since the original injury.” I asked what the injury was. She replied, “shin splints.” He was 11.
I continued to ask questions and discovered something that made my stomach turn. This kid played 3 sports. Good for him, right? Usually, that would make me happy. Not in this case.
This poor kid played on 2 travel soccer teams, a little league team, 2 different travel baseball teams (“he only tournament plays on one”) and played in a basketball league. She told me he literally never has a day off – ALL YEAR!
His calves and anterior tibialis muscles were so tender I could barely touch them. He told me his shoulder hurt, he had an ankle sprain that wouldn’t heal and that he was going to baseball practice after our session – in December!
When I suggested that mom let him quit one team or skip some practices to get some down time, she informed me “We got him on these teams so we could give him every opportunity.”
For what? An extended stay in rehab?
Take a good look at your kid’s total sports and training volume. It doesn’t take a 3 sport, 5 team schedule to wear them out.
The lack of a day off each week will begin to wear on their nervous system, slowing the signal to the muscles and by extension, slowing them down.
Add to this the reality that all the stress of trying to keep up (and make YOU happy) may eventually lead to a stress condition not unlike Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) Do you want to imagine your 9 to 12 year old with PTSD? Neither do I.
5. Your Pre-teen is stiff and immobile – Flexibility, mobility and tissue quality matter in athletic activities. If your kid doesn’t have them, he/she may lose speed.
The quality of muscle tissue is important, even more so as an athlete gets older. But pre-teen athletes benefit from activities like self-myofascial release (foam rolling, etc.,) too. Restoring normal blood flow and fiber alignment helps the muscles function more efficiently and heal better from bouts of activity.
Flexibility and mobility help athletic movement patterns remain efficient, too. Remember, fast is smooth, but smooth is fast, too. And efficient is the foundation of smooth.
Joint immobility also leads to dysfunction in movement patterns. Most joint injuries are predictable based on what can be seen in a movement pattern screen or assessment. Helping athletes restore and maintain optimal range of motion and mobility in joints and movement patterns helps them move faster, play better and play longer.
6. Your Pre-teen thinks they’re slow…and it’s YOUR fault! – Every word a kid hears lands directly in their brain and gets entangled, whether we like it or not.
So, when you’re talking to me about how slow they are, right in front of them, their brain is hearing “I’m slow,” and creating circuitry to reinforce that thought.
Find a better way to talk with and about your kids speed, agility and coordination. Try discussing it from an improvement perspective. Start by reinforcing stuff they’re good at, then ask if they’d like to improve the “other things.” Not the weak things, the “other things.”
It’s subtle and has a more positive impact on how your kid sees themselves and their performance in sports.
There may be some other reasons why your pre-teen is slow, but these are the big ones, in my opinion. Be patient with your pre-teen. It’s a crazy time in their bodies as well as in their brains and minds.
If they seem slow, think these through and see if one of them applies. If you can’t figure it out, you can ask me to have a look or find a youth fitness professional in your area.
Keep the faith and keep after it!