Youth participation in organized sports continues to increase. According to the most recent CDC survey of children’s health, more than 58 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 17 participate in a sport after school or on weekends. That amounts to about 60 million youth, says the nonprofit National Council on Youth Sports, based in Stuart, Fla.
With all of this competition, youth try hard to stand out. Some, like Margaret House, 15, turn to personal trainers to improve their athletic performance. Margaret works with a trainer at Fitness by Design, on the Northside, to be at the top of her game for Carmel United Soccer Club.
“It helps me because I’m always prepared for the season, so like when we start off I’ll be in shape, and some of the girls won’t. And it helps me become faster and stronger,” says Margaret, a Park Tudor sophomore who has played soccer for nine years.
It’s not unusual for children pursuing individual sports, such as ice skating and gymnastics, to hire personal trainers. But athletic training facilities such as St. Vincent Sports Performance, which has two locations in northern Indianapolis, have seen an upsurge in athletes middle-school-age and younger seeking to improve their skills for team sports.
“There seems to be an increase in kids who specialize in a certain sport,” said Dr. Joel Kary, a sports medicine physician at St. Vincent who also is team physician for Butler University and Lawrence North High School athletics.
"We see lots of kids who are just doing the same sport all year round, and that definitely can lead to overuse injuries. And then we see kids who, because of the competitive nature of some of the sports they’re involved in, are getting personal trainers and are trying to gain an advantage and improve their performance,” he said.
Larra Overton, a personal trainer at Fitness by Design, also has seen an increase in youth seeking training, but not necessarily to improve athletic performance.
“A lot of our kids come to us because they see their parents as being very active and fit and it’s a priority for their families,” she said.
That’s how T.J. Pettinga, 14, got started at Fitness by Design. He says he began training to improve his speed and endurance for cross country when his dad was training for a marathon.
Overton explained that Fitness by Design trainers focus on conditioning the whole body by doing strength and agility training with their students. “We teach kids basic strength movements, like push-ups, chin-ups, and then we incorporate a lot of dynamic movements like box jumps and hurdles,” she said.
“All of our exercises are going to benefit your overall fitness, no matter what sport you’re in.”
There are more sport-specific workouts for athletes like Margaret. “They are able to show you what to do on your own so you know which muscles you want to tone or work on to get you stronger,” Margaret said.
While every athlete dreams of being the best in his or her sport, is turning to a personal trainer at age 10 or 12 taking competition a little too seriously? Fitness by Design says its youngest client is 9 years old.
Critics argue that training too much at a young age can lead to injuries and growth problems. Kary doesn’t agree.
“There’s really been no evidence to show that kids who work with personal trainers or do strength training at a young age have any problems with growth restriction or damage to their growth plates,” he said. “If done correctly, working with a personal trainer can be helpful to a middle-school or adolescent athlete.”
The correct way includes an initial screening to gauge an athlete’s flexibility, strength and movement patterns. This will detect any weaknesses or improper form. Once any flaws are corrected, strength or resistance training can begin, he said.
While it seems like a good idea to put a lot of time in your sport, it can actually hurt you in the long run. Kary tries to discourage young athletes from pursuing a single activity.
“We see a lot of kids who come in with injuries because of the fact that they’re playing, for example, basketball all year round. That’s all they do, they don’t do any other sports. And then, maybe on top of that, they start working with a personal trainer,” he said.
Such regimens, which often include practices six days a week in addition to three or four personal training sessions, can lead to injuries and overtraining.
Overtraining is when an athlete become so stressed by repeated training that rest is no longer adequate to allow muscle recovery. Overtraining can lead to muscle soreness, extreme fatigue, increased incidence of injuries and stress fractures.
Finding a balance between too much and too little training can be difficult for a young athlete. A well-rounded training program can not only help develop good habits and better sport outcomes, but it can be fun, too.
"I enjoy it every time,” said Rosemary Butler, 12, who started training at Fitness by Design to do better on the president’s physical fitness test that was going to be held at her school – St. Luke’s Catholic School.
“I’ve improved a lot,” she said.
Margaret also enjoys her workouts. She injured her foot last season, and her trainer has been helping her get ready to play again this fall.
“She has taught me more than I’ve ever known before about my body and what I should do,” she said. “She knows my strengths and disadvantages.”
T.J. says training has made him stronger despite his “bad knees.” “I’m trying to be completely physically fit so I can look good,” he said.
“Some people are all naturally good at sports,” he explained. “I feel like I’m more average.”
Assistant editors Shaimelle Harris, 15, and Kara Williams, 14, and reporter Carmela Verderame, 11, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press