Young kids love to run. Right after they learn how to walk, the very next thing they do is run. For them, it’s the greatest thing in the world. Half the time they don’t even realize they’re doing it, but there they go, just chugging along, smiling and laughing the whole time.
Well, not always. Sometimes it’s a tantrum-sprint in the grocery store. Sometimes it’s swift mischief, like when my two-year-old son decided my first-generation iPod needed to go in the toilet. There is no faster creature on Earth than a toddler who has something they shouldn’t. Regardless of the reason, running is one of the most naturally human things we do. We start young, and we love it.
As kids get a little older, in addition to running, they begin to love sprinting. In fact, they love all kinds of explosive movements. They don’t realize that, of course. They’re just playing. But if you’ve spent much time around young kids, I can virtually guarantee you’ve seen them run, jump, crawl, leap, climb, and hop all over creation. I’d even bet they’ve asked you to count how many seconds it takes them to get from here to there, or to see how high they can jump, or to watch them jump off of something. Kids are chaos muppets. I think we should encourage it for as long as we can.Somewhere along the line, a lot of kids lose their love for running. Or, perhaps more accurately, adults kill it, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
You see, somewhere along the line, a lot of kids lose this love for running. Or, perhaps more accurately, adults kill it. Kids get yelled at for running in the house. They have coaches who use running as punishment. Their gym teacher tests them on a timed mile. Pretty soon they’ve learned that running is prohibited, punitive, or boring. And once running becomes those things, they stop doing it. But what they’ve really stopped doing is playing, and playing is one of the most important things your kids can do.
I’m not here to tell you how to raise your kids, but when my six-year-old decides he wants to jump off the coffee table, I let him. It’s made of wood. Real sturdy. And look, I get it: We don’t want them to hurt themselves or break stuff. But I promise you this: They will always find other ways to hurt themselves or break stuff.
When my kids want me to see how long it takes them to run up the stairs, I count the seconds. When they ask if they can build an obstacle course in the yard, I go get my stopwatch. As a parent, I love all of this because it keeps them active and challenging themselves. As a track and field coach, I love it for another reason: It’s speed training.
Before I go much further with this, let me address some concerns right from the get-go. I’m about to advocate for the idea that you should speed train your young kids. Some people might call me overbearing for that. But to be clear, I’m not saying that you should put together a comprehensive workout plan to follow in preparation for the fall 8U soccer season. I’m not saying you should force your kids to go outside and sprint for time if they don’t want to. I’m not saying you should put your kids into situations that would be dangerous or harmful. And I’m definitely not saying you should start teaching your kids the mentality of “the grind.” If you do those things, your kids will start to hate sprinting, and that’s exactly what we should try to avoid.
Here’s what I am saying. When young kids engage in physical, active play, they consistently do so in ways that we as track and field coaches recognize as speed training. A lot of the movements we teach athletes at an older age—like running, jumping, and landing—are actually movements kids figure out naturally at a young age, but forget how to do because they become sedentary or start to hate physical activity. By the time they’re in high school, we’re not teaching them how to do things for the first time; we’re reteaching them things they learned on their own by playing.Play with your kids and pay close attention to spot movements they’re already doing that foster speed development. Then, as much as possible, encourage those movements in fun and exciting ways. Click To Tweet
If you’re a youth coach, camp counselor, or some other adult in charge of young kids, build free and active play into your programs. If you’re a parent, play with your kids and pay close attention to spot movements they’re already doing that foster speed development. Then, as much as possible, encourage those movements in fun and exciting ways. With any luck, we’ll end up with kids who like to move their bodies (instead of hating it) and who become enamored with the idea of being fast and explosive without even realizing it. With that in mind, I have some ideas about how you can speed train your children.
At the beginning of this school year, my first grader came home from school and excitedly showed me that he had learned how to skip in gym class. He looked about as coordinated as a baby giraffe, but he was excited about this new movement. That’s huge!
The level of effort I, as a parent, had to put forth to encourage him was minimal. Just saying “Wow, buddy! You’re getting really good at skipping! Can you show me one more time? It is so cool!” was enough to get him to keep working on it. We skipped together. I asked him to show me how to skip almost any time we went anywhere. He figured it out, and now he’s a skipping machine.
I tell this story because, generally speaking, if you deliver a new and appropriately challenging concept with enough enthusiasm, you can get young kids to buy in—especially if that young kid is yours and therefore happens to think you’re the coolest person in the world. You have instant credibility. Since my son started skipping, we’ve worked on lots of the same sprint drills I do with my high school athletes: walk-overs, A-marches, high-knees, skips for height, pogos, and A-switches.
Delivery is everything with this stuff. At no point have I said to my son, “Alright, champ. It’s time to do some sprinting drills. Go get your shoes on and meet me in the driveway.” All of the “work” we do comes within the context of playing. To continue to use skipping as an example, once he had gotten the basic movement down, I simply said, “I have an idea! Let’s see how high we can skip!” Bada-bing, bada-boom. Explosive muscle fiber development.If a kid can hop on two feet, you can turn it into a speed drill, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
Pogos are another one. If a kid can hop on two feet, you can turn it into a speed drill. A simple challenge like “Why don’t we try and see how fast we can jump off the ground?” can add intent to a very basic movement. It’s not rocket science. Play with your kids, and when they do stuff that looks like track practice, celebrate and replicate. Here are a few things you might try:
- Follow the Leader Skips
- High Knees Tag
- One- or Two-Footed Hopscotch
- Ball Drop Accelerations
- Red Light, Green Light
Racing, Timing, and Competing
Earlier this week I saw a toddler and his dad out for a walk in my neighborhood. The kid was chattering away in mostly indecipherable kidspeak, but then I heard something unmistakable: “Weeeedddddy, GO!”
The kid took off in something like a cross between a sprint and a Godzilla-stomp, and the dad went with him. Apparently, the finish line was the fire hydrant at the corner, and the toddler won the race despite being seriously physically overmatched. He announced his victory: “I WIINNN!” and his dad celebrated with him.
I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve never known a kid who didn’t do this. It seems like it’s part of our nature to compete. Kids love to race, and they also really love to win. By encouraging this natural drive to be fast and compete, we can foster the speed development of our kids and keep them sprinting.By encouraging their natural drive to be fast and compete, we can foster the speed development of our kids and keep them sprinting, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
For some kids, once they stop winning and the race doesn’t give them the sense of happiness and pride it once did, they stop racing. This is tricky. It’s hard to explain to a kid that at age seven, whichever kid in their class is the biggest or the oldest is probably the fastest and the strongest, too. Even a few months’ age difference can be huge when kids are young. If your child is young for their grade or small for their age, it can lead to them feeling discouraged about not being able to keep up with the other kids.
But racing against other kids isn’t the only way to scratch the competitive itch. Just a few nights ago, both my sons asked me to time them in a 20-ish yard sprint. They didn’t race against each other, because they are seven years apart in age. Instead, they each ran a handful of times and tried to beat their own previous time.
Seeing how fast they can do something is a great motivator for kids. Every parent on Earth has said “I’ll count and see how long it takes you to…” Maybe you’ve even tested out the see-how-fast-you-can-do-it method on things like picking up the toys in the living room. This usually works a few times until kids realize they’ve been tricked, but the fact that it ever works at all speaks volumes to the idea that kids are motivated by time and by trying to do things fast, or faster.
A little while back I tweeted this:
I did not tell him to do this, nor had I ever busted out the tape measure while playing with him to see how far he could jump. The closest I’d come before was the time he and my older son were seeing how many squares of sidewalk section they could jump over, which I obviously encouraged the hell out of. But sure enough, he wanted to challenge himself—compete with himself—to see how far he could jump, and then try to jump farther the next time.
We time sprints and measure jumps at practice, and chasing milestones that are faster and longer becomes a great motivator. But this isn’t a breakthrough innovation among track and field coaches. Faster and farther motivates lots of kids from the time they’re young. Use this motivation! When your daughter wants to show you how far she can jump, celebrate her. Then challenge her to see if she can jump even farther. She might surprise you, and herself, with the things she’s capable of.
Jumping and Landing
I’ve already talked about jumping in the context of measurement and competition, but jumping and landing as their own activities, independent of the tape measure, are also great ways to encourage athletic development. Jumping onto a raised surface is expression of force. Jumping off a raised surface and landing is absorption of force. Jumping, landing, and immediately jumping again is transfer of force. In the sports world we call this plyometrics, but your kids don’t care about that. They will like it because they already think jumping onto, off of, and over things is fun. And it is! It’s playing! You should absolutely do this with your children.Jumping and landing as their own activities…are also great ways to encourage athletic development, says @TrackCoachTG. Click To Tweet
The most common place my kids and I jump is on the steps of our front porch. We have three steps. One day my son started jumping with two feet up to the first step, which looked an awful lot like a box jump to me. That gave me some ideas, so now we do all of these things:
- Two-footed jumps to the second step.
- One-footed jumps.
- Jump to the first step, then immediately jump to the second step.
- Face sideways, then jump with a quarter turn.
- Jump off two feet, land on one.
- Jump off one foot, land on two.
Look, I haven’t calculated all the possible permutations for this activity, but I can tell you without a doubt that if you have a couple of steps, you can be creative and have some fun jumping onto things with your kids.
Possibly even more fun than jumping onto things is jumping off of things. Lots of parents holler at their kids for jumping off the furniture, but mine have been leaping off couches and coffee tables for more than a decade. Admittedly, my wife and I were broke for a long time and none of our furniture was very nice, so maybe that’s why we didn’t get too bunched up about it. I’m not saying that allowing your kid to jump off the arm of the couch will turn them into an Olympian, but I am saying that by allowing it rather than squashing it you’ll encourage your kids to keep playing in active ways. If they get in trouble for this type of play, eventually they’ll stop doing it. So, after you get done jumping onto things with your kids, you should probably jump off of some things too.
Just like before, the possibilities for different ways to jump off structures are nearly endless. Here are some things you could try:
- One- or two- footed drop jumps.
- Drop jumps with quarter turns.
- Drop jumps with half turns.
- Jump down, land, and immediately jump for height.
- Jump down, land, and immediately jump for distance.
- Jump down, land, and immediately jump to the side.
Of course, make sure you’re not jumping from surfaces that are too high so nobody gets hurt, and make sure you’re encouraging good landing technique. Celebrate every jump and every crazy idea your kid comes up with, even if there is no scientifically backed reason for making silly noises or flailing your arms in mid-air.
All About the Fun
At the end of the day, we have to encourage active and athletic play in our kids. If you start paying attention, you’ll notice all kinds of things they already do that are a lot like the movements you practice with your athletes. Definitely don’t turn playing into a regimented workout plan, but definitely do enthusiastically celebrate athletic movement, encouraging them to perform those movements more often and in different ways. The best way to encourage them is to play with them, so next time you’re getting ready to tell your kids to slow down or not to jump off that stump, consider instead challenging them to run faster or climb the stump yourself and jump with them.Don’t turn playing into a regimented workout plan, but enthusiastically celebrate athletic movement, encouraging kids to perform those movements more often and in different ways. Click To Tweet
By skipping, hopping, and doing sprint drills, my children have become more coordinated and attuned to their movements. My son, who used to take an eternity to bounce back off the ground after landing a jump, has become noticeably more reactive. This type of playing is creating speed adaptations, and they don’t even realize it. But that’s what’s so great: They might be too young to know they’re becoming better athletes, but they’ll definitely know they’re having fun. And that’s what it’s all about.
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