Every once in a while, the topic of strength training with children and adolescents boils up on social media. The other day on Twitter, a strength coach posted a video of young athletes doing squats in an amazing-looking school gym. The comments on the tweet featured the usual myths: Strength training at an early age stops growth, there’s a high risk for growth plate injuries, and it is generally harmful to bones, tendons, and ligaments.
I don’t think I need to go into any more of this nonsense; these myths have been debunked for well over 15 years, probably longer. The benefits and effectiveness of resistance training for young athletes, especially in regard to motor development, are well known in the S&C world.
However, one argument against strength training with kids is also often mentioned in the discussion, for which we as strength coaches often don’t really have as clear and convincing an answer as we do for the myth around growth plates.
“Kids should have fun and play games. Lifting weights is certainly not fun for kids.”
I’m a huge supporter of resistance training and teaching kids lifting techniques at an early age, even the complex ones like the Olympic lifts, because of all the benefits for athletic development. However, as a strength coach, I have also wondered if that’s actually fun for them and how I can make it more fun. I think, to give a thoughtful response to that, we have to reflect and discuss what “fun” in the context of youth sports actually means.
We use this word very often to describe how we expect training for young athletes to be and what our primary goal in youth sports is. “Fun” is named as the main reason why kids participate in sports; therefore, not having fun (anymore) is the reason kids drop out of sports, very often at an early age. The dropout statistics in youth sports, as well as the decline in physical activity among children and adolescents in general, is alarming, so the fundamental question is why can’t we seem to establish fun in youth sports? And let’s be provocative: If we can’t do that, why are we even thinking about putting kids in a gym and having them lift weights?
When I scroll through social media, where coaches share the content of their programs or drills, it seems like the common association with “fun” is playing games. The weight room is portrayed as the place for hard work, sweat, and grind—doing what’s necessary to play the game. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it doesn’t really help us to figure out if lifting weights is fun and enjoyable for young athletes. Luckily, the majority of strength coaches already understand that kids should not be treated and coached like small adults.
Social Factors and Child Training
The concept of fun in youth sports is hard to grasp and even harder to characterize. We as coaches tend to think that we know what’s fun for kids in sports, but do we really? In a mixed-methods study from 2015, a group of researchers used a social research method called “concept mapping” to collect data from kids, parents, and coaches to identify all the elements that make participating in sports fun for kids (Visek et al., 2015). Afterward, those fun determinants were rated and quantified in regard to their importance to fun, frequency of occurrence, and feasibility of implementation.
For the study, only participants from soccer—as one of the fastest-growing sports in the world and one with easy socioeconomic access—were surveyed. Anyway, I don’t want to get too deep into the complexity and beauty of mixed research methods and will instead jump to the results, the theoretical framework, and why this paper made me evaluate my view and approach on the whole aspect of fun in coaching kids, not only in the weight room.
The study identified 11 dimensions of fun in youth soccer, which were ranked based on the ratings.
“Positive Team Dynamics”
“Learning and Improving”
“Game Time Support”
Let’s get a bit deeper into the dimensions, their fun determinants, and especially the importance rating. Playing well together as a team, being supported by my teammates, and supporting my teammates, all had the highest importance rating (Positive Team Dynamics). That’s not really surprising. What did get me thinking were the determinants of the second dimension (Trying Hard): trying your best, exercising and being active, and working hard had a higher importance rating than, for example, competing, setting and achieving goals, or making a good play (scoring, making a big save, etc.).
The highest ratings for Positive Coaching got the determinants when a coach treats players with respect, encourages the team, and is a positive role model with clean, consistent communication. Getting compliments, a coach joking around, and participating with the players during practice got the lowest importance rating.
The participants also rated being challenged to improve and get better at the sport, learning from mistakes, and learning new skills with much more important than going to sports camps or copying the moves and tricks that professional athletes do (Learning and Improving). Determinants that seem to be of less importance for fun in youth soccer are earning medals and trophies, staying in hotels for games/tournaments, traveling to new places to play (Swag), or doing team rituals. Keeping a positive attitude is way more important than winning (Mental Bonuses). Getting playing time was rated much higher than playing in tournaments or playing on a nice field (Games).
So, what do we take out of this study? Yes, it has its limitations, and the major one is the sampling of only team sport athletes from soccer, as some fun dimensions would probably look a little different in individual sports like track & field or wrestling. But the results also show us where youth sport participants put their priorities and how they perceive fun.
If we look at the determinants, it becomes clear that it is not primarily the WHAT in youth sports that matters, but the HOW. The enjoyment of sports and fun is predominantly related to the environment and social aspects, the teaching methodology, and positive coaching in general. Fun is, therefore, more than just playing games; fun in youth sports is a multifaceted combination of positive movement experiences in the sport, as well as in the sporting environment. Training in youth sports, regardless of the sport, is therefore fun when many fun dimensions are covered in a holistic training approach.
Movement and Joy of Training
So, if the WHAT in training is only secondary, at least for the fun factor, then as coaches we can add fun to even seemingly boring exercises or drills through the HOW. If we can accommodate different fun dimensions in strength training with kids and teens, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll feel fun lifting weights, too.
Let’s see how to make lifting weights for kids actually more fun and apply the fun dimensions in the programming. I figured out pretty quickly that I have to change my way of designing training sessions for kids if I want to make sure to cover more than just the athletic development aspect of strength training with kids and make fun and enjoyment a priority. It all started with defining the gym as a learning environment where positive team dynamics like supporting each other are essential.
When we look back on our school days, we mainly had fun when we:
Had a positive and supportive relationship with our classmates.
Actually understood something in math because the teacher explained it in a simple and understandable way.
Learned something that made sense to us and that we could somehow apply.
Learned something new that we could demonstrate or explain to our friends, parents, or grandparents.
For example, when I teach Olympic lifts to kids, it’s relatively easy to show them the rough flow of the movement. Kids are pretty good at mimicking movements. But the focus is not on WHAT to do, but on HOW to do it. I have noticed over the years that many young athletes can do many exercises in the weight room more or less well, but a basic understanding of the movements and their purpose is not there. So, the first change I have made in my kids’ training is more emphasis on movement learning and understanding the WHY.
Young athletes should learn to evaluate themselves, process feedback, and also take on a coach’s perspective. If kids understand and know where their body and the barbell have to be in which phase of the lift and WHY it’s important, for instance, to do a quick turnover in the snatch or accelerate the barbell in the first and second pull, then they have already understood a lot about these movements and can evaluate themselves and others.
This approach allows me to always have kids train in pairs or teams on one barbell. The person performing an exercise gets feedback from the partner.
A New Framework for Kids
From a pedagogical perspective, it then makes sense to teach children what good feedback is and how they can support their training partner or motivate them. In this way, I have covered several fun dimensions such as Learning and Improving, Positive Team Dynamics, and Trying Hard, and above all, I have increased the pedagogical training quality in a very simple way.
This probably sounds totally complicated and far beyond the scope of what we as strength coaches are supposed to do. But if we really want to get kids excited about strength training, we have to rethink our training design away from exercise selection and make it more fun-oriented through a holistic approach. Fun is not only created by playing games but above all by the social aspects of training and positive, athlete-centered coaching.
This can also be planned, especially with the same or even higher prioritization as motor development. It is always very easy to say that sport—and that includes strength training—builds character, but it is not the sport itself that makes young athletes more confident or team leaders. It is an educational framework and a corresponding orientation of the training design for kids and young athletes that leads to character building and fun. As coaches, we should therefore reflect on whether we really achieve these goals with our training and how we can improve our training design so that not only do we ourselves feel the fun, but also the children and young people we coach.
Visek, A.J., Achrati, S.M., Mannix, H.M., McDonnell, K., Harris, B.S., and DiPietro, L. (2015), “The Fun Integration Theory: Toward Sustaining Children and Adolescents Sport Participation.” Journal of Physical Activity and Health. 12(3), 424-433.