Over-Training Children?

Here is a response I gave on the TI Forums to a coach from SE Asia. I didn’t answer her question directly, instead I expanded the question to get her thinking (hopefully) about the traditional assumptions held under that question. I thought it would be useful for my blog readers as well…

Her question:

I am in charge of a swimming club here in [country x]. We have quite a big group of swimmers who are under 12 years old, some of them turn up for training twice a day almost everyday except Saturday and  Sunday (one session). I am a bit worried about young kids being over-trained, and would like to know what is the appropriate training volume for kids below 12 and also signs and symptoms and consequences of over-training.

My response:

There is a lot contained in that word “training”.

In swimming we might break it down into:
1) muscular training.
2) metabolic training.
3) neuro-muscular training.
4) mental training.

And in the case of children I might add ‘social training’.

The fact that these children are coming every day and perhaps twice a day may reveal more than just eagerness to be fit or fast. There may be a good social reason for them being there. The frequency of them coming is not the problem- really it may be better that they are at the club that somewhere else- like on the street or in front of a TV.

If we view ‘training’ in all of these dimensions then we may see a lot more ideas for how that training time can be used. And by this a coach can set up a program that prevents ‘over’ training in any one dimension.

And I might add that it is wise to consider at what age your program is designed to help those young children peak in their performance – do you want to make them the fastest at 14 or 16? Then there is a good chance (statistic-wise) that they will no longer be the fastest ones at 21, for various hypothesized reasons. I recommend keeping a long-sighted view in mind when setting the intensity level for early age-group practices. These years are far more valuable for attitude, value-setting and neuro-muscular imprinting when those aspects of development are so maleable, than muscle and metabolic which peak later in life. If you have precision it is easy to build power upon it (like an archer), but if power comes first, it is much harder to build precision into it later (like a powerful, but clumsy bull).

Swimming skill should be viewed in more ways than just heart beats or muscle power. The swimmer needs to learn precision of movement and conservation of energy. They also need to learn how to recognize what good technique feels and looks like, before it becomes so fast that they can’t feel it or control it – or in other words, learn how to tell the difference between movements that cause more heart beats versus those that cause less – and get the same amount of work done.

They need to learn a ‘feel’ for the water so that they can work with it rather than against it: holding the water with one part of the body, while sliding the rest of the body around as easily as possible. Learning hydrodynamic principles by intuitive play.

Mental training involves these perceptions (proprioception and interoception) and it also involves attitude: good decision-making, cooperation, self-control, recognizing and enjoying learning opportunities in every mistake, learning to respect the self and the body, and much more.

Setting up certain days or certain practices that use creative, well-designed games to teach these skills can add more variety to the weekly schedule and create rest opportunities for certain dimensions of training without having to reduce training.

Muscular and metabolic training can certainly be overdone, especially in young bodies that are not developed completely yet. Plus, consider the habits and perspective they form at an early age if taking their body over the edge of exhaustion and injury is the high value on the team. Hard work is an important ethic, but they must be taught wisdom with it. The coach sets the tone for this.

However, it is very hard to over-train the neuro-muscular system- it is hard to over-train precision and efficiency instinct. And our minds really thrive with consistent mental training.

Consider dividing up the days of the week and the practice sessions into separate emphasis – some practices are about speed, some about endurance, some about neuro-muscular, some about games that teach necessary attitude and skills in a totally different way (than swimming laps).

And set up days where the children are given swimming ‘puzzles’ to solve which will require them to use the specific metrics and knowledge you have been using as a coach – teach them to think like you do so they can carry that self-coach in their head while racing. Some of these puzzles can involve short fast swims that require them to use a certain number of strokes to get the distance done in the fastest time, and some can involve long swims where holding a certain pattern (stroke count, tempo, push-off, underwater dolphin, etc) is required and the time is not as important (build up their ability to focus and concentrate).

Just some ideas. And have fun! If you are having fun, so will they.

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2 responses to “Over-Training Children?

  1. I am a tennis coach of kids 14-18, and have some thoughts to share for this coach. My first question would be what level of swimmers are these kids? If it is club level my answer would be different than junior national level.

    The 2 most important things for me and kids at this level is, “do they love this?” If they like it or enjoy it, then a life long style of coaching would be recommended. If they have potential and love of the sport I would teach at a more intense level. To me young kids need to participate because they love it rather than being forced into it. Secondly, I would incorporate land training into the program. I don’t know about shoulders in swimming, but the statistics all say that over training injuries in 15-18 year old kids is skyrocketing. Maybe this is why you are saying if they are great at 14 they won’t be at 21.

    And lastly, I have a different idea on neuromuscular training than you do. When I think of that training it takes a big chunk of mental energy. Like studying for exams. There needs to be breaks from that level of intensity at those ages. Because I am not a swim instructor maybe that is what you are talking about with games and such.

    My overarching philosophy is kids need to be themselves at a young age and if they learn to love of the sport you will not be able to keep them away from the pool.

    • Tennis may be a great comparison (though I don’t have formal tennis experience). It obviously physical and precision (neuro-muscular) and mental (good, quick decision-making). No one doubts that a tennis player has to work really hard and be extremely physical (in today’s type of game). And there is no doubt that it is a sport that requires extreme concentration and perfection of technique.

      Land-training is a very good suggestion- and hopefully not a new idea to a swim coach. The four components of training I have listed apply just as directly to water work and land work.

      Neuro-muscular, if I am truly understanding it and placing it correctly in layman terms, is the body’s ability to control muscles (movement or position). The brain is defined by the neuroscientists as an organ that manages information and energy. We might interpret NM to refer to the use of info and energy to control and direct the body, and Mental training as what to do with the conscious mind and attitude during the activity. Maybe we can separate it that way.

      Obviously, neither of these – info and energy management – stop, ever, except that the mind shifts mode to subconscious while sleeping. The brain is still managing info and energy the entire sentient life span.

      Just as we give stimulation and training to certain muscles while giving rest to others, some parts of the brain can be ‘working’ and some parts can be ‘resting’ – but only from one viewpoint. Actually, what we may think of as ‘rest’ for a part of the brain is actually just a shift to activity at a different wavelength (alpha, beta, theta, and delta wavelengths). So even ‘rest’ for the brain is never truly ‘inactivity’ but a change in activity type and level and how the parts work with each other. But now I may be getting near the end of what I can describe without giving a neuroscientist more reasons to correct me.

      Above all, you are right – have fun! Enjoy it. It may not be in the form of fun like playing games, but an enjoyment of the actual practice of swimming, not merely the after effects of it – whether the comfortable after-workout-glow or the moment to stand on a podium years down the road. Mental burn out is as dangerous if not more so. Those statistics I’ve heard pointed to something like 50% of kids who trained hard growing up quit swimming after the peak racing ‘career’ ends.

      What price do we, or shall we have our children pay to take a shot at being the best of the best?

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