A youth football season typically begins with training camp in August followed by games from September to November. Some programs might even do a July minicamp without pads so returning players can shake the rust off, and players new to football can get accustomed to what lies ahead.
But things are different today than they were years ago, even for players just starting out in the sport. Preparation isn’t just about camps and practices during the summer but also about strength and conditioning and how to get a young body ready to play.
“I think what kids need to do is they need to prepare for training,” said Rob Panariello, a New York-area physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach with more than 30 years of experience.
“Some kids develop more readily than others, so they have to be able to handle their body weight. If they can’t handle their body weight, then how are they going to handle an opponent?”
Panariello is a founding partner and chief clinical officer for Professional Physical Therapy. He said this generation of kids aren’t as active as they were years ago, which increases the need for preseason conditioning.
“They don’t ride their bikes everywhere,” Panariello said. “They’re playing video games as opposed to being out in the streets playing game. I think it’s imperative that they prepare before they start training.”
Panariello outlined six ways that youth football players can improve their strength and conditioning during the offseason:
- Participate in body weight-based activities. Children not yet in high school should not lift weights, instead use their own body weight as resistance through squats, pull-ups and, push-ups and similar exercises. “This is so that they can develop a muscular-skeletal system without overloading it from an outside stress perspective,” Panariello said. Exercises where players hold and throw medicine balls are good, too.
- Strengthen those legs. A huge part of football is the ability to drive with the legs. According to Panariello, there are a number of ways youth players can build leg strength. “They can do things like prisoner squats where they put their hands behind their heads and squat up and down,” said Panariello who served as the strength and conditioning coach for the World League’s NY/NJ Knights in 1991 and currently consults many NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and college players today. “They can do step-ups and step-downs. They can do side lunges. They can hold a medicine ball behind their head and squat.”
- Learn how to move. Many children don’t run properly or don’t know how to land from a jump properly. “Movement skills in conjunction with these body weight training activities set the work capacity and the technical demonstration that they can perform and exercise and move properly,” Panariello said. The objective is that, over time, kids will be able to perform the same kinds of exercises but with their bodies prepared for an external load.
- Know when to shut it down. While many kids aren’t active enough, others don’t know when to stop. Panariello points out that professional athletes have offseasons, so the same should hold true for youth sports. “These kids today are 24/7 and 365 because their afraid that they’re not going to get a college scholarship, or they’re not going to make it to the NFL,” Panariello said. The truth is that most youth football players are not getting a college scholarship, and most college football players are not making it to the NFL.
- Play multiple sports. Once the football season is done, it’s called an offseason for a reason. There is a time to put the football equipment away. But if your child wants to stay active, which is a good thing, do so with another sport. “If they want to stay busy, another thing that’s good is variety,” Panariello said. “Have a young kid participate in as many different sports as possible. There’s a change. There’s a different stimulus for the body to adapt to.” Following this philosophy allow kids to become overall better athletes.
- Less is more. The most important aspect of strength and conditioning is the prevention of injuries. It’s not all about how much time is put into it but the quality of the work that is getting done. Too many reps can lead to injuries. “In football, if a guy pulls his hamstring, was the muscle weak or in practice did he run too much yardage that day because they couldn’t get the play right,” Panariello said. “It could be that he was so fatigued that he pulled his hamstring. I always feel that it’s volume.” Of course, not all coaches share the philosophy that more reps are not necessarily better than less.
Offseason strength and conditioning is important for youth football players. If done correctly, it helps children prepare for the physical demands of the season.