Athletic Sports Training For Toddlers: Parenting 2011

In a recent piece on CNN, Extreme Parenting:  Toddler Fitness, reporter Christine Romans highlights a trend in Grand Rapids, Michigan toward basic sports training for toddlers. The program is run by Doreen Bolhuis through her company Gymco sports. As Doreen puts it, "We would not leave academic education to chance and hope that children figure it out. We cannot leave physical literacy education to chance."

According to Romans, Doreen's goal is to "get kids moving earlier than ever before," certainly a worthwhile objective based on the continued sedentary lifestyles and obesity rates of our younger population today.

However, there are some with concerns such as Dr. Dennis Cardone, D.O. (Associate Professor at NYU Medical) who discusses the increase in overuse injuries in children that were once "exclusive" to adults. Dr. Cardone's recommendation is for "unstructured activity" over coach and/or parent-structured sports. He goes on to state that "It's not until you introduce a parent or a coach into the activity that it leads to these overuse type injuries."

Even though I do see Dr. Cardone's point as having solid merit, I do not believe it to be an absolute. The key, at these very young ages, is in "how" the activity is delivered, unstructured vs. semi-unstructured vs. single-motion repetitiveness, and the well-roundedness of the activity (or activities) as a whole. And, of course, this is all in concert with the fun and enjoyment that should accompany a young person's sports participation - that is, regardless of parent/coach involvement or not.

In other words, parental encouragement to participate in a variety of physical movements, sports, and/or activities would be much preferred over concentrated sports-specific training when kids are of toddler age.

In fact, even when a youth reaches a stage where they themselves narrow their focus in sports, training should be all-encompassing. What this means is that strong consideration needs to be given to training all areas of the body so as to minimize physical imbalances. The interconnectedness of physical movement necessitates such, if one wants to reduce the risk of injury.

So then, the question still remains whether Doreen Bolhuis' approach to training toddlers has many more positive benefits than risks or if it falls into the category of too much too soon.

On the one hand you have a generation, maybe generations, of youth heading down a path toward almost certain obesity and poorer quality of life, a path our society has been on for quite some time, while on the other, overuse injuries are increasing at an alarming rate. An interesting contradiction of circumstance don't you think?

Take a look at the CNN piece yourself and see if it helps you determine which side of the fence you fall on: 


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  • This is a very interesting topic. In my country, Singapore, where we have a very work first, play second culture, we are trying to promote sports to a higher level. I think our government sees the long term problems of a sedentary nation. Hence, we are trying a lot of things to reverse this trend. Starting children early in sports is just one option.

    Doreen Bolhuis' work to bring more organized and structured sports to the toddler is truly commendable. But her critics like Dr. Cardone also has the well being of the tods at heart. We certainly do not want have our kids developing physical injuries early. I would like to proposed to points that can help alleviate the contrasting stand off here.

    What our kids (below 5) need are role models not coaches and instructors. They need to see role models, especially their parents, playing and doing sports with them. I am a parent of two young tods (3.4 and 2 years old). I can't help but notice that they will mimic everything that I do these days. It's in their nature. When they see us having fun in sports, our kids will naturally gravitate towards sports. For us to be good role models, we need to be sports practitioner as well. It does not matter whether you were an ex-national champion or just someone who plays recreational sports weekly. Get involve in sports yourself. That means work out frequently, read about your game, follow the news and so forth. When we do that our children will follow. Role models cannot be just helpers by their kids and not playing sports themselves.

    The second point is about unstructured play. This should take the form of broad exposure for our kids. Forget the competitions and formal coaching. Let our kids try our different core skills. Let them kick a ball, throw a ball, catch a ball, swing a racket, swim, run, cycle, hit a ball with a bat, etc. I am a physical educator. If we expose our kids early to these core skills, they will probably discover their talent early. They will also be able to transfer skills easily next time, making them adaptable in the future. Forget the coaching. Parents can teach these basics. It's not difficult. We become all round sportsmen when we play with our kids as well.

  • Jimmy,

    Again, great comments. I like that you are seeing a broader perspective than most see. Especially when it comes to younger kids. To much, to early is not always a good thing.

    Hey, I resemble that ex-national champion comment :-)!!! Just kidding.



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