Selecting a Strength and Conditioning Gym for Young Athletes

Every year around this time I get asked the following question more than once: “Are you going to have any training camps for kids this summer?”  Summer camps are really popular around my part of the woods and some of them make me wish I were a few years younger so I could attend.

The thought of having 20+ kids running around for six hours a day throwing medicine balls and kettlebells at each other while I make a batch of bologna sandwiches on white bread sounds financially appealing but I am sure I would put myself into a panic-induced coma.

The large group model may prove popular among the youth for the need to be with their friends all day long and participating in activities that don’t involve text books and tests.  Parents like the model so their kids gain exposure to different areas of learning while at the same time having large group all-day babysitting provided during working hours.  For these two reasons the summer camp model works well, however, for truly specialized learning, a more succinct, specialized and long-term approach is more conducive for getting results.

You Can’t Cram it all in Quickly

Most summer camps, or even the popular Speed, Agility, Quickness (SAQ) camps are really not long enough to instill large measurable gains.  Strength, speed and stability are skills that need to be frequently trained and accrue small results over time to ensure maximal retention and lasting gain.  Many of the summer camps are only a few weeks long at most; which is only enough time to learn proper technique for many movements and gain a taste of what proper strength and conditioning programs involve.  They usually are too short in duration to completely enhanced sports performance and proper mobility and stability.  Only longer, progressively specialized programs carry over to the sports performance gains that many parents seek.

With limited time these large SAQ camps also try to subject the young athletes to as many different strength and speed movements as they can within the allotted time they have to work with them.  By constantly changing the stimulus there is usually not adequate time to learn and master the proper movement patterns necessary to progress to the next step.  Like trying to cram for a final exam, when too many different stimuli are thrown at you all at once maximum retention and execution are rarely achieved.

Your Child is Just another Number

This heading may sound a little harsh but with these large SAQ camps, no sooner has the coach learned a child’s name that the camp is over.  It is just the nature of the beast.  Usually the coaches are newer to the strength and conditioning game.  They could be high school or college athletes looking for a summer job or internship to supplement their courses.  These camps want to fill up with as many kids as possible and that is why the more successful camps can have large groups of kids and possibly only one or maybe two coaches working with the group.  As I mentioned in my previous circuit training article I was a summer intern at a local, and popular, SAQ facility when I was in college working on my Master’s degree and the athlete to trainer ratio, if you included me, was about 15:1.

With such a large group of athletes it is almost impossible to provide the personal attention and program specificity that different athletes need.  At the SAQ facility I interned at, there was no initial movement assessment done on the athletes, only specific quantifiable tests like vertical jump, broad jump and 40-yard dash time.  They also didn’t divide the athletes into comparable groups based on sports, age or previous training experience.  It was common to have 13-year old female soccer players grouped with college football linebackers; not exactly ideal for the individual athletes’ needs.

Large groups, different athlete needs and limited time frames also put the training protocols at sub-par levels.  It was common practice for the SAQ facility that I interned at to have a binder that had all the workouts in them.  The binders were labeled by weeks and inside the binder each day of that particular week was mapped out with specific exercises.  All the athletes did the same exercises without variations or modifications necessary for different skill levels.  Sure these programs might seem progressive but they are less than optimal because they are not specific enough.  They did not take into consideration the current qualities of the individual athlete mentioned above.

One can also assume that the more skilled and experienced athletes gain less from these limited time only, large group SAQ programs.  These programs are usually at the mercy of the lowest common denominator of the group.  No intermediate or advanced movements are shown for fear of isolating the newer, less experienced athlete.  Athletes who have more training experience are forced to comply with the remedial routine of the whole group and not gain as much out of the program as they could with a progressive strength and conditioning program designed specifically for them.

What You Seek is What You Get

Parent should realize exactly what they are looking for when it comes to strength and conditioning camps.  Do you want an all-day session filled with a large number of peers and other athletes? Or does your child have the drive and potential to benefit from something more?

The summer camp experience might be a good way to expose their teenager to the world of strength and conditioning and they must understand the results gained will be minimal at best due to the time constraints and the limited amount of personal attention received in many SAQ camps.   If the athlete shows the desire to progress more, they should look into gyms and coaches that offer year-round programs suited for their needs.

Through my experience I have found that progressive strength and conditioning programs that factor in the athlete’s age, experience, sport, physical strengths and limitations have far superior gains than any of those massive SAQ camps could ever provide.