Q: When should my child start formal athletic training, and what exactly should they do? – Jillian, Stowe, VT
A: Above all, emphasize to the kids that their athletic activities should be fun. If they can get some good instructional help and learn a few training techniques, avoid injury, and enjoy what they do, that's helpful. As a parent, you have a tremendous opportunity to have a permanent lasting effect on your kids' health.
Look at physical activity, sports, and nutrition the way you look at other activities that your kids participate in. You could just let them go out and do it, or you could intervene a little and guide them toward some healthy things.
For the 11 to 18-year-old age group, they will get their technical skills on the field or on the diamond, but where you can help is to get them prepared before the seasons start. Does this mean that kids should get into a formal exercise program at a YMCA or a health club? Not necessarily.
No matter how great the club looks or how cool the kids think the equipment is, make sure that the people doing the teaching have worked with kids before and have formal training or certification. Also, ask how students are screened for the program and whether they have the kids just jump right in to the program. You want the instructors to do the same thing that you would expect for yourself in the sense that they should be evaluated and assessed to make sure that the children are ready to take on some physical activities. Your kids should be asked whether they have had any previous injuries related to athletics, whether they have any medical conditions, such as asthma that might be affected by physical activity and what their goals are with regard to what they are signing up for.
It's also key to observe a class that the instructor is teaching to see how he or she interacts with the kids. The better programs will offer a free class or let you observe a class. They should be happy to answer all questions, and they should offer you lots of references and testimonials from recent participants. Beware of a "boot-camp" mentality. There is no place for that in a setting like this. The best case scenario is that your kids learn some good habits that will have a positive effect on their willingness to continue with athletics and make it a part of their lifestyle.