Nike SPARQ: Youth Sports, Youth Conditioning, Keeping It Fun

So at exactly what age do we start training kids like adults?  When does winning become the only thing and losing an unbearable option? When does youth sports become more about parent’s dreams than their kids having fun?  Is the growing trend towards early sport specialization and intense youth training programs good for the emotional and physical development of young athletes?  Nike SPARQ is a rating and training system that is used mostly with high school and collegiate athletes but the techniques and skills emphasized in SPARQ training are now being used more and more with middle school athletes – if not younger!  A local Baltimore author and sports writer, Mark Hyman, has written an extremely important book on the topic of youth sports.   Here are some interesting facts from Mark’s book:

In 2003 alone, more than 3.5 million children under age fifteen required medical treatment for sports injuries, nearly half of which were the result of simple overuse.  The quest to turn children into tomorrow’s superstar athletes has often led adults to push them beyond physical and emotional limits.

Mark Hyman’s book is titled “Until It Hurts: America’s Obsession With Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids“.  Here are some quotes from reviewers:

A hair-raising look at everything that is wrong with youth sports today.  Every parent and every coach who has ever been involved in youth sports and cares about kids has an obligation to read it.  BUZZ BISSINGER, author of Friday Night Lights

Hyman has authored a richly detailed, eye-opening look at an America hell-bent on turning our children into ‘winners’ – no matter the physical or emotional cost.  Important, compelling, and painfully honest, Until It Hurts looks in all the right directions, including the mirror. ARMEN KETEYIAN, Chief Investigative Correspondent, CBS News

I had the pleasure of meeting Mark when he found me while looking for a local trainer to show him the ropes of the Nike SPARQ rating system.  Mark figured that the best way to learn about Nike SPARQ was to subject himself to the process.  Mark ended up coming to my facility and we ran him through a a basic SPARQ rating test while he took notes and video taped – or had me video tape – the various tests.  I think he scored a bit lower than Tim Tebow but not by much!

Mark writes about sports for BusinessWeek and numerous other publications.  He previously worked for newspapers in Baltimore, Dallas, and Philadelphia.  His first book, Confessions  of a Baseball Purist, with ESPN’s Jon Miller, was published in 1998.  Mark also hosts a blog for youth sports parents at

So when it comes to doing SPARQ type training with young athletes, what would be some basic guidelines?  Where can trainers go to receive solid training in how to safely and effectively work with young athletes?

For the first question, it’s important for coaches to understand  the basics of youth physiology and development.  If you don’t have a working knowledge of what the Tanner scale is then you probably are not quite ready to be training  and  assessing young athletes.  Coachability is certainly always going to be a factor for determining what types of activity a young athlete should participate in.  Young people tend to be much more susceptible to heat injury so hydration and limited training in hot and humid climates is critical.  The muscle tone of young  athletes at various times can make any sort of aggressive power and/or  strength  training counterproductive.  Young athletes will respond best to activities that have a greater emphasis on fun than competitiveness.  At these younger ages, the focus should be on motor learning and movement mechanics not on increasing loads and intensities.

Now to the second question, where can trainers and coaches go for solid training and research on working with young athletes?  I would recommend two organizations.  First the  National Strength and Conditioning  Association or NSCA.  This organization provides a prestigious certification for strength and conditioning specialist know as the CSCS or certified strength and conditioning specialist.  The NSCA has been putting out position papers on training young athletes for almost two decades.   Their web site is and the link for their most updated position paper on youth and strength training is here.

The second organization was created to specifically address the issue of youth conditioning and is known as the International Youth Conditioning Accociation or IYCA.  Their web site is  The IYCA offers several training programs and certifications for trainers/coaches looking to equip themselves to work with young  people. 

Youth Fitness coaches can have tremendous influence on how both young people and their parents view youth sports and youth conditioning.  There is no way that young people should be following the same training models that adults do and any trainer that doesn’t know this needs to reevaluate why they’re working with young people in the first place.  Kids today are experiencing more and more issues of injury and burnout in regards to  youth sports and it has everything to do with how much of the “fun” adults have taken out of their activities and how little “play time” kids actually have in their lives.



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