“My Kid Loves Sports, But He is So Slow: What Should I Do?”

- Derek M. Hansen -

Believe it or not, I’m asked this question at least once per week. Being in the business of making people run fast, you would figure that it would be the only question I would hear. Thankfully, some of my clients are already pretty fast. They just want to get faster. However, I’ve spoken with a long list of parents, listening to sad stories about how their son or daughter feels left out because they are not fast enough to “make the team” that all of their friends are on. Other kids tease them because they are slow on the field or court. And some of these slow running kids may be the hardest workers, the best decision makers or the best team player. But, they will never make it to the next level because they just don’t have the running speed to compete. It is essentially an affliction of slow-twitch muscle fiber composition.

So what is a parent to do? Unfortunately, you can’t do anything to change the genetic make-up of your child (well, not quite yet at least). So, in the meantime, if you and your spouse were slow, it’s a pretty good bet your offspring are trailing behind their friends. While good training may not make them into the team speedster, there are many things that can be done to improve your child’s speed abilities and maximize the genetic potential with which they were born. Provided below are list of recommendations that will give your developing athlete a fighting chance when it comes to running speed.

 

1. Have them Run at their Fastest on a Regular Basis

Many parents wonder why their child isn’t getting any faster. They send their child off to soccer practice several times per week, and watch them play in games week after week, but don’t see significant differences in their speed over time. The simple truth is that children need to run at top speed on a regular basis. This does not happen at sport training sessions, where kids are inundated with drills and general conditioning. The drills are performed with a ball or other equipment and can impede the athletes from running at maximum effort and velocity. Conditioning and general fitness work typically emphasizes endurance aspects of training, and not speed related activities. Actual games such as soccer, basketball and football do not even involve maximum velocity efforts, as shown by studies. Hence, athletes do not experience the positive speed stress and adaptation required for faster running. Specific training sessions must be implemented to allow kids to run at or very near top speed, with appropriate recoveries between runs. My most common advice to parents is to have their kids “run fast to get faster.”

 

2. Provide Good Instruction on Sprinting Technique

Obviously, running fast is a necessity for improving your speed. If there is only one thing you do to make your kids faster, it should be to allow them to run fast. However, if you can provide your kids with simple, foundational technique for sprinting, they will be much better off in the long run. Running fast and efficiently is a complex motor learning challenge for most people. At the highest level of competition, the Olympic 100m final, sprinting looks effortless. Turning on the right muscles and turning off the unwanted muscles at the highest velocity of movement is a skill that must be taught, refined and maintained by a skilled coach. Kids must be taught the proper limb movements, body posture and level of effort to maximize their speed potential. If they are simply instructed to “push hard” or “go as fast as you can,” they will most likely run into trouble at some point in their development and develop poor habits that will be very difficult to break later on in their athletic career. Seek out a qualified, proven sprint coach to help out your children. Watch the workouts to determine if the coach is working on fundamentals. If they break out the speed ladders, parachutes and other gimmicks, sprint as fast as you can in the opposite direction. A good coach will have some cones, a stopwatch and a proven plan for teaching the fundamentals of running fast.

 

3. Avoid Unnecessary Endurance Running

Many coaches associate good training with long bouts of aerobic exercise. If the kids are breathing hard, sweating and even on the verge of vomiting, they believe that they have appropriately improved their conditioning. These types of workouts, however, do nothing to improve the speed abilities of athletes. Not only are the wrong muscle fibers being worked, excessive endurance work will result in poor posture, inefficient biomechanics and low motivation to continue training. Any chance for transitional muscle fibers to move into the fast-twitch category will be dashed by long-distance running workouts. And, even if your child wants to become a marathon, triathlon or Tour de France star, doing speed work at a younger age will only help develop speed qualities that will help them later on in their careers. Remember, the top marathoners in the world can run under five minutes per mile numerous times during a race. Over 99% of the adult population are not fast enough to run even one 5-minute mile. General conditioning is fine, but do not allow it to become excessive. Spend more time building skill and motor coordination with young athletes.

 

4. Introduce Basic Strength Training Protocols

Young athletes can improve their speed abilities by improving their overall strength. One of the big myths of athlete development is that lifting weights can be harmful to the health and development of young kids. While dropping a weight on your foot can be quite harmful, performing weightlifting exercises with low to moderate loads can be useful in developing general strength and improving movement mechanics. Some kids have problems initiating movement because they do not have the strength to move their own body weight quickly. This is exacerbated when kids go through a growth spurt and their limbs have lengthened, but muscular strength has not improved to handle the new lever lengths. Movements such as squatting and lunging, as well as Olympic weightlifting movements can build strength and power for accelerating. Simple jumping movements can also improve power and starting strength. Jumping up onto a box or up stairs can be performed easily, without the heavy eccentric impacts that often occur with plyometric movements such as hurdle jumps or depth jumps. These types of activities can be introduced gradually and performed at low volumes one to two times per week.

 

5. Emphasize Relaxation, Ease of Effort and Patience

Running is a complex activity that requires good control and muscular relaxation to be performed effectively. When teaching young athletes proper running mechanics, the initial phase of training must include only sub-maximal efforts to ensure that optimal technique is maintained throughout the workout. Working at a perceived level of effort of 80-85% is optimal for mastering sprinting mechanics. Such effort may translate into 90-95% of top velocity, which is fast enough to effect a positive speed adaptation in the body. Sprinting is a “feel” sport, which means you need to get a feel for proper technique at higher velocities and work on maintaining this feeling. Young athletes that spend a good deal of time perfecting these qualities will benefit from this investment over the long run.

 

Final Remarks

One of the most important reasons for parents and young athletes facing the question of, “Am I destined to be slow all my life?” to continue to work on improving their speed is that all young athletes are developing at different rates. An athlete who is slow now may develop into an athlete with reasonable speed abilities later in their career. This is why it is important for young athletes to try to stay in the game and not give up based on their current performance. One of the biggest problems in youth sports these days is that potentially good athletes are being cut from teams at very early ages. Early specialization is narrowing the potential pool of athletes for various sports. The longer we can keep athletes in the development pool, the greater chance we will have to find the best athletes for the elite level.

Following the recommendations above can give an athlete a fighting chance to not only maintain their career, but perhaps vault them into a new level of performance. If we can prevent young athletes from getting discouraged by providing them with good training guidelines, we will go a long way to improving sport and maintaining larger participation rates in active lifestyles for our youth.

Comments

  1. Great Article!! I am going to share it with my track parents soon.

  2. My Daughter is 8 and plays travel soccer. Of the 14 kids on her team, she’ll finish 4th or 5th in group sprints, but she almost always gets beat in 1 on 1 races for a loose ball. On the soccer field she’s got great moves but can’t get more than 3 steps past another player because she’s just not that fast with the ball. Coach won’t play her at any other position than forward because she’s very tentative and in a footrace would likely lose on defense. She takes a speed and agility class to help with technique but has only gotten marginal results. She knows that she’s not blazingly fast, and I can’t tell if she’s really unredeemably slow or just not working up to an average ability because of lack of confidence or aggression. No amount of encouragement, rewards system or positive reinforcement has helped her play less tentatively. Today I made the mistake of being honest with her and telling her she had to be faster if she wants to play more. Was it really a mistake to say this to her? Is there anything else I can do with her other than wait to see how her body develops? She’s pretty serious about soccer and loves to play but her speed is already affecting her playing time.

    • Hi Becky. I can understand your concerns. However, given that your daughter is only 8 years old, I don’t think it is at the point where we need to sound alarm bells. It sounds like it may be a combination of her speed abilities and her confidence in making plays. Even though you and I know that improved speed abilities will help to improve her chances on one-on-one situations, we should encourage her to continue to improve all aspects of her game – physical, mental and tactical. As far as her speed is concerned, I would continue to work on her overall strength and speed. I’m not sure what she is doing in her “speed and agility” classes, but sometimes those types of classes focus too much on agility drills and not enough time on force production, starting strength, acceleration and basic linear speed abilities. Strength training will also help. I’m involved in many kids camps that introduce weight training to young kids, teaching them basic techniques that can transfer to their speed abilities. And, no, it won’t stunt their growth if done properly. Also, getting her involved in track and field (including sprinting, jumping and even throwing) can help to work on these abilities outside of a “class” or “commercial” setting. A basic track club may be a better environment (if you have access to one). If you have any more detailed questions on what you can do, you can always email me or continue to post on this comments section. There are a lot of parents in your situation, but not many resources out there to help your kids out.

  3. Hello Derek,

    I just read this great article and have some questions. My son Kuba is 10 years old and plays soccer for Legia Warsaw that is biggest soccer club in Poland. Just today, I had an mid-season review of progress Kuba made last year and potential. Team coach scored Kuba with highest ranks in areas of: soccer technic, controlling ball, decision making, intelligence during the game, motor technic, etc. saying that taking into account all areas that were assessed Kuba with no discussion is the best player in the team now.
    The only one area that was not scored 3 (higest rank) was starting speed, acceleration and long run speed. Based on all his team kids results (short and long run) Kuba was in the middle. However, as coach said, they always compare every kid with the best one.
    I was advised to do nothing special now, no extra training. However after I read your article I am not so sure if we should wait to see what will happen in the future.
    Kuba loves soccer, every day with no training in Legia he is practising himself spending time with the ball, making agility drills 5-10 minutes a day or jogging with me. Do you think I could use his enthusiasm to help him to become faster?
    Will appreciate any comment. Cheers from Poland.
    Ps. Excuse me for any mistakes.

    • Great to hear from you Artur. Sounds like Kuba is an exceptional soccer player. My advice to you is to keep doing what you are doing. After watching the YouTube video of Ronaldo – “Tested to the Limit” – it became apparent to me that what makes Ronaldo great is his soccer skill, technique and intelligence. His sprint ability is good, but not anywhere near the best. However, it appears he can carry the ball at close to top speed, where other players may have to slow down considerably to be effective ball handlers. So, Ronaldo doesn’t need to be the fastest sprinter, he just needs to be in the proximity of the fastest.

      Having said that, I would encourage you to work on sprint technique and short accelerations with Kuba approximately 1-2 times per week. Remember, one of the top sprint coaches in history was from Poland – Gerarch Mach. His Mach drills were critical in developing good posture, strength and technique for sprinting, particularly during the winter indoors. Also, doing different start drills over 10-20 meters is all that you need to develop the acceleration abilities of athletes in soccer. We do lots of sprints off the ground (flat in push up position or off your back) to develop starting strength and acceleration. Grouping your runs over 4 x 10m, 4 x 15m and 4 x 20m (total of 150 to 250m per session) with adequate breaks (1 min per 10m of travel) can be enough to build these qualities.

      Let us know how it goes with Kuba. He is 10 years old now and will likely go through a major growth spurt over the next 4-5 years. Now is a good time to maintain his skills, but also teach him how to sprint properly while his muscles are developing and his bones are lengthening. Also important to get him into a regular stretching program so that his soft-tissues keep up with his bones as they grow.

  4. My son loves to play baseball but he is typically the slowest kid on the team. He has worked hard on his baseball skills, but at times is still slow to react and start running. When he was younger he was typically picked last or almost last for teams because of his lack of quickness. That being said I have at times seen him suddenly “get it” and move quickly. So I believe he can do it. He is 13 years old now and has always been somewhat tall for his age. Coaches always expected him to be powerful because of his size but he’s really not. A few months ago he started working with weights. Mostly upper-body but is now beginning to work on his trunk and lower body. As he’s gotten stronger in his upper body I’ve noticed his bat speed improving. He just wants to be good enough to make his high school team in about a year. What can he do to improve his overall quickness and speed? Thanks.

    • Robert,

      Your son needs to spend time on the following things:

      - Overall Strength – this can be done in the weight room using basic lifts such as squatting and deadllifting. He can progress to Olympic lifts such as cleans and snatches, but needs good technical instruction.

      - Jumps – Explosive jumps onto a box or up stairs can build starting power and make him quicker off the mark.

      - Explosive med-ball throws – Using a 6 or 8lb medicine ball for explosive push throws or reverse overhead throws can be useful for improving starting strength and power as well.

      - Sprinting technique and speed work – He needs to work over 10 and 20 yards for sprint work. If he can find a good track coach that can teach him the basic mechanics, it will be very critical. Good technique developed at this age will last him a lifetime. But if he picks up bad habits now, it could hurt him in the long run. This is probably the most important factor for him right now.

      Keep me posted on your progress.

  5. Hey Derek – great article.

    I think I get the idea of what’s required from the article and various questions asked and answered above but I thought I’d raise our son’s difficulties with you. He’s 8 now and we’ve known from an early age he wasn’t ever going to be a fast runner but at his first ever run at weekend soccer it was painful to watch. He was putting in plenty of effort but simply can’t get even close to keeping up – other boys would run literally twice as fast as him. When he runs, it looks like he goes ‘stiff’ – his fists clench, his stride seems to shorten if anything… I’ve noticed before that he probably ‘runs’ just as fast when he’s just trying an easy jog. Nor does he have any power when he kicks the ball … the ball never leaves the ground and would barely travel 20ft.

    We’re going to take him to a physio to check if there’s anything physically wrong. His right foot lands at an angle when he runs, but in other respects he’s fine – he throws ok, eye-hand is ok, but interestingly even when catching a ball he ‘stiffens up’ and his hands go like ‘claws’ when he catches – he’s also very slow to move toward a ball/catch.

    Wondering if you’ve heard of anything like this before, and if there’s anything specific you’d recommend aside from the exercises mentioned above. Would sports tuition of some type help?

    Again, thanks for a great article.

    • Shane, I think the most important thing right now is to keep him playing sports, but you will likely have to work on some things on the side. If you look at sprinting as a skill that needs to be honed and developed, it gives you a lot of room to make improvements. Of course, like any other skill, some kids pick it up very quickly, while others need to work on it. Because of the cyclical nature of sprinting and the need to integrate the concept of relaxation, it can be a very complicated activity for some kids. Slowing things down and breaking down the movements through marching and skipping drills can be helpful in teaching the proper movement sequences. In your son’s case, it sounds like relaxation may be an issue, as you have described his tendency toward being stiff a few times. A proper stretching program may also be a worthwhile effort to make sure his hips are mobile.

      Obviously, with any athlete, you have to examine their strength capabilities. With younger athletes, they can always get stronger and this will almost always translate into faster movement abilities. Don’t be afraid to work on his strength. Everyone is always afraid to start resistance training, but in your son’s case, it may help to correct some of his deficiencies. If you can find someone in your area that can assess him properly, it may help to get him moving in the right direction with his training.

      Lastly, keep having your son work on the individual skills required for the sports he likes. Many great soccer players are not the fastest athletes. But their ball handling skills are tremendous. As well as their vision and passing skills. This is also the case for quarterbacks (Peyton Manning), basketball players (Larry Bird) and other famous athletes who would never be characterized as fast or explosive.

      Keep me posted on your progress with your son. There are no simple answer. But I feel a multi-faceted approach (strength, coordination, flexibility, skill development) should be the best strategy at this time in his development.

  6. So here’s the results from his visit to the physio … they said that they’d never seen an 8yr old with such tight hamstrings and hip flexors. They are so tight that when he starts to run it makes him stick his bottom out and shuffle, it prevents him from taking longer steps and he has no power. His glutes are next to non-existent.

    He needs to strengthen his glutes and stretch his hamstrings … watching him try and touch his toes is like watching me try and do it, which is possibly where he gets it from!

    He’s been told to do an exercise called a “monster walk” with an elastic band (both feet inside a rubber band, step sideways against the band, contol the trailing foot so it doesn’t ‘snap in’)… though even in this exercise the physio noted we was turning his foot so as to use other muscles to achieve the goal. He also has an exercise called ‘bridge with leg lifts’. Lastly they said to get him running but to focus on getting him to take longer strides.

    So far he’s been enthusiastic about the exercises – mum’s made it into a challenge, both of us have to be able to touch our toes within three weeks – I think the young bloke will win.

  7. Derek,

    I have the same problem as most, but maybe even a step further. My son (6yrs) has always been slow, severely slow. He plays baseball, but is a terrible runner. I have yet to meet another kid that is slower than him in the last 2 years he has played, including the 4 year olds that are on his team this year. We took him to the doc last year to determine if there was a problem (yes it is that bad). The doctor took some xrays and said he had knock-knees…and that he might or might not grow out of it. Now, my son can hit, throw, and catch great, probably best on the team…but his running really discourages him sometimes. He doesn’t like to play tag or other kid games because everyone is so much faster than him. Any advice on how to increase his running performance, especially with knock-knees? Thank you in advance.

    • Chris,

      The first thing I would tackle are his gait issues – i.e. correcting his knock knee problem while you have a good window of opportunity. If he continues with knock-knees, he will not be able to optimize power in his running stride — as the force of each stride is dampened by the knee deviating from its proper tracking path. Performbetter.com has some light bands that can be placed around both knees and help to reinforce proper flexion paths as you squat:

      http://www.performbetter.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/Product1_10151_10751_1003893_-1

      We use these with athletes who have their knees knock together during squatting or jumping. You can have your son do squats up from and down to a chair with the band around his knees. It will teach him to push outward with the knees and improve tracking. Body weight squats can be done in sets of 8-10 reps over 3-5 sets. Start with the band and then transition to squats without the band so that he can control tracking on his own. This could be done 3-4x per week.

      The other activities I’d focus on are marching and skipping high knee drills done at slower speeds. Again, this will target his gait mechanics and reinforce proper knee flexion and extension through a running motion. I’m currently working on an instructional video for these types of drills. I’ll keep you posted.

      These are some places to start. Just be patient and persistent. He should improve quite quickly.

      Best regards,

      Derek

  8. Sharon says:

    My 7 year old LOVES to play sports… Especially hockey and lax. I have two questions on how I can help him. First, my son is very large for his age (4’7″). He has always been a tall, solid kid. When he was 3, another kid ran into him(my son was just standing still), fell down and had a concussion (he is fine). My son hasn’t forgotten, and he is worried if he plays sports his hardest others will get hurt. We have talked about this in many ways. Not sure how to help him. While i appreciate his sensitivity for others, it also seems like a lot of worry for such a little boy. Second, my son has great skating technique and isn’t that fast. He knows all the things to do to skate fast, it seems like it isn’t connecting from his head to his body. Maybe he is just too young? Any ideas would be appreciated.

    • Hi Sharon,

      I think it is important to keep working on technique and overall strength qualities, while being patient with the process. Success will come. I have the opportunity to currently work with World Record Holder and Olympic Champion speed skater Shani Davis. From what he tells me, he wasn’t fantastic right away as a youth skater. It took a good amount of time for his body and mind to connect with the ice and develop into a world champion athlete. I think if you can keep doing the right technique, your son will eventually grow into that technique and his body.

      It is always good to work on other skills that can help to build their skating and running. Basic weightlifting will always help. You don’t have to lift heavy right away. Just work on range of motion, coordination and technique. It will give him a head start and help to support other sporting skills.

  9. The comments from Shane and Chris are so much like my own experiences with my son, that I won’t bother you with all the details. I really appreciate this blog entry. My son (9) is so worried about his seed that he would rather stay in the library at recess than play football with his friends. (and he LOVES football). The stretching seems to ring very true in our case, in addition my son was recently fitted for sho inserts to correct the way he places his feet. (I don’t recall the exact problem).

    Anyway, this blog entry made me feel like I had options. I hate seeing my son frustrated and discouraged with no ability to help him fix the problem. At least now, I have a plan. Sprints, stretching, strenght training with squats and possibly jumping on moms step aerobics board. GREAT and THANKS for sharing.

    • Yes Steve – you are exactly right. Develop a plan with some structure that you can build on every week. Speed is a quality that must be build every week over several years. It doesn’t happen overnight.

      I will work with college football players who come into university running 5.2 seconds for a 40 yard dash. It is not uncommon for us to shave more than half a second off their time over the 3-4 years they are with us. That can translate into 6-8 yards on the football field. But it takes time and a commitment to working on several training elements — strength training, flexibility, power training and, ulimately, speed training.

      Best of luck and let us know how things are going.

  10. My son is 12 years old and does gymnastics and is very strong. Strength is one area he does extremely well in. He has alot of issues with moving slow though and it is really effecting him in gymnastics now that he is doing much more complicated skills. He can explain exactly what he is supposed to do but can seem to react quick enough during the skill to make it. He has always moved a little differently and slower than his peers. I think the gymnastics has helped him alot with his movements but I now feel bad for him because he is struggling so much with sport he has grown to love. In hind sight I should have gotten him therapy when he was younger. I have an appointment to have him evaluated. Can a big difference be mad at 12 years old or will he likely continue to struggle greatly. He is the type of kid who just won’t quite no matter the struggle but he seems so upset sometimes I wonder if it would be better to try something else even though he constantly tells me he wants to stay in it. If I should encourage him to try something different, what is a good sport for someone who is really really strong but moves slow? I appreciate your help.

  11. Thank goodness there are others out there with similiar issues. My son is 7 and very big for his age. He has always been bigger than kids his age and slower with less coordination. He has stopped playing tag and many sports because he is so slow. We have him working with a trainer because he has some muscular issues with his eyes and some loose joints in his upper body. They refer to him as low tone at the pediatrician and at first I had no idea what this was. I have done a ton of research and changed his diet and introduced the trainer. He also works with an occupational therapist but his progress is slow and as he ages it becomes more of a social issue. I read the blog and feel that many of the things I was thinking were wrong. I always believed endurance would help speed but now I will encourage him to do the short sprints he enjoys. Thanks and if you have any other suggestions I would greatly appreciate it.

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