Kids These Days

by Jim Steel | April 01, 2020

set to compete

“How many sets and reps, Coach?”

“Five sets of five.”

One minute later: “How many sets and reps, Coach?”

“Five sets of five.”

One minute later: “How many sets and reps, Coach?”

Five Sets of Five! 

This is an example of a typical conversation I have every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evening at a baseball facility in South Jersey where I train kids from the ages of 8-18 in weight training. I train them in two groups: the 13-18 year-olds from 6pm to 7pm, and the 8-12 year-olds from 7-8 pm. 

This training has been quite a challenge for me in many ways. When I trained college athletes over the last thirty years, I told them once what the sets and reps were for an exercise, and if they asked me again, and did not ask their teammates, I'd have everyone perform squat jumps for a few minutes. “You are in college, pay attention! Be accountable! Have some discipline!” 

Pay attention! When your little brain is moving a thousand miles an hour, and you have the attention span of a gnat, staying focused on the task at hand can be difficult. First off, I am used to everyone moving when I say move or listening when I say listen, or watching when I demonstrate something. The first couple of times that I demonstrated an exercise or tried to get their attention, I’d glance around and one of them would be doing leg raises (not on the program), two kids would be playing catch with a football, a couple of them would be trying to jump on the plyo boxes, and a couple would be arguing about who's the best third baseman in the major leagues. 

Lack of focus is definitely an issue 

The younger group, the 8-12 group, has been the most trying. One time I told this kid, “If you need help, just let me know.” Next thing I knew, I heard this cry for “Help!” Coming from over at the power rack. My heart dropped to my knees. I just knew someone was pinned under a tremendous amount of weight. I turned around, wondering just what was so urgent. The kid who I had just talked to was trying to get a 2.5-pound plate from the peg on the power rack and couldn't reach it – he was too short. I asked, “Are you stuck?” “No, just need some help, you said to let you know if I needed help.” I guess he was right. 

Another interesting change in who I train is that now I train my own kids. My sons James, 13, and Max, 8, are both athletes that train at the baseball place. What I am constantly trying to get them to realize is that when I am coaching them, I am not Dad, I am their coach. Doesn't matter to my kids. I hear this all the time, “Dad, watch this, hey Dad, watch this!” Or I look over and one of them would be playing catch with a football or shooting baskets while I was instructing. And then I pull them aside and give them a stern talking to and they start asking me, “Hey Dad, are you gonna get in the truck when we are done training and start yelling at us for everything that we did wrong today?” I usually do this every night after the training is done. I review just how my own sons embarrassed me and how they are expected be leaders and to practice their form at home and that if you want to be great, they have to be locked in and ready to go!  And then there will be silence in the back seat for a bit and then one of them, usually Max, will ask, “Does that mean that we can’t go to Applebee’s?” 

My 8-year-old actually has the audacity to question what I tell him. “Hey Dad, why can't I use more weight on the floor bench?” He had just missed 3 reps in his last set when he was supposed to get 5, and he was squirming all around like a worm while doing the set. I told him to reduce the weight and now he wanted to go heavier. This is a common occurrence, and I have explained to Max about a million times just why I am telling him to do something. This time, I just replied, “Max, how long have you been lifting weights? About six weeks, right? I have been coaching since 1989, 23 years before you were born!” And then he looked at me confused and said, hesitantly, “Okay, Dad.” “COACH STEEL! I AM COACH STEEL!” Sometimes I get a little frustrated. 

You know what is the best part about training these kids? Seeing progress. When coaching college kids, progress can be measured by a twenty-pound gain in the bench press and more weight on the bar in general. With these kids, progress can be measured in different ways, in subtle improvements like jumping off of two feet instead of one foot in the broad jump, touching their chest on a pushup for the first time, achieving proper depth in the squat for the first time, or  just showing enthusiasm for the training they did not show before. It’s been about four months since I began training the kids, and over time I have noticed that they are more focused with the training, and they have begun spotting and encouraging the others, and in general acting like the weight room is important to them. 

Some of the younger kids are so small that putting the Olympic bar on their back is out of the question, so we do some sprints and some freehand squats and goblet squats and pushups. The older kids come with a more serious outlook on training, but all are weak at the start. And the good thing about them being weak at the start is that they make gains fast. In fact, one sixteen-year-old went from a 185 deadlift to 335 in four months. And that's not unusual – they are basically untrained, and eating more protein and learning correct form makes their weights shoot up in no time at all. 

And honestly, not all the kids come back after trying one of the training sessions. I understand, because it's hard, and maybe some of them aren't used to doing very hard things. It can be frustrating, failure is involved, and none of it is comfortable to perform. But if they just stick it out, just a few workouts, they will start to see the gains: they hit the ball further and throw the baseball faster, and they just feel and look better. And when they “get it,” their eyes open up to a whole new world. Some parents tell me that their kids are always asking them to feel their muscles, and I can see it too – the ones who are always present at training look differently and act differently; you can see it in the way they walk, in their posture and attitude. 

And some days instead of ripping into my kids in the truck on the way home, I have a big smile on my face, because a kid in the group who started weak and scared has become strong and braver. I get the same feelings from that as I used to get when a college athlete hit a new max. And I am constantly amazed by the magic of someone getting stronger and  the magic of seeing them become a better version of themselves.

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