High-tech sports marketers now aiming at the 7-year-old bound for the NFL
By Danielle Shapiro
Six floors up a Midtown Manhattan high-rise is not, perhaps, the most obvious place to find athletes training with high-tech video analysis equipment, a 30-yard track and bright green practice turf (white football lines and all). Nor does it seem to be the place where the athletes would be as young as 8 or 9 years old. But at the Velocity Sports Performance facility on East 58th Street, weekday afternoons are abuzz with kid-infused activity.
Across the country, similar performance centers are popping up, and personal trainers are tapping into kids’ interest in athletic training. This is not after-school soccer or basketball, t-ball or tumbling. It is running and hopping and sophisticated games of tag used to develop confident, and competent, athletes, regardless of how young they are. At most facilities the goal is to improve speed, agility, balance, flexibility, power, endurance and strength. Sometimes it’s one-on-one, costing up to $75 an hour, but mostly it’s in small groups, for about $10 to $20 an hour.
“We want to put together a program of all the different skills that you need to be good at any sport,” said Loren Seagrave,
Velocity’s chief performance officer and a co-founder of the company. Velocity, a franchise, focuses on overall athleticism.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the clay-red track at Velocity in New York was full of little kids, sprinting or warming up by marching. The day’s focus was acceleration.
Three small athletes crouched low at the starting line, legs staggered in a racing start. Their coach was close by, adjusting their position. “Go!” he yelled. They did. “Whew! Nice! She’s got it!” he said with a smile as one of his pupils mastered the push-off.
At the other end, five slightly older boys wore harnesses, attached to long bands with handles. Paired up, one boy would hold the handle in back to serve as resistance while the other leaned forward and walked down the track to learn a proper running position.
At the water cooler, Chris Tcholkian said he was on a soccer team but just practicing with teammates was not enough.
“They don’t really work out,” he said. “It does help, but not as much. I learn better techniques here,” and it’s “not just running for nothing.”
His buddy Marco Mosca, also agreed that proper form is key. “It gives more stamina and it makes us faster,” he said.
Seagrave said that kids between 7 and 12 are in their “skill-hungry years.” Physiologically, he explained, their neurons are beginning to be covered with a fatty substance called myelin, which allows signals to be transmitted faster. This period of neuromuscular development is especially good for developing coordination, he said. If it becomes ingrained early enough, their bodies will remember the movements.
The kids benefit from the expertise of the coaches — at Velocity and Fitness Quest 10 all the coaches have college degrees, many with a master’s as well—and plain old activity. Dr. Michael Bergeron, an applied and exercise physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), said that many other sports programs just don’t get kids moving enough to improve their cardiovascular fitness. “There’s a lot of standing around,” he said.
Joe McAuliffe specifically tries to avoid anything sedentary. He says the kids at his JM Power Center in Eatontown, N.J., love the agility ladder — a nylon and plastic ladder placed on the floor for kids to run and jump through. “They’d do it all day long,” he said. “They also love chasing things.”
He described a favorite game in which kids lie on their stomachs and have to spring from a push-up into a sprint to catch a ball that a trainer has thrown down the track.
Though his youngest clients are 9, he says they cannot really be “too young” to start. His criteria: “Are they coachable?” Can they follow directions? If the answer is yes, he will train them.
McAuliffe said that because the nervous system is still developing in children before puberty, it’s important to offer as much motor skill learning as possible, avoiding too much intensity. “When you exercise properly you can increase bone density, the thickness of ligaments and tendons and the stability of joints,” he said. “A strong muscle is less likely to strain, a flexible muscle is less likely to tear.”
There is no nationally recognized child training certification, and a child’s physiology requires certain precautions. Dr. Pat Vehrs, a physiologist at Brigham Young University and another ACSM fellow, said it’s important to avoid high intensity, heavy workload and lots of repetition. He said that some kinds of speed, strength and endurance training are risky.
“It’s important to stay within their functional ability,” he said.
Although some people worry about teaching kids Olympic-style weight lifting, it can be safe by avoiding extremes. “You start with a broomstick and develop the technique,” Vehrs said. “Then you move to a heavier bar.”
Bergeron added that rest, recovery and proper nutrition are a must, especially as kids increase their activity levels.
But the kids aren’t thinking about any of that, really.
“I like Velocity because it feels like professional training,” said Tessa Albertson. “We do really sophisticated things. With this there’s more better equipment and it looks like a place a real professional would train.”