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Keira Antoni’s eyes light up as she talks about her hard-earned gymnastics skills, like back flips and aerials. Training at Legacy All Sports in Lexington, the 9-year-old has loved gymnastics for about as long as she can remember, and she has the muscles to prove it.
“I like floor [exercise] the most,” she says with a smile. “That makes me really happy. We do lots of back tucks! … And I got my flyaway off the bar—where we let go and it’s like a back tuck on the floor, but you’re actually going off the bar. And it’s really hard and really high up in the air.”
A competitive athlete, in a gym that stresses discipline and hard work while remembering that kids should have fun, Keira loves gymnastics in large part because she has made a lot of friends at the gym who help keep the long, tiring practices enjoyable. Keira trains around 17 hours a week at the gym, including five hours on Saturday. Much of that time is spent conditioning to avoid injury and ensure optimal performance of complicated moves.
Keira’s mother, Tiffany, says the physical conditioning is pretty incredible. “I am amazed at the physical abilities of Keira and her teammates,” she says. “They start practice with conditioning for 30 minutes; then they do a separate block of conditioning during practice. They are definitely dedicated athletes. They can climb a rope over and over again, and then immediately go and do their floor routine.”
Some of the conditioning includes classic moves, like pull-ups performed with three types of hand holds. The gymnasts also work on straight-leg raises while hanging on to the bar.
“We do toe raises, 25 of them, and it hurts really bad,” Keira explains.
The benefits are not just physical. Keira says she has learned how to stay focused under pressure.
“She has learned to work on the same skill over and over again, until she finally gets it,” Tiffany says. “Sometimes, this can take months of practice to finally be able to do a skill. This has transferred over to her schoolwork—when she is working on homework and may get frustrated on something. She knows that the more she studies, the easier it will become. It takes a lot of mental strength.”
Cindy Merida is one of Keira’s coaches and has three grown children. “Obviously, they have a lot of strength, but there’s also great promotion of a healthy mind with the body,” says Merida, who has coached for more than 20 years. “It’s amazing how hard these kids work. And if they get in gymnastics, they can pretty much go to any other sport and do well at it just because of how strong they are.”
Merida says a lot of the conditioning they do can be performed by any kid—in gymnastics or not. Exercises like pull-ups, push-ups and cardiovascular work are universal.
Try lots of sports
In Louisville, the Collins boys—Alexander, 9, and Caleb, 6—are about as active as kids come. Their mother, Karen Collins, is the gymnastics department leader at All About Kids Sports Center. She and her husband were both college athletes and always encourage activity in their boys.
“Our oldest is mostly into baseball,” she says. “They both do Tae Kwon Do at the gym, and both do soccer. My youngest is still deciding what he wants to do, but he could be great at anything he puts his mind to, since he’s really athletically built.”
Like Keira Antoni, Alexander and Caleb are surrounded by active friends, and as a result, the friends push each other to do better.
“I just feel like they have a stick-with-it attitude in everything,” Collins says. “They just work hard, and they like to accomplish certain things.” She adds that they have learned to “just be a good sport and go out there and have fun.”
In her boys, she’s seen that sports not only improve their strength but also foster a healthy competitive spirit, a sense of teamwork and encouragement of others. “And they don’t compare themselves to their friends,” she adds.
Based on her professional experience at All About Kids and her experience so far with her own children, Collins encourages other parents to let their kids try lots of sports and activities. “Of course, I’m a little biased, but a facility like All About Kids has basically every sport you need,” she says. She especially loves sports like gymnastics that build great strength and teach kids how to work hard on skills and be persistent.
Collins encourages parents to allow kids to explore a sport they might really like but continue to offer variety and always keep things in perspective. Based on her professional experience at All About Kids and her experience so far with her own children, Collins encourages other parents to let the professionals do their jobs to get the best results for children. “Let the teachers or the coaches teach and coach your kids,” she says. “Don’t coach from the sidelines—it doesn’t help anything. You’re teaching your kids not to listen to their coach and not to figure things out for themselves. And ultimately, it’s supposed to be fun, and going out there and building up those muscles and staying in line.”
She jokes that she can pick on her kids later to focus while they’re in practice.
Learning life skills a bonus
Corey Gant, the membership and marketing director at the Owensboro Family YMCA, echoes similar sentiments. “Our mission is really just to get kids active and also give them opportunities to learn the game in a nonthreatening type of environment,” he says. “It’s about learning to play, about learning teamwork and what it means to a be a teammate, and learning good sportsmanship.”
Gant says the Y likes to “catch kids early” and “catch the parents early,” before they get into the world of politicized and overly competitive sports. He says kids get the best overall outcomes when the emphasis is on simply playing the game. He emphasizes that parents should encourage their kids to get out there and run.
“The sad part is you see some of them whose parents don’t want them doing anything,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling.”
The YMCA also focuses on healthy eating in its programs and just playing games to teach kids that getting physically strong doesn’t necessarily have to involve playing a sport.
Gant says parents should seek out programs that are right for their kids, without worrying about what is popular. He advises trying multiple sports and activities and offering year-round variety with opportunities to take breaks.
“You don’t want them to want to quit everything,” he points out.
What the Experts Say
Dr. Rob Revelette, a pediatrician with Lexington’s Pediatric & Adolescent Associates, firmly pushes physical activity for kids. The past president of the Kentucky chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics is on the advisory committee for the Kentucky Medical Association’s Sports and Physical Fitness Division and has raised two athletic sons.
Revelette says the first things parents should consider when beginning a sport or activity for their kids are whether it will be a good experience for the child and whether it will help build the child’s self-esteem. “Sports are not all about physical fitness,” he says. “It’s more about building a child’s self-esteem. I like team sports, but individual sports are good as well—things like karate, gymnastics. Team sports, like basketball, baseball, soccer—it teaches you that you’re not the most important part of the team. And I always encourage parents to make sure their kids play year after year after year.”
As far as selecting a sport for your child or how hard to push the youngster, he says it all depends on the child and his or her skills and personality. “The sad thing I’ve seen over the last 20 years is that recreational sports are starting to go away,” he says. “Specialization is starting young and is not good for their mind and not good for their body … It is also tough on the family because a lot of these things involve travel.”
Instead, he says, encourage cross training and realistic goal setting.
Ultimately, movement is the key. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends at least 60 minutes a day of physical activity for children over the age of 6. Kids (and adults) need to move, and the alternative spells trouble. “We are creating a lot of soft-minded and soft-bodied children,” he says. “They come home and they stare at a screen. They like it, and they will do it hour after hour. It’s not good for their mind, and they’re not physically active. It’s terrible. So turn it all off. There won’t be anything to do in the house, and they’ll decide to go outside and play or fight with their brothers.”
Revelette also encourages parents to go ahead and sign up their young children for sports and activities. “If the child feels good about themselves and they have fun out there, then you decide right then and there that they will play next year,” he says. “Don’t ask your child if they want to play, because they will change their minds based on how they feel that day.”
Whatever the activity, start it early and get kids plugged in and excited. Or if it’s at home, involve some other children to develop teamwork and sportsmanship. For kids who may excel at one sport, Revelette says to encourage it but keep it in perspective. “There’s a huge impact on the family if one of your three children wants to specialize in something that’s going to require 20 weekends of travel a year,” he says. “You have to look at the home team first.”
Kids Should Play Hard
Jim Laird, owner of GYM Laird Strength & Conditioning in Lexington, is a longtime strength and wellness coach and has worked with hundreds of athletes of all ages. The picture he paints of a healthy kid is one who can play. “One that plays unstructured, who wants to be active constantly, who doesn’t need structure to play—kids that initiate play on their own,” he says. “Kids have too much structure today, and that is a problem. Kids should have high energy; they should want to be active.”
He said kids now are told not to roughhouse and are not allowed to spend hours outside. “If you look at the animal kingdom—bears, cats, every different kind of animal—if you watch any kind of nature show, they learn how to hunt through play,” he explains. “They learn how to prepare for high-threshold survival situations through play. Play is how kids develop that base level of movement so they can do more advanced things later.”
Like Revelette, Laird discourages parents from involving kids in elite-level sports. “You have to realize, your child is not going to get paid to play sports,” he notes. “Sports should be looked at as learning how to compete, getting skill sets for life, learning how to work with other people, learning how to win and lose, how to have fun and to set them up for a life of just loving to be active.”
For the kids who do specialize in certain sports, he says, make sure they occasionally have some time away from it. He lauds sports like wrestling and gymnastics as being good for kids who want to specialize, since they involve many types of movement patterns.
Even if kids aren’t in organized physical activities, Laird says they can become conditioned through play. “Kids should be able to play for long periods of time without being exhausted,” he notes. “We’re seeing kids come in here with resting heart rates of over 100 beats per minute because they haven’t developed their aerobic capacity through play. If they’re playing and crawling around and trying to climb things, then you’re on the right path.”
Also, don’t neglect nutrition. To build strong kids who can perform well, stay away from sugars, refined starches and carbs and juice. Add “good” fats—like olives, avocados and salmon—for brain development. He encourages parents to teach kids to cook up simple meals such as scrambled eggs, so they don’t need to reach for quick junk food.