Ron Nichols

Improving Children's Health Related Fitness in the Community and At Home
by Ron Nichols, with contribution from Dr. Randall Nichols

This month I would like to focus on two main topics. The first highlights the difficulty of improving a child's health related fitness (HRF) solely through time spent in a physical education class. This fact leads to my second main point: evaluating methods coaches can incorporate to "teach" HRF during their programs.

Currently, most future physical educators are taught the importance of including a HRF component in all of their lessons. However, we are fortunate if we teach students once or twice a week, so we cannot expect to actually improve any component during class time alone. To combat this problem, we attempt to make an impact on our students' HRF in 3 areas: school, community, and home. A child's HRF can be impacted at school, but unless a coach is also an educator they cannot have much impact on developing children's HRF during school time. Therefore, this article is going to examine how the coach can play a major role in improving our children's HRF in our community and at home. The goal for coaches, when it comes to HRF, should be the same as the key aspect in the Physical Best program: Teach students how to become and remain fit.

Organization is a practical way to incorporate HRF during athletic practices. One way to begin organizing your practices is by implementing the use of practice plans that are visible to all participants. It is human nature for people to want to know what is coming. This does not mean you cannot have surprises planned into your practice time, but for the most part the team needs to know your plan for the day. To insure your team reads the plans, post them in different common areas, and give copies to all your coaches and even to parents who tend to stay and watch. One method to guarantee your team is actually reading the plans is to ask them questions about the plan before you start practice. One coach provided an example of using a motivational quote of the day that he included on the bottom of the practice plan. Usually the quote dealt with something the team was going through at that point of the season. During the team meeting the coach would randomly ask one of the athletes to recite the quote, thus ensuring all team members were reading the practice plans.

Every practice plan should have at least one specific area that works on developing one of the five HRF components. This does not mean plans for developing the skill levels of athletes are altered simply to spend time on a HRF goal. Instead, coaches need to be intentional about addressing a certain HRF component when their practice plan lends itself to that component during the normal progress of that day's practice. When coaches start examining their practices, they will find most of them are already developing one component and are often developing more than one component. Next, the coach needs to identify:

  1. What HRF components are being developed
  2. How they are being developed
  3. Why they are being developed, and
  4. Communicate it clearly in the practice plan

The "what" is which HRF component the drill/practice will develop. Determining the "how" is accomplished by identifying what activity will be involved. In coaching, the "why" is the most important question to be addressed every time you are implementing a HRF component. When communicating the "why," describe which part of the sport they will be improving upon, but also draw a parallel to how it will improve their overall life.

An example is a basketball coach explaining to his/her players that running sprints will improve their cardiovascular endurance resulting in them not being tired at the end of a game when the game-winning shot is on the line. The coach can also explain how running sprints will improve their life because they will have energy to play their favorite games at home, in addition to having energy for their sport. The examples would obviously change depending on the age level with which you are working. The most important thing is to make sure the examples you use are meaningful to them.

As stated previously, a coach can make an impact on an athlete's HRF in the areas of community and home. By committing to teach and address HRF during practice sessions, coaches will already be making an impact within the community. However, a bigger impact in the community can be made by sharing values with fellow coaches, and petitioning the entire league or school district to develop a method to ensure HRF is addressed within all their practice sessions.

A coach can make an impact at home in two important ways. The first is by educating parents on the importance of HRF, and how it can improve their child's performance in their sport. Unfortunately, some parents don't see the need to address their child's HRF; however, if you tell them it will make their child a better athlete, parents often become full partners in improving their child's fitness levels. The second place a coach can improve their athletes' HRF at home is by providing well planned drills/programs to be performed at home, and/or during out of season periods, that will develop the child in the given sport and improve one or more HRF components as well. These drills/programs should include the "why" discussed earlier (i.e. by doing this core strength program you will be improving your balance which will: 1) make you a better soccer player, but equally important, 2) lower your risk of developing weak bones later in life).

The most important part for coaches to address in developing children's HRF is to make it fun! All of the strategies reviewed in this article are pointless if children are not having fun doing them. There are two reasons a coach should be concerned about making HRF fun. The first is that children are going to do things they enjoy most often. Our purpose should be to encourage our children to be more active. If they are not having fun enjoying their sport, they will not continue to do it. The second reason is blended with the first. That is, as children transition into adulthood, their fond memories of their athletic involvement and HRF activities will increase their inclination to continue them after they graduate and pass their value for physical activity on to the next generation.

A topic of extreme importance that did not fit into any of the key points of this article, but cannot be ignored, is the use of physical conditioning as a discipline tool. No coach should ever use physical conditioning as a discipline tool, especially in the formative years when children are just learning and exploring which physical activities they enjoy. Remember, our goal is for them to have fun while doing the activity. Who can remember any discipline that was enjoyable?

In conclusion, as we celebrate National Physical Fitness and Sport Month as a community of professionals, we have the responsibility to increase our student's activity levels, educate them on the importance of HRF and the role it plays in their lives' now and in the future, and make that process fun.

Ron Nichols is an instructor of Kinesiology at Penn State in New Kensington. He also serves as the campus’ Director of Athletics. During the 2007-2008 school year, Ron returned to his alma-mater (Slippery Rock University) to serve as an adjunct instructor in the Department of Physical Education. Ron loves spending time outdoors, mostly running, mountain biking, kayaking, and gardening. He lives in Bakerstown, PA with his wife Amy, son Ryland (2 years old) and soon to be (due in August) daughter Addilyn.

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