- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

The athletes at Philbin’s Family Fitness and Athletic Training Center are doing ladder drills to improve footwork, moving across the indoor Astroturf field over and over again.

The drills will indeed make a difference when they get out on the actual football field or baseball diamond or when lacrosse season starts. For now, though, the athletes - some of whom still have light-up heels on their Velcro-closure sneakers - are having fun.

The drills are a part of Philbin’s Speed, Agility, Quickness program, called SAQ at the Gaithersburg gym. The program offers children as young as 6 a high-intensity workout that will help them in pretty much any sport, says Philbin’s general manager Bruce Hall.

“Nowadays, sports are so demanding on kids, it doesn’t matter if it is a 7-year-old or a college athlete,” Mr. Hall says. “If you don’t do [extra training], your competition probably is. Parents realize this. I don’t think they are looking for their kid to be the next pro athlete, but it gives their kids an edge.”

Philbin’s has been offering its program - which is offered to gym members at no additional cost - for five years. There are several other programs in the metro area, including a branch of Velocity Sports, a national strength and conditioning program, in Alexandria.

The idea of extra conditioning for youth evolved from year-round sports participation and specialization in sports at a younger and younger age. With children as young as 9 trying out for demanding travel or select teams, the stakes are higher much faster - and so are the standards of athleticism.

“I wish we had this kind of stuff when I was a kid,” says Jarrel Holmes, a Walter Reed physician who brings his 9-year-old twin sons to Philbin’s to work on their speed for football and track. “It is fun in an organized fashion. We grew up playing in the streets. This is a lot more organized. [My sons’] footwork and coordination has really improved. In football, you can really tell the difference.”

For some of the athletes in an extra conditioning program, it is one more practice added to a busy week in a sports schedule that knows no off-season.

Victor Converse of Gaithersburg has four athletic children ages 6 to 12. They play baseball, soccer, basketball and karate. Several of the Converse children participate in the SAQ classes, as well as a private class with baseball-specific drills, Mr. Converse says.

“I’ve seen improvement,” Mr. Converse says. “The year before last, when my son Christopher was a sixth-grader, he was asked to run on a cross-country team, all because of the training he got here. It has really helped make him faster in baseball, too.”

Matthew Converse, 9, plays on travel soccer and baseball teams. That is four practices a week, pretty much year round, but says he really likes the additional training at Philbin’s.

“I look forward to coming here,” he says.

Having fun should be a focus of extra training, no matter what the final goal is, says Joel Brenner, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Va., and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics‘ sports medicine committee.

“If you are going to do extra training, it should be geared toward kids,” Dr. Brenner says.

If parents want to get young athletes involved in a such a program, they should see what the program’s drills and goals include. The AAP does not recommend serious weight training until children pass puberty.

Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and author of the book “The Young Athlete,” says children as young as 9 can do some weight training as long as they use light weights and high repetition.

“If done correctly, weight training can build bone strength and prevent injury,” Dr. Metzl says.

However, the AAP cautions parents about a more esoteric injury - burnout. It can show up physically, in the form of injury, or psychologically, such as losing enthusiasm for training and competing.

The AAP recommends athletes taking one or two days off of training a week, as well as taking a longer break - two or three months - to focus on other activities and cross training.

“Kids need to have an off-season,” Dr. Brenner says. “It lets their mind and body recover. They don’t have to do organized sports during that time. They can just play outside.”

Also, parents need to keep in mind their ultimate goal of training. Is it to take a second off a football player’s time in the 40-yard-dash? Or is it to incrementally work toward becoming an NFL-caliber wide receiver?

“The growth of sports has led to parents a lot of times having their kids specializing at a young age [in order to] get a college scholarship,” Dr. Brenner says. “There is nothing to show that starting this young is going to get them there.”

Mr. Hall points to the flags hanging from the ceiling of Philbin’s: University of Maryland, Pennsylvania State University, University of Connecticut and Stanford University, among them. They represent athletes who have trained at the gym and gone on to play various sports for those major programs, among others.

The extra training didn’t, of course, earn the scholarships. But it didn’t hurt, either.

“We can aid in that; we can’t work miracles,” Mr. Hall says. “We can help the kids meet goals.”

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