“Playing your sport doesn't get you fit”

Playing your sport doesn't get you fit

Training young athletes can be enjoyable and funny.  For example, in a U9 girls group the other day, one of the girls let out a fart while doing a “quick drop” exercise.  The result was uncontrollable laughter in the group (me included) and it took a good 5 minutes to get the session back on track. My point here is that training youth athletes is very different than training adults.

The title of this post, “playing sport doesn’t get you fit” is something that I said to our high-performance tennis group last week.  It was an off the cuff comment in response to a drop in effort and a lackadaisical start to the session. My intention was to bring about a spark and a quick self-reflection on their current performance without being mean or facetious.

It provoked an interesting response from one person in the group.

Sometimes I like to pose questions that might challenge how people think.  It’s a result of spending 7 years at University where the topics of discussion and research are intended to poke and prod the status quo.  The result is often not what you originally thought and leads you to reflect on your own beliefs.

My comment “playing sport doesn’t get you fit,” is backed by my experience in high-performance sport. Solely playing a sport and expecting to get to the top level isn’t enough.  Even if an athlete does make it to the top level with that approach the athlete won’t excel or be there for very long, due to injury or not being able to keep up with the demands of the game.

A multitude of research has conclusively shown that at each increase in playing level, the more physically demanding the sport gets. To meet the demands of sport at the highest level, you have to be much much “fitter”.

Back to my comment.

One young athlete responds,  “sport does get you fit!” It was said in a sassy and confrontational way.  Uh oh, that wasn't quite the response I wanted.

I then said, “well, at the elite level playing your sport alone doesn’t get you fit enough”.  The elite level was the keyword I was missing.  Sure, some sports might get you fit, however, it depends on the sport and how you define fit.  I should state that at our tennis club, we are looking to produce high-level performance athletes; professional athletes.  All individuals are aware of this and our sport is taken very seriously.

As youth athletes, they don’t yet have the experience of being around high-level athletes and aren’t able to really appreciate the standard they need to meet to become professional. In elite level sport, there is always someone putting in more time, more effort, eating better, and recovering quicker than you. In such a competitive space, a 1% difference in performance will make all the difference at the elite level and athletes take every aspect of their fitness very seriously.

I could sense that my comment hit a sore spot for this individual.  Maybe they think they are “fit” and what they’re doing is enough. Some may think my comment was too much for a 14-year-old. On reflection, I would refer to the elite level the next time I use this comment. Too many young athletes get to the age of 18 and drop out because they can’t keep up with the sport. I believe in giving young athletes a realistic expectation of what it is going to take to get to the top level.