6 Keys for Improving the Health and Performance of Youth in (and not in) School Sports

6 Keys for Improving the Health and Performance of Youth in (and not in) School Sports

Coaches, teachers, parents and healthcare providers play a critical role in in the development of active and healthy lifestyles of teens.  These lifestyles, in turn, enhance youth performance and success in sports, school, career and life.

What are the building blocks of an active, healthy and high-performance youth lifestyle?  They consist of key behaviors that need to be increased, some that must be avoided, and effective communication strategies adults should use to help youth achieve positive growth in their lives.

The key behaviors that need to be increased for youth to live a fit, healthy and successful life are: 1) participating in regular physical activity and sports, 2) eating healthy foods, 3) getting adequate sleep, and 4) controlling stress.

It is not enough, however, to just increase these four health, fitness and performance-enhancing habits.  Teens also need to avoid risky behaviors that sabotage their wellness and fitness goals, especially harmful substance use including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other illicit drug consumption.

The good news is there are proven, effective communication strategies coaches, teachers, parents and health professionals can use to motivate and empower teens to live highly active, productive, healthy, and happy lives.

Below I’ll discuss the 6 keys for improving the health and performance of youth who do (and those who don’t) participate in school sports.

Four Behaviors to Increase

  1. Get Regular Physical Activity and Participate in Sports

It’s not enough for youth to participate in their favorite sport just once a year.  To perform at one’s peak, and to be fully healthy, it’s essential that youth get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

This should include a mixture of both cardiovascular aerobic and muscle strengthening anaerobic exercise or sports (don’t forget stretching) throughout the year.  If your youth are not physically active year-round, encourage them to engage in some off-season fun physical activities or other types of sports.

Anything to keep youth active and maintain and improve fitness will enhance their performance while playing their favorite sport, as well as their success academically.

  1. Eat Healthy

Eating healthy foods, like lean protein, low fat dairy products, high fiber grains and a minimum of five daily servings of fresh fruits and vegetables is critical to sports and school performance.  So is drinking plenty of water before and during long, hot practice sessions, games and exercise.

Don’t forget youth need a healthy breakfast to start out each day with the requisite calories, vitamins and minerals to give them the fuel to perform their very best.  Equally important is to have youth avoid sugary drinks, dangerous high caffeine beverages, and packaged sugary or salty junk foods.

Eating healthy also means ensuring youth avoid artificial means to enhance their performance, such as illicit and harmful steroids and other performance drugs and substances that can be dangerous to developing bodies and brains.

  1. Get Adequate Sleep

One of the most often overlooked aspects of achieving peak performance in sports, school and life is getting adequate sleep.  Getting sufficient sleep is critical to providing the energy to perform on and off the field.

Most youth need at least 8 or 9 hours of sound sleep each night.  Developing a nighttime routine will help youth get the sleep they need.  This should include sticking to a set time to be in bed every night.

Also essential is to encourage youth to shut down all electronic devices, and make their room dark and comfortable for deep, uninterrupted sleep.  Lastly, make sure youth avoid caffeine drinks in the evening, and eating large meals late at night.

One trick that helps some people get and stay asleep is to use ambient noise to shut out other sounds.  Ambient or white noise machines, CDs or downloads can be helpful for masking noises coming from inside or outside one’s house that can prevent and interrupt sound sleep.

  1. Control Stress

Youth experience performance and health-damaging daily stress, as well as stress linked to upcoming big games and school events.  The good news is that you can help youth take concrete action to control stress in their lives.

One of the best ways to control daily stress is to build a strong foundation of resilient healthy habits that fight it, including the habits of participating in regular and varied daily exercise, eating healthy, and getting plenty of sleep.

After that, practicing relaxation exercises daily can be very helpful.  These can include meditation, muscle relaxation, prayer, and deep breathing, as well as listening to soothing music or sounds, and going to a quiet setting or place to relax and find peace.

Key Behaviors to Avoid

  1. Alcohol, Tobacco, Steroids and Illicit Drug Use

There is increasing evidence that participating in sports can protect teens from certain substance use, particularly tobacco and some illicit drug use.  However, research also indicates that participation in various sports and physical activities can increase youth risk of alcohol use and perhaps even marijuana consumption.

These findings highlight the need for coaches, along with teachers and parents, to provide effective substance use prevention messages to youth participating in sports.

Substance use including alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs and so-called performance enhancing drugs can seriously harm the health, fitness and performance of youth.

Substance use makes practice more difficult, lessens motivation to achieve, increases stress, reduces mental focus, harms fitness and health levels, leads to negative self-identity and image, increases conflicts with team members, coaches and parents, and can lead to addiction.

Motivational Strategies for Coaches, Teachers, Healthcare Providers and Parents

  1. Three Communication Strategies with Youth

Coaches, parents, teachers and healthcare providers can motivate and empower youth to do their best in sports and school, and develop healthy and active lifestyles.  First, coaches and other adults should remind youth of specific benefits they will experience when they engage in the above four fitness and health-enhancing habits, including increasing self-confidence, positive self-identity, performance, success and happiness.

Second, coaches, teachers, health professionals and parents must communicate to teens that alcohol, tobacco, steroids and illicit drugs are not acceptable – period.  In addition, adults should communicate how specific substance use can be harmful to their performance on and off the field, as well as how they feel and see themselves.

Third, ask youth to set goals to improve their future performance and success.  This should include a public pledge and commitment to avoid harmful substance use, but also increase one or more performance and health-enhancing habits leading to improved performance and self-identity.

These three communication strategies can be provided by coaches, teachers, health professionals and parents during regularly scheduled practices, sports and school physicals, in a physical or health education class, and at home.

A Coaching and Teaching Tool

The good news is there is a practical program that provides these three key communication strategies in a quick and easy to use tool for coaches, teachers, health professionals and parents.

This program has been shown to effectively prevent alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use and problems, while increasing physical activity, positive self-identity, and goal setting to increase physical activity and sports participation, healthy eating, sleep and stress control.

The SPORT Prevention Plus Wellness (PPW) Program is a scripted communication tool coaches, physical education and health teachers, youth leaders, and healthcare professionals can provide to youth in just one brief and fun session.  It also includes optional parent flyers and web-based resources to reinforce the single-session communication.

SPORT PPW is listed on the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP).  It is the only brief communication program in the US to effectively prevent youth substance use while also promoting fitness, sports, and healthy behaviors, increasing self-regulation skills to set and achieve multiple goals, and creating a positive fitness-focused self-identity.


Coaches, teachers, healthcare providers and parents play a critical role in in the development of active and healthy lifestyles of youth that can enhance their likelihood of experiencing success in sports, school, career and life.

The building blocks of an active, productive and healthy youth lifestyle include key behaviors that need to be increased, some that must be avoided, and effective communication strategies adults should use to help youth achieve success and positive development in their lives.

While participation in school and other sports and physical activities may protect youth from certain types of substance use, it can also increase risk for alcohol and perhaps marijuana consumption.

For this reason, all youth participating in school and sponsored sports should receive communication from their coaches, teachers, parents and healthcare providers that has been shown to effectively prevent substance use while also promoting active, healthy, and successfully lifestyles and a positive self-identity among youth.

The SPORT Prevention Plus Wellness program is an evidence-based tool allowing coaches, teachers, youth services professionals, and parents to provide a practical single-session communication session with youth that encompasses substance use prevention as well as fitness and health promotion.

SPORT PPW is being used throughout the US to provide essential messages promoting healthy and productive lifestyles that all youth should receive, but especially those participating in school sports.

Learn about the interplay between sports, physical activity and substance use among youth and young adults, as well as evidence-based programs that prevent substance use while promoting sports and fitness: http://preventionpluswellness.com

Please share this important information with others in your region and state.  Thank you!

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