Athletic Evolution

Ask the Expert: Rick Howard (West Chester University)

Rick Howard is a doctoral candidate at Rocky Mountain University in Health Promotion and Wellness. He is an Assistant Professor in Applied Sports Science at West Chester University (PA). He is the Director of Fitness at Wilmington (DE) Country Club, where he trains youth in fitness and sports performance. He contributes articles and presents nationally and internationally on long-term athletic development (LTAD) and the application of concepts of paediatric exercise science for coaches, personal trainers, physical education teachers, and those who wish to improve the lives of our young people. Rick is also a Masters’ Strongman competitor and a social media junkie…

  1. What has led you into youth sport?

There were two main events that led me to seek to increase my knowledge in the youth sports arena:

  • I worked in an urban environment where kids had a decent skill set but very limited opportunity. I had the chance to visit a newly opened performance facility with all the bells and whistles that these kids could not afford. I wanted to do something about that so started to find innovative ways to get involved and level the proverbial playing field.
  • When I was training adults, I kept wondering why fitness assessments for adults were so different from fitness assessments for kids. My inquiry led me to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (as it was then called), which had an extensive research library. This led me to volunteer to lead the President’s Council local initiative under then Chair, Arnold Schwarzenegger to bring opportunities to kids in Philadelphia, PA.

Both events were in the late ‘80s. They led to many other opportunities to serve youth through non-profit leadership and volunteerism, teaching health and physical education, working with youth athletes in the scholastic and private setting, and reflecting on my own youth sports experience (I was a very late bloomer!)

2) What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

My biggest influence has been the National Strength and Conditioning Association. While they are not youth-based, they provided me the opportunity to get involved in the organization and start a youth special interest group, which led to meeting industry icons like Avery Faigenbaum, Rhodri Lloyd, and Joe Eisenmann. Opportunities exploded after that with the NSCA position statement on long-term athletic development, writing a column for NSCA Coach, and contributing through presentations, publications, and collaborative ventures with many other groups.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

My area of interest within the youth population lies in the application of LTAD within a public health construct. That is to say, how can we reinforce the magic of sports participation and movement in general to ensure healthy, productive kids? On the one end of the wellness continuum, we focus too much on the sickness/disease prevention end, which is not-relatable to kids at all. On the other end of the continuum, it can be argued that peak performance can sacrifice overall health and wellbeing and lead to an unbalanced wellness wheel. I am interested in getting interested organizations working together to not only enhance the youth sports experience but also balance the eight dimensions of wellness for kids of all ages, cradle-to-grave.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

I love Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People especially #2: Begin with the End in Mind. LTAD, in my way of thinking, is a cradle-to-grave framework that not only maximizes positive youth development through participation in organized sports but also shows parents how to be involved as role models in the formative years; how to keep athletes active, safe and happy before, during, and after their playing days; and how we all need to keep an eye on public health and social justice throughout the life course. Current issues such as obesity, mental health, bullying, and stress should be interwoven into LTAD.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received?

My mom gave me a small paper sign when I was around 10 years old that read, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” I find this to be so true for physical activity; for giving back to people, organizations, and communities; and for living a meaningful life. I like to think of myself as proactive, not reactive.

6) What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?

Enjoy being with kids! Young athletes can sniff out in an instant someone who does not relate well with them. It becomes tedious and unenjoyable for the kids and the coach. Make life fun for you and the kids. It shouldn’t be a “grind.” Be prepared for the unexpected and be ready to be a huge part of young athlete’s lives.

Remember that everyone is an athlete and deserves equal opportunity to participate; that all kids need to be properly instructed and coached on the important life skills of teamwork, leadership, responsibility, and empathy; and that parents should be our best allies. The kids I work with are so completely over-scheduled and over-stressed (a recent survey of 4th and 5th graders with whom I work revealed that their #1 stressor was school, and their #2 stressor was sports—they shouldn’t be stressed by either, or anything else!), so my focus is always on making our time together meaningful and fun.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it is a free-for-all, but I incorporate free play, semi-structured play, and structured play as often as I can in their time with me. My realm as a strength and conditioning coach focuses on more of the physical than the technical and tactical performance aspects but I regularly communicate with the sports coaches to create a supportive environment for the kid that helps them develop to their potential.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

I wish there was a repository of information for youth sport coaches that included research studies, coach reflections, resource videos, blogs, and podcasts, etc. so that youth sport coaches had one place to find out evidence-supported methods of doing the best for their athletes. I feel that the NSCA LTAD position statement is a great place to start, the information on Athletic Evolution is fantastic, Jeremy Frisch’s tweets are top-notch, SimpliFaster has several great articles, and the NSCA LTAD SIG Facebook page has a new Mentorship feature that allows members of the page to find a mentor or volunteer to be a mentor to provide guidance for those in the field.

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

My social media is all under my email prefix, @rihoward41 (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram). I started a blog at youthsportfitnesscoach.com but have written mainly for SimpliFaster, Men’s Health, and NAYS (National Association of Youth Sports) so need to catalog those on my page (until the repository is ready!). I moderate the NSCA Long-term Athletic Development Special Interest Group Facebook page and have information on the NSCA LTAD page, as I was fortunate to be included in the authorship team for the NSCA Position Statement on LTAD and subsequent materials.

My friends and colleagues Tony Moreno and Joe Eisenmann and I have started LTAD Playgrounds, which are boots-on-the ground, interactive grassroots solution-focused gatherings of professionals, stakeholders, coaches, physical educators, and sport performance practitioners interested in understanding and implementing the Long Term Athlete Development framework.

A huge thankyou to Rick for his time and expertise!

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