Weight training can benefit any sport by improving strength, suppleness and concentration, Roddy Mackenzie reports, and children as young as 10 can start learning the technique
At what age should children be permitted to lift weights? Views on the subject differ but there is now a growing belief that unless schoolchildren who are talented in sport get into the weights gym, Scotland risks failing in sport in the future.
Already there are signs that the country does not produce enough athletically gifted men and women. Even our international footballers are often brushed aside by their European counterparts.
This concerns Gil Stevenson, the acting principal at Fife Institute of Physical Education in Glenrothes and the strength and conditioning supervisor at the Scottish Institute of Sport. He will conduct a workshop on weight training for children at the Coach 2001 conference in Glasgow on October 20-21.
Mr Stevenson is not advocating that schoolchildren go into the gym and lift heavy weights in a bid to build muscle. Rather, he believes that weightlifting programmes can be tailored for a youngster's sport interest and help them to develop co-ordination, balance, control and concentration.
There is an argument that if a youngster's core strength is not built up, the sports specific skills will falter in the future as a basic athletic foundation is lacking.
Mr Stevenson believes that even at primary age, youngsters would be better prepared for sport if they learned gymnastics techniques. They could then progress to learning weight-lifting techniques between the ages of 10 and 14 before lifting loose weights.
He is concerned that the more traditional physical education with core elements such as jumping, vaulting and balancing is no longer being emphasised in schools and fears that these elements are not being replaced adequately.
He admits that weightlifting has lost popularity to all the technology and state-of-the-art machinery now found in leisure centres. Pumping iron is seen as unfashionable when you can simulate running over rolling hills or rowing the Oxford v Cambridge boat race.
Mr Stevenson acknowledges that few schools are adequately equipped and it would take increased financial support for public sector leisure facilities to offer sizeable weights rooms. It would also take a change in the Scottish psyche, but Mr Stevenson believes it would be a change for the better and would produce better results on the international stage. He argues that children should learn the Olympic weightlifting methods on loose weights to give them a better grounding for their chosen sports.
"It's not a case of children lifting heavy weights and building up muscle. It's a case of the appropriate conditioning for children for their precise sport as well as part of their overall physical development," he says.
"It's about multi-joint, multi-muscle movement and co-ordination, balance and control as well as posture and core strength. It can also develop concentration and, as with any sport, it can be fun to learn.
"In the early days, at under-13 level, the emphasis should be on technique and working with a broomstick, then progressing to a 10lb bar," he says. "Children would not progress to lifting weights until they have learned the technique properly.
"There is a lot of skill involved in learning the squat, the overhead squat and the technique for clean and snatch lifting. But there is a tremendous carry-over from learning these movements into sports specific movements."
Mr Stevenson points out that weight training can improve suppleness and flexibility enormously and the large skill element encourages high concentration levels for youngsters learning the techniques.
As children progress through their teenage years, the weights loading can be gradually increased and by the age of 16 or 17 they should have developed strength, which is the basis of most sports. The stronger that foundation, the better equipped athletes will be.
In the United States, most high schools have well-equipped weights rooms and strength and conditioning coaches to oversee youngsters' development. In professional sport, strength and conditioning coaches are part of the team, with other skills being developed by other coaches.
Mr Stevenson's workshop at Coach 2001 will provide the chance to see how strength and conditioning can improve sporting performance. "The PE teachers finishing college are generalists but then get specialist knowledge in whichever sport they concentrate on, be it rugby, football, hockey or whatever. What the workshop at Coach 2001 will attempt to show is where weightlifting skills can be applied to these other sports," he says.
Application forms for Coach 2001, at the Moat House Hotel, Glasgow, from Sportscotland, Caledonia House, South Gyle, Edinburgh EH12 9DQ, tel 0131 317 7200 (by October 5)