Preparation for the next practice or workout begins the moment the current one ends. The cool down at the end of your training is critical to the success of young athletes. Athletes that execute a well-planned cool down are less likely to experience soreness and injury, and more likely to be ready when the coach blows the whistle and practice begins.
Cooling Down after Exercise
Whether it's a running sport like track or cross-country or a traditional team sport like football or basketball, conditioning plays a vital role in athlete success and the basis of most conditioning programs is running. Although athletes are accustomed to warming up before a run, few take the time to cool down.
Use this routine from the New York Road Runners to encourage youth to cool down properly after a run.
- Explain the purpose of the exercise--to bring down heart rate and gradually bring the body to a resting state. Youth are more likely to engage in a cool-down exercise if they understand why they're doing it.
- Instruct the athletes to spread out at least to arm's length.
- Take athletes through a series of movements--each one lasting 20-30 seconds.
- Demonstrate each movement.
- Focus on natural movement.
Here are common exercises for helping youth athletes cool down.
March in Place with High Knees. Athletes should lift knees as high as natural movement allows them. For added benefit, instruct youth to raise their arms high in a natural motion as well.
The Rag Doll Shake. Don't let the fact that kids are having fun take away from the relaxation this move provides. As the name suggests, athletes let their limbs hang limp. Muscles should be completely relaxed and shaking in a rag-doll-esque motion.
Hula Hoops. Don't worry. You won't need an actual hula hoop for this cool down favorite. This move requires athletes to rotate their hips as if they were attempting to spin a hula hoop, but in slow motion. This move relieves tension in the lower back, hips, and hip-flexors, as well as the quadriceps.
Mule Kicks. This move can be done with knees bent or with knees on the ground. The athlete starts with hands and knees on the ground and then lifts one leg and thrusts the foot all the way back, much like the way a mule kicks. Do 5-10 reps on each side.
Other Top Cool Downs for Youth Athletes
In addition to the exercises above, try a few of these at the end of your next practice or training session:
Walking. Cool-down exercises don't have to be complicated and complex, but you also don’t have to stick to traditional sitting stretches. Instead of having kids plop on the ground at the end of practice, make them walk to get a drink or go collect the equipment used at practice. A simple walk around the field or court will go a long way.
Dynamic Stretching. Dynamic stretching involves natural movement done in a controlled manner. Examples of common dynamic stretches include the following:
- Squat sit. Humans are born with the ability to kneel all the way down with their rear nearly touching the ground while still remaining on their feet. The sitting squat cools down and stretches the entire lower body, especially the calves, ankles and quadriceps. It's ok to modify the squat for less limber athletes.
- Leg swings. While standing on one leg, swing the other leg front to back, getting the biggest possible range of motion while remaining balanced and controlled. Do 5-10 for each leg. A variation of this move involves bending the knee so the lower leg is at a 90-degree angle from the upper leg.
- Cross toe touches. Hold both arms out as wide as possible. Bend the knees as little as possible and keep the arm straight. Touch the left toe with the right hand and come back up. Do the move again, but with the left hand touching the right toe. Repeat 5-10 times.
- Shoulder rotations. Hold both arms out with palms out, fingers and thumb pointing up. Rotate the shoulders 10 times clockwise and 10 times counter-clockwise.
Static Stretching. When most individuals think of stretching, they think of static stretching. Static stretches include the traditional hamstring stretch, calf stretch and quadriceps stretch. Although dynamic stretching has increased in popularity in recent years, some coaches and trainers still prefer static stretching.
What to Look for in the cool down
Coaching and training does not end until the cool down has ended. Here's what to look for when your youth athletes are cooling down.
- Fluid movements. Forcing movements can cause injuries, and since injury prevention is one of the primary purposes of the cool-down, instruct youth not to force it.
- Comfortable stretching. Be sure athletes are not straining or overstretching. They should never force a movement.
- Gradual slowing of the heart rate/breathing. Some kids are really competitive, which is a good trait to have on the playing field, but not necessary during the cool down. This part is not a race, make sure your athletes are truly cooling down.
There is no perfect cool-down routine. Find what works best for your sport and for your youth, and be consistent.