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The Strong Youth Conference: Teaching the Science Behind Sport

A pale man in a blue shirt stands ready to speak at a podium.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

“We want to make youth sports better for the kids,” relayed Dr. Matthew Seeley as he opened the Strong Youth Conference. Seeley started SYP in 2022 to improve the youth sports experience through application of cutting-edge scientific research. The conference functioned as a showcase of the work done by SYP team members, as well as a teaching opportunity for local parents, coaches, and young athletes.

“Coaches love the kids they coach; athletic administrators love the athletes they serve,” stated Seeley. “I'm convinced that's why most of us are here today, because we want to help others, and educate people regarding the science behind sport.”

One of Seeley’s goals with the conference was to combat harmful misconceptions about sports by raising awareness and providing concrete guidance for youth sports. Topics like early sports specialization, athlete mental health, and youth strength training are often misunderstood, so presenters provided important clarification supported by science to help parents, coaches, and athletes make informed decisions in their sports.

One of the attendees shared that they appreciated how the conference talked about teaching children. “I work in pediatrics, so I get a lot of the ‘I'm trying to take it easy on kids and give participation trophies to everyone,’” she mused. “I don't like that aspect of it. I feel like it's not teaching kids very much. I liked that this conference was more of redirecting perspectives. The emphasis on training was different.”

A room is filled with people as a man speaks at the front.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

Each conference attendee was encouraged to ask for sources on all information presented by breakout session speakers. Attendees were also encouraged to note which scientific data they could use as references when modifying their young athlete’s training regimens.

A mother of a young cross-country runner shared that the nutrition class changed how she views nutrition for her child. “It's always hard to figure out how to prepare them nutritionally. I liked how the nutrition class shared if you're going to be exercising for two hours, it's at the 45-minute mark that you need to eat a piece of fruit or goo or something like that,” she reflects. “There's just so much controversy as to when, where, and what to feed them that it was nice to feel like I had someone who had done the research and would be able to definitively state the facts.”

A man in a blue shirt stands a the front of a stage while a PowerPoint is displayed behind him welcoming people to the conference.
Photo by Megan Mulliner

Experts presented the breakout sessions which covered a wide array of topics, including mental health and performance, body image and self-esteem, strength and conditioning, sleep, sports nutrition, and injury prevention. “I love how all-encompassing the topics were. I liked how good they were at educating parents, coaches, and young athletes in each of those areas,” shared another event-goer. “I feel like it was a great resource for today, but also for future learning.”

Keynote Speaker: Ed Eyestone

A white man with gray hair wearing a blue blazer and gray paints stands next to a podium as he presents
Photo by Megan Mulliner

The conference's keynote speaker was Ed Eyestone, Olympic athlete and current head coach of BYU’s track and field program. Eyestone has had many experiences that have aligned his views with the principals taught through the SYP.

One of those experiences is in regards to early sports specialization. As a youth, Eyestone wanted to become a professional baseball player, but when he didn't make the team in junior high, he had to find a new sport to prioritize. He was grateful that his parents encouraged his desires to try a number of different sports instead of force-fitting him back into baseball. Their patience with him led to his passion for track and field. He attributes some of his running success to the skills he gained while playing baseball and advises, “if you're a parent or if you're a coach, don't be afraid to let your kids experiment with a lot of different sports and different activities because, overall, it's going to help them in the long run.”

Eyestone also elaborated on how he holds a training camp for BYU’s track and field athletes. He shared that he normally has the athletes play a game of softball while on this excursion. The game allows the athletes to exercise muscles that aren’t core to their respective sports. Eyestone also keeps an eye out for athletes that have talents beyond just running. “Almost without exception those guys who perform very well in the softball games that we're playing become steeplechasers, because they're going to have the ability to run endurance, yet also jump and hurdle and be able to spring off the water jumps without breaking their necks,” enthused Eyestone.

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Photo by Megan Mulliner

Eyestone also agreed with Seeley’s concerns that many young athletes drop completely out of sports by the time they become adults. In Eyestone’s opinion, a main cause is the pressure young athletes feel to constantly excel. To illustrate his point, Eyestone shared how he allowed his daughter to make her own decisions regarding what sports she wanted to participate in.

He realized that she felt constrained by the athletic direction that he had in mind for her, and in asking her which sports she wanted to compete in, her enthusiasm for the sport increased. “My counsel to the parents and coaches is to make sure your children get to hold the reins,” said Eyestone. “Yes, we need to be there for safety’s sake. We need to make sure that everything's good with coaches, but let the kids hold the reins. It's ok to drop them off and pick them up after practice. Let kids play.” Eyestone continued that when kids get to decide for themselves what sports to compete in they may be more inclined to exercise and stay athletically fit in the long run.

The Future is Bright for the SYP

The Strong Youth Conference was a success, moving the SYP one step closer to their goal of helping young athletes live healthier lives even after they are no longer playing sports. “We founded the project, ultimately, to create more physically active adults, because when kids stay in sport longer, they're more likely to become physically active adults,” Seeley reflected. “That's the end game for us. If anyone has ever asked you what the Strong Youth Project is about, it's to create physically active, mentally fit, emotionally resilient adults.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Strong Youth Project, go to their Instagram, podcast, YouTube, and website to find additional resources, get involved, and receive updates on SYP events.

An auditorium full of people sit attentively listening to a speaker
Photo by Megan Mulliner