Saturday, August 3, 2013

Do Athletes Pick The Sport or Will The Sport Pick The Athlete...

While watching certain national or professional sporting events have you ever noticed that the athletes seem to share similar body types? In basketball for instance most of the athletes are taller than the average person. And in sports like soccer, hockey and track and field for the most part the athletes have similar builds.  Which leads to the question how relevant is body type to athletic success?

At the elite level of sports, such as the Olympic games, body type can account for 25-60% of an athlete’s success. *

With this bit of information in mind should body type be a factor in the development of young athletes?  Before I answer that question let’s first examine the process of indentifying and describing an athlete’s body type.

Body typing or more scientifically speaking somatotyping is a physique rating system used to identify and organize athletes into categories associated with various levels of genetic potential or limitation for specific activities. An individual is genetically programmed to demonstrate components of each of the three body types but may demonstrate predominance toward one of them.

The first body type is the endomorph. This body type tends to be large in size and carry more fat mass and muscle mass. They excel in areas of pure or brute strength. Think offensive lineman in football or a discus thrower in track and field. They tend to be less and agile and lack endurance qualities.

The ectomorph would best be described as thin and tall or long limbed. Think professional basketball players, wide receivers in football and long and high jumpers in track and field.  Their long limbs provide advantages in generating speed and power in short burst activities like jumping, top end-running speed and throwing velocity. These athletes often have slouched posture and may lack stability at certain joints (knees, elbows, lumbar).

The third and final body type is termed the mesomorph. The mesomorph tends to be well muscled and looks mature for their age while possessing an ideal blend of all athletic qualities such as speed, power, strength and endurance. Think running backs or linebackers in football and short sprinters in track and field.  According to the Medford Boys Growth Study, outstanding junior high school athletes tended toward mesomorphy. * Athletes in this category may also prove to be more durable. A study of national soccer players based on their body type showed that injury rates increased as body types moved from the stronger, sturdier mesomorphs toward the more fragile ectomorphs. *

In my experience as a coach working with large groups of children it becomes clear that rarely does a single body type predominate. Rather most children present with a combination of the three main body types. Though these athletes are fully matured let’s look at the Detroit Tigers to provide examples of “hybrid” body types. Doug Fister (ectomorph) and Prince Fielder (endomorph) are clear examples of a dominant body type but most of the other players have multiple qualities. Justin Verlander is a tall and long limbed athlete but also has the all around qualities of the mesomorph. Miguel Cabrera is predominately an endomorph but has trained himself toward more mesomorphy.

Verlander and Cabrera serve as prime examples of the influence strength and conditioning can have on an athlete’s body type. Verlander has gained significant muscle mass since his early days with the Tigers when he was very thin and it has enhanced his performance and durability. Cabrera entered the sport as a 19 year-old with more of a mesomorphic build but as he matured he grew into more of an endomorph. Last season he was forced to switch to a position on the field that required more agility and quickness and he transformed his body toward more of an balanced build.

In prepubescent athletes training can most definitely improve their strength and endurance but likely will not push an ectomorph toward a more well muscled build, the hormonal environment is just not present at this stage of development for that to happen. The most common change is associated with a decrease in body fat that would influence a change toward decreasing endomorphy.

As children mature and now possess the hormonal environment to build muscle mass more significant changes can be made for the taller, thinner athlete (as well as in the other body types as well). However, especially for the thinner and thicker athletes, training and other influences such as nutrition and rest/recovery must be continued to maintain these changes to their body type.

Now on to the question of whether or not a child’s body type should influence their sport of choice…

In countries that adhere to a long term athletic developmental model (LTAD) body type certainly plays a distinct role in guiding a child to participate in activities that they are more suited for from a body build perspective. However, this only occurs in the later stages of development after the young athlete has experienced a warehouse of athletic and movement skills.  This also allows the coach time to see what body type and skills the athlete will eventually show, and prevents a late start in an event in which an athlete may eventually become a champion.

Why should we continue to encourage children to participate in a variety of sports early on if body type is so influential in long-term success?

We want to expose all kids to as many movement patterns and sporting activities as possible because we want to develop the complete athlete without regard to their body type. However as coaches and parents we must have an underlying understanding that their body type significantly influences the chances of them becoming an elite athlete.

That said we still want to expose them to a variety of activities to develop their nervous system so when it is the right time to specialize in an activity that they are ideally suited for his/her problem solving capabilities are going to be superior. This is in contrast to the course of “pigeon-holing” a child into activities only because it “fits” their body type. A single-minded focus early on will shrink their overall athletic base and will leave them with little margin for error.

In the United States we need to re-embrace the idea that children should be exposed to a variety of sports not only to improve their overall athleticism but as importantly once the world of athletic discovery has been “seen” through their eyes they would naturally gravitate toward the activities they are most suited for.

The more things they are exposed to and the more things they learn to like will increase the odds that they will find activities that they are good at. This leads to adherence and a life long love of sport and physical fitness and that is and should be the ultimate goal in youth athletic development.

An early and diverse athletic/movement experience is absolutely critical for young athletes to reach their potential whether that is on the field of play or in the game of life. This early diverse exposure ultimately creates a buffer zone that allows children to discover alternatives that may not seem like a great fit at first but they will grow to appreciate as they mature. But if they put all of their athletic eggs in one basket early in life and discover in the teen years that they no longer like that sport they may be left without a physical outlet.

So while a child’s body type should be a consideration, particularly if you are ascribing to a long-term plan it should never be used from discouraging a child from playing a port they enjoy. Because you never know, there are always exceptions. A child may experience a massive growth spurt that changes everything or they may be inspired by an Olympic performance from a non-traditional sport while some sports like baseball have athletes of all shapes and sizes. The broader their athletic base is the better their chances are for becoming one of those exceptions to the rule.


* Hartman. Bill. (2007). Developmental Essentials.  2nd Edition.  

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