Friday, January 24, 2014

Developing Athletes is as easy as 1,2,3...

In the first two articles on our journey to develop the complete athlete I touched on two key concepts, drawing a map to guide the journey* and honoring the process. ** In order to develop an athlete with a broad foundation of functional skill that sets the stage for future technical sporting /lifestyle success we must follow a certain sequence one that plays out naturally over the course of more than a decade (just like their K-12 education).  You can try to cheat the process and it may even fell like you beat the system early on but rest assured eventually skipping steps will catch up to you in the form of missed opportunities to maximally develop skill while setting the stage for early burn-out and likely pain and injury.

A real world example of this concept was brought to my attention after a friend read my article about the Balinese men.  The tribes of Bali as part of their culture do not allow their babies to creep on their bellies and thus never developed the foundation necessary to hop from one foot to another.  This struck my friend because she was told that as a child her family was so proud of her because she skipped the crawling stage.  But after reflection she believes she struggles to coordinate the movements in her Zumba class because of this gap in the developmental process.

The point is it’s very tempting to push our children because we are told or we believe they are gifted and ready for the next step with out allowing the laws of natural development to play out.  Whether it is my friend or the Balinese men messing with the process will have long-term consequences that are difficult if not impossible to remedy.

Children’s’ bodies are smarter than any coach, parent or teacher; we need to stay out of their way and allow them to learn through experience.  That is the first and most important stage of athletic development.

To make this process a little more clear I will break children into three developmental categories starting with the discovery stage (6-9 years of age) followed by exploration (10-13) and eventually transformation (14+).

In the discovery stage it’s learning by doing, early exposure and variety of experience must dominate.  Fundamental activities like jumping, running, climbing, throwing, catching, rolling, and kicking.  The emphasis is to expose kids to as many movements as possible without regard to how well or proficient they are at it.   These movements should be experienced through free play, games like tag, capture the flag, skipping rocks across the pond and climbing trees.  Sport participation should not be organized and if it is it should be minimal.  The best way to introduce children to sports is through singular aspects of a sport.  Rather than having nine boys and girls sit around chasing at butterflies while a batter tries to connect on a pitch from he coach.  It would be a lot more fun in a play setting to grab a bucket of balls and pitch them to a child and allow the opportunity to actually figure out what it takes to hit the ball without having to think about balls, strikes or what base to run to.  Is it any wonder most kids think baseball is boring?  Baseball isn’t boring we are just doing a lousy job of delivering it to the kids.  Fun must dominate at this stage!

In the exploration stage the emphasis remains on variety and game play but now we can start to refine the foundational skills through quality practice.  This stage is where the coach enters the scene and organized sports make their appearance.  Coaches and parents should provide feedback to the child that will allow them to begin to make skills such as running and throwing more efficient with a dose of technical instruction.  While the discovery stage was all about the act of throwing regardless of how well, now we are looking to throw efficiently.  Fun still rules here!

Finally, we have the transformation stage.  The emphasis is on maintaining all of the refined foundational skills to the point where they are automatic or reflexive.  They don’t have to think about where their foot or shoulder should be positioned they just execute efficient throws as if on autopilot.  Children should start to piece together previously learned skills to form strategies for competition.  In order to turn a double play more efficiently a child will combine the foundational skills of hopping and throwing.  A young goalie may combine lunging, twisting and reaching to make an amazing save.  This stage is when the kids really get to have some fun and let their natural talent take over.  And it’s so much fun when kids have all of the fundamental movement skills to call upon, they aren’t limited by incomplete development.  The games count at this stage and trophies are rewarded and it still should be fun.  Win or lose the thrill of competition should excite them and they should embrace the opportunity to test their skills. 

It’s a simple process really, if…
If, we allow the child to develop naturally and resist the temptation to interject what we think is right or we try to determine the stage the child should be in.  There is an appropriate time for feedback from coaches and parents but it must be delivered at the appropriate time.  Pushing a child before they have developed their foundation will only lead to frustration from the parent/coach and more importantly the child.  10 year-olds shouldn’t be expected to turn crisp double plays if they have never learned to hop!  If we allow children the time and opportunity to solidify their foundation with the basics first then they are equipped to develop advanced techniques and skill.

What happens if your child gets a late start or skipped stages in their development?  Fortunately it’s not to late but it does require a revision of our original map.  Next week we will work our way through this Pyramid Scheme!


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Running before you learn to crawl is NOT a good thing...

What would you be willing to do to help your child achieve their full athletic potential?  Would you give up your weekends and drive all over the state (at minimum) to ensure they are tested by the best competition?  Would you skip family vacations and holidays to make sure they don’t miss a PRACTICE?  Would you skip family meals and opt for Subway to accommodate the competing demands of school, homework, practice, games, and what about your job?

The above scenarios are the norm and not the exception. You’re already doing all of these things and likely even more. You do it because you want your kids to have the best opportunities to achieve their full potential. The kids also love it because sports are fun and they get to be with their friends and when they are happy that makes us proud. Plus you know that to achieve anything in life it requires sacrifice, discipline, and hard work and sports provides the perfect platform to start exposing children to these values.

There is absolutely no way around it that if you want your child to achieve their potential on the field of play and eventually in the game of life hard work and dedication are prerequisites and sacrifices will have to be made in certain areas of your families lives.  The current youth sport culture is not going away, so we have to deal with it.  Starting this week I am going to provide a blue print that will allow your child to develop optimally from an athletic standpoint.  And chances are that if you follow this model the complimentary character development will be reward enough as it will serve the child in all aspects of life.

The first thing to acknowledge in this youth athletic development journey is to realize it’s going to take a commitment of more than a decade.  If this seems like too much of a sacrifice consider the school system your child currently takes part in.  K-12 is a 13-year journey that provides your child with the basic education that is the foundation of all future endeavors.  Athletic development is no different.

I am not talking about enrolling your 6 year-old into an Olympic style Sports Academy where they train 8-10 hours a day and are home schooled.  No rather I am talking about something that comes about naturally.  Consider the whole progression each of us must make if we are to successfully negotiate standing up and walking through our living room for this first time as a baby.

Babies start out lying on their back then roll over on their belly this leads to a postural change that sets the stage for its first locomotion, creeping.  Then comes the sitting up stage, which eventually allows for crawling, kneeling, walking or standing depending on your own observations (Most children can comfortably walk before they can stand, as the momentum is easier to maintain, just like riding a bike).

Each of these developmental steps is built upon the skills in the previous stages.  All of this developmental movement has served to strengthen and align bones, develop joints, muscular strength and coordination, leading to fully integrated mature patterns such as standing, walking, running and jumping. Chances are this took very little effort on the parent’s behalf.

Babies learn by feel that is how they developed the ability to progress through these various movement stages.  You cannot talk a baby through the steps or encourage them to sit before they learn to creep.  Any attempts to do so may have consequences when this sequence is interrupted or delayed.

What does this have to do with athletic development?  Consider the following story from Moshe Feldenkrais (Israeli physicist and the founder of the Feldenkrais Method, designed to improve human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement.) and anthropologist Margaret Meade.

Meade said:

‘Why can’t the Balinese men learn to hop?  They are good dancers, and otherwise coordinated, but I cannot teach them to hop from one leg to another.’

‘It sounds as though they are missing a stage of creeping’, said Feldenkrais.

‘Of course’, said Mead, smacking her forehead, ‘The Balinese don’t let their babies touch the ground for the first year, so they never creep on their bellies.’*

Watch a baby in the initial stages of moving its belly across the floor at about 6 months or so, and you will see where the underlying movement for transferring the weight from foot to foot, and thus hopping, lies.  Without this stage grooved into their nervous system, the Balinese men could not hop from one foot to the other.  Just for the record in the world of sport a cut or change of direction move is essentially a hop.  So yes, hopping is a fundamental athletic skill.

The moral of this story, the process matters and skipping steps during development has long-term consequences that likely cannot be corrected.

This is the first step in developing the complete athlete; honor the child in front of you by allowing them to learn through movement experience.  From an early age birth to about 9 years, make sure they are safe and not in danger of hurting themselves but allow them to discover movement through free play and exploration.   No in-depth coaching is required at this stage just have fun and expose them to as many games and movement stimuli as possible (run, jump, kick, throw, roll and get up, squat, lunge, twist and reach, climb, etc.).

Much like the initial stages the baby experiences to gradually move from it’s back to standing, this stage of early movement development lays the groundwork related to athletic abilities that will serve to sow the seeds for future sporting success.

Next week I will get more specific as the child enters a more advanced stage of development.

I want to leave you with a quote from coaching legend John Wooden that speaks quite well of approaching development with a long-term focus:

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.  When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning.  Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made.  Don’t look for the big, quick improvement.  Seek small improvements one day at a time.  That’s the ONLY way it happens- and when it happens, it LASTS.”

Quick fixes often drift away as quickly as they came but skills that are honed over time endure and shine brightest under the most intense pressure.


*Myers, Thomas.  Anatomy Trains:  Elsevier, 2009.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The journey to athletic success starts here...

Whenever we decide to take a long journey it is very important to make sure you have an accurate map to get you where you want to go on time and safely.  Many young athletes dream about playing sports in college and even the pro’s.  This dream can be a reality with the right combination of dedication, discipline, hard work, natural talent and some good fortune here and there.  However even if you are able to maximize these elements it may not be enough.  If it were easy to become a college athlete it wouldn’t be much of a dream would it?

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, only between 3.3% and 6.4% (depending upon sport) of all high school varsity baseball, basketball, football, and soccer athletes will go on to play collegiately.

It doesn’t require a great leap of faith to realize that our youth sports fields should not be viewed as proving grounds for future athletic conquests for most participants.  That said, I think it’s great that kids have lofty goals and strive to become the best at their given sport of choice.  Even though they may come up short the experience and skill they acquire along their journey will benefit them the rest of their lives (leadership, self-efficacy, discipline, goal-setting, teamwork, dealing with adversity, etc.).

Never one to discourage a child, over the next few weeks I will lay out a game plan or a map that will show you the most efficient way in my experience to develop the complete athlete.  The complete athlete is developed gradually from the point of a basic movement education (like elementary school) on to a highly skilled sport specialist (college masters program).  If you decide to skip the elementary education (jumping, running, climbing, kicking, crawling, etc.) and jump right into more advanced classes (sport specialization) your limitations will eventually be exposed in the latter stages of development when the competition is more intense.

Many young athletes will try workout programs that their friends, teammates, or favorite pros endorse.  This is no way to start your journey!  Even if you happen to stumble upon something you think “works,” how can you be sure something isn’t being left out?  Basing exercise selection on whether or not you can feel the burn is not a good strategy.

Most training programs are nothing more than a few “cool” exercises that are thrown together just to see what sticks.  Everybody else is doing it right?  Again, this type of strategy is not a recipe for success.  I will be your guide on this journey and show you how to base exercise selection on what the individual athlete requires most.  Function (how the body moves) rather than form (how the body looks), will be our trusted compass on the journey.

A compass is objective because it shows us the direction we are heading in; it’s a simple tool that is not subject to emotion or opinion.  We may not like where the compass is leading us but it is necessary to address weaknesses before building upon strengths.
Many times young athletes want to get right to the fun stuff during practice like shooting the ball, swinging the bat, or throwing the ball.  But the good coaches almost always emphasize the fundamentals during practice.  This is the coaches’ time to refine the weaknesses in an attempt to make the team more complete.  A team that is complete is less likely its relative shortcomings exposed and will have more opportunities to display their strength.

Before we start our journey I thought it might be fun to find out what college strength and conditioning coaches (SCC) are looking for in young prospects.  Dr. Toby Brooks is an Assistant Professor, Athletic Training at Texas Tech University.  He asked 10 top NCAA Division 1 SCC three simple questions:

1. What are you looking for in an athlete?
2. What is the most common area of deficiency?
3. What are high school and private coaches doing right?  And wrong?

1. These coaches are looking for…
Vertical leap/broad jump
Not strength (they think they can fix this)
Capacity for improvement

2. What is the most common area of deficiency?
Posterior chain (upper back, glutes, muscles you can’t see in the mirror)
Hip flexibility

3. What are high school/private coaches doing right/wrong?
The Good…
More in tune with the college strength and conditioning type methods
Good foundation established within athletes for the SCC to build upon
The not so good…
Importance of combine/showcase numbers and performances
Sport Specificity vs. Athleticism

What does all this mean?

Top college programs want complete athletes not combine or weight room heroes.
Speed and agility is best attained in the developmental years.
Work on the non-mirror muscles, more dead lifts and pull-ups, less squatting and bench pressing.
Stretching is not for just for the ladies.
College recruiters are more interested in how an athlete moves not how they look or how much they can squat or bench!

How can you get all of this done efficiently and effectively?  The quest begins next week.

Dr. Toby Brooks is also Director of Education and Research for the International Youth Conditioning Association.  I am a member of the organization and Dr. Brooks was willing to share his research with me.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Does Early Specialization Help?

Does Early Specialization Help?

I’ve been telling folks for years now that early sports specialization doesn’t work as well as people think. Kids are more likely to get injured, and they miss out on a well-rounded sports experience that fosters better athleticism and social interactions over the long haul.

In fact, all-around athleticism has become a key selling point for recruiters and scouts. Coaches and talent evaluators understand that well rounded athletes have higher ceilings of potential and those are the prospects that they value the most.

To supplement this assertion, Elsbeth Vaino, an athletic performance coach based in Ottawa decided to run a little test: Elsbeth took lists of the top 10 players in 2012 from the four major team sports in North America, and let Google help her to see what sports were in each athletes background. For the sake of consistency, she went with lists compiled by ESPN. You may not agree with their list, but she felt it was best to go with a single source for top 10 lists for the NBA, NFL, MLB, and the NHL; and ESPN seemed the best option.

According to Elsbeth:

Would you believe me if I told you 7 out of 40? Only 18% of the top professional athletes were single-sport athletes. Or to look at it another way, 82% played multiple sports.

It may actually be more than that: for the 7 professionals listed as playing only one sport, I was not actually able to confirm this: I just wasn’t able to find any reference to them playing other sports.  

You can see the full list of players on each top 10 list as well as the other sports they played at the bottom of this article. [1]

Here in the great Midwest we are perfectly positioned to develop all-around athletes. As we are experiencing this week the winters can be particularly brutal making it an opportune time to play indoor sports such as basketball, volleyball (yes, this is a fall sport now but it still seems odd), gymnastics, hockey and wrestling. When the weather turns in the spring we can head outside and dust off the baseball and softball equipment in addition to track and field and girls’ soccer. Come summer we can get a little bit of everything in and that includes plenty of unstructured free play like swimming in addition to golf, tennis and running up the Great Bear Dunes on the family vacation. Come late summer and fall the boys can prepare for soccer and football and the girls can play volleyball, golf and more soccer.

The seasons provide a great opportunity to give our young athletes a break from all the demands that pile up from playing one sport. It allows them to refresh their mind and bodies while also learning new skills and developing physical qualities like strength, endurance and speed in different environments. All of which build and enhance the overall athletic base of the child.

Early and excessive (9-12 months a year) participation in one sport is a real issue in regard to dampening long term potential. Kids burn out emotionally because the routine becomes overbearing almost like a 9 to 5 job and they lose their passion (the absolute key to success in any endeavor, athletic or otherwise). If a child begs you to stay in their sport year round consider that they also would like to eat cookies and pizza all day long but you don’t allow them to do that. Too much is too much even if it’s something good for them like sport participation. Balance their athletic seasons just as you would insist that they balance their dietary intake.

Additionally, consider a sport like baseball where more of the top schools are recruiting in areas that traditionally have not been hotbeds of talent like the Midwest and Northeast. Why? Because kids in these areas have less wear and tear due to the weather changes and are more apt to play multiple sports. Athletes from these non-traditional areas have larger windows of adaptation (long term growth potential) because their bodies aren’t as beat up or used up and they generally possess that multiple sport background.

The athletic development process does not have to be that complex and next week I will begin a to lie out a plan that will ensure that your young athletes’ journey is a smooth one.

 As promised, here are ESPN lists of the top 10 players (2012 seasons) in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Alongside each player, Elsbeth identified the sport or sports they played in addition to their professional sport. Where no specific reference is indicated, the information was taken from either Wikipedia or Jockbio. [1]

Top 10 players in the NBA
Single sport athletes: 1 out of 10.
LeBron James (Football, All-State wide receiver in high school)
Dwight Howard (Looks to be just basketball)
Dwyane Wade (Football)
Chris Paul (Football)
Dirk Nowitzki (Tennis and team handball)
Kevin Durant (Football)
Kobe Bryant (Soccer)
Derrick Rose (Baseball)
Deron Williams (Wrestling)
Blake Griffin (Football and baseball)

Blake Griffin:  ”Everything you play helps to whatever you pick in the end“

Below in the references you will find a link to a nice video of Griffin describing his athletic upbringing. [2]
Here’s an interesting comment from Kobe Bryant:

“I’m comfortable (with basketball) footwork because I played soccer,” said Bryant. “From changing up rhythms to foot speed, to being comfortable with having my right foot as my pivot foot and my left foot as my pivot foot.”

Top 10 players in the NFL
Single-sport athletes: 0 out of 10.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Baseball. In the 1995 draft, the Montreal Expos picked him in the 18th round)
Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts (Basketball and baseball)
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (Baseball and basketball)
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (Soccer, basketball and baseball)
Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers (Basketball and baseball)
Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (Track and field: 100, 200, triple jump and long jump)
Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (Baseball and basketball)
Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (Track: 100 m)
Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (Baseball and basketball)
Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles (Baseball and basketball)

Top 10 players in Major League Baseball
Single-sport athletes: 3 out of 10
Albert Pujols (No evidence of other sports)
Roy Halladay (Basketball and cross-country running)
Miguel Cabrera (Basketball and volleyball. He was offered a pro contract from a volleyball team in Switzerland)
Justin Verlander (No evidence of other sports)
Felix Hernandez (Basketball)
Ryan Braun (Basketball, soccer, football)
Clayton Kershaw (Soccer)
Troy Tulowitzki (Basketball. He averaged 22.6 points per game his senior year of high school)
Tim Lincecum (Likely a single sport athlete)
Robinson Cano (Basketball)

 Top 10 players in the NHL
Single-sport athletes: 3 out of 10
Sidney Crosby (Baseball)
Jonathan Toews (No evidence of other sports)
Evgeni Malkin (There was a reference to playing volleyball, but it was weak so I listed him as single-sport)
Pavel Datsyuk (Soccer)
Claude Giroux (No specific sport listed but: “I played a lot of sports when I was a kid and I was always pretty good. Hockey was definitely my favorite and at some point I decided that I wanted to see how far I could go with it”)
Steven Stamkos (Baseball, soccer, golf and lacrosse)
Shea Weber (Baseball. He was a pitcher and shortstop until he was 16)
Alex Ovechkin (Soccer and basketball)
Zdeno Chara (No evidence of other sports. But a commitment to exercise and training outside of hockey.)
Daniel Sedin (Soccer)

Other articles related to this topic:

Wanted: True Athletes!

The following story is from a man whom played and coached in the National Hockey League and now directs a league that scouts for amateur talent. I would encourage you to read the story as this man lends his valuable perspective on the fallout from early specialization:

Rose Bowl Champs set to add rare commodity; the two-way athlete…|topnews|text|FRONTPAGE



[2] Blake Griffin