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!