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.

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