Saturday, February 1, 2014

Developing young athletes is a pyramid scheme...

Developing young athletes is similar to taking them on a long journey, you must possess a good map to keep them on the right path along with the patience and savvy to stay the course especially when the ride gets rough (and it will) and you’re tempted to take a short cut. What about the children that are late starters or may have skipped a step… Is it to late for them to develop their full athletic potential? If it’s not to late where do they get started?

It’s never to late but if you wait until the teen years sensitive periods have been missed when skill acquisition is more readily acquired because children can learn new and different movement patterns due to greater brain plasticity or the ability to adapt to new stimuli.  Whatever they experience early in life becomes their foundation moving forward.  If that foundation was built upon a single minded or narrow base it will limit their potential and serve to increase the chance of injury and dysfunction.

First and foremost it’s important to understand that sport and athleticism are all based upon basic movement patterns.  While baseball, golf and tennis may seem like three very different sports they all share very similar gross athletic motor (movement) programs.  When swinging a baseball bat, tennis racket or golf club energy is transferred from a hip turn to a shoulder turn to an arm swing.  The brain doesn’t have to recall each activity independently, that would diminish reflexive and fluid actions.  The brain calls upon these basic motor programs all of the time because they all overlap and are interrelated. 

This is why building a foundation upon basic movement patterns (running, jumping, crawling, hopping, rolling, etc.) is crucial for developing the complete athlete!

To make this step in evaluating your child’s needs more precise I will construct a pyramid that should provide a nice visual image of what to look for.

At the base or foundation of the pyramid is basic movement skill.  Can your child run, skip, climb, crawl, throw and squat?  It doesn’t matter if the movements are performed flawlessly.  At this stage it only matters that they can do it freely and with control.  The child can jump and land without collapsing to the ground or losing their balance, basically they are able to control the basic movement.

The second level of the pyramid is based on gross athleticism.  Now we are examining how efficient the child is in the above-mentioned basic movements.  At this level we look at how high or far the child can jump.  Can they express power in basic movement patterns?  The efficiency of these movements can be measured with tests such as a shuttle run, vertical leap test or 30 yard dash.

The top level of the pyramid is sport skill.   This level is all about sport specific skill that can be measured by coaching analysis, statistics and game performances.  An example of the jump at this level would be a football players ability to leap in the air and catch the ball at it’s highest point and landing with their feet in-bounds.  We have the basic movements of jumping and catching at the core of the movement but the athlete has highly refined the skill so it applies to a specific game situation.

The complete athlete developmental pyramid has a broad base comprised of basic movement patterns that create a buffer zone for the next level; gross athleticism.  This gross athleticism creates another buffer zone for the top level of the pyramid; sport specific skill.  These buffer zones are extremely important and the basis of this entire series.  Without these buffer zones at worst potential for injury and dysfunction exists.  At the least, the absence of buffer zones compromises power and efficiency and complete development is likely never attained.

 In the optimally developed (or complete athlete, CA) athlete the pyramid is balanced.  The athlete’s basic movement patterns are more than adequate to support the power they can generate.  The power generated (the middle of the pyramid) can more than control the skill the athlete possesses.  Ideally this is where your child would be if they were to follow the natural course of development outlined in the previous weeks.

However, due to the nature of the current youth sports culture three other scenarios are more likely for teen athletes.

The overpowered athlete (OPA)
This athlete is usually referred to as the big strong kid.  They can bench press the moon.  Basically, these athletes are weight room heroes.  They dedicate most of their time to building their strength in the weight room by squatting, benching, dead lifting, sit-ups, etc.  The middle level of their pyramid is out of balance and teeters upon a shaky basic movement foundation.  In order to maximize potential and prevent/reduce injury that bottom level must be their emphasis going forward.  They will require a more extensive warm-up and flexibility program and any weight training should think less about weight and emphasize range of motion.

The underpowered athlete (UPA)
 This athlete has all the basic movements patterns down.  They likely played a variety of sports growing up and are very skilled.  As the title suggests these athletes are just the opposite of their overpowered counterparts.  They either haven’t been exposed to any type of off-field training program or just as likely despise any type of strength and conditioning program.  The middle level of their pyramid is under developed.  They lack the strength and/or stamina to perform efficiently and thus fatigue; inconsistency and durability are their limiting factors.  They need to improve gross athleticism to maximize their full potential.  The UPA should emphasize strength, power, speed and agility training.  Activities like hill running, push-ups and pull-ups, jump rope drills and medicine ball throws would be very effective.

The Under Skilled Athlete (USA)
This athlete has a strong foundation and has balanced gross athleticism but lacks sport specific skill.  This type of athlete likely was never exposed to sports at a young age.  They have tremendous raw athletic talent but their ability to apply that athleticism to sport specific skill must be refined.  An example here would be a track star like who decides to play football or soccer.  This athlete can run the 100 yd. dash at elite levels and their vertical jump may set records.  However, their ability to run at full speed make a sharp cut and catch a football coming in at 70 miles per hour is lacking.  The ability to decelerate and change direction while dribbling a soccer ball falls short all because they are not able to apply their athleticism to a sport specific situation.  Often the key to developing the under skilled athlete requires feedback on technique from sport coaches/instructors and consistent and methodical skill practice.  This athlete would be well served to adhere to the tales of the young basketball player shooting 200 free throws a day or the young golfer-practicing putt after putt for hours on end.  A modern day example would be Shaq O’Neal.  Shaq played for around 20 years in the NBA but never developed the ability to shoot free throws consistently or develop his overall shooting touch.  He relied on his brute strength and athleticism to bully his way to the hoop but never developed the skill of shooting the basketball.   Shaq will go down as one of the all time greats, won several championships and he made millions in the process but experts agree he never reached his full potential.  Shaq relied solely on his gross athleticism to take him to the peak of the NBA.  Keep in mind not many young athletes are 7 feet tall 300 pounds and run like a deer.  Also consider that when age robbed Shaq of his athleticism he declined quickly and became ineffective because he never developed shooting touch early in his career.  When his power was diminished he had no skill to sustain his career.

The bottom line is athletes like Shaq are the exception rather than the rule.  Relying on gross athleticism and playing to your strengths will get you only so far.  Weaknesses or gaps must be addressed first if the normal course of development is interrupted.  While all children are unique these four categories are a good tool to guide you in your evaluation.

The complete athlete developmental pyramid is a simple diagram that can provide you with a mental image and understanding of athletic development.  The pyramid is made up of three rectangles of diminishing size to demonstrate how one type of movement builds on the other.  The pyramid should be developed from the bottom up and have a tapered appearance.

It is worth repeating that in my opinion all children are athletes and should be given the opportunity to be athletic.  The current youth sport culture caters to the elite athlete.  No kid deserves that kind of pressure but on the flip side all children should be given the opportunity to develop into their full athletic potential especially when that translates to the enjoyment of life long recreation and improved quality of life.  That’s what the whole youth sporting experience is all about.

Most children do not have access to the best athletic development coaching.  The reason is simple the best coaches are usually employed at the college and pro level where their coaching skill is devoted to athletes that are already highly refined and most are just in need of organization and motivation.  The development of athleticism is most optimal when starting at a young age and that is where the best coaching needs to be applied.  No doubt there are thousands of youth sport coaches and volunteer parents who understand this and do a tremendous job with the resources that they have.   However, I know their time is limited with other careers and competing demands.  That is why the articles I write exist.  I want to expose parents and coaches to the best-practiced and researched developmental strategies.

I am not arrogant enough to call myself an elite coach.  I have made the choice to dedicate my professional career to optimally developing youth on the filed of play and in the game of life.  I have learned from a tremendous range of special coaches, leaders and professionals and I feel compelled and take pride in sharing what I have learned with you.  A lot of gifted people are working through me and I am their messenger.  It is my strong belief that all children deserve a first class athletic development education because it will serve them long after their playing careers end. My greatest hope is that they will pay it forward when they become the next generation of parents and coaches.

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