When folks ask me what I do for a living I tell them that I am an athletic development specialist and most don’t know what to make of that… Are you a trainer… a speed and agility guy… or a sport performance coach?
While I do all of what you would expect from the aforementioned disciplines athletic development is more than putting an athlete through a “tough” workout or “winning” that day’s game.
Athletic development is the process of guiding a young athlete through the inevitable peaks and valleys of growth and maturation from an athletic perspective, and ensuring that young athletes are exposed to the right things at the right times with the long-term in mind.
The emphasis is not on becoming the best 10-year old. Elite 10-year olds rarely become elite 18-21 year olds! While it may seem logical given their current trajectory, the “best” athletes at age 10 rarely survive the inevitable ebbs and flows that accompany athletic development.
Burn-out, over-use injury, changing interests are certainly contributing factors that stall many burgeoning athletic careers but in this day and age the most significant factor is poor overall athleticism.
The way youth sports are set up in America bears little resemblance to any type of developmental system. Survival of the fittest and pure luck (where and when you are born for example) are more apropos.
If a young athlete shows any kind of talent at a young age they are strongly encouraged to “pick” one sport and “specialize” early so that they can master their craft and thus set themselves apart from their competitors.
While specialists may gain an early advantage on the generalists this edge completely vanishes by the late teens years when more specialized training can actually make a difference over the long-term.
Why do the specialists lose their early advantage? Let’s visit Ann Arbor and new Michigan football coach Jim Harbuagh for a few clues.
Harbaugh last week hosted U-M's "Aerial Assault" quarterback camp. Harbaugh exposed the young quarterbacks to a diverse array of athletic skills and challenges. The quarterbacks kicked field goals and fielded ground balls and even later in the day threw in some dodgeball and soccer.*
As the quarterbacks went through the drills, many in attendance were surprised how many looked so ordinary, like they had never caught a baseball, much less thrown one. Most of these “elite” young prospects were… not very athletic!
There is more to sports than mastering the technical skills. Playing quarterback, shortstop or goalie (really any position in team sports) demands athleticism and creativity. The "novel" drills at the U-M camp exposed who was an athlete versus a robot created by a quarterback guru.
"It's an athletic rep," Harbaugh said, of catching a baseball. "Field awareness. Spatial awareness. Hand-eye coordination. Throwing is throwing, whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, or a rock. It's the mechanics of throwing."*
In an age when so many athletes specialize in one sport, trying to find multi-sport athletes who can do it all has become very rare. "You can take athletic reps doing just about everything, even climbing a tree," Harbaugh said. "Climbing a tree would be balance."
Harbaugh reflected on a conversation he had with legendary NFL coach Bill Walsh whom groomed two Hall-Of-Fame quarterbacks (Joe Montana and Steve Young), both of whom were excellent all-around athletes:
"I asked him, 'How do you find a quarterback?' " Harbaugh said. "He said he looks for athletic talent, as one of the top three things. He said, 'they are the best athlete at their high school. They can catch a fly ball. They could go be on the track team. They can play soccer. They could be the sixth man on the basketball team, even if it's not their main sport.' "*
Several former Michigan quarterbacks helped Harbaugh out at the camp and their observations of the young athletes was also very insightful.
Elvis Grbac said it's easy to spot the athletes. But in this day and age of more specialized athleticism, like quarterbacks only playing one sport and working with personal coaches, it is good to see them perform even briefly in other disciplines.
"A bunch of us were all saying, we never did camps like this," Grbac said. "We were all playing different sports. I was playing baseball in the summer and basketball when it was in season. It's a little different now. I would like to see more kids playing multiple sports. I think it's better for them to be athletes."*
Todd Collins was another former Wolverine that was lending a hand at the camp and of the 11 high school quarterbacks he was assigned to, only two said they played baseball.
"You could tell some guys didn't know how to throw a baseball that well," Collins said. "I asked them what sports they play and some said they train for football. I played three sports. Most of us were multi-sport athletes. Training for one sport, I don't think is a good idea."*
Not baseball or football players but well-rounded athletes. The reason? They are more resilient both mentally and physically; they have a bigger window for adaptation (ability to improve) and they posses fertile soil to accept advanced coaching techniques and strategies.
High-level coaches know they can get kids bigger and stronger and can teach them sport specific techniques (that’s why they are coaching at those levels) but the thing they can’t teach is fundamental athleticism. This can only be attained during the developmental years when the young nervous system is extremely malleable and highly adaptive. It’s why kids can learn foreign languages more efficiently that we can as adults. Once our foundation has been laid it’s nearly impossible to make up for it later on.
I grew up on a farm and the area was well known for the extremely fertile soil. In this example imagine that a child’s movement experiences are the cultivation practices that dictate the quality of the soil. The more diverse the cultivation practices are the more robust and resilient the soil will become.
You could place lousy seeds (coaching/training) in that soil and it would still bear good fruit. However if the soil is bad it won’t matter if you have the best seeds (coaching/training) in the county the harvest will be mediocre at best.
And that is what Harbuagh was evaluating in these young quarterbacks! How fertile are these young men. Do they have the ability to take the things I am coaching and apply them? I think Harbaugh and his staff were disappointed to learn that many of them aren’t Michigan material.