Stages of Youth Athletic Development

In the United States, youth sports compete with a pre-professional fervor, as if the games of ten year olds make or break the children’s future. More and more, Little League, AAU Basketball and club soccer teams train athletes in a pre-professional manner. Players use personal pitching coaches or attend $1000/week camps in pursuit of the college scholarship holy grail. Every mother and father believes their son or daughter is the next Mia Hamm, Dwyane Wade, or Derek Jeter.

In this pre-professional environment, basic physical fitness for all youths is almost completely ignored and basic motor skills are left untaught as young athletes instead pursue advanced sport-specific skills. In a July USA Today article, researchers estimated that the average youngster (10-12 years old) spends six hours a day in front of a television, watching TV, playing video games or playing computer games, while sports sociologist Jay Coakley says the peak participation age for youth sports is twelve years old, meaning teenagers increasingly find other activities to fill their days.

Athletes play competitive sports and participate in structured practices more than ever. Therefore, children lack free, unstructured play: pick-up games in the front yard, tag, riding their bike, and playing in the street with their dog. The lack of these unstructured activities undermines their athletic development, as they unconsciously learn important movements through these activities.

In England, sports administrators developed three stages of athletic development to guide the physical education of young athletes (Sports Cumbria). The three stages are Fundamentals, Training to Train and Training to Compete. Unfortunately, Americans increasingly ignore the first two stages and move directly to the third stage.

In the Fundamental Stage, “the focus is on the acquisition of basic motor skills, fitness and fun rather than on competition and winning.” Fundamental movement skills form the foundation of every sport; regardless of sport, all athletes require skills such as running, jumping, throwing, balance, agility, hand-eye coordination, etc. In this stage, sport specific skills are unimportant-it is the activity, creating an interest in physical activity that is most important.

The USA Today article is particularly disheartening in this stage, as games like tag or even chasing one’s dog develop skills professional athletes use in every game. In any game of tag, one evades the person who is “it.” While evading this person, kids juke right and left, change directions, duck and dive, back pedal, sprint, etc. When a child chases his dog, he quickly hops from side to side, stays in a low position, sprints short distances, etc. In some ways, these skills are learned better in this natural environment than in any drill a coach can construct. And, without these skills, one struggles in any sport.

Players in every sport require the same type of quick change of direction one uses in tag. A goalie coach often stands a short distance from the goalie and rolls the ball in different directions at quick intervals, requiring the goalie to dive to save the ball and quickly get up to save the next ball. A tennis coach uses the same type drill with players at the net, hitting quick volleys from side to side to get the tennis player moving quickly from side to side. A basketball player frequently does lane-line slides, sliding from lane-line to lane-line as quickly as possible. All these drills mimic the quick movements of tag, when one child moves quickly to evade the child who is “it.” And, the earlier the athlete learns these movements, the more natural they will feel.

Instead, young athletes (6-8 years old) play Little League baseball or youth soccer and spend a great deal of practice time standing around listening to an adult talk. Even in a Little League baseball game, an outfielder gets little to no action and bats only 3-4 times. There is very little activity, and the child develops few, if any of these important foundation movement skills, beyond hand-eye coordination. For younger players, playing many quick games of Pepper or other activities to improve player’s reaction times and quickness is more important for overall athletic development than playing one, long game of baseball. In the Fundamental Stage, winning a baseball game is not as important as the hand-eye coordination developed from throwing and catching a ball, or from hitting the baseball; the development of fundamental movement skills is most important in this stage; having fun and building a base for future sports participation and success should supercede all else.

In the Training to Train Stage, the major emphasis should be on the acquisition of basic skills and fitnessâÂ?¦the emphasis should be on learning how to train and not on the outcome in terms of results or performance.” This stage is non-existent in the United States, as nine year olds compete for national championships. Sports Cumbria suggests training should comprise 75% of the schedule and competitions only 25%; however, in many youth sports leagues, teams practice approximately one hour for every two games, a number completely out of line with recommendations. A better balance is needed along with a greater emphasis on learning. Training should not merely be boring drill after drill, but should replicate the intensity of competition in a less competitive, nurturing environment.

This stage also should emphasize physical fitness and promote physical fitness activities throughout one’s lifetime. Therefore, practice time should be spent teaching basic biomechanical movements like proper running form, proper jumping and landing, proper throwing motion, proper squatting motion, proper lunging motion, etc. This is the forgotten stage; coaches, even at the youth level, are judged by their win-loss record or the organization of their team on the competitive field, not by the manner in which they run practices or the way they develop athletes for future success. Therefore, many coaches skip basic movement skills in favor of sport-specific techniques, hoping to win an extra game or look like a better coach.

However, an athlete will never be a successful athlete without the basic movement skills. A child who is bigger and stronger may dominate despite poor throwing mechanics, and thus coach and player are recognized as good, but eventually the poor throwing mechanics will catch up to the player, either in the form of injury or in lack of sustained development. The coach who teaches correct basic techniques may lose more games, but he has a far more positive impact in the long term development of his athletes and in pre-puberty teams, this should be the focus of all coaches.

In the Training to Compete Stage, athletes develop sport-specific skills and techniques. This includes “game strategy, tactics and individual conditioning programs.” This is the stage where most current youth athletics start and end. “At this final stage, all of the young athlete’s physical, technical, tactical and mental capacities are now fully established and the focus is on specific training to achieve optimum performance at key competitions and maintenance of the capacities needed to compete successfully.”

In today’s sports environment, training for optimum performance does not exist; players play year-round with no thought given to peaking or periodization. Players suffer an abundance of overuse injuries, an almost unheard of phenomenon a decade ago. Doctors, coaches, parents and players seek answers to the abundance of injuries like shin splints, plantar fasciitis and ACL tears which plague youth athletics, yet many somehow ignore the stress placed on joints and growing bones and muscles though year-round, repetitive sports activity.

In previous generations, athletes played two or three sports and summers were free for individual development or rest. Now, players specialize in one sport and play year-round. This has degenerative effects, as the repetitive nature of the activity causes the overuse injuries, and tired muscles and bodies are more prone to other injuries (ACL tears).

It is not until the athlete reaches this final stage, post-puberty, that the athlete should start to specialize in one sport. Many parents believe their child needs an early start to succeed. However, best estimates suggest that it takes seven years to reach excellence in a given activity. Whether playing the piano or playing basketball, skills are essentially developed after seven years of participation. By waiting to specialize, athletes develop better multi-lateral skills, creating better overall athleticism and giving the player a higher ceiling; players who specialize early and have less overall athleticism have a lower ceiling and peak earlier in their career.

Children are not miniature adults and they should not rain like pre-professionals. They need time to develop appropriate general athletic skills before sport-specific skills, and these skills are as easily developed in the front yard as in a competitive league. Coaches, parents and players need to work together to create a sensible, efficient training regimen to develop the player’s skills in each sport her/she plays, while also allowing the child to have a childhood.

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