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Youth Training: Where Did We Go Wrong?

When it comes to youth fitness and sport development, we make a lot of mistakes. We over coach technical skills and don’t create systems that involve progressive development, which lead to proficient acquisition. We react to youth obesity concerns with "boot camp" mentality fitness regimes rather than taking proactive steps of adopting a sequential and lifelong approach to physical fitness and wellness. In both general fitness and sport, we assume that adult-based prescription, exercise selection and coaching styles are suited just fine for youths.

We have been wrong.

Consider that last point. Youth sport coaches often conduct "pro style" training camps and practices. They create plays and drills that are suited to the specific sport they coach and prescribe conditioning exercises intended to improve physical fitness on an exclusive level.

Fitness centers don’t create, provide or promote youth development curriculum. Instead, they take contemporary fitness models and apply them to kids: Kid Yoga, Child Spinning Classes, Aerobics for Youths, etc.

In a reasonable and even commendable attempt to improve the physical fitness levels and sport-specific prowess of kids, we have lost sight of the larger and much more important picture. The job of a youth coach, youth conditioning specialist and this industry at large is to provide a developmental system through which children can grow and establish base skills and progress them to a point of mastery. This developmental protocol is based on introducing a wide array of skills and attributes, which in turn creates a solid foundation on which to build.

The measure of a youth conditioning specialist or youth coach is not how much success they bring to a youth athlete or participant in the short term. Rather, it is how well their lessons and approach are adhered to in the long term. The "success now" mentality has cloaked our vision and skewed our perception as it relates to the bigger purpose. Sport and exercise with young people should be viewed as a vehicle that promotes leadership, fair play, positive lifestyle adherence and global wellness. It is only when we look at talented young athletes or unfortunately obese young children as un-harvested lumps of clay on which we must make an immediate impact that we fail.

Setting Your Standards Higher

As a proactive coach and agent for change, I will give you the tools necessary to make an immediate impact on the youngsters you teach. That impact will not come in the form of measurable gains in biomotor proficiency that will be evident now necessarily (although it very well could). Instead, it will be in the foundational steps taken to ensure that your young athletes/participants are set up for future success, whatever that may be.

In the case of young athletes, establishing and mastering coordination habits will lead to an increased ability to learn and master more advanced sporting skills in the future. A baseball coach’s ability to teach advanced skills pertaining to that sport will be based on the global athletic background of a given group of athletes. Studies have clearly shown that a multilateral approach to developing a young athlete is far superior to ultimate skill development and success once that athlete has reached the point of specialization (multilateral development refers to global exposure to a wide variety of athletic stimulus through several sports or proper training during the pre-adolescent years). Contrary to popular belief, immersing a young athlete into one selective sport at an early age is counterproductive to his/her eventual success. Along with concerns such as overuse injury (a youngster throwing a baseball 10 to 12 months of the year, for example) and emotional burnout (the mental and emotional fallout that inevitably occurs when kids are only stimulated by one specific sport), young athletes who follow a sport-specialized lifestyle never gain the macro skills necessary to learn or master advanced levels of execution in that given sport.

In the case of youth fitness participants, establishing a base level of coordination skill will have a tremendous impact on their exercise adherence via improved confidence. One of the reasons the youth fitness industry has failed our kids is because A) it is not fun and B) it does not promote or teach relevant skills that will enable kids to continue their pursuits of physical education. Youngsters who experience weight issues, lack coordination or are considered "clumsy" have a built in reason not to want to make physical activity part of their passion. They feel embarrassed and frustrated. More over, the current means of physical fitness for kids (as mentioned above) does little more than promote the very same evils that plague our adult population, which is aesthetic appeal.

By creating and implementing developmentally and individually appropriate coordination-based stimulus into the lives of youngsters, you will see a change in their long-term sporting success and positive lifestyle adherence.

Coordination: How Does it Work?

The first thing that must be understood about coordination is that it is not a self-contained system. Coordination is comprised of several physical elements, each of which can be isolated and developed separately (although a great deal of overlap does exist):

Each of these items works synergistically and in combination to promote quality coordination ability. In fact, when these elements are not developed to an optimal level, natural training deficits can and very often do occur later in life. Simply stated, without good coordination, complete motor aptitude of a given athlete will never be fully fulfilled. When we fixate on conditioning elements pertaining to a particular sport or consider only basic measures of physical fitness with children, we are handicapping their future potential to understand and acquire more complex motor-based skills later in life.

Jozef Drabik, in his book Children & Sports Training, defines coordination as follows: "The physiological basis of coordination lies in a synchronization of neurological processes in such a way that an excitation of one motor center, directing movements of one part of the body, does not spill over to other motor centers directing other parts of the body."

This definition is a perfect example of how we often misunderstand coordination ability and its function. Displaying good coordination is not simply an agility factor. When we see a young athlete able to dart through a cone drill with adequate ability, we often suggest that he/she has good coordination. However, if we were to add a ball (or other dexterity-based distraction), teammates or opponents (external environmental diversions), would that same young athlete be as "in control?" True coordination lies in the ability of the mind to direct the body through specific movements that will allow it to successfully overcome a given task, regardless of the distractions.

Factors Affecting Coordination Development

The ability of a young athlete or child to develop coordination skills is influenced by several issues:

  1. Intelligence – Generally speaking, more cognitive youngsters will be able to solve motor tasks more quickly. However, this is not necessarily a comment on a child’s intellect. In modern day youth sports, we confuse the concept of skill versus drill. Far too many coaches and trainers create drills for their young athletes to work through. Both simplified and complex drills are created that are intended to increase or improve agility, strength and other biomotor features. We spend almost no time teaching the specific movement sequences or nuisances of how to perform these drills well, however. We drill young athletes. A "skill-minded" method of teaching would be to create a drill while teaching and instilling the particular motor abilities required to perform that drill with adequacy. When this style of training and coaching is employed, the young athletes’ understanding of the drill is improved and various environmental diversions can be added over time to make the skill set more functional. You will have effectively empowered the young athlete and increased their intelligence as it relates to this particular skill.
  2. Motor Erudition or Learning – Yet another reason to trumpet the need for multilateral development versus early specialization. The ability to learn and comprehend new and complex motor skills is in direct correlation to a young athletes ‘warehouse’ or prior experience. The more finite or one-dimensional the athletic history is for a given athlete, the more difficult it will be for them to acquire complex skills to a functional level. This factor is also influenced by the law of plasticity. The very young central nervous system (CNS) is plastic by nature – it is able to understand, comprehend and reproduce almost at will. As we age, the plasticity of the CNS begins to decline and adding new, complex skills becomes more difficult. One of the only means by which an adolescent athlete (or person) can competently add new skills into their physical vocabulary is if prior exposure to that skill has occurred. This is one of the primary dangers of early specialization in sport and principal concerns of offering only basic physical fitness programming to young non-athletes. The pre-adolescent years are when you sow the seeds for the future in terms of lifelong physical ability – one-dimensional specialized approaches will not illicit the return you are looking for later in life.
  3. Other Biomotor Abilities – In youth, all biomotor abilities relate to and influence each other. Increases in flexibility for example, will cause increases in strength and vice-versa. Elements of coordination are influenced by and have influences on other biomotor factors. For a young person to develop optimally, the interrelating sequences of these elements must be understood. For instance, speed of reaction is limited to the strength a young person possesses. Complex measures of balance can be limited by both strength and flexibility. Conversely, unilateral and bilateral strength exercises may or may not be effective given the young athletes’ balance capabilities. In order to most optimally develop ability, all of the appropriate biomotor skills must be trained. In the training portion of the youth industry for example, we program only for strength, flexibility and cardiovascular improvements more often than not. Not only is this shortsighted and incongruous with ultimate development, but these three factors cannot possibly be increased to an optimal level without engaging in coordination-based training. Many Trainers pontificate about how critical it is to improve strength through a sequential order of bodyweight exercises first followed by unilateral versions of the same and then progress onto implement-based activities third. Not only do I wholeheartedly disagree with this notion, but I also wonder why Trainers don’t realize that unilateral efforts of strength training will be limited entirely to the degree of balance skill a young person has – increase the balance skill and your ability to program unilateral elements of strength training will increase exponentially.

Types of Coordination

There are two relative types of coordination training, general and specific. General coordination is the basic level of coordination and is based on versatility. In early pre-adolescents, spend a great deal of time creating fun exercises and games that establish a base level of coordination through exposure to all of its elements. Future sporting success and functionality in life will be dependant on developing a global foundation of general coordination. Specific coordination is a means by which to improve or increase the ability within a given task or sport. By improving the basic elements of coordination that apply to a particular skill, you can increase the proficiency of that skill. Here are some examples:

  1. Unusual Positions – Throwing a baseball or shooting a basketball for example. In the early years of training, always teach unilateral skills using both sides of the body. Breakdown throwing and shooting motions into finite skill progressions and spend time teaching them with the non-dominant hand, foot or side of the body. This practice of non-dominance will serve to increase the kinesthetic understanding of the skill and improve the athletes’ ability to perform it with the dominant side and lead to an increased ambidextrous ability, which is very advantageous in sport. Another example of this would be to teach how to swing a bat from both sides of the plate in baseball.
  2. Altered Speeds – Change the speed of movements to increase an athletes understanding and control. Teach somersaults and jumping rotations to a competent level. After that, start developing exercises that ask for the young athlete to increase or decrease the speed of the turns. This control of speed variance will increase the ability of the young athlete to understand the complexity of the skill and be able to reproduce it with more precise detail and aptitude.
  3. Added Movements – Add movements in the form of rotations, jumps and level changes (i.e., starting from one knee and then progressing into the skill) leading up to or following a standard sporting skill. Again, as with the other two examples, this increased sense of body control and awareness will improve the young athletes’ ability to perform the specific skill in question. For example, have a young baseball player perform a 360-degree turn with bat in hand before hitting a baseball off a tee. Have a young basketball players dribble a ball towards a basket and perform a jumping 360-degree turn before making a lay up. Have a young soccer player perform a somersault and then a tuck jump in proper and seamless sequence before performing a corner kick. These elements can also be included in youth training programs. Have young athletes perform a forward roll or 180-degree jump before demonstrating a sprint start sequence.

Using these principles, I have been elated to see my young athletes advance to higher levels of sporting success (college, professional), but I am even more exhilarated when I see young athletes I have worked with still using the skills, tools and programming I taught them, even though they are now adults and are no longer participating in sport. My hope is you will experience the same result with your young athletes!