PT on the Net Research

How Young Athletes Learn


In all the industry banter about how best to develop biomotor abilities, we often overlook two specific aspects of youth athlete development that are quite paramount to the potential success rate of a youngster in sport: visual training and learning.

Although often overlooked from a training and development standpoint, the need for good and even specified vision in sport is paramount. At virtually every little league baseball game, you will undoubtedly hear the mantra that has become so synonymous with coaching younger athletes in vision-based sports: “Keep your eye on the ball!” What does it mean to keep your eye on the ball? How do you keep your eye on the ball? Is specified vision a trainable commodity?

Having worked the past few months with a legendary baseball coach, vision training expert and member of Illinois’ Baseball Hall of Fame, I can tell you that vision training should be a component of the development programs produced for young athletes. Pardon the pun, but all of my work with this vision training specialist has really served to open my eyes!

The eye itself has a primary goal of shaping incoming stimulus into something that can be used by the brain. Simple visual patterns can be detected and converted to usable neural signals more quickly than complex visual patterns, the difference in processing time being between 80 milliseconds for simple images versus 260 milliseconds for complex images. Quite obviously, the difference in processing time affects reaction time, which in turn can drastically affect sport performance. An example of this would be the relatively simple visual nature of a fastball versus the more complex visual image of a curve ball. Many baseball players, including Major Leaguers, can hit a fastball better than a curve ball - and this reality is directly proportionate to the visual complexity difference between those two pitches.

Within the context of sport, vision can be defined as reactive (the eyes will tell the athlete what they see) or inhibitory (the athlete tells the eyes what to look for). Vision is also thought of as learned. The latter point is a significant issue with regards to this article. While of course much of visual ability has a hereditary component, a great deal of research has shown that there exists a strong learning component to vision as well. In fact, vision training is not unlike strength training in many ways. While playing football will certainly increase your strength, adjunct and specific strength training will increase your strength even more and contribute to you becoming a better football player. Vision training can be looked at in the same way. Specified visual skills can be improved through isolating and training them separately. This is especially rewarding when an athlete has reached a limiting developmental threshold, the point at which playing the sport will no longer lead to specified visual improvements.

Visual Sport Skills

Learning Styles

Another consideration we often overlook when working with pre-adolescent and adolescent clients is how they learn.

Developing a young athlete is not based solely on a given conditioning coach’s understanding of scientifically valid measures of motor stimulus, strength training or flexibility exercises. In fact, it could be argued that given all of the critical information contained in this textbook on exercise selection, methodology and sensitive period development, successful coaches will be the ones who can teach and relay information to young athletes well, more so than the coach who merely reads and digests the scientific information offered via clinical research.

The science of developing an athlete, then, is centered in the particular technical information associated with pediatric exercise science whereas the art of developing a young athlete is based on a coach’s ability to teach.

There are several styles of coaching that do not adequately serve to aid in a young athlete developing skill, yet they are nonetheless common amongst North American coaches and trainers.

An example of this would be the “Command Coach.” Command coaches presume that the young athlete is a submissive receiver of instruction. The instructions given and information offered moves in one direction only: from the coach to the athlete. Coaches who display this habit believe that coaching success is based on how well the athlete can reproduce the skills as taught or demonstrated by the coach.

There are also various misappropriations relating to how young athletes actually learn. These include the following:

Unfortunately, optimal learning does not occur in any of these ways. These aforementioned theories fail on several levels, which include the following:

Recently, researchers have underscored the significance of both perception and decision-making as it relates to information processing and skill development. The focus has been on "how individuals learn to interpret information in the environment and use this to make effective decisions about movement execution." There appears to be three chronological phases in performance or execution: Perceiving, Deciding and Acting.

The Perceiving Phase

During this phase, an athlete is attempting to establish what is happening and distinguish what information is applicable or valid. For example, a basketball player just received the ball and must now decipher a series of factors including the position of both teammates and opponents on the court, the player’s own position as it relates to the rest of the players as well as the basket and the stage of the game in relation to the score. Proficient players are able to sort through the key information quickly and separate it from other stimulus.

The Deciding Phase

This phase involves the athlete deducing the most appropriate path of action to take. In the case of our basketball player, that would include the decision to pass, dribble or shoot and which pass, dribble or shooting action would be the most suitable given the situation. Clearly, proficient athletes are more effective and decisive decision makers.

The Acting Phase

Neural signals are sent that enlist muscles to carry out the desired task with suitable timing and adroitness. Although this execution phase is clearly important to sporting success, it must be understood that it alone is not responsible for on-field accomplishment. The two preceding phases serve essentially to set up this final stage, a fact that is often ignored by coaches and trainers who maintain misappropriated beliefs regarding how athletes learn.

These three phases are co-dependent and take place in a rapid sequential manner.