The Two Most Important Factors in Developing the Young Athlete
Training young athletes is not just taking the programs that we use for our high school athletes and watering them down. It’s not just choosing lighter barbells, kettlebells, etc. The foundation of training young athletes is developing physical literacy and keeping training fun.
Think for a second about schooling. Before you were reading Of Mice and Men you had to become literate. Before playing high school soccer our athletes must become physically literate.
Physical literacy involves dozens of skills that can be taken for granted, but can be broken down into categories like locomotor skills (running, hopping, skipping, shuffling, jumping, leaping), object control skills/sending (kicking, punting, throwing), object control skills/receiving (catching, stopping, trapping), and balance movements (dodging, balancing, stopping, changing directions, landing).
Without these skills playing sports later on is difficult and even dangerous, but the development of these skills can translate to an optimal foundation in nearly any sport. Catching, for instance, is a fundamental skill to tons of sports, baseball, softball, basketball, lacrosse, football, rugby.
Physical literacy is an absolute necessity to be a high performing athlete. Unfortunately in this day and age athletes are encouraged to specialize in a single sport early on. If not specializing, they are moving from sport to sport nearly year-round without the basis of high level coaching in crucial skills.
Early specialization, the action of choosing a single sport before the age of 15, is a growing problem in the United States. Early specialization has been shown time and again to increase the likelihood of overuse injuries, early burnout, and early retirement for athletes. While some sports, like diving, gymnastics and figure skating nearly require early specialization, most other sports do not, and athletes that have a foundation of physical literacy can succeed in those late specialization sports.
The second piece of training young athletes optimally is keeping training fun. If you have kids you innately understand what I’m talking about. Any task must be broken up by periods of free or lightly guided play.
One of my favorite illustrations of this is in my sport of weightlifting. The best weightlifter in the United States described his introduction to weightlifting to me with the following scenario.
“My father (an Olympic champion) used to lift in the garage, I would often go out to watch him lift and spend time with him. When I was a little older, I asked if he would teach me. So on days he lifted I would practice some snatches and then go out in the yard and play on our jungle gym. Then I’d come back do some clean and jerks and then go back out and play on the jungle gym.”
Talk about a fun way to learn a sport! Imagine for a moment what all is happening there. With each bout of play the young athlete is engaging with centers of his brain that turn on during times of fun play. Those associations of fun are immediately being related to his time learning a new sport or new skill. I think we can all say that will create a lifetime of positive emotions around this new sport.
What kind of emotions would this athlete have associated with this sport had his father yelled at him to “do it faster” or “harder” or criticized his fledgling technique?
This athlete then waited 7-8 years before trying his first competition, it was practice, practice, fun, fun for years before competition. Incredible!
At Force we believe in developing physically literate athletes in a fun, challenging atmosphere. In August we are launching our Junior Champions Program – our first dedicated program for athletes 7-12 years old. This is something very exciting for me, and something I’ve always wanted to do. Now that we have the right coaches in place and the right space available to do it, we want to take advantage of that and help develop a next generation of athletes with these two principles as the core of the program