1. Over coaching, overtraining and over specialization is hurting your kids athletic development, period. And no, it’s not your kids fault. The problem is with the parents and the coaches.
2. Athletic development and sport is just another motor learning skill, thus the reason to know and appreciate the different stages of learning and how to implement them into youth training and sport.
3. Early on in youth athletic development, it’s less about the game, and more about developing skills and learning environments to create foundations. Here’s a reality check, your 12 year old is most likely not going pro anytime soon, so let them be kids.
4. Lets start teaching skills from the ground up in environments that foster athletic development. Better learn before it’s too late all you pushy parents out there overextending your kids and taking the fun away from being active and physical.
The Problem With Youth Athletic Development
Too many games and over coaching is hurting your kids athletic development, period.
Athletes and kids need to learn how to compete, handing out participation trophies certainly does not create an environment of competition. However, games and weekend tournaments are not the only way you teach a kid how to compete and become better athletes. In fact, the younger the age, the less high stakes competition is actually necessary.
To understand this better you first need to have a working knowledge of how one develops any set of skills. Any skill or movement the body learns will go through 3 stages of learning. These stages are:
The Cognitive Stage – the individual develops a basic understanding of skill through trial and error.
The Associative Stage – the individual begins to understand the “how to” or “what to do” for a particular task from previous experiences.
The Autonomous Stage – the skill is automatic and can be performed in any environment.
Knowing the different stages of learning a skill or movement allows us as parents or coaches to develop a better long term plan that will put the youth athlete in situations they can succeed and develop much faster.
The Cognitive Stage of Learning
Lets start with the Cognitive Stage. This is the stage where youth athletes are developing the basic understanding of how to be “athletic”. Again, this stage is all through trial and error. Very little coaching is actually needed at this point in time. Think about your kid when they first started to learn how to walk. You as a parent did not tell them “okay Johnny, now put your left foot in front of the right foot.” No! The kid started to crawl, then hang onto couch to stand, then use the coach to walk. Then, after numerous falls, a.k.a trial and error, one day they just decided to walk on their own.
How does this analogy relate to being a better athlete in the long run? It means the kid should be exposed to a variety of different movements. The environment is essential in each of these stages. In this particular instance, the kid needs to explore their movement through free play. This means the best environment is not necessarily a true practice or a game at all. Rather fun and stimulating tasks such as playing on the playground, catch, shooting or kicking a ball, jump rope, tag, climbing, crawling, rolling/tumbling. A spontaneous environment is necessary to develop coordination and a basic level of athleticism that sports will require later on.
It’s important to note that these stages are more on a continuum rather than absolute steps. A kid’s potential athleticism tends to start rapidly developing around puberty. Most of the time, this is when they are experiencing a growth spurt as well. For this reason, awkward movements tend to appear. One can assume these kids are somewhere on the continuum between the Cognitive and Associative stages of learning movement, coordination, and skills necessary for sport.
The Associative Stage of Learning
It is between these two stages of learning that I believe the biggest change in youth sports needs to occur. Remember we haven’t quite reached the Associative stage yet. This means a lot of trial and error is still occurring in movement, play, and sports.
The kids are still developing new brain pathways and reinforcing already established pathways of movement. The environment for this development to occur is very fragile because efficiency has not yet been fully established. As a result an environment that is safe and non-threating is required. For example, try walking through your house in the middle of the night without any lights on. What happens? Chances are you slow down and become very cautious. Why? Because you introduced the threat of falling or bumping into something through an environmental stress which was darkness.
Better adaptation, especially early on, comes from a place of security or little distraction. Now image you are at a youth basketball or baseball game. The coach and or parents are yelling at the kid because they just made a bad play. The game is close. And oh yea it just so happens to be the championship game of your towns summer league. Talk about a whole lot of threat, distraction, and stress for a young developing child. Not to mention as soon as they get in the car to ride home, Dad is already telling them what they could have/should have done better. How’s a kid supposed to learn in an environment like that?
Competitive sporting games are absolutely necessary! But it should not be the majority at this time. Playing pickup games and having fun at practice is where the majority of skills are initially learned because the environment is friendlier. It allows the kid to take risks, try new things, and not have to worry if the coach or parents will constantly correct their every move.
One of the reasons I’m a strong advocate for kids to play multiple sports early on in their youth through at least the first few years of high school is that it exposes them to a variety of skills. Playing multiple sports will enhance the second stage of development which is the Associative stage (or the “How to” stage). The more experiences the youth athlete has been exposed to, the faster they will learn “how to” pick up on a specific skill. Having this background prior to specialization creates a more coordinated and physically capable athlete. It also allows the athlete to “associate” previous experiences with the current task at hand.
The Autonomous State of Learning
The final stage is being autonomous, and the skill can be repeated in a variety of environments. Very skilled athletes have a high degree of elemental variability. Which means they have the ability to create small adjustments due to the infinite amount of scenarios in a game or play, but still end up with the same result. This allows for the athlete to correct for errors and make real time adjustments on the fly. This is also when an athlete can handle the pressure of a game tied and bases loaded situation. Unlike the earlier example, the athlete now has fluidity and efficiency with their movement/skill so they can be put in more and more challenging situations and still be successful.
As a strength coach and physical therapist, what can we learn from all this about intangibles such as strength, power, and explosiveness?
Moving Through The Stages of Learning in Training
Let’s move through the stages again. When a youth athlete first starts to utilize the weight room for athletic development don’t overwhelm them. Chances are a majority of the lifts introduced are going to have some trial and error because they have never done them before. So choose lifts that are safe and create an environment for the athlete to learn. This is where I am a huge advocate for lifts that set the athlete up for success. For example let’s talk about the deadlift. If you’ve watched an athlete who has never deadlifted before, you know there will be some movement flaws. So obviously don’t give them a heavy load because it may be dangerous. But also remember that some large fancy bar they never have seen/used before can be intimidating to lift off the ground. This will create insecurity in some young athletes. Remember security is a big part of learning in the early stages. So let’s start these athletes out with a dumbbell deadlift from the floor.
It’s a lower weight and easy to grab so the threat of the exercise is low. We place the dumbbell between their legs and slightly behind them. This will force the athlete to shift their hips back to grab hold of the dumbbell. It allows your coaching to be minimal as the athlete tinkers here and there with things as you give the occasional cue and encourage what they are doing correct. Demonstrating the exercise or having them watch a video of proper technique is also very beneficial in this stage. Similar to how a kid watches their parents walk before they ever attempt to do so. Having the athlete first watch the movement is a great teaching tool.
Once the athlete has established an understanding of how to perform the movement we can then start introducing load. The hex bar is a great second step in this phase of learning. It allows the athlete to still focus on the “how to” aspect of the lift, while including more intricacies such as proper bracing and ways to develop tension to lift heavier loads.
Finally the athlete becomes autonomous with the lift and can perform the task with minimal to no cues needed during a workout. They can self-adjust and notice the small mistakes made, allowing them to correct it during the set or during the workout as a whole. The coach can also start manipulating variables such as performing a barbell variation, changing feet to a sumo stance, focus on maximal bar speed velocity off the ground, etc. We no longer have to worry about security in this stage as the athlete should now display the ability to adjust very quickly to the different environments and athletic development training stressors. This should be your goal for all youth athlete training programs. Push towards movement autonomy so that you have a solid foundation. This gives you a starting platform to later program specific intangibles needed for your sport.
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About The Author
Dr. Greg Schaible is a physical therapist and strength coach specializing in athletic performance. He attended The University of Findlay as a Student Athlete. As an athlete he competed in both Indoor and Outdoor Track & Field where he earned honors as a 5x Division II All-American and a 6x Division II Academic All-American. In 2013 he completed Graduate School earning his Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT). Greg is the owner of On Track Physical Therapy and Content Manager for Sports Rehab Expert. In addition to his rehabilitation services, Greg has a passion for sport specific youth athlete training.