The lament that young athletes today are not made of the same stuff of yesteryear has been echoed in almost every major sport across the region. Far gone are the days of multi-disciplined national athletes achieving the pinnacle of competition in two and in some cases even more sports. Coaches, sports administrators and parents alike are faced with young athletes that are less agile, poorly balanced and uncoordianted.
As quality of life changes, gone are the days when these lessons were automatically gained on the pastures, fishing ponds, trees, beaches and basic landscape of our youth. No longer is it commonplace to find kids in trees, or anywhere moreso than in front of some form of digital media. This is our reality and from the looks of things, our future.
So is sport in jeopardy?
Will the quality of the contest diminish until it is so watered down that it is a pale mirror of what it used to be? The answer can be seen across the world because as some countries struggle to maintain the potency of their programmes others seem to have thrived.
The answers are in the ABCs (Agility, Balance, and Coordination) of sport which in the absence of its natural occurence has to be accommodated and built into our feeder and youth-focused programmes if we are to reap the accolades of previous years.
The ABCs of movement are known in sports science as physical literacy, which refers to the acquisition of the fundamental movement skills and sports skills that need to be learned as a child. Once learned, children will feel good about participation in physical activities. Kids who learn their ABCs possess the ability to move confidently and appropriately in their chosen sport or activity. Science shows that when children become more competent, they participate more vigorously, play for longer durations, and perform better.
Please note the emphasis on “learned”, as these skills do not come as easily for some as they do for others, especially bearing in mind the differences in social evironments from urban to country living. They must be taught in some circumstances. This is an important point and should not be overlooked. Think of another type of literacy, for example, reading. What would you do if your first grader was struggling with reading? You would get extra help, spend more time with him or her, and teach the individual how to read, for you know that reading is an essential life skill.
When it comes to kids and sports, though, many parents say “my kid is not athletic” and allow their child to quit before they even get started. We should not be writing off six-year-olds as “un-athletic” and “no good at sports.” We need to teach them their ABCs. As a parent of a young child, it is imperative that you put your kids in an environment that teaches the movements and skills of physical literacy. This does not mean only organized sports programmes. This can be backyard play, running and jumping at the playground, swimming or sledding with the family, or riding your bikes. You are at the forefront in promoting physical literacy. Some kids figure these movements and skills out on their own. Others do not and must be taught and encouraged to learn.
By helping your child learn the ABCs of physical movement, you will make them more inclined to participate in sports, and far more likely to remain active well into adulthood.
Just as every athlete should focus on full athletic development by working to enhance their mobility, speed, agility, strength, power and endurance, however, youth sports performance programmes should not be just “smaller” versions of the programmes we perform with our older athletes. The difference lies between the focuses of the programme.
Youth athletes need to establish the basic building blocks of fundamental movement skills. This assures that they create an excellent foundation of athleticism to build upon as they mature.
For great reason, many kids are involved in multiple sports at a young age. Trying every sport is great for athletic development because kids get to experience different movements and test different skills. Sports such as football, cricket and basketball are great staples for youth sports because they involve almost every possible athletic movement. Plus, these sports are one of the most basic types of competition. Pass the ball around and try to score. Some kids pick it up quickly, and some struggle. The only difference between the kids that succeed and the kids that struggle is the familiarity and knowledge of movement.
That is why it is important to learn how to run, sprint forward and backwards, move laterally and change direction.
Agility drills such as the box drill are great ways to learn how to accelerate and decelerate efficiently. Put four cones in a box shape 5 yards apart. Start at one of the bottom cones. Sprint to the top of the box, shuffle across, back peddle and then shuffle to the starting cone. Repeat this on each direction. Focus on quick feet in-between steps and long strides when changing direction. Learning how to go and stop will not only improve performance but also decrease the likelihood of injuries.
As the body adapts and matures, balance is one of the abilities that develops first. That is, unless you spend the majority of your day sitting at a desk at school and then playing Xbox at night!
It is important to develop balance at a young age when the brain is growing and learning how to move. Balance not only improves strength but also increases coordination. Try to balance on one foot for 30 seconds. If that is easy, try to close your eyes. Closing your eyes will take away any reference point to maintain your body’s equilibrium. If you can master balancing with your eyes closed, you have a pretty impressive central nervous system, which is going to transfer over to better performance and less injuries on the field. Try this drill for a few sets on each foot. Once you master this, there are many ways to continue to challenge the balance system of the body. But you can’t expect to run and jump with proper form if you can’t balance on one leg.
All children develop at their own pace. Some will sprout quickly while others may be late bloomers. Growth can occur quickly, which results in a lengthening of the bones that all of sudden are different to the brain. What used to be a normal movement pattern is now completely different to control now that the limbs are a different length.
Imbalances in the body and a lack of coordination can be problematic. That is why it is important to do many drills to teach the body how to move.
Drills like the ladder-drills are a great way to increase coordination. There are a ton of different sequences you can perform on a speed ladder. The goal is to pick a wide variety of patterns and master the patterns. Once you master a pattern, then you can use the drill to increase speed and stride frequency.
For younger athletes it is most important to learn different patterns to increase coordination.
Tennis ball drills are a great way to bridge the gap between skill and sport. A partner tennis ball drop drill will help an athlete work on sprinting mechanics while reacting to a live stimulus. Line up 15 yards across from a partner. While one person waits in an athletic position, the other person raises his or her arm and drops a tennis ball. Try to react as fast as possible and go catch the ball on one bounce. Focus on mechanics first, and then focus on speed. If an athlete can keep good mechanics and go as fast as possible, he or she will optimize his or her speed.