Focus on General Athleticism First, Sport-Specific Skill Development Second

By Nancy Justis, Iowa Youth Sports Initiative

While genetics determine an athlete’s potential, nurturing innate abilities in the correct sequence determines how closely the athlete reaches peak potential.

For long-term development, follow the First-Things-First theory.

Similar to the periods of developing motor skills and language, critical stages also exist for developing fundamental movement and general athleticism. Before kids reach adolescence, athletic development should take precedence over specific skill development.

When kids are focused too intently and too early on technical skills, while neglecting fundamental movement and athleticism, they skip the one-time opportunity to develop neuromuscular patterns that eventually make them quicker, faster, stronger, more coordinated, and more skilled. That’s time they can never get back.

Athletes who miss developing general athleticism before adolescence (for examples: a baseball player who has good hands yet limited lateral movement, or a soccer player who has fancy moves yet lacks strength and speed), are likely to struggle against bigger, stronger, more athletic players.

What About Muscle Memory?

From my education in the areas of sports science and human growth and development, coupled with experience coaching young athletes (both in weight rooms and on fields), I’ve learned that most kids who develop fundamental movement patterns through relevant free play and multiple sports naturally make appropriate mechanical adjustments as they mature physically.

I believe that kids should experience a balance between formal instruction and exploring and adapting on their own.

Kids can focus on general athleticism while simultaneously developing sport-specific skills. Of concern is the amount of time devoted and the degree of technical skills, depending on age as well as physical and mental maturity of each athlete.

Before Age 8 – Fundamental Movement
Fundamental Movement Skills are precursor patterns to specialized and complex skills used for specific sports and are developed as children up to about age 8. After that age, children have difficulty fully developing theses skills. During this phase of development, it is crucial that children be introduced to unstructured sports, games, and creative free play that call for assorted movements.

I recommend close to 100% exploratory movement during early years of development: free play on jungle gyms, varieties of tag, obstacle courses, throwing and catching balls, kicking balls, and childhood games like Red-Light-Green-Light, Hop Scotch, and Kick the Can—all ideal activities for this age group. Some structured sports activity is beneficial as long as the majority of physical activity is child-driven. Overlook formal skills training at this age and let learning happen through discovery. Even organized practices should allow opportunities for child-driven free play.

Avoid programs that advertise using the words specialized, elite, academy, or select. Definitely don’t sign up kids for teams that require tryouts at age 7—that’s far too young to separate kids. Opt instead for a recreational league and generally stay away from tournament play.

Ages 8 to 11 – General Athleticism
Between the ages of about 8 and 11 is an ideal time to focus on General Athleticism— strength, speed, agility, coordination, and balance. Nurture these qualities through multiple sports participation (both structured and unstructured), free play, and age-appropriate Functional Strength and Movement Training.

Functional Strength and Movement Training for this age group consists of foundational movements that set the stage for advanced strength and skill development. Learning bodyweight exercises like Butt Kicks, High Knees, Squats, Hip Hinges, Planks, Single-Leg Balance Exercises, even light dumbbell, band, and medicine ball exercises develop efficient neuromuscular recruitment patterns. Eventually, as the focus shifts to specific strength and skill development, the transition will be fast and easy.
While it’s beneficial to introduce kids to a variety of movement patterns and strength exercises during this phase, structured strength training should be a relatively small part of a long-term development plan.

Sports performance programs for this age group should consist mostly of spontaneous and child-driven movement with free play, obstacle courses, and speed and agility games.

Athletic development continues to take precedence during this stage; however, some technical skill instruction is beneficial—as long as it’s minimally technical. Coaches and parents of this age group should acknowledge that mechanics change naturally over time as kids become stronger and more coordinated. Exactly what to teach and how depends on individual athletes and their physical and mental maturity.

Highly technical private instruction isn’t generally recommended for this age group, however exceptions exist.
Typically, I find that parents push kids into lessons to work on skills, while the kids just want to be outside, playing with their friends. Because athletic development is the primary focus for this age, kids benefit more from playing neighborhood pick-up games with their friends than being driven to private skills lesson.

Examples of appropriate technical instruction for this age:

teaching kids to keep their elbow in, use their legs, and follow through when shooting a basketball

teaching them to step toward their target and follow through when throwing a baseball or softball.

I avoid instructing intricate footwork, throwing, or shooting mechanics before adolescence. Most kids won’t have the strength and coordination quite yet to put everything together and too much too early can lead to boredom and can decrease their ability to react instinctively during sports. Over-instruction also takes away from time that could be spent developing overall athleticism. Strong, fast, coordinated athletes will develop sport-specific skills more easily once they reach adolescence.

11 to 15 — Strength & Skill Development
During the span of puberty—about 11 to 14 for girls and 12 to 15 for boys— kids get stronger and faster and develop more coordination. The fundamental movement patterns and general athleticism that multi-sport athletes acquired in earlier phases of development make it easier for them to enhance sport-specific skills and gain functional strength in the weight room. While some athletes begin to narrow their sports selection during this phase, it is not necessary to give up sports that they love to focus on a single sport. During these years of development, the majority of college and professional athletes played multiple sports.

It’s vitally important that athletes in this age group begin a structured strength training program. While striving to be stronger, faster, and quicker in order to compete, functional strength training becomes essential for injury prevention. Remember that strength is not the primary goal of a sports training program. Of major importance is functional strength—the sort of strength called for on the playing field. Seek guidance from a strength-and-conditioning coach, physical therapist, or other professional who has education and experience in both exercise mechanics and youth sports performance.

Shifting focus from general athleticism to more technical skill instruction is beneficial during this phase—as long as kids are open to it. Be mindful of and work along with mental and physical changes that occur during these ages.

Physical Changes

Physically, kids in this age group may rapidly gain height and strength, which can make them more vulnerable to repetitive stress injuries—those that happen over time when a motion or activity is repeated. Intense and/or repetitive skill instruction without time off during the week and without periodic breaks throughout the year is detrimental to athletes. Time off from repetitive motions, such as swinging a bat, throwing or kicking a ball, serving a ball, high-volume swimming or running—is critically important.

Mental Changes

Mental changes occur during adolescence as the brain prepares for the independence of adulthood. Kids push back against authority and have a strong desire to be in control of their own decisions. It’s important that devoting time to skill development during this phase becomes their decision. Talented adolescents sometimes quit sports altogether to rebel against domineering parents. Youth sports at EVERY level are supposed to be about the kids, not the adults. Be there to support them, while also allowing them ownership of their sports.

Ages 14-19 — Build on Sport-Specific Skills and Strength
Around ages 14 to 19, kids develop adult bodies. The development of team skills, individual skills, and functional strength all become essential for success in competitive sports. Athletes who have taken the long approach to development, as explained in previous phases, will have a significant opportunity for nearing full athletic potential during these years.

While further developing general athleticism remains important through free play and pick-up games, those who want to play sports at a higher level must put in time on their own to develop specific skills and strength. Athletes must be self-driven during this stage to compete at a high level.

Parents and Coaches: Physical maturity may occur before the mental maturity required to recognize long-term benefits of practice. Be patient.

Also understand that, regardless of a child’s level of talent, some may not aspire to be a competitive athlete or want to spend time practicing individual skills. Be okay with that. Know that the diverse sports background they have been provided will enable them to play sports recreationally and be active for life!

Following a long-term plan for development—putting athletic development ahead of specific skill development—gives kids the best chance to become physically literate, reach full potential as an athlete, and of being active and healthy for life.

5 Key Areas of Focus to Develop the Total Athlete
Fundamental Movement is a precursor to more advanced and complex skills used in games and specific sports. Kicking, throwing, balancing, running, jumping—all are fundamental movements; and the period for learning these movements is up to about age 8.
Athletic Development builds on fundamental movement. Improving speed, strength, power, coordination, balance, lateral movement, agility, and quickness are all part of athletic development. Multiple sports, free play, and generalized sports performance training nurture athletic development. Ages 8 to 12 is the critical time to develop athleticism.
Technical Skill Development is training to learn and improve sport-specific skill techniques. Examples: dribbling a basketball, throwing a baseball, serving a tennis ball. While the basics of throwing a baseball or softball, hitting a baseball or softball, serving a tennis ball or volleyball, or dribbling and shooting a basketball improve with the repetition of both free play and structured sports, the specific technique that’s needed to excel at higher levels comes later with specific instruction and/or individual skills practice.
Tactical Skill Development is training that allows a player or team to effectively use technical skills to the best possible advantage. Examples: understanding field positioning, when to pass, when to shoot, how to get open to make a play, and how to run a particular offense or defense.
Strength & Movement Training is training to improve functional strength and movement to support the physical demands of sport and life with the goals of improving performance and decreasing risk for injury.

3 Types of Play/Activity
When considering time spent in each area, also consider the 3 types of play or activity for kids to participate. It’s either Child-Driven, Adult-Guided, or Adult-Driven. The fact that today’s youth sports culture has become mostly adult-driven negatively impacts the mental, physical, and social development of children.

Child-Driven — Activities that are 100 percent child-driven help kids learn to work collaboratively and resolve conflicts while exploring movement and coming up with their own solutions. Unstructured Child-Driven activity is creative and improvised with no set goal. Backyard games, playing at the park, sandlot baseball, and pick-up basketball are all examples of activities that can be Unstructured and Child-Driven.
Adult-Guided — Activities that are guided by adults, yet leave opportunity for self-reflection and movement exploration. An adult sets the stage for a game or activity or demonstrates how to perform a certain skill or exercise, then allows kids to explore that movement or activity with little to no interference.
Adult-Driven — Activities that are mostly directed and driven by adults. A portion of a team practice that requires a high level of instruction and organization or a private skills lesson are examples of Adult-Directed and -Driven activities. Even during Adult-Directed and -Driven activities, good coaches guide instead of dictate by asking questions and encouraging kids to figure things out for themselves.
The paths toward higher achievement in sports and maintaining physical literacy and fitness for life are pretty much the same until around the ages of 14 or 15. During high school, kids may need to decide whether to play sports and partake in strength-training and fitness-related activities for recreation and fitness or whether they take a sport-specific approach and pursue athletic excellence.

I developed the following pie charts with the key components to athletic development and the 3 types of activity demonstrating how much time should be spent in each specific area during each span of development. The pie charts for the 14 to 18 age group apply only to those athletes who want to play competitive sports through high school as well as those athletes who aspire to play competitive sports beyond high school.

The pie chart percentages include everything relating to physical activities and sports that a child would do throughout a week. When I talk specifically to coaches, I break down specific percentages as they relate to practice time only.

Ages 4 to 8:
Child-Driven exploratory movement is crucial for developing precursor patterns for the specialized and complex skills called for in specific sports.

Ages 7 to 10 for Girls & 8 to 11 for Boys:
These are the ages to build on fundamental movement skills and to nurture qualities that relate to general athleticism.

Ages 11 to 14 for Girls & 12 to15 for Boys:
Building strength and skill during these ages will come easier for athletes who have already developed fundamental movement and athleticism.

Ages 15 to19 for Girls & 13 to 18 for Boys:
Around this age kids develop adult bodies. The development of team skills, individual skills, and strength training become essential for success in competitive sports.