Aspiring athletes between the ages of 5 and 12 need to be exposed to and perfect a wide variety of movement challenges in order to develop effective coordination and movement skills. Proper coordination and mobility—and the joy in executing these in a free-flowing, creative environment—set the foundation for learning more complex sports skills later on. As author Jozef Drabik puts it: “…without good coordination the full motor potential of a person cannot be realized. Mastery of sports technique is impossible without good movement coordination.”
A common complaint among sport coaches today is that many young athletes lack fundamental coordination and movement skills. These traits were found in abundance years ago, when children were more likely to play outdoors, compete in multiple sports, and have access to physical education class more than once a week. Children today spend most of their school days seated in a classroom, while their free time is also often sedentary as well: Fortnight, anyone?! Even those who do actively participate in sports tend to be heavily involved in playing one sport year-round.All this specialized practice in one sport should lead to a generation of superstars, but it hasn’t. Click To Tweet
Over the last 20 years, there has been a push in youth sports to spend any and all available practice time on developing specific sport skills at the expense of developing all-around athleticism. You would think that, with all this specialized practice in one sport, we would be seeing a generation of superstars. In fact, it’s just the opposite: Injury and burnout rates are at an all-time high.
Proper general movement training can go a long way toward helping improve overall athleticism. Movement sessions for children should be fun, engaging, challenging, and most importantly, semi-organized. Between school and sports, children spend their entire day in an organized setting being constantly told what to do. A good training program will let young athletes develop their own style of movement to be able to solve movement problems in their own unique way. Children develop this movement sense by practicing, exploring movement, and trying things out.
Back to the Basics: Educational Gymnastics
In my experience, the implementation of basic gymnastic exercises can greatly enhance a developing athlete’s all-around movement skills. As mentioned earlier, the best age to implement these types of exercises is between 5 and 13, with the most sensitive periods from the ages of 6-11. The exercises involved ask the entire body—fingers to toes—to move in a coordinated manner, defy gravity, and, in turn, develop a number of fitness- and skill-related components like flexibility, strength, balance, and coordination. They explore the basic foundational positions of squat, lunge, step, supine, prone reaching, and rotation. With a little creativity, these movements can allow for unique movement challenges in multiple planes, levels, and directions.Training for a sport doesn’t always have to look like that sport, and kids appreciate fun movements. Click To Tweet
Training for a sport doesn’t always have to look like that sport. For example, climbing on monkey bars is not only fun for kids, but it develops a tremendous amount of shoulder/arm/grip strength that can carry over into sports that involve throwing, catching, blocking, and tackling. When it comes to training youth athletes, the following are some of my go-to ideas for all-around athletic development.
Basic gymnastic exercises can be broken down into the following subsets:
- Animal Movement
- Rolling and Tumbling
- Jumping and Landing
Bear and Crab Series
- Bear series
- Bear one-arm reach
- Bear opposite arm leg reach
- Bear rotate
Video 1. Bear series exercises.
- Crab series
- Crab one-arm reach
- Crab cross
- Crab rotate
Video 2. Crab series exercises.
We often do this series as a challenging warm-up activity. The benefits of the Bear and Crab Series include:
- Static and dynamic balance
- Trunk stability
- Strength development through the hands/arms/shoulders
- Mobility through the hips and thoracic spine
The sequence follows one-arm, opposite arm and leg, and then a rotational component with each exercise increasing in difficulty. This could benefit almost any developing athlete. When training youth baseball players, for example, this series can improve shoulder function and build strength and rotation through the trunk and core, which aids both throwing and hitting. For youth soccer players, these same qualities mean better coordination of the arms and legs, which translates into better sprinting and cutting efficiency. It takes tremendous effort to balance and maintain position on three and two points of contact. This is the reason the series starts with simple holds in a static position for a short period of time, and then moves on to more dynamic movements.
- Rolling/Tumbling series
- Forward shoulder roll
- Back shoulder roll
- Star roll
- Butt roll
Video 3. Rolling/Tumbling series exercises.
Very young children love to do somersaults and other tumbling actions. It’s the perfect opportunity for them to explore their environment and learn how to control their bodies. For some reason, as we get older we stop doing these movements, which is not a great idea. As we grow taller and heavier, our center of gravity and base of support change significantly from early childhood.
During growth spurts, children’s balancing abilities can often be negatively affected for a short period of time. Out of nowhere, kids can suddenly seem clumsy and uncoordinated. An easy ground ball at shortstop one season is suddenly a bit more challenging the next season because the athlete grew two inches over the winter. The athlete has never explored that new range of motion in different movements and scenarios, and will need time to adjust. This is why general movement training is so effective for the developing athlete, because even as the athlete is growing rapidly, they continue to develop their spatial skills at the same time.Maintaining tumbling skills can positively affect body awareness and control during growth spurts. Click To Tweet
Keeping up with tumbling skills can positively affect body awareness and control through those times. This is very important for young athletes who play sports like football, soccer, hockey, and wrestling. Those sports obviously have moments where the athletes will find themselves moving through the air and falling on the ground in awkward positions. Knowing how to fall, land, and recover is not only important for performance, but also for injury prevention.
Jumping and Landing
In field and court sports, having the ability to start, stop, turn the hips, and change direction is paramount to being successful. It requires a pair of strong legs and mobile hips to be able to get into the right positions to move efficiently. Many young athletes have decent sport-specific skills, but fall behind or get injured because they simply never developed a foundational level of upper and lower body strength, hip range of motion, and trunk stability.
Luckily, it doesn’t take fancy exercises or a million-dollar training facility to remedy this issue. As a young coach, I often found myself training youth sports teams in gymnasiums, outdoor fields, and empty hallways. With minimal equipment, I had to come up with ways to improve strength that produced results. Working on jumping and landing skills is a great way to train the lower body for the demands of sports. It’s cheap, easy to implement, and something many children like to do from a very young age.
Children, by their very nature, love jumping. For most kids, jumping skills develop naturally though a wide range of movement experiences, games, and sports. Children crave challenges and by exploring different jumping activities, children will naturally take chances and have fun in the process. For older athletes, jumping and plyometrics have been a staple in performance enhancement for decades. This is why I find jump training so beneficial—it can be implemented at all levels and ages of sports performance training.
Jumping is broken down into five different categories, although as you will see in the video, a coach is only limited by their creativity and imagination. When you add simple tools like boxes, hurdles, and trampolines, the amount of variation is endless.
The five jumps are:
- Two-foot takeoff, two-foot landing
- Two-foot takeoff, one-foot landing
- One-foot takeoff, two-foot landing
- One-foot takeoff, opposite foot landing (aka leap)
- One-foot takeoff, same foot landing (aka hop)
When it comes to jump training, many coaches follow a series of progressions, with increasing difficulty depending on the exercise. Although that is a perfectly fine method of training, our method of jumping is a bit more experimental. Instead of following a fixed number of reps and sets and training days devoted to one exercise, we constantly change exercises and add different parts to each exercise. For example, instead of just a two-footed vertical jump, we may throw a medicine ball catch in the air, followed by a single-leg landing. For young athletes, the more variation that can be added to each exercise, the bigger the potential to expand their overall movement skill set.
Video 4. Jumping and landing exercises.
Learning to Play
Children learn best when they are allowed to figure things out by themselves. When I was a kid, my friends and I never counted how many times we climbed a tree or raced each other down the street (sets and reps). I simply went outside and played. We raced, chased, wrestled, biked, climbed, and swam ourselves to exhaustion. These play sessions not only made us tired, but developed movement skills that we carried forward with us in sports and life. If sports are a complex problem-solving activity, then early movement experiences are the ABC’s and 123’s needed to solve those problems.Kids need play sessions to develop the movement skills they carry forward in sports and life. Click To Tweet
Exposure to a wide variety of movement is key for all-around athletic development. Good coordination and movement skills are the basis to developing an athlete’s full potential in any sport. The lack of fundamental movement skills in our current youth has been brought on by the decline of outdoor play and multiple sports play, and diminishing physical education time paired with longer periods of sedentary, seated time. This, in fact, is why I find my passion in training these young athletes. It is my mission to bring back these basic movements that once flooded our courts and fields with superior athleticism.