The social media landscape today is crowded with a bevy of accounts that complicate youth development and training. Whether their young clients are on the pitch, on the rink, in the outfield, on the court, or on the course, their skill work is far from simple. Youth soccer players tap their feet through ladders while dribbling the ball. Youth lacrosse players juke through agility rings while tied to a resisted cable. Embellished with fancy equipment, an assembly of cones, ladders, hurdles, and bands, and hype music as the backdrop, the content makes followers “ooh” and “ahh.”
Gone are the days when we see a trainer break down the intricacies of pitching form over and over again, so a young athlete truly learns the motor skills behind it. Gone are the days when we see a trainer break down soccer shooting technique with repetitions on both the dominant and non-dominant foot. Gone are the days when people are out there in the trenches, coaching their tails off and being instructors of skills. While there are many coaches who still do this, we simply do not see it. What we see is a circus, and instead of making kids players of their sports, people are making them puppets of social media.
The beautiful simplicity of sports is waning, the good old-fashioned art of coaching is being lost, and the craft of teaching is becoming the art of marketing. While everyone provides an exuberant and electric atmosphere in their training sessions, they fail to develop the physical and technical piece for their players. Kids are becoming worse at their sport and more susceptible to overuse and compensatory movement patterns due to social media sensationalism.For youth development and training on social media, I do not want to see something sensational—I want to see something applicable, says @fitsoccerqueen. Click To Tweet
To that end, I do not want to see something sensational. I want to see something applicable. I urge people to sit back and observe, to ask questions, and to inquire why kids are being put through certain drills. This is not to say that everything you see on social media is “wrong,” but it is fair to ask what the purpose of a training session is, and what skill is being taught to a child athlete.
None of this is to say that complex skills training is not valuable. To progress athletes, skills training does have to be done in a spontaneous and uncertain environment, especially under defensive pressure. When kids progress to higher levels, fancy, creative, and sharp moves become paramount, but we need to allow kids to focus on just the skill first so their nervous system learns it, can apply it, and can execute it in a game setting. This means the added noise of the gym equipment has to go.
Alas, coaches and parents who truly want their kids to learn the game, and optimize the physical and technical pieces, should know that it is critical to separate the two. Truly, the physical component is also a skill, and it takes a trainer to break it down with painstaking detail in a separate gym environment.
What does physical training encompass?
- Acceleration and deceleration
- Change of direction
More often than not, the physical components happen off the ball, and these are some of the most magical moments of sports. This could be making a diagonal run onto a through ball, jumping for a header and scoring off of a corner kick, transitioning up the court as fast as possible, performing a rapid cut to get open for a teammate, or making a fast crossover step to steal a base.
Even when the ball, puck, bat, or club are involved, the technical skills are not optimized unless the athlete has the strength and power beneath them. Not only does this allow for a cleaner and smoother execution of the skill, but also a more powerful and explosive one.
Shooting in soccer, for example, is part technique, part leg power and strength. If the athlete cannot use the hip flexor muscles through their full range of motion, stabilize their core, extend their posterior chain, or balance the plant foot, then technique will suffer. It does not matter how many shooting clinics a young athlete signs up for, how many repetitions they do on their net in the front yard, or whether they have the best shooting trainer in their area, they need the strength to give all of this a boost.
Having a strong follow-through for a shot in lacrosse is similar. Without the chest and shoulder strength, the shot won’t be the strongest it can be, and if the hips are not tied together with the anterior core and upper body, a lacrosse player does a disservice to their technical follow-through on the shot.
Pitching in baseball is another one for which people exclaim, “You just need more pitching training!” While we cannot discount pitching technique, as it is one of the most meticulous skills that needs coaching, we have to remember that pitching speed does not increase from constant wear and tear due to endless repetitions. Rather, the speed is a result of shoulder mobility, arm strength, and rotational power through the core.
Video 1. Rather than athletes repeatedly practicing sport-specific skills, they benefit from strength work such as these med ball slams, which help develop rotational power through the core.
Too many are still not convinced and will say that athletes need to load their sport-specific skills to a faster pitch, a stronger shot, or a more powerful swing. Whether this is tying a resistance band to a pitcher, giving a soccer player a weighted soccer ball, or making a tennis player play with a heavier racket, this all becomes problematic for motor learning.
The issue with adding load to skill-specific work is it trains the neuromuscular system to not go through full range of motion and technique, and it can cause the compensatory movement patterns that lead to the overuse injuries in young athletes today.Adding load to skill-specific work trains the neuromuscular system to not go through full range of motion and can cause the compensatory movement patterns that lead to overuse injuries. Click To Tweet
Please spare the kids the resisted shooting drills and get them in the gym to work on strength, power, balance, and mobility as a separate piece. For starters, exercises like single leg deadlifts, Pallof presses, medicine ball throws, and split squats will ensure kids develop their kicking power, and polish technique as a nice by-product.
Video 2. Exercises such as the goblet split squat help athletes develop their kicking power, and they also help polish technique.
Video 3. For a skill like lateral power, athletes need to develop the foundation of frontal plane strength with proper posture, core stability, and hip mobility in the gym.
An athlete can’t home in on any of this if the ball or skill work are in the picture. Truly, strength and power training are pieces that must be hammered home with attention to detail and form. Once gym work is done, over time the skill piece organically becomes more robust.
Video 4. This is an example of how lateral strength and power contribute to the soccer-specific skill of 1v1 jukes and fake
Building strength requires loading the body over time and progressing under a plan that tweaks sets and reps each week, so kids raise the intensity over time. To that end, a youth athlete can only perform lateral plyometrics over and over again until the volume is too much wear and tear on their body. A young athlete can only perform ladder drills over and over again until the repetitive movement of small steps is not enough to really teach acceleration and sprinting mechanics.
Taking the conversation further, what about skills like speed and acceleration? People are right when they say kids must learn these with sports skills because these do happen with the ball, and this is something we should be cognizant of when programming training sessions. Even beyond speed and acceleration, game-specific conditioning is important if we want to add the cognitive piece to training. This can be done through the programming of small-sided and large-sided games, various pitch dimensions, and work-to-rest ratios to elicit a game-like conditioning effect.People are right when they say kids must learn speed and acceleration with sports skills because they do happen with the ball, says @fitsoccerqueen. Click To Tweet
However, speed and acceleration without the ball are totally separate skills than with the ball, and we must be aware of this, too. In team sports, players do work both on and off the ball, so we have to address both separately.
For something like acceleration, without the ball, players drive their knees up higher for a more explosive “first step,” extend their rear leg further for aggressive steps, and throw their arms back aggressively for optimal acceleration to occur. If you are still skeptical, Video 5 showcases the vast difference between acceleration with and without the ball:
Video 5. Acceleration with and without a ball are two totally separate skills for an athlete to learn.
My guess is that coaches of team sports want their players to move fast off the ball, too. In soccer, players have the ball at their feet for a major percentage of the game, so it is these moments we want to prepare our athlete for. Wins are decided by these dynamic actions, and these are the plays off the ball that make team sports so exciting.
A skill like acceleration can only be optimized if worked on as its own piece—from the technique to posture, arm action to foot placement, total body strength to force production.
Take one of my middle school athletes on her first day of training, for example. She had never been in a physical training environment in her life. For her first session, we went through a detailed session on acceleration form, and I had to break down all facets of the skills. All I accomplished with her that day was teaching her how to coordinate her body properly. If I had thrown her into a multitude of fancy drills with extra balls and equipment, it would have been a disservice to what I was trying to teach, and it would have elicited an awkward neuromuscular response from her with ipsilateral movement patterns.
Video 6. This middle school athlete’s first day of training focused solely on acceleration form so she could learn proper body coordination. I did not confuse her by adding in balls or extra equipment, or even by introducing technique and posture.
Expounding further, we did not even get to the acceleration technique and things like posture, knee drive, or rear leg position. If this does not show how detailed coaching this skill must be, I do not know what does. Throwing the ball in a session like this would have taken away from truly teaching her contralateral coordination, arm position, and how to move her body in a smooth manner.
Eventually, for a skill as meticulous as acceleration, I would take it further once coordination is mastered, and begin to work on posture, ball-of-the-feet loading, and arm placement. And of course, underneath all of the acceleration technique is a strength training program that progresses posterior chain strength in the hamstrings and gluteals.
It is important for coaches to be clear about the purpose of their sessions, what skill they are training, and what type. Is it physical or technical? Is it fast dribbling? Is it first touch? Is it shooting? Is it throwing? If physical, is it strength? Is it linear change of direction? Is it acceleration? Is it athletic stance and change of direction?Simply telling an athlete how to get into athletic stance will not necessarily fix the skill if they do not have the strength to move into the position, says @fitsoccerqueen. Click To Tweet
Athletic stance is another physical component that, once nailed down, only boosts sport-specific skills, like cutting, jumping, and landing. Alas, just like the other physical parts, it needs to be taught with painstaking cues, and built in the gym with quadriceps, gluteal, hamstring, and transverse abdominus strengthening movements. Simply telling an athlete how to get into athletic stance will not necessarily fix the skill if they do not have the strength to move into the position. As an example, a teenage female athlete with “knock knees” will need to strengthen her gluteus medius, hamstring, and quadricep muscles to get into a better ankle, knee, and hip position.
Video 7. Players can translate an athletic stance within their sport to be able to absorb force (for injury reduction) and produce force (for speed and acceleration production).
Once athletic stance is taught, athletes can learn the “hip turn” for better retreating and changing of direction to recover from a play. Learning dissociation of the hips is a complex skill that requires full attention and focus from the athlete—awareness of their body, their directional step, and their stance and posture to produce an efficient and fast outcome. Adding on, it requires separate gym training to build their core stability so that their hips have more mobility. Defenders especially benefit from learning a skill like this because they do not have the ball on them, and they need to learn how to retreat as fast as possible when someone blows by them.
Another skill to teach with the underpinnings of athletic stance is lateral acceleration and deceleration—skills that, if not taught properly, can increase the risk factor for an ACL tear. To ensure athletes have stability in their knee, are coaches breaking down form so the ankle, knee and hip joint are together? Are they loading and recruiting the posterior chain enough? And please get rid of the skill work, the added equipment and bells and whistles, so you can address all this with painstaking observation and instruction.
Video 8. Shuffling is a fundamental skill that translates to lateral acceleration and deceleration in team sports.
Coming back to acceleration, doing this in a totally separate session not only allows for the proper breakdown of the skill, but also the proper dynamic warm-up and enhancement of the athlete’s movement quality during the session. This requires an extensive, yet quality, session, instead of a tossed-together session with no purpose.
I urge players, parents, and coaches to continue to ask questions when it comes to player development and to question the idea of “sport-specific” skills training.
The best way for players to get better at their skills is to play more of their sport, spend more time with just the ball and some pressure, focus in on skill work and master it with repetition, and have a coach who breaks down technique into detail.
True mastery comes from tuning into the skill, owning it, and avoiding the distractions. This is possible with an instructor who says no to the social media flash and glitter and simply coaches because they know that is why they are there. Good old-fashioned coaching is one of the best ways to provide our young athletes with the development they need in the technical and physical aspects of a sport.
It is worth reiterating that these are optimized if done separately and, truthfully, by coaches in their respected areas of expertise. Dribbling at speed with the ball is a totally different skill to be taught by the team or technical coach. On the other hand, sprinting at maximal speed on the balls of the feet, knee drive, and fast ground contact are to be taught by the strength and conditioning professional. In order for kids to acquire a skill, specialty teaching is critical, as well as repetition. Sessions do not need to be all over the place for the sake of variety and novelty.
It serves us well to ask these questions if we truly want to work on physical development and skill development:
- What is the purpose of the training?
- What skill am I teaching?
- What is the best drill to accomplish all of this?
- What is the best progression to this drill once my player masters this skill?
- What does my young athlete need?
The last question is an important one because, at the end of the day, we have to give our young athletes what they need—not what the social media world needs nor what our followers need, but what the kid needs to be their most robust and resilient self.
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