Taking a Macro View of Athletic Development
As a parent, we all want what’s best for our children as they ascend through elementary, middle, and eventually, high school. We encourage them to move and play and spend time outside with their friends because we all know that those things are vital for physical and social development. We enlist them in sports programs for many of the same reasons, while they also receive the incredible benefits of learning camaraderie, teamwork, and maybe most importantly – coping with failure.
Many parents encourage their children to try out every sport that they have access to in order to ‘see what sticks’. Others navigate toward those they played as a youth or simply that they understand. These choices are all fine, but the problems lie in the subsequent reduction in free play, accompanied by the lack of physical education that school PE is intended to provide. Too often, the overwhelming majority of physical movement is associated with sport-specific drills and unsupervised jogging around a field or track.
The PE model in the school setting is difficult to change. There aren’t many qualified instructors chomping at the bit to land a job at a public elementary or middle school. Nor are there school districts with the funding or strong interest in finding and hiring these type of people. As for sports teams and coaches, practice time is generally limited so it can be difficult to dedicate much time outside of a basic warmup toward general physical literacy – such as jumping, landing, squatting, balance drills, flexibility, and teaching proper running form. That leaves free play and dedicated instruction by a quality coach or fitness instructor. There are some fantastic free play activities that every child has access to, like playing on play structures, monkey bars, climbing trees and playing wiffle ball or kickball in the street or at the park. Pairing these with proper instruction in a gym or group training setting goes a long way toward developing athleticism and quality movement that helps children not only in sports, but many other aspects in life.
Fundamental movement quality translates to every sport. The ability to perform a bodyweight squat while keeping the heels on the ground, knees from caving in, and back from rounding is an essential movement that every person should be able to do. It’s one thing for an adult with the constant demands of work, children and other obligations to lose this ability over time (although still an unhealthy accomodation.) But for a child at the age of 9 to already be inhibited is unacceptable. This type of example is being seen across the board, and at all ages. There are baseball pitchers that can throw a 90 mph fastball at age 17, but can’t hold a plank for 20 seconds with good form. Soccer players who lead the league in scoring but can’t squat on one leg. This has led to increasingly high levels of injury, and at younger and younger ages.
My call to action is to relentlessly encourage free play whenever possible, and seek out qualified instruction to fill in the gaps and progress the development of your child – whether they will be the next great school teacher or major league ballplayer.