The Glaring Gap in Skill Development for Youth Sports

Traditionally, practices and skill development in general within youth sports have focussed almost exclusively on technical and tactical aspects. The need for dedicated practice time to develop athletic skills tends to be largely overlooked, which was previously not a major issue as sports coaches were able to rely on the natural athleticism that young performers brought to the party. Consequently, whilst youth sports coaches with a physical education teaching background might bring expertise in these areas, for the most part athletic skill development has not typically been a focus in coach education, particularly in the case of ‘skill sports’ (i.e. team sports, racquet sports, etc.). Unfortunately, we are now forced to reckon with these omissions, as is becoming increasingly evident at all levels across a range of sports.


‘NATURAL’ ATHLETICISM IS NO LONGER A GIVEN…

Aside from the fact that athletic skills are not specifically catered for in sports practice, free play among children and adolescents is declining with each generation. With less and less opportunity to naturally develop these skills through exploration (jumping over and onto things, falling off them), mastery of athletic skills that are fundamental to sport is declining at all levels.


Participating in organised youth sports does not fulfill this function in conferring ‘natural’ development (i.e. without coaching) of fundamental athletic skills to the same extent as the endless hours engaged in free play that used to be the norm (alongside organised sport).


There is an argument (and near consensus among academics) that participating in a single sport from a young age further narrows the opportunity to develop the full range of athletic skills. The recommendation therefore is that kids should engage in multiple sports for as long as possible before specialising in their chosen sport to the exclusion of others.


That said, even athletes who have engaged in multiple sports nevertheless increasingly demonstrate a need for coaching input to provide remedial development of specific athletic abilities.


ATHLETIC SKILLS ARE SPORTS SKILLS…

There is a false separation between sports skills (technical elements such as swinging a bat or striking a ball) and athletic skills. Performers spend hours engaged in practice for the former but the latter is too often given only cursory attention or left to chance entirely. This seems all the more nonsensical when we examine the relative time spent engaged in respective activities on the court or on the field.


Let us take ‘net’ sports such as tennis or volleyball as an example. The relative time players spend interacting with the ball is a fraction of playing time. The remainder of the time players are engaged in repositioning themselves as they react to where the opponent has struck the ball, covering the court to intercept the ball, getting into position to play the shot and then recovering to position themselves to receive the next shot in the rally. Each of these elements constitute athletic skills. If we apply the same analysis to team sports, the disparity between time spent in possession of the ball versus engaged in activity ‘off the ball’ is greater still.


Whilst long-term athlete development models and those engaged in talent development pathways might make vague references to fundamental skill development and physical literacy, we have failed to make the point strongly enough. I would argue that we have to articulate the need in terms that better allow coaches, parents and the athletes themselves to appreciate just how vital athletic skill development is for youth sports.


Beyond the need to ensure that young performers are capable of performing the full array of activities in the competition arena, the necessity to develop these capabilities is evident from a sports injury viewpoint. Suboptimal movement mechanics are implicated in the common non-contact injuries in youth sports, particularly overuse injuries. A greater level of athletic skill mastery not only reduces wear and tear but also allows performers to avoid and escape high risk scenarios.


THE NECESSITY OF DEDICATED DEVELOPMENT FOR ATHLETIC SKILLS…

A consistent observation shared by colleagues in various sports across different parts of the world is the ongoing decline of athleticism and fundamental athletic skills among athletes in the junior ranks up to and including college level. Moreover, they all agree that this trend has become particularly pronounced over the past decade or so. What is striking however is that technical sport skills (pitching, swinging, striking and ball skills) show no such decline.


In other words, kids still exhibit good skills in the context of the sport and remain highly adept when it comes to technical elements. So what can we attribute this stark difference too? The reason is simple: these are the elements that ARE coached and practiced regularly.


More specifically, the concept of deliberate practice applies, whether we are talking about what we conventionally think of as ‘sport skills’ or the host of athletic skills that players require in the sport. What constitutes deliberate practice is that the performer engages in a directed manner and with the defined purpose of improving some element of the skill.


For performers to engage in deliberate practice to develop their athletic skills there will be some requirement for coaching input and feedback to facilitate the process. As coaches we tend to assume too much when it comes to ‘basic’ athletic skills such as jumping and running; we must ensure that performers have an understanding of the fundamental physics of the task so that they are clear on what they are trying to do.


Thereafter performers will benefit from regular coaching input and provision of feedback to support their independent practice efforts and help guide them to come up with viable movement strategies.


IN SUMMARY…

Following the revelation that the majority of the time spent on the field or court is engaged in athletic sport skill movements rather than technical sport skills, we quickly arrive at the realisation that there is a need to dedicate practice time accordingly.


Dedicated development for athletic skills should be considered a necessity for young performers irrespective of their primary sport. As far as their schedule allows, sampling a range of sports can help to develop these qualities. In particular all athletes (and coaches for that matter) would benefit from spending time in track and field. Gymnastics is another fantastic option for developing global athleticism.


That said, practice and academic schedules make it difficult for many teens to commit to multiple sports. In this case particularly there is a need to invest in dedicated practice and seek coaching input to fill in the gaps and develop the athletic skills that are most integral for their chosen sport. Enlisting the right coach is however critical. For the most part, this is uncommon expertise, particularly among personal trainers. So choose well…

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