Sports Skill Acquisition – 5 Tips for Young Athletes

by Dr. Toby Brooks

Sports Skill Acquisition


As a lover of all things sport since a child, my entire life has been shaped by decisions motivated primarily by how I might continue to play or be involved in competitive athletics.  It might come as little surprise, then, that my most recent (and with any luck final) professional relocation to work at Texas Tech University was at least partially motivated by a desire to provide additional athletic opportunities for my children should they choose to play sports, too.  Compared to my family’s previous home, west Texas provides significantly better opportunities, coaching, and facilities for most team sports, and Lubbock also affords access to other potential athletic exposures simply not possible where we lived before.  Simply put, should my kids decide to play or compete in just about anything short of surfing, Lubbock offers them a better chance to maximize their abilities.  And so far, they have both taken a liking to softball (daughter Brynnan, age 7) and baseball (son Taye, age 4).

That said, in my role as the IYCA’s Director of Education, as a scholar, and as an athletic trainer and a strength and conditioning specialist, I have staked my reputation behind the simple belief that early sport specialization is detrimental to the long-term success of most developing athletes.  Despite the growing trend of professional level coaching, year round travel and elite teams, and high dollar training centers catered specifically for youth, I believe that the science supports multilateral skill acquisition over early specialization any day.  How can I then espouse such beliefs on one hand yet subject my own children to the very same well intentioned yet subtly misguided behaviors on the others?  The short answer is I don’t.

They might want to play baseball or softball all the time.  They might want to hit balls in the yard until their hands are covered with blisters and they can’t lift their arms.  My kids, as are most kids, are high inertia.  It might take you a bit to get them started, but once they find something that is fun and that they demonstrate skill in doing, they want to keep doing it.  But much like we must parent our kids to make wise choices at a food buffet, as the adult, we sometimes have to prod the children under our care to push away from the movement buffet if they insist on continuing to pile their plates high with the same stuff.  And heaven forbid if we are the ones actually scooping that same stuff out over and over again.


With that said, just like moderation and variety are key components to a healthy diet, they are no less critical for healthy and optimal motor skill acquisition either.  That is easy enough to see superficially, but how can we make it work functionally when the kids have little league practice and or games a couple of times a week all spring?  I have developed the following guidelines to help avoid the common mistake of hyper-specificity during participation in youth sports for my kids, currently participating in baseball and softball.  Any of these could be considered appropriate for the 6-9 or even younger age group.

  1. Movement must dominate.  This comes from the IYCA “MOLD” mantra and never rings truer than in youth sports.  Now is not the time to refine technique with minute details.  It is a time of exploring the body and how it responds to movement and different expressions of motor skills.  Minimize strategy time during practice.  Keep rules simple.  But most of all, keep the kids moving.  Instead of base running drills all the time, toss in a good old fashioned game of tag or freeze tag with the ball being tossed from teammate to teammate to “unfreeze” those touched while avoiding whoever is “it.”
  2. Look at sport specific skills from OTHER sports and incorporate those movements into your programming.  By definition if you are doing specific skills from multiple disparate sports, you are training kids to be sports generalists, which should ultimately be the goal of these early experiences.  For example, a baseball player does not often need to decelerate, cut, and accelerate in another direction.  A base runner may be one of the few instances.  Compare that to a soccer player, who is decelerating, cutting, and accelerating seemingly continuously.  Instead of having baseball players do baseball specific everything, why not toss in a soccer drill or two along the way.  A dash of variety will also go a long way in keeping developing attention spans tuned in to your coaching.
  3. Along those same lines, keep it brief and the pace of change brisk.  Don’t linger too long trying to work on the hit and run with 6 year olds.  Instead, use succinct drills that are good for developing one or motor skills, then move on.  Your goal should be exposing them to as many motor challenges as possible, not perfecting every aspect of their stride mechanics.  Remember OUTCOME based coaching supersedes FORM based coaching for this group.
  4. Use sparingly, but tools and toys can be great fun.  Follow the leader games through a playground obstacle course is a great example.  If you don’t have access to a playground, you can even use the equipment you have.  Bats on the ground can make great barriers to avoid or jump.  Balls can be used instead of cones or for fun relay races. 
  5. Play to INCLUDE, don’t play to EXCLUDE.  While socially there is value in a young athlete learning to take turns during substitutions or during the offensive half of an inning, my personal opinion is that games will provide more than enough opportunity to teach those skills.  During practices, however, I want every pair of little feet moving and every little mind engaged in the activity at hand.  To that end, the “O” of the IYCA’s mantra, be open to communication differences, is key.  Some kids love a challenge and to compete with others.  Motivate them through drills where they can track their score or progress.  Other children prefer less comparison to their likely more skilled teammates and don’t want a spotlight on their developing abilities.  For them it might be best to encourage them privately or at least outside hearing ability of other team members.  However, drills where athletes are “OUT” or relegated to the bench or the sideline during practices should be swapped out in favor of games or drills that might offer the opportunity to participate continuously just in modified roles.  So instead of tag and your out, consider tag and you have to hop on one foot until everyone is hopping on one foot.  Or tag hopping on one foot to tag running backwards until everyone is running backwards.  Not only do such simple modifications keep the participants moving and going, they are a sure fire way to fill that portion of practice with sqeuals of delight and laughter.   


For further ideas on game play, many IYCA resources have some great ideas, as do physical education websites and textbooks.  Consider meeting with an area physical educator to swap ideas, as most will be more than happy to discuss fun and engaging strategies they use.  

Tune in next time as I detail some simple ways to incorporate sport generality into a youth basketball practice.

Toby BrooksToby Brooks is Director of Education for the IYCA. He is also currently an Assistant Professor in the Master of Athletic Training Program at the Texas Tech University Health Science Center in Lubbock, TX and is Co-Founder and Creative Director of NiTROhype Creative.

One Response

  1. Dr. Toby Brooks says:


    There are countless sources, new and old, that support this notion. Most recently, I discussed an ongoing investigation that identified the resistance to injury and generally better outcomes overall.


    For other good sources, see:

    Baxter-Jones ADG, Helms PJ. Effects of training at a young age: A review of the Training of Young Athletes (TOYA) Study. Pediatric Exercise Science. 1996;8(4):310-327.

    Jackson DW, Jarrett H, Bailey D. Injury prediction in the young athlete: A preliminary report. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 1978;6(1):6-11.

    Maffulli N, Helms P. Controversies about intensive training in young athletes. Archives of Disease in Childhood. 1988;63(11):1405-1407.

    Maffulli N, King JB, Helms P. Training in elite young athletes (the training of young athletes (TOYA) study): Injuries, flexibility and isometric strength. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 1994;28(2):123-136.

    Malina RM. Physical growth and biological maturation of young athletes. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. 1994;22:389-433.

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