Brain Development in Athletes Ages 6-12

Skill Acquisition Should Be Tailored to Match Each Athlete’s Unique State of Brain Development in Athletes Ages 6-12

Casey Wheel shares an article on brain development in athletes ages 6-12.
By Casey Wheel, CSCS, IYCA YF1, TPI Junior 3; Pacific Ridge Strength and Conditioning Coach

When working with younger athletes, one of the most important factors for being an effective coach is to understand brain development in athletes ages 6-12. Attend any youth sport practice, with athletes ranging from ages 6-12, and you will almost always notice the following scenario: There will be typically 10-20% who are underdeveloped in regards to skill, size, and athletic ability; 10-20% who are your “star” players; and the remainder who usually fall in the middle. Still, when a coach initiates a drill, we expect it to work for every athlete. The reality is that the drill is too hard for the bottom barrel, good for the middle, and too easy for the top. Some coaches even might cater all the drills for their top kids, leaving 80%+ of their team disengaged.

In contrast to this dismal scenario, imagine if coaches instead taught their kids on the first day how the brain learns a skill. Regardless of what drill or skill is being practiced, coaches provide the tools necessary for each kid to adjust in order to use practice time efficiently. Mark Guadagnoli and Timothy Lee defined this as the Challenge Point Theory; the ability to regress or progress a skill that matches where the athlete will learn most efficiently is something every athlete should be educated on from an early age.

Before they can teach the athletes, coaches must first educate themselves on the best ways to progress or regress a skill, drill, or exercise.

Regressing Skills

If a drill or exercise is too hard for an athlete, the brain tends to shut down. If I told you to throw a baseball 100 yards into a 3-foot wide basket or you will do sprints, your brain would shut down and you’d probably hate me as a coach. Yet, at the youth level where there is such a broad range of skill, this type of scenario happens unnoticed.

I’ve never heard of a coach who couldn’t make a skill more complex, but the opposite is far rarer. My favorite coaches to watch and learn from have the ability to pull back and bring the skill down to a level that delivers success. When success happens, the brain enjoys practicing.

Education of regression is a very delicate matter, but it can also be very simple. The first step is to narrow down the activity to 1 or 2 basic areas to focus on and try such tactics like reducing the distance, increasing the target area, or decreasing the speed depending on the skill.

Patagonia Founder, Yvon Chouinard, said in the documentary 180 Degrees South, “The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life; it’s so easy to make it complex.” Keeping in mind the different rates of brain development in athletes ages 6-12, this simplification is exactly what our goal should be as coaches.

Progressing Skills

Since everyone knows how to progress and make things more complex, then why do we need to talk about it? Well, the brain seems to work most efficiently when it is pushed a certain amount.

In a recent New York Times article, Gina Kolata wrote about a deception device used on cyclists that went to see how far they would push themselves. Dr. Kevin Thompson had the cyclists racing an avatar that they were told was their best time in a 2.5-mile race. What they didn’t know is that the avatar was riding at 2% more power than their previous best. The cyclists consistently beat their previous best time by matching the avatars. However, when the increase of power went to 5%, the cyclists usually kept up for about half the race, and then gave up.

We’ve all been guilty of seeing progress and trying to piggyback that with more progress that instant. Keep your composure, and realize that skill and athletic development are marathons, not sprints: You can’t sprint the first mile and expect to have energy for the last 25.2.

The moral of the study is to be careful with the amount you increase as a coach. Too much progression can shut down the brain, and too little will leave potential untapped.

Brain development in athletes ages 6-12

Take-Home Message

Brain development in athletes ages 6-12 occurs at different rates. In order to maximize your success as a coach and the success of each athlete, you must educate yourself and your athletes about the brain and how it can learn and process information and acquire skills at an efficient rate.

The best part of teaching this concept to athletes is that it breeds opportunity. The so-called weaker players now know they just need to find the appropriate level at which to practice for improvement. The hotshots can’t roll their eyes at a basic drill anymore because they now can find a way to change it for their level of ability.

Since starting this type of education with athletes, we’ve noticed their willingness to take risks with new skills and challenges. They simply know they need to just match what they’re doing with their current ability.

When you understand how the brain works, it’s akin to taking off the training wheels on a bike and realizing that not only will you not fall down but you’re also actually going faster than you ever would have before—no more labels, no limits, just opportunity.

Why not teach this amazing principle to our youth? Is there not a better method to teach it than through movement and athletics?

Author Daniel Coyle wrote a new “Bill of Kid Rights” in his article “Brainology for All! A Bill of Kid Rights.” In it, he summarized:

  1. Every child has the right to know how their brain grows
  2. Every child has the right to a teacher who understands how skill develops
  3. Every child has the right to an environment that’s aligned with the way skills grow in the brain

Let’s combine this philosophy with what we just learned about the different rates of brain development in athletes ages 6-12. As coaches, fitness professionals, and role models, we must adopt this new Bill of Kids Rights and ignite change through sport and fitness by starting with the brain.


Coyle, Daniel. “Brainology for All! A Bill of Kid Rights « The Talent Code.” The Talent Code. 26 Oct. 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. <http://thetalentcode.com/2011/10/26/brainology-for-all-a-bill-of-kid-rights/>.

Guadagnoli T.D. and Lee T.D. (2004) Challenge point: A framework for conceptualizing the effect of various practice conditions in motor learning. Journal of Motor Behaviour 36(2): 212-224.

Kolata, Gina. “A Little Deception Helps Push Athletes to the Limit.” New Yorkt Times. 19 Sept. 2011. Web. 3 Oct. 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/health/nutrition/20best.html?pagewanted=all>

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