The 4 Steps of Developing Youth Athletic Success
By Jim Herrick
Many years ago while in college, I remember one of our engineering labs using a large machine to filter sediment. Basically, after our professor would pour a mixture of dirt and rocks into the top of this machine, it would separate the pieces by size. The sediment fell through a series of grated trays, each one with progressively smaller holes than the one above it.
The largest rocks would catch and stay on the top filter, the next biggest pieces on the tray below, and so on. At the bottom of the machine you would find only the finest grains of sand that had made it through each successively tighter filter.
In so many ways, this machine parallels how athletic development sorts itself out over time. Each level of sports tends to have its own critical filters as young athletes move through youth leagues to high school, college, and beyond. Obviously, not every sport progresses in exactly the same direction, but there are some clear filters to athletic success that span a large number of them
Most have certain “big rocks” that must come first for early success, with a series of more refined skill sets that follow with each progressive level. These days, many parents and coaches are drowning in the sea of athletic opportunity for their young athletes. Travel teams, town leagues, tournaments, sports training programs, private skill lessons, and more are at almost everyone’s disposal.
To best navigate all the available options, it is best to keep in mind that athlete needs at different age levels will vary. However, those needs are often more predictable than one might guess, and developing youth athletic success is a 4-step process.
The Biggest Rock: General Coordination and Movement Skills
Check out any youth sports game in your town, paying particular attention to those who rise above the rest. Most frequently, it is the young athletes who have most rapidly and completely developed coordination skills who excel early in the development process. These young athletes can shoot with greater accuracy, swing a bat, club or racket more fluidly, and accurately perform other coordination-dependent skills better than their age-level peers. The early coordination advantage also shows up in running technique, which enhances movement accuracy and efficiency.
The need to develop more fluid and athletic movements is the first filter to reaching success in sports. This “coordination domination” period will last somewhere until around 10-13 years old.
The Second Biggest Rock: Bodyweight Strength and the Impact on Speed
When considering the next level for developing youth athletic success, many young athletes will find that most every top player has passed through the coordination filter, which now makes the ability to cover more ground (meaning increased speed) much more important. There are a number of different ways to navigate through this filter because this may require a need for strengthening, weight management, or both.
Excess weight gain most likely will come from unhealthy nutrition habits in many cases, although playing a sport or position that doesn’t require a lot of movement may also be part of the problem. For others, not staying active when out of their main sport season can contribute, as well. Alternately, some young athletes grow at a rapid rate and struggle to keep pace with relative strength. This creates a situation where they will appear to play slower in comparison to peers who were once equal or behind them speed-wise.
These issues typically first manifest themselves during the middle school years, and by looking at the alarming obesity and sports dropout rates for this age group, it is probably fair to say this is the hardest filter for young athletes to pass through.
The Second Smallest Rock: Technical Movement, Strategic, and Sport-Specific Skills
Once an athlete shows enough coordination, strength, and speed to reach the high school level, they are now confronted with much more of the technical side of athletics. Becoming proficient at playing beyond oneself by absorbing team concepts and game strategies becomes essential as athletes hope to thrive in the systems of established high school or AAU programs. This is where combining the mental side with the physical can help a young athlete really stand out. Sport-specific skills (puck handling, dribbling, passing, etc.) must also become more refined, forged through the countless hours of practice necessary to separate a player from all the other coordinated, fast athletes at this stage. As the game once again speeds up, learning and applying advanced speed development techniques provides another critical advantage for those who are driven to push through to the next filter.
The Smallest Rock: Body Composition and Power Maximization
One thing that has been clearly evident in all sports for both males and females is that elite athletes are bigger and stronger than ever before. However, getting bigger and more powerful should not interfere with the coordination, flexibility, or speed skills previously developed. When nutritional factors and recovery strategies are considered, success at this stage requires an almost around-the-clock commitment to success. Only the most dedicated will be able to pull it all off.
Of course, none of the previous filters ever go away completely. In fact, for most sports, these filters require constant improvement as the athlete continues to develop. However, the biggest takeaway for coaches and parents is that every piece of the athletic puzzle has its time and place. Developing youth athletic success actually does follow a relatively predictable path. With smart planning and implementation, those who take a long-term approach are far more likely to see the ultimate success of which they dream.