Observations on Skill Development in Young Athletes: Part 2

5 Fundamental Observations on Skill Development in 10-to-13-Year-Old Athletes

By Phil Hueston, NASM-PES; IYCA-YFS

Phil Hueston shares 4 key observations on the skill development of 6-to-9-year-olds

In Part 1 of this article series, I shared some of my observations regarding skill development in athletes (and others) aged 6 to 9, or the “Discovery” phase of the IYCA Youth Fitness spectrum.

Specifically, these observations revolved around “athletic adaptation skills,” or the movement skills required to complete certain training and exercise activities with proper form repeatedly so that the intended training affect can be successfully attained.

Strength and power activities require appropriate levels of joint stability (static, transitional, and dynamic), deceleration skills, and active and passive alignment skills. Speed and agility activities require high levels of dynamic joint stability, muscle elasticity and response, and maximal levels of spatial and kinesthetic awareness.

Each aspect of the “athletic skillset” (defined by us as: strength, power, speed, agility, quickness, balance, coordination, mental acuity and tactical decision-making) requires certain athletic adaptation skills in order to be properly developed.

In this article, I’ll share some of my observations on athletic adaptation skill development in 10-to-13-year-olds, or the “Exploration” phase of the IYCA continuum.

Shifting “Brain-Scapes”

This age group, not unlike the Discovery age group, is moving between two different “Operational Stages,” according to Piaget’s model. They shift from the “Concrete Operational Stage” (typically ages 7 to 11) to the “Formal Operational Stage” (typically 12 and up). In the former, thinking becomes more logical and organized, but the Concrete Operational child has not yet developed the theoretical and abstract reasoning capabilities associated with the Formal Operational Stage.

Kids in the 10-to-13 age group are developing a sense of right and wrong independent of parental and institutional direction and control. This is important because it is linked to their ability or capacity to assess the importance of actions, experiences, and outcomes based on their own developing measures of fairness, rightness, or value relative to things outside themselves.

For these happy humanoids, empathy for and consideration of the impact of their actions on others is influenced by the cognitive changes occurring during this time. As reasoning moves from inductive logic (specific to general) toward deductive logic (general principle to the specific), they begin to develop thoughts around moral, social, ethical, and even philosophical ideas, issues and concepts.

At the same time, they are barraged by a cacophony of new thoughts—often hormone-driven ideas and responses to unfamiliar emotional instincts. When this is compounded by the mixed messages in popular media and even from coaches, parents, and educators about their place in the world and their relationships with each other and themselves, it becomes easier for us to understand why they might shrink from pressure and new challenges—whether they are social, academic, or physical in nature.

As coaches, we can have a hugely positive impact on these kids if we let them know that we understand not what they are going through, but THAT they are going through it. These individuals are developing empathy and relating it to people and the world around them. Often, however, they don’t sense it being reflected back to them in a way that they can understand, even at a sub-conscious level. How often does a 12-year-old hear, “I went through it, too, you know,” or “I was your age once, too. Suck it up!”?

Yeah, that’s what a 10-to-13-year-old wants to hear when they seek someone who can help them process the thousands of new thoughts, ideas, urges and concepts that are flooding their brains and formulating their minds. Because that won’t make the hormone-charged, synapse-overloaded pre-teen and early teen years even worse. No, not at all (insert sarcastic facial expression here).

So, what do they need, and what do we notice about athletic adaptation skill development in these little critters? Here are a few of my own observations around this particular form of wildlife:

Insight 1: Open with a YES!

You cannot hope to aid a 10-to-13-year-old athlete in developing athletic adaptation skills if your first coaching response to anything they do is “no-based.” Think about it. Sports coaches, teachers, and even parents begin their corrections (mostly) by pointing out the error. The implied meaning is “what you did was wrong.”

What goes on in a 10-to-13-year-old brain when this happens? It depends. A small percentage of kids in this age range will respond by focusing on the desired outcome and how they can achieve it, and redouble their efforts toward that end.

More likely is a value judgment of themselves based on the relationship to the child of the activity in question and its importance to them and the significance of and emotional connection to the person making the correction.

Parents have significant influence both in defining the importance of an activity and in the emotional connection to the athlete. This makes sense, given the large role played in the lives of most kids by their parents.

Coaches will often be in a position to really screw a kid up. The role of “coach” in most youth sports has been inflated to a judge-jury-playing-time-executioner role. This means the athlete is likely to be striving inordinately to please someone who may or may not have a clue how to teach, assess, correct, or re-teach any skill remotely related to the sport in question.

So, opening your corrective and improvement communication with a negative is likely to reflect off these experiences and add a negative proprioceptive input. While the athlete is looking for a connection of general principles to the activity THEY are performing, your negative opening may well derail that process, meaning it has to essentially begin all over.

How to Get It Done: Begin every single corrective/improvement communication with a positive comment! No matter what their form looks like, open with a positive. No matter how poor their “exercise math” is, open with a positive. No matter how many ladder drills they fail to master or games they don’t win, open with a positive.

In our facility, we use this rule of thumb. If an athlete is attempting to squat, for example, and absolutely every aspect of that squat is God-awful, we focus on the fact that they’re squatting… period. Or even that they are still upright. It doesn’t matter, just open to the upside!

“I love your energy today! You’re crushing it! Now, let’s have you try something a little more here, OK?

“That’s great, now we’re cooking with gas! Hey, let’s add this to that exercise, OK?

“Hey, I saw that you crashed and burned five times on the ladders. I love that you got up every time. Let’s add something to your movement that will help with that, OK?

Insight 2: Make It Theirs!

Coaches, parents and teachers love to throw the “accountability” bomb around. I call it that because it usually blows up in someone’s face—adult or kid. The idea that we’re “holding someone accountable” is usually wielded like a blunt instrument to get kids to do things they would NEVER agree to as necessary, important, or even acceptable if we tried to connect it to an outcome they desire or can get excited about.

They are being “held accountable” (ugh!) for things that parents, teachers, and coaches have decided are important to accomplish—without ever consulting the newly developed abstract thinker to determine if it is what they think is important.

Remember, they are rapidly developing a logic anchor to the world around them. As they create the images and ideas in their minds of what is right and wrong, they want to be in the “right” column. If all that matters to be right is doing what they’re told, or just “getting it done,” mastery becomes far less important than completion. At this point, mastering athletic adaptation skills, critical for improving movement and increasing the “measurables,” (the reason they were brought to us in the first place) becomes less important than getting through this uncomfortable event.

Fairly-arrived at ownership or responsibility is important in this age group. Give it to them sometimes and you’ll have cooperation in most other situations, as well. The idea that things won’t always be dictated from outside their thinking and control makes 10-to-13-year-olds far more willing to do some things they might not love, with the understanding that they have a purpose.

True story: I once heard a coach tell his 12U travel baseball team, “I need to hold you accountable for doing what it takes to win,” while forcing them to run laps around the entire field. The problem? It was after practice, late in their season—and it was punishment for losing a game.

What 11-year-old would agree that running laps would be an acceptable part of trying to have fun playing baseball—baseball that their parents paid upwards of $2,000 a season for the kids to play!?

Mind you, I’m not suggesting we create achievement and development programs based on what 10-to-13-year-olds think is “important.” I can’t imagine an entire middle school curriculum based on text messaging, video game mastery, and underarm farting.

But I can absolutely see an athletic development program built around aspects of what we do that our 10-to-13-year-olds prefer. For example, in our facility, we have a group of 10-to-13-year-olds who have taken to deadlifting. Yes, deadlifting—and not just for form. These kids like to pull weight! So, do we turn them loose to lift? No, we guide their form and technique development and base increases in weight attempts as much on the quality of their lifts as on the amount of weight moved last time. This is an accountability measure that is shared between our coaches and our kids that they have agreed to. Very important distinction and critical to our ability to coach them positively.

How to Get It Done: You’ve heard of “Build-a-Bear?” How about “build-a-board?” Grab a white board and markers. Grab your 10-to-13-year-olds. Using your programming template for any part of your session (core activation, SAQ, strength, etc.), have your athletes build their own workout.

Begin by telling them “I really want you to be psyched for this session. I trust you and think you’re up to this. Let’s build your workout together, OK?”

Yes, you’ll get some fart jokes. Yes, you’ll get some suggestions for “a million” of something. Keep going. Give them wide-berth guidance (“I need a pushing exercise.” “Can we add a lunge type?”)

Once created, this is theirs. Then, accountability looks more like cooperation.

Insight 3: Don’t Cue out in Space; Cue in “Personal Space”

There is so much going on with these athletes during these years that yelling corrections across the room will likely not pull them out of the grab-ass game they might be in with their friend, or the boys-at-school discussion that might be derailing their workout.

When cueing the Exploration age group, get into personal space. Get close enough to touch them. If appropriate, place a hand on their shoulder. Speak to them, not in front of them. Look them in the eye, then use your eyes to lead theirs to the improvement you want to make.

If another athlete is distracting them, you can easily disrupt this by standing directly between the athlete you are cueing and the “distraction.”

Remind the athlete how important this particular improvement is to them. Connect it to their sport or their experience. Have fun with it.

True story: There is a young man (call him “Tom”) who works with us whose father was a (largely failed) college and semi-pro athlete. This young man is a skilled 12-year-old baseball player who works hard when called for and has fun always.

Each time Tom comes off the turf, his father is in his ear (and face). “I’m not paying for you to fool around. You’re here to work. You can’t be last. You need to be first.” You know, the typical crap that comes from this type of dad.

Tom was doing some lunges during one workout and was clearly distracted. His form was awful, and he just wasn’t paying attention. I had noticed dad railing on him for something during the previous water break.

One of my coaches went over to Tom, put a hand on his shoulder, and gently turned him away from his dad. Once neither coach nor client could see dad, my coach leaned in and told Tom, “You’re doing great. Now let’s see if we can work on your focus at the same time as you do these.”

Brilliant! Turn the thing we wanted Tom to do into a “new” skill, layered in to the improvement of the lunge pattern. Amazingly, the “focus” was just the thing needed to improve the lunge pattern!

How to Get It Done: Just do it! Open every communication regarding correction and improvement with a positive note. Try it for one whole coaching day. The results will be remarkable!

Insight 4: They’re Starting to Care About Doing It Right

Remember, in the formal operating stage of cognitive development (Piaget) and in what Bandura calls the “modeling process,” children learn via comparison and attempts to reproduce what they see. Combined with the shift to deductive logic (general principle to specific incident or example), this becomes a critical period for teaching certain functional movements that benefit from consistent, repeated performance.

Squats are a perfect example. If we successfully teach good squat form at this age, we are likely to prevent form issues, and perhaps even injury issues, for a lifetime. Add to that the satisfaction of the athlete seeing his or her performance improve (bigger squat weights, more praise from you, and recognition) and we are likely to take what is often considered a “grind” exercise and move it to the “cool” (or at least “I don’t hate them”) category.

How to Get It Done: Care about both HOW and WHAT. Praise the athlete as he or she begins to master the parts of an exercise—foot position and movement sequencing on a squat or hand position and body control on a push-up, for example. (How.) Take note when a new weight with good form is mastered, or when more bodyweight exercises with good form than in a previous session. (What.)

Even if you don’t do “lifts” with your athletes at this age, you can easily tell an athlete about your observation of improved form, overall output, and session results. And don’t forget to mix in the science with the high fives! The science tells them that it’s important to the overall purpose; the high fives tell them it’s important to YOU!

Insight 5: They (Mostly) Don’t Love or Embrace “the Grind!”

If you read part 1, this is familiar territory. As 10-to-13-year-old athletes grow into the role of “athlete,” they become aware of the habits of other athletes, most notably high school and especially college and pro athletes. ESPN, Stack, and numerous other sports-related media outlets repeatedly cover the training of pro athletes as well as college athletes.

Often, this training is sport-specific, highly complex, and grueling. Parents and coaches see this and assume that it is the way to give their child “an edge.” They don’t have the knowledge, experience, or background to understand that training that is appropriate for an athlete 18 or older is not so for their 12 year-old.

But we as Youth Fitness Professionals DO. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us NOT to succumb to the pressure applied by these stories to “step it up a notch” and push these kids like the older athletes featured in the stories about “the grind.”

In my mind, there are two main reasons why an Exploration-age athlete would tolerate, or even pretend to enjoy “the grind.”

Parents and/or Coaches Have Created an Artificial Urgency Around It

Dad, coach, or even mom (think dance and cheer extremes) want them to “like” it. They may have made accepting the “grind” far more important in the athlete’s life than that athlete would ever have believed or felt. The parent or coach may reinforce this vicarious or extrinsic drive by applying false reasoning involving an athlete or other figure that the youth athlete likes or holds important.

In our area (Toms River, NJ) we have two prominent pro athletes who “grind” with us—Frankie Edgar (UFC) and Todd Frazier (3B, Cincinnati Reds). Both of these guys work hard with us, pushing through some grueling workouts and doing a lot of work to protect their bodies from the rigors of their respective sports. For them, this grind is not only acceptable, but necessary to a degree.

Why? They are professionals, getting paid to do this.

While they both enjoy their sport, there is no mistaking that their hard work is committed to being better at something at which they earn their living! It is our task as youth fitness professionals to be able to see the difference, translate and relate it to parents and coaches and then have (and be able to effectively advocate for) a better and more effective path to better fitness and athletic performance for the 10-to-13-year-old athletes in our charge.

Funny Little Secret: Both Todd and Frankie like to have some fun in their workouts. Not every minute of every workout, but when something happens that is funny, they’ll take a minute to appreciate the humor—then it is back to work.

It Is “in the Way”

If a 10-to-13-year-old knows that the only way he is going to get to play some baseball or that she is going to get near a basketball is by completing some coach-inflicted “grind,” (usually some poor imitation of a web-searched pro or college “workout”) they will muddle through the crap to get to the good stuff.

Countless times, I have been at practices that began with “core workouts” that included hundreds of sit-ups, 5-minute planks or (my favorite) 5–10 minute “wall sits” for hockey, lacrosse, or soccer. (Yeah, coach, that’s going to make your team tougher, faster, etc.!)

Some of the most successful sports coaches I’ve known over the years did little to no conditioning work at their practices. Their trick? Engage every player during practice, keep the pace high and link every activity that isn’t directly sport-skill related to some skill or aspect that, by improving, improves the athletes’ play. Brilliant!

Interestingly enough, very much like the 6-to-9-year-olds, these fun-loving bipeds love the idea that they are “grinding,” or working hard! That is, as long as it is more fun than the crappy practices most have to endure.

Getting Away from the Grind

We all know that, in order to improve an athlete’s movement skills, we have to have a program that includes working on those skills. We also know that conditioning is important to sports and that a certain level of hardening of the body against injury is beneficial. But the “grind?” It isn’t needed at this age, nor is it wanted (by the athlete) or even advisable.

Allowing children to explore movements that relate to their sports and experience the feelings and skills that result is the most desirable path for the youth sports fitness pro to take.

How to Get It Done (1): Want to develop better core activation skills? Create a situation wherein the athletes work with a partner in an activity that has both an objectively rated outcome and a subjective aspect.

Pair your athletes. Have them work together performing partner plank and partner single-leg squat “handshakes.” For the plank handshake: Have them get on the floor prone and head to head, about 3 feet apart. Once in a plank, instruct them first to complete 10 alternating side “handshakes” with good form. The objectively rated outcome is the speed of completion of 10 full handshakes. Once complete, have them repeat the activity, this time adding a creative aspect, i.e., a “really cool” handshake or series of handshakes. You, as the coach, rate them on a scale of 1 to 10. Include the plank form quality as part of your “scoring,” so that there is attention to form while the funk goes down (and it will!)

Once you complete 2-3 rounds of planks, move them to their feet and repeat the process with single-leg squats with a handshake. Scoring criteria here can include depth of squat, ankle-knee-hip alignment, closeness of the handshake to the ankle, creativity, etc.

How to get it done (2): If you have a sled, create a cooperative scenario in which the group of athletes has to work together at maximal output to complete a specific number of pushes over a specific distance. Alternative 1: Complete a specific number of pushes, adding a small amount of weight at the end of each run. Use small increments to keep the fun factor going. Alternative 2: No sled? Metal plates move pretty well on turf! Create the same scenario, or do relay races with the plates (or sled). You can even add a quick exercise at the end of the line before the “pusher” returns to the start line. Layer in multiple exercises at the opposite end of the relay path. Simple things like lunge jumps, squats, hand-release push-ups and squat thrusts or burpees work well in sets of 3-6 reps each.

Remember that life is a journey, not a destination. It is the journey that provides the learning and real satisfaction. Relate this idea to your 10-to-13-year-old athletes, “mathletes” and “non-letes,” and they will thrive. The bonus built on truth here is that YOU will thrive as well, and become a go-to resource for your community and its kids.

If you create a space where these ever-changing kids can feel safe, have fun, and achieve without the outside pressures of school, youth sports, confusing media and other messages and their topsy-turvy social world, you just might find they’re capable of quite a lot.

Allow great effort rather than insisting on it. Foster learning and development rather than expecting it in some imperial manner. Support more from them instead of expecting and requiring it.

They are very likely to surprise you.

In the next article, we’ll take a look at 14-21-year-old athletes.

Phil Hueston is the co-owner of All-Star Sports Academy and Co-Head Coach at Athletic Revolution – Toms River, NJ. He has been, and continues to be, a sought-after Sports Performance Trainer and Consultant to teams and athletes at the Youth Sports, high school, collegiate, and professional levels.

Since his entrance into the fitness industry in 1998, he has questioned the status quo, challenged the conventional wisdom of the fitness industry, and used the answers to make his clients better, bigger, faster, and stronger.

Not just another pretty trainer, Phil has been called a “master motivator and trainer of high school athletes” and a “key player in the Youth Fitness industry.” He works with athletes, “mathletes,” and “non-letes” from 6 to 18, helping them all reach their performance potential and maximize their “fun quotient.”

Phil recognized early on that the ONLY task of Sports Fitness Professionals is the improvement of their clients’ sports performance and their enjoyment of the process! He has worked with thousands of athletes, assisting them on their journeys to collegiate sports, Division I scholarships, pro and semi-pro sports careers, and even the first round of the NHL Draft.

Recently, Phil was named IYCA Member of the Year for 2012-2013. He has also co-authored two books, The Definitive Guide to Youth Athletic Strength, Conditioning and Performance, which reached #1 Best-Seller status in two separate literary categories, and The IYCA Big Book of Programs.

Coach Phil can be reached through his company’s website, www.allstarsportsacademynj.com.

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