Here are some quick thoughts on athlete development for parents who want to give their youngsters the greatest opportunity for success in athletics. This post was inspired from a conversation over dinner with another parent of young children as he asked me what I thought were the best strategies or “tricks” for fostering athletic growth and development in as many physical attributes as possible. Being that we both have young children, and we were both competitive athletes at one time it’s a conversation that is always fun to engage in while swapping stories about our own athletic development as youngsters. Just like training "grown up" athletes there is no secret recipe or magic potion for raising children that will magically funnel them to athletic success. It's just not that easy, with the devil almost always hiding somewhere in the details. However, I will say that in over a decade of work with hundreds of young athletes I have witnessed some trends and common characteristics that I will surely try to replicate with my own children and those that we train. Although this isn't meant to be an article on parenting per se, I would like to point out one trait that is common among almost every one of the great athletes we have trained - great parents, who put in great efforts to raise great humans.
If you haven’t read the article I wrote “30 Skills Every Young Athlete Should Have” click on the link and give it a read as it fits perfectly with the topic of raising great athletes and helping them develop a robust physical identity.
#1 Join a gymnastics program.
When I was a young athlete there were no private performance training facilities for us to go get access to strength and conditioning coaches at a young age. Instead we attended gymnastics programs to enhance our capacity to move dynamically through a wildly diverse range of movements and positions. Gymnastics enhanced all of the physical qualities an athlete would need regardless of sport and it did so in a structured and sometimes competitive environment that would transfer nicely to all
the other sports I would be introduced to in my athletic career. Gymnastics is the perfect foundation for developing athletes who will understand how to bounce and be elastic, how to decelerate and accept force while also developing the ability to be reactive in their strength. We became very strong on one leg, learning how to apply force quickly to the ground or any surface of play. We also developed a robust physical identity that allowed us to be quick at solving problems in our movement and develop super effective strategies for success regardless of our experience. I could go on forever here…If you have a gymnastics program near you get your kid enrolled as soon as they will let them in. My own children will do this before training with myself at XIP.
#2 Run around barefoot.
Developing strong feet and ankles is vital to athletic success regardless of what sport or physical activity you are involved in. Developing the proprioceptive
qualities needed for balance and coordination, as well as the strong fascial systems needed for effectively transferring energy and power, all starts with the foot and it’s relationship with the ground. Whenever possible take their shoes off and encourage them to run, jump, land, climb, chase, kick, etc. with nothing to separate them from the surface they are standing on. Being “shodless” as children is the most effective way to train these systems and set them up for future success in athletics. Stick a kid in shoes as soon as they can walk, many times it's before they walk, and never let them go barefoot in the natural world and you will almost certainly block athletic success. As they get older be sure to monitor what their daily footwear looks like, specifically the soles. Thick, high heeled soles or work-boots are effectively turning off the foot’s relationship with the ground while creating weakness and mobility deficits at the foot and ankle that will extend all the way up the kinetic chain. The foot's job is to detect forces, actually vibrations, that occur as we move about the earth. The CNS can in turn make decisions in how we respond by applying forces of our own well that will in turn get us to where we want to go. Block our ability to feel them and you retard our ability to move fluidly and accurately in sport. And yes this will lead to more of those pesky non contact injuries as well.
#3 Jump Rope and Trampolines
Athletes who can bounce will “typically” be the athletes who dominate in sport. Of course there are many variables at play here and it’s all very relative to their body type, or their position and sport being played, but this is such a game changer for athletic success. A bigger lineman type athlete will not necessarily have the bounce of a more slender and springy wide receiver or gymnast, but when comparing lineman to lineman or receiver to receiver those athletes who have developed a healthy level of stiffness at the tendons in the foot, ankle and up into the leg will
always have an advantage when it comes to dynamic movements in sport. Teach your kids how to jump rope and you will help them develop this bounce and elastic proficiency at a young age. We also know that athletes who have developed a healthy degree of stiffness or tendon compliance will be less likely to sustain non-contact ligamentous injuries such as ACL tears as they are able to apply force quickly and aggressively to the surface of play in change of direction tasks. Jumping on a trampoline will help athletes feel the elastic return of energy from underneath them, helping them understand how to be elastic and reactive in their movements and manage their center of mass in relation to their feet. On a trampoline if you land too much to the toes you will spring forward, too much to the heels and you go back, hit the sweet spot and up you go as the energy is directed back up and through the kinetic chain.
#4 Ride a unicycle
Although this might seem like a bit of an odd ball in the list here is my reason for including. Sport is constantly taking an athlete from a stable position, standing upright on two feet, to a more unstable position such as running, jumping, changing position, getting hit, a slip and fall, jump for a ball, etc. Ultimately in sport we are
always trying to find strategies to return to stable as quickly as possible so that we can get back to what we call “next play position”. Riding a unicycle is constantly challenging your middle to return you to stable as you try to stay upright, if you let up you fall off. In my opinion an activity such as riding a unicycle will allow athletes to safely train their “return to stable” in much higher volumes and create a stronger foundation to layer on future adaptations.
#5 Run Fast and do it often!
If you want your athletes to fully develop their speed potential go out and run at high speeds, it's that simple. Regardless of what their genetic potential may or may not afford them we want to be sure that they are reaching whatever that potential may be. Run fast and run often, and constantly vary the environment in which they are doing it. Playing tag or any other pursuit type of game is an awesome way to get them sprinting at top speed while also changing directions, running in curvilinear paths and eluding defenders or obstacles.
Make their “speed training” fun by integrating it into games and free play where you are always varying the type of game or “drill” they are doing. Sprinting at top speed will also help develop the fast twitch fibers needed for all types of explosive and dynamic athletic movements, so the benefit stretches much further than just their running abilities.
In closing I would be remiss to note that the most effective strategy for raising great athletes is to simply be present and be supportive. Knowing that they have their parents support in their athletic journey is far more important than any physical trait could be. Love them, support them and give them the tools they need to be successful in sport and in life. It’s okay to nudge them along and help show them the way but be sure to keep it fun when they’re young and remember that this is for their own gain and not yours. Coach Guyer
This article was written by Coach Adrian Guyer CSCS, RSCC, USAW 2, CSAC
Owner and Founder of XIP Training Systems