FUN IN FUNDAMENTALS
PART 3: FUNdamentals
In part two, I introduced the landscape of youth sports and the developmental milestones that children experience as an infant and toddler. Those milestones were specific to foundation building, which involves forming physical and social habits. For part two, we will look at the grade school years from elementary school through middle school. The grade school years are the time when kids start to participate in organized sports and learn the fundamental skills necessary to play specific sports. Socially, this is the time where peer interactions start to play a larger role in a child’s development.
2) Grade Schoolers: Skills Acquisition (ages 6-12)
Erikson’s Stage 4 (Industry versus Inferiority, age 6-12); LTAD Stage 2 (FUNdamentals, girls age 6-8/boys age 6-9) and Stage 3 (Learn to Train, girls age 8-11/boys age 9-12)
Erikson’s Stage 4 (Industry versus Inferiority, age 6-12) is a time when children enter school. This is a critical phase in a child’s life because he/she learns to make things, use tools, and acquire knowledge and skills. Children learn from others including peers in school and on the playground, neighborhood friends, parents, and other adults. If children can discover pleasure in being productive (i.e., accomplishing things, and having success), then they will develop a sense of competence.
*Of note, peer relationships take center stage at this time.
LTAD Stage 2 (FUNdamentals, girls age 6-8/boys age 6-9) is foundation building for movements and skills. Children should be exposed to a wide variety of athletic experiences. Sports should be semi-structured and fun, and competitive games/matches should be kept to a minimum. Kids begin to read the game going on around them (basic tactical knowledge). This is a sensitive time to develop hand and foot speed through fun activities and games, not trainings that consist of regiments and drills.
LTAD Stage 3 (Learn to Train, girls age 8-11/boys age 9-12) is where foundational movements develop into basic sports skills. This is the time when kids transition from youth to adolescent years, before the onset of puberty and growth spurts that cause temporary loss of coordination and motor skills. This is the best time for children to learn sport specific skills because they can still see daily and weekly improvements.
*This period of time can be advantageous for late bloomers (kids who experience puberty later or develop later), with excellent coaching, because they have more time to develop sport specific skills that can allow them to surpass early developers. For this reason, late bloomers tend to be better long-term performers than early bloomers (kids who experience puberty earlier or develop earlier). Meaning, due to better foundational skills development, late bloomers are better equipped to play the sport at higher levels than early bloomers who tend to rely heavily on physical ability. Once the late bloomers hit puberty, early bloomers no longer have the physical advantage.
Questions To Ponder
a. Parents with kids ages 6-9, how are your kids being coached?
As mentioned above, I think coaches need to coach the basics. Most sports like soccer, lacrosse, tennis, and swimming have resources for coaches that help them to teach skills in an age appropriate format. For this age group, coaches should be focused on introducing fundamentals of a given sport, the basics of technical skills, and most of all, finding ways to make it fun and positive.
At their best, youth coaches in this age group (6-9 years old) shouldn’t spend a lot of time explaining specific techniques and strategies. Instead, they should keep the kids actively engaged in short games or drills. During this period of time, it’s important to learn by doing. So, the more coaches create games that highlight specific skills, the more the kids are likely to learn and be willing to try new things. In the end, the best coaches recognize that the overall goal is to have all the kids actively engaged in an activity and to make it fun.
For example, as a youth lacrosse coach, one game I love to have six through nine year olds play is Hungry Hungry Hippo. Here is how we play it: a) You have kids break up into 4 teams; b) you have like 50 lacrosse balls on the ground; c) have a lacrosse goal for each team (no more than four goals); d) when the coach blows the whistle, all the kids have to scoop up one ball at a time and shoot them at their goal; e) when all the balls are in the goals, each group counts their balls to see who has the most; f) I do two or three rounds, providing a strategy or tip to work on each round, like get low and protect your stick when you scoop up a ball. This one drill teaches the following skills: teamwork, scooping ground balls, dodging other players, running, and shooting on a goal. It’s a great way to introduce lacrosse related skills without spending too much time harping on specific techniques and you don’t have to teaching each skill individually.
Youth coaches are at their worst when they make it too regimented by stopping play and correcting every minute detail, and when they spend a lot of practice time telling /explaining to kids how to do things versus demonstrating the skill and then having them learn by doing. In these moments, I think there is just too much standing around and kids start getting bored and ultimately lose interest.
I also don’t think it is good when coaches just let the kids scrimmage the majority of practice. Coaches with this plan in mind tend to think that scrimmaging is the best way to learn the game in what I refer to as a “controlled chaos” setting. This is where athletes are expected to learn by just playing or doing, and the coach just hopes that the athletes learn sport specific skills on their own. In team sports, when a team just scrimmages, a small number of kids tend to be engaging in the action while the rest are just standing around watching. As a result, the majority of the kids are not learning anything, get bored, and lose interest.
b. Parents with kids ages 8-12, are your coaches playing favorites and playing to win? Or are they focusing on skills development and treating every kid as a contributing member of the team?
Between the ages of eight and twelve, you can start to see a difference in size, aggressiveness/physicality, and hand-eye coordination. As a parent, it can make you wonder what other parents are doing differently or why some kids are so aggressive and skilled while your kid seems so timid and passive in comparison. Most of the time, parents with more competitive kids aren’t doing anything special. Their child just happens to be more physically developed and have more of a competitive mindset, and are categorized as early bloomers. If your child is shy and not as aggressive, there is nothing wrong with her/him, and it doesn’t mean that they do not have the temperament and/or ability to play competitive sports. They are likely to be late bloomers.
Parent, it is important to have patience because at some point, your child will likely become more of a competitive player and become a high achiever. Rarely have I seen a child at age eight or nine, who is athletically gifted/talented and has a competitive mindset, consistently standout from the group as they grow older. What normally happens is that by high school (when puberty hits), there is a leveling off, where late bloomers become just as or even more mentally and physically talented than the early bloomers. So again, be patient and just make sure that your child is continuing to learn and have fun!
Coaches at this age level are tempted to give more playing time to the early bloomers, while opting to give less playing time to the late bloomers. The reason being, the coach is probably defining success based on record (number of wins) and amount of points scored. As coaches, its important to treat each player as a contributing member of the team by awarding equal playing time, focusing on improvement, emphasizing effort rather than outcome, and again, having fun and being positive.
Youth coaches will also try to separate kids onto A-teams (best team) and B-teams (less competitive or developmental team) rather than creating two equal teams that have best and worst skilled players together. For one, by having youth compete on balanced teams, you are allowing all of the kids to develop, learn the game, and have fun. This approach allows the early bloomers to continue to play the game and continue to learn without the added pressure of being told they are on the best team (A-team) and that they are better than their friends and teammates who play on the B-team. Secondly, by avoiding the best and worst team scenario, you avoid sending the message to the late bloomers or the B-team that they aren’t good enough to play the sport or that they are second rate.
For example, many years ago as a lacrosse coach, I coached an 8th grader who could barely walk straight and had knee braces on both knees to stabilize him. We as coaches were so concerned every time we put him in the game because we feared his knees would buckle and he would end up getting injured if he ran too fast or if he got knocked over by an opponent. We even wondered why he was playing because he could barely run. Since he was cleared by his doctor and encouraged by his parents to play, we played him in every game and did not treat him any different from the other players on the team. As it turns out, not only did he play that entire 8th grade season without injury, but he went on to become one of the best defenders in the state his senior year of high school.
So, as coaches, never assume that a late bloomer, who doesn’t come off being athletic enough or aggressive enough, isn’t good enough or shouldn’t be playing on your youth team. They may just come back to surprise you as well!