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Invited Commentary

Sports Skill Development in Kids

Stricker, Paul R.

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Current Sports Medicine Reports: May 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 3 - p 109-110
doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181a60b67
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Rolling over. Sitting up. Pulling to a stand. These activities are all developmental milestones with which parents and physicians are well familiar. But the developmental highway does not stop after potty training. Baby books may not have any further guidance, but it is critical to understand how young bodies continue the process of acquiring different skills that apply to sports and exercise activities throughout childhood and early adolescence.

Knowledge of sports skill development in youngsters may help dampen much of the significant pressure placed upon kids today to start competing at younger and younger ages. Much of the pressure today stems from unrealistic expectations placed upon young children. These unrealistic expectations often are caused by a lack of knowledge of what skills they may be able to do appropriately, or of the sequential maturation process of skills required for sports. Many adults may think that once a child can run, any other skills improve out of sheer repetition and practice. Hence, the disconnect between expectation and reality.

The exciting world of how children improve certain skills happens along a sequential pattern that is consistent for most children - but occurs at different speeds and matures to different levels among them. To make things even more complex, the various aspects of physical, visual, physiologic, and psychologic development mature at different rates. Having a clearer picture of this process hopefully will allow adults to reduce the pressure placed upon youngsters to perform skills for which they may not be developmentally ready. This reduced pressure could then allow more children to reach more of their potential with much less stress. This is a goal in line with supporting children to have fun, be active, and create positive life-long views of exercise and fitness.

Early sports specialization. Pressure to perform. Winning at any cost. These are the signs of the times. "Success" needs to be redefined because our current societal definition is one reserved only for the gold medalist or the first place finisher. Unfortunately, that leaves very little room for any child or adult to experience the joy of success and subjects them more to the agony of defeat. However, in reality, success would dictate that personal improvement or personal accomplishment absolutely is a successful and worthy outcome. This approach is beneficial if we wish to reduce the number of cases of youths leaving sports because of burnout.

Certainly, there are children who have extraordinary talents and perform outside the box of standard developmental skills. But those children are the exceptions, rather than the rule. When a youngster has a phenomenal ability, he or she should be encouraged and supported to proceed in a healthy way as to prevent overuse injuries or burnout. Instead, many parents and coaches try to push their youngsters to achieve that extraordinary ability at an even younger age. This approach can be unhealthy and can lead kids to specialize too early in a particular activity, have recurrent overuse injuries, or succumb to the effects of pressure and prematurely quit their sport.

It behooves us as health care professionals to guide parents and coaches into better awareness of the navigation process of the hills and curves of the developmental highway. In my book, Sports Success Rx! - Your Child's Prescription for the Best Experience (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006), I remind adults that even when Superman was a boy, he did not just step into his cape - he had to grow into it! Many toddlers and young children are still processing how to run without falling down due to the maturation of their proprioceptive and balance skills. They also are easily distracted and require unstructured activities. This combination alone will often frustrate many parents who are yelling from the sidelines to "Get the ball!" when the child has stopped to appreciate an ugly bug on the grass.

Visual skills move along a fascinating path, requiring a toddler to have a stationary object for hitting a ball, such as in T-ball, and then progressing in childhood to catching/kicking/hitting a ball coming right at them, to eventually being able to run and meet a moving object at another location. This visual maturation process occurs in a sequence over time, and most children cannot be expected to acquire such skills all at once.

Physiologic development speeds along at its own pace, and kids involved in aerobic activities appear to have limited ability to greatly improve their aerobic capacity until they enter puberty. This timing means that many youngsters may be inappropriately subjected to excessive aerobic training prematurely in certain sports. The reality of development would instead encourage us to focus on technique and other aspects of the sport while maintaining good foundational aerobic training until puberty is fast-approaching. This could potentially reduce the number of overuse injuries that arise from trying to force significant aerobic gains too early.

Maturation of psychologic self-esteem and self-worth also progresses over time, but can start at an early age, when children start to compare themselves to other children and also notice the reactions of adult figures to their performance. Positive self-worth is influenced by how an adult defines success. To some, how success is defined is how their child is defined. That leads to a precarious situation if that child does not perform well in sports. If they are attached to their sport as their main source of personal value, then emotional health can be damaged when they lose or do not perform well. Personal achievement and personal improvement are undoubtedly successes for a child and should be encouraged as such. A child is meant to have fun and enjoy activities, and the child rarely imposes self-pressure at early ages unless he or she has learned it from adult sources. A child's self-worth never should be threatened by the outcome of an athletic event. As a previous Olympic physician, it is amazing to me that second place in the world can be viewed as a defeat.

Even though the majority of sports skills are advanced by late childhood and the early teens, developmental changes that come up again during puberty can derail an improving athlete. Rapid growth temporarily causes changes in proprioception that literally can make the "clumsy teenager" a reality. Increased limb lengths can interrupt hitting and catching abilities as the brain and eye readjust to the new lengths. Limb length changes also can contribute to increased overload and overuse injuries of the shoulder in throwing sports and other repetitive overhead activities. Rapid bone growth that exceeds muscle tendon flexibility can lead to common apophysitis when coupled with athletic activity. Emotional strains also occur as teens are developing more identity and independence. It is important to remind them that these changes are temporary and due to rapid growth, and the changes should not be confused with a threat to their overall interest or talent in an activity. It is a time that requires patience and support in order to prevent the parent or child from becoming discouraged or having a negative response to a normal part of development.

As we improve our knowledge of sports skill development, the ultimate goal is to be able to support the growth and maturation of children along the way with as little pressure as possible. Sports skill development goes way beyond the toddler years and even further beyond the baby books. We can all support youth in the world of sports and exercise when we know what they are going through and can help them entirely along the way. Gaining more respect and knowledge of the sequential progression of sports skills can only benefit everyone involved, so step back and enjoy the ride!

© 2009 American College of Sports Medicine